In the popular imagination, Sting contains multitudes. He fronted a new wave juggernaut, the Police, before transitioning into a wildly successful solo career. He has dabbled in pop, punk, jazz, prog, reggae, world, and centuries-old English folk ballads. He is the erudite former English teacher who wrote pop songs containing allusions to Homer, Nabokov, and Shakespeare, and crafted a concept album around Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. He is a defender of social justice who used his platform to support organizations like Amnesty International. And alongside Bono and George Harrison, he is among the most spiritually inclined Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
Religious Studies scholar Evyatar Marienberg takes a deep dive into the latter, considering the spiritual and religious themes of Sting’s lyrics in the context of the icon’s Catholic upbringing in the north of England. In Sting and Religion: The Catholic Shaped Imagination of a Rock Icon, Marienberg wisely avoids claims of direct causation and instead juxtaposes Sting’s lived experiences as a Catholic kid and the religious motifs and allusions contained in his lyrics. The book’s scholarly project is fascinating, as is its structure: Odd-numbered chapters analyze lyrics. Even-numbered chapters tell the story of Sting’s youth and describe a smalltown parish and a global church that are both in flux.
There is much to appreciate in Sting and Religion, not the least of which is the access Marienberg gained to Sting himself. In addition to interviewing a wide range of schoolmates, bandmates, and parishioners from Sting’s hometown and home parish, he conducted several interviews with the book’s main subject, who was forthcoming about his life journey, his faith, and his skepticism. Marienberg also offers clear, concise, highly relevant discussions of the complex relationship between Anglicans and Catholics in England and the ways Second Vatican Council reformed Catholicism during Sting’s childhood. In short, the book is well-researched and establishes rich, vivid contexts for understanding Sting’s life and lyrics.
The analysis of the lyrics, however, sometimes feels flat. Marienberg is thorough and thoughtful and points to compelling examples of the Biblical allusions, the references to “the soul”, the narratives about priests and last rites, and the broader reflections on spirituality that pepper Sting’s lyrics. But each of the three hermeneutic chapters singles out songs one by one in chronological order.
For example, Chapter One focuses on Biblical content and walks through selected songs from Sting’s career first in Last Exit (his pre-Police band), then in the Police, then as a solo act. This structure is efficient but begins to feel rote. Instead of moving through these analytic chapters with the momentum of interpretive claims, readers consider individual songs, and so we have to work a little harder to see the connective threads.
Similarly, Marienberg saves much of his interpretation for the final chapter, and so the chapters focusing on the lyrics are mostly descriptive. I found myself wanting to hear Marienberg’s voice more loudly in these chapters, helping me make inferences and interpretive leaps.
Nevertheless, Sting and Religion has much to offer fans of the Police and Sting’s solo work, as well as those interested in Catholicism’s relationship to popular culture. I was struck by the highly specific, almost idiosyncratic, religious themes that Sting takes up in multiple songs. The Sermon on the Mount, Marienberg points out, makes appearances in one of the Police’s earliest songs (“Visions of the Night”) and one of its latest songs (“Walking In Your Footsteps”), as well as at least one track from his solo days (“All This Time”). The Catholic sacrament of last rites also recurs in several tracks.
I also appreciated Marienberg’s deep dive into “All This Time”, one of my favorite post-Police Sting tracks. Marienberg situates the song in Sting’s penchant for “cheerful-sounding musical accompaniment to a rather complex and dark narrative”, and also in Sting’s wrestling with his father’s death.
The song narrates the story of a boy in a seaside town with Roman ruins similar to where Sting grew up who watches as two priests perform last rites on his dying father. The boy wishes his father could be buried at sea, which Marienberg points out is frowned upon by Catholics, and ends up ultimately skeptical, lamenting, “Father, if Jesus exists, then how come he never lives here?”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sting and Religion is Marienberg’s conclusion, which makes a compelling case that Sting is a case study for consideration of several broad, important questions: Who is Catholic (anybody baptized in the church? those who regularly attend Mass? Those who actively choose to self-identify as such?). Is there such a thing as a “Cultural Catholic”? Why are there so many lapsed Catholics?
Marienberg returns in this final chapter to both the lyrics and the lived experiences and offers insightful analysis about how and why Catholics ought to reflect on individual journeys of faith, including those journeys away from the institutional church. Though the lyrical analysis chapters are flat, Marienberg’s contextual chapters offer many historic, biographical, and theological insights. They benefit from the presence of Sting’s own voice, but also from Marienberg’s sharp discussions of church history and even sharper discussion of the church’s future.