Like Johnny Cash, Tupac and Elvis, Kurt Cobain has released almost more music posthumously than he did while living. The latest Nirvana release is a recording of their 1992 concert at the Reading Festival in England and it’s been in my car’s CD player ever since I bought it. As I scream/sing along with Cobain, I recall a reflection paper that I wrote at Fuller Seminary with the audacious title “The Gospel According to Kurt Cobain.”
In A Matrix of Meanings, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor ask if celebrities are “helpful role models, embodying our highest aspirations” or if they are idols that “compete with God, turning our attention from the Creator to the creation.” By refusing the latter perspective, Detweiler and Taylor open up the possibility of seeing celebrities as vibrant texts by which we can unveil a powerful theology. “Celebrities,” Detweiler and Taylor explain, “perform a social and theological function.” With this posture, we can discover life-changing theological truths in the most unlikely places. If we look close enough, we can see that even from the grave of former Nirvana lead-singer, Kurt Cobain, a potent theology emerges.
Linking today’s celebrities to the heroes of ancient astrology (“the first stars”) and even Greek mythology, Detweiler and Taylor see celebrities serving as “role models to follow and mistakes to avoid.” Their glorious achievements inspire and encourage us while their failures comfort us by expressing human finitude. Although faith in celebrities certainly proves hollow, finding ourselves in the stories of celebrities can connect us to others and even lead us to something wholly Other.
“Many [celebrities],” Detweiler and Taylor explain, “end up separated from themselves, unsure where their public persona ends and their private life begins.” Kurt Cobain struggled with this dilemma immensely, so much that his internal disconnect grew to fatal self-hatred. Even after his suicide, the line between public and private remained blurry as Cobain’s personal journals were published and sold. Now that they are found on Discount shelves at Borders, Cobain is certainly turning over in his grave.
However, an attraction to Cobain (beyond a morbid curiosity) still lingers in contemporary society. Cobain’s inability to bear the weight of celebrity and superstardom brings him to a very human level. His struggle with drugs and depression brings him even lower into the dark crevices of the human heart while his tragic suicide knocks and shocks us into asking deep theological and existential questions.
Detweiler and Taylor call us to “look closer at the desperate acts of desperate men as a desperate cry for help, a plea for life, for meaning, for community, for significance within a culture that has stripped them of God-given humanity.” Cobain certainly felt stripped and raped of his humanity while wearing the garb of celebrity. His music and poetry reveal an urgent craving for the spiritual, for the transcendent. The fact that Cobain named his band after the Buddhist state of ultimate spiritual bliss underscores his desire.
Cobain suffered severely from acute self-hate, yet let us be careful to not excuse that self-hate as the result of self-pity, psychosis, or drug addiction. As part of the generation who holds Cobain as our “primary poet,” I see his self-hate as a sign of deep spiritual reflection. Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk and the poignant voice of an earlier generation, describes two types of hate:
“The man who is able to hate strongly and with a quiet conscience is one who is complacently blind to all unworthiness in himself and serenely capable of seeing all his own wrongs in someone else. But the man who is aware of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his brother is tempted with a subtler and more tormenting kind of hate: the general, searing, nauseating hate of everything and everyone, because everything is tainted with unworthiness, everything is unclean…What this weak hate really is, is weak love.”
Cobain’s self-hate, I believe, falls under Merton’s second category of hate, one that is, at a deeper level, the birth pains of a real spiritual love.
Cobain’s self-loathing strikes a chord deep within all individuals because according to Merton, we all suffer from self-hate. “Some of us are aware of this self-hatred, and because of it we reproach ourselves and punish ourselves needlessly…Others, who are less conscious of their own self-hatred, realize it in a different form by projecting it onto others.” Poignantly aware of his self-loathing, Cobain went so far as to write a song called “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” For those of us who are aware of our self-contempt, Cobain is a spiritual magnet. For those of us who are not aware of our self-hatred, Cobain is a thorn in the side, reminding us of our insecurities and the hate which we project onto others.
Cobain responded to his self-loathing by committing suicide. Any theology advocating suicide certainly does not deserve much attention. However, a theology that shoots our spiritual system with the bullet-like question “Why am I still here?” could profoundly change the way we live.
When exposed to Cobain’s honesty and suicide, an individual is forced to look at himself and ask, “Why am I still here? How do I deal with my self-hate? What keeps me from diving into the same death as Cobain?” Although the question is dangerous and the answer can be fatal, the possibility for real life is there more than anywhere else.
One of the pioneers of the Emergent Church, Brian McLaren describes suicidal feelings as empowering,
“Feelings of suicide are often an exaggerated way for our soul to tell us something we have been denying, something like, ‘the life you’re living is insupportable; you can’t keep living this way…If I could seriously ponder ending my life then I can do anything. I can change anything in my life. So instead of ending my life altogether, I’ll end my life as I’ve been living it and start a new life.”
Although Cobain did choose to end his life altogether, we are invited to enter into the same level of spiritual enlightenment, where we can say “yes” rather than “no” to new life.
The Gospel of Kurt Cobain screams “Stay Away” to complacency and spiritual ignorance and carefully invites the troubling, existential questions to “Come As [They] Are” in order to overcome self-hatred. By confronting the questions that Cobain’s death raises, we can enter into a spiritual awareness that leads us not to suicide, but to a new life, no longer bound by hate. By ignoring the questions, we remain “smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism,” blindly suffering from hate for others and contempt for ourselves.