Belfast Telegraph

Bishop sings from a different hymn sheet over loss of so many of our best-loved stars

Our writer says churchman out of tune after he dismisses brilliance of singers like Bowie.

Malachi O'Doherty

Bishop Donal McKeown was born the year before I was. We discovered Bob Dylan at about the same time. I'm inclined to think that anyone who was listening to music during the 1960s, and the successive waves of creative brilliance since, should not really be dismissing our musical heritage.

But at the end of a year in which some of the greatest musicians of our generation died, the Bishop of Derry stood up to say that he had hardly heard of them, couldn't name any of their songs, and that he thought, despite his ignorance of them, that there were far better role models for young people.

In his homily on World Day of Peace, he contrasted the lost musicians of 2016 with Saint Teresa of Calcutta. He said: "She left behind her, not a series of songs that will be quickly forgotten, nor a history of drug-taking and unsteady relationships, but a track record of caring for the needy and 'unfamous'."

But does singing her praises really depend on marvellous people, who also inspired millions, being put down like that?

So, I phoned him up to challenge him on this dismissal of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince and George Michael, and the other artists we have so recently lost.

He says that he sees modern popular culture as transient and commercial.

"If someone is sick, there is no question of bringing them to Lourdes, you bring them to Disneyworld. There is a colonisation of minds by commercial interests," says Bishop McKeown.

True, there are cynical commercial interests at work, but there has also been great music. The two don't cancel each other out.

But he has not listened to the music he derides as transient.

He concedes that there are probably, among our musicians, people of genius with a sense of vocation.

"It's not the imaginative world that I have grown up with," he says.

But that doesn't mean it isn't there.

I say, you can't be oblivious to Leonard Cohen, you are the same age as me.

"I know his name, I know his voice. I am sure I would recognise his songs if I heard them played. I just couldn't tell you the names of any of them."

I remind him that one of them is called Hallelujah.

"David Bowie was never part of my world," he says.

"That's a statement of fact, that's not a judgment on my part.

"He didn't impinge on me in any way. I didn't turn to him for inspiration, or insight, or wisdom, or guidance."

He was 22 when Ziggy Stardust came out and he was a student at Queen's University, reading German and Italian. I ask, what music were you listening to?

"I have no particular memory," he responds.

Really?

"I was politically aware in those days."

Dylan?

"Ah, yes, the protest generation, certainly. I was part of that rebellious generation who wanted to change everything by Christmas, but next summer would do all right."

I say, Dylan isn't transient.

"I'm just wondering. What are we creating in our modern society that actually will be seen as beautiful and inspirational in 500 years time? I think very little," he says.

"Tracey Emin is not going to be around like the Vatican museums." Probably not, but then again we have kind of lost the Sistine Chapel, too, because you can never be quietly alone in it now, I say.

"That's true. But at least the art has a whole series of levels to it in terms of beauty, which even non-religious people will be able to admire.

"I think we are living in a comparatively unbeautiful sort of environment. I see a lot of transience, because the market demands transience. What's in today has to be out tomorrow, so that the new 'in' can be sold."

Having pronounced so firmly on the transience of the music of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, Bishop McKeown says that he only listens to music on the radio, mostly BBC Radio 3.

I offer to send him a CD of Leonard Cohen. His only CD player is in the car.

"But I didn't inhabit that world and many of these characters are entirely unknown to me and mean nothing to me."

He is saying now that he is not judging the musicians who have died, but in his homily he did: "There are great figures today."

He includes Seamus Heaney among them: "But they are few and far between in modern Europe.

"You think of a generation like Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, or mediaeval artists, Bernini and Caravaggio, and all that sort of thing - I just don't see that intensity of creative beauty and profound insight nowadays."

He says the difference between a few hundred years ago and now is that there was an agreed language about what truth and beauty and goodness meant. Now we really don't share a wide vocabulary about what key concepts mean.

"In the post-truth generation they talk about, the emphasis is more on 'my feelings' than on anything having an external meaning."

I suggest that maybe religion has lost its power to inspire musicians, though it's not actually true, given that there is so much religious imagery in the work of George Michael and Leonard Cohen.

"Yes, religion has in many cases become associated with being just cold and dogmatic, but I must say my own approach to it has been much more blessed by the whole poetry of the thing, the idealism, the vision, the enthusiasm for the future, and young people who are involved with the Church really want to do something idealistic and beautiful with their lives - not to be told that the best they can expect at 18 is a dirty week in Magaluf. That is what they are told is the best you can expect of yourself."

Well, some people are telling them that - true.

I say, maybe the problem here is that you are not sufficiently clued into modern culture to be able to make the kind of assessments that you have made, that it is all superficial, that it is all commercial, that it is all negating the quality of life.

"I find inspiration in the idealism that motivated me when I was a teenager," he says.

"I find young people who are still fired by that enthusiasm and I find so much of the transient, throwaway culture out there is so short-term, it gives no long-term vision, is not based on any anthropology, it doesn't have any sense of the possibility of salvation and healing. It's just: enjoy yourself."

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