Monday, June 16, 2008

Spirit of Coldplay

They are turning my head out
To see what I'm all about (Coldplay: Lovers in Japan)

Back in the 60's, a researcher went through loads of back copies of Time magazine, trying to gauge its position on religion and spirituality. Matthew Fox (not the one from Lost) found that most of the stories headlined 'religion' were about church politics and the church institution, but for issues of life, death, purpose, God etc. you had to go to the Arts section. There, poets, painters, dramatists and film-makers were all wrestling with spiritual questions, whilst the church debated whether or not to use Latin.

I don't agree with most of what Fox says, but I think this insight is spot on. It's hard to escape spirituality in mainstream culture, and Coldplays Viva La Vida is no exception.

The CD, alternative title 'Death and all His Friends', is loaded with spiritual and mystical thoughts, as well as themes of war, love, loneliness and joy. It helps that its great musically too, though I'm constantly reminded of other bands: U2 (Cemeteries of London), Marillion (a brief section of '42'), Depeche Mode (Yes), and the Beatles (the Violet Hill video, and the co-ordinated outfits, like Sgt Pepper on skid row).

The challenge is that the spirituality of Viva La Vida isn't like that of U2. Finding the spiritual subtexts and bible references in U2 is a hobby for large chunks of Christendom, (if you're interested try Mark Meynell and this U2 Sermons site). Coldplay reference the Bible much less often, though there are nods here and there, as well as to hymns and churches (e.g. A Message from X&Y), but whilst Bono has a clear Christian framework to use, argue with, reject and rework, it's less clear where Chris Martin and co are coming from.

The world of Viva La Vida is a deeply spiritual one. '42' - possible code, via Douglas Adams, for 'the meaning of life' - muses on death and what happens after:
Those who are dead are not dead
They’re just living my head
And since I fell for that spell
I am living there as well

Time is so short and I’m sure
There must be something more.

.. which is a bit double edged. Yes there's more, but if you think too much about the dead you end up living in your own head, rather than really living. We have to let them go, and not cling on in an unhealthy way.

Cemeteries of London tells of a journey around nighttime London, looking for God, and finding ghosts and witches:
God is in the houses and God is in my head…
and all the cemeteries in London…
I see God come in my garden, but I don’t know what he said,
For my heart it wasn’t open…
Which is a powerful statement about the presence and reality of God in our world, both the world of life and among the dead, but that we can miss him.

Though various bits of the CD were recorded in churches, the spirituality here doesn't owe much to religious institutions. The most prominent mention of the church is the dystopia of Violet Hill, where
Priests clutched onto bibles
Hollowed out to fit their rifles
And the cross was held aloft
I don't know where this is about the co-option of religion by the 'carnival of idiots' who shape this imagined future, or whether the church is seen as a natural partner of manipulative and corrupt leaders. However even if the church is corruptible, God isn't, as the deposed dictator of Viva La Vida knows 'St. Peter won't call my name'

Finally, two moments of God in weakness. The gravelly 'Yes' seems to be an expanded meditation on the sexual temptation of a lonely man, and what it feels like to struggle
Yeah we were dying of frustration saying "Lord lead me not into temptation"
But it's not easy when she turns you on
If you'll only, if you'll only say yes
Whether you will's anybody's guess
God, only God knows I'm trying my best
But I'm so tired of this loneliness

In a completely different vein, Reign of Love, which emerges soothingly from the fantastic Lovers in Japan, expresses a yearning which could have come straight out of Bono's lyric book:
I wish I’d spoken
To the reign of love
Reign of love By the church, we’re waiting
Reign of love My knees go praying
How I wish I’d spoken up
Or we’d be carried In the reign of love.

Many of the tracks on Viva La Vida are paired up, and it's great to play with the image that in the foreground we have the Lovers, and the gentle music beneath every Lover is the that of the Reign of Love - the kingdom of God, which is a love that personally invites us to speak with it, and be carried by it.

Viva La Vida is a profoundly hopeful work, and there's plenty to suggest that this hope is grounded in a faith - however vague and experimental - in a loving God who is behind it all, even a world of war, dictators, loneliness and unrequited love.

But I have no doubt
One day the sun will come out (Lovers in Japan)

Extras: other relevant links:
Objet trouve quotes a Chris Martin interview where he is very clear about his own faith in God : I definitely believe in God. How can you look at anything and not be overwhelmed by the miraclelousness of it? Meanwhile one reviewer subtitles their piece 'Coldplay gets religion' . Planet Wisdom has more thoughts on Violet Hill, and it's depiction of a compromised church. Other comments on the religious themes in Viva La Vida on Whatif Gaming, and a detailed track by track exposition at Protestant Pontifications, which is worth a look.


  1. Hey, thanks for the link! I enjoyed your take on the album as well.



  2. Check out this sermon, which references
    Coldplay songs:

  3. Thanks for the link. I hope we're more about theologizing in dialogue with U2 (at least the book certainly was) than playing the "hide and and seek U2 Bible references" game that's popular in some quarters, but it's always nice to be noticed.

  4. I keep wondering whether 'Viva la Vida' is about the crucifixion - ie the St Peter reference is to the denial, not to whether you're about to get into heaven. But then other bits don't add up. What d'you think?

  5. Sam: interesting idea, but I think Chris Martin has spoken about it being about a deposed king, which ties in with the French revolution artwork and the other lyrics. And the king would have imagined they ruled by divine right, which is why he 'can't explain' why he won't get into heaven.

    I still can't decide whether the song is very clever or a bit of a mess lyrically (Roman Cavalry = intentional pun on Roman Catholic, crusades etc? )

  6. I'm so glad that you posted this! I had no idea that a blog exploring the religious aspects of Viva La Vida existed. This excites me so much! I loved reading your opinions as well as the opinions in the comments!

    Death And All His Friends is my favorite track on the album. Chris repeatedly sings "I don't wanna follow Death and all of His friends," which to me is like saying I don't want to follow the devil or fall into his temptation. "No I don't wanna battle from the beginning to end" for me is a reference to the reality of our lives as a result of the fall of man that's found in Genesis 3.