By Eric Griffiths
Before he sang lead vocals on the eight Talking Heads albums (1977-1988), David Byrne studied knowing but bemused irony at art college, and therefore was certifiably postmodern. Opinions divide about the Heads; at least, Julie Burchill's do. In 1978, she thought their songs "as false as all hell, that's all"; more recently, she called them "a unique, supple and basically gorgeous act who very probably produced the most attractive and enduring work to come from the entire era". Byrne has also worked in modern dance (Twyla Tharp), in film (Bertolucci), and in whatever it is that Robert Wilson does; he has compiled CDs of Latin American pop and continued to change his hairstyle so many times that, as an old lyric said, he doesn't know what he looks like - Gary Lineker nowadays, if the truth be told.
New Sins records a commission from the Valencia Biennale that gave Byrne an opportunity to return to his roots in the mildly experimental. Byrne is a canny lad, and may be hinting that we should not overexcite ourselves at the title when he supplies the subheading "Translated out of the Original Tongues and with the former Translations Diligently Compared", which was also the blurb on the King James Bible back in 1611.
Where a standard-issue Bible might have photos of people still fishing (after all these years!) on the Sea of Galilee, or lithographs of Jesus with his pale blue eyes, Byrne supplies his own artworks - two crutches against a garage door, a wilderness of shaving mirrors reflecting each other. Byrne long ago "sampled" tele-evangelists, on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and "Once in a Lifetime" from Remain in Light. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that his prose now draws on even more remote promotional literature on behalf of goodness. Byrne's eloquent tirade against the tongue - "a small organ... this harmless-seeming, flaccid, fleshy muscle is a fire, a poison, a carrier of plagues and viruses" - comes right out of the mouth of Saint James: "The tongue is a little member... the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity... it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."
New Sins offers no more than some nominations for fresh categories of sinner: "The levels of hell are filled with the virtuous, the nice, the smart and the gregarious. Here they suffer for their sins, especially the hubris of thinking that they have never committed any at all... Here we can see, on the upper levels, graphic designers, website managers and humanitarian relief workers. Their crime? Hubris. Their punishment? Equality. Everyone looks cool, fashionable and absolutely identical... Everything is perfect and unbearable." Byrne drags in the Greek notion of hubris, roughly meaning over-confidence, which will have the smack of novelty for some of his readers but which is a misnomer, because he's actually talking about traditional, Judaeo-Christian demons - pharisaism, self-righteousness and pride.
The effect of these nominations is sometimes perky and thought-provoking, like the appearance of Walter Matthau, JFK or Princess Diana in South Park's hell, but it is risky to suppose that any profession or group has a head start in failings. Of course, we are all busy people, and there's a gratifying short cut to be taken by lumping together those of whom we disapprove ("Guardian readers", "forces of conservatism"); it gives the delusive uplift of believing that the evil in the world is like a pimple - on someone else's face, evidently - which can be quickly squeezed. But God is not pressed for time, and deals with his creatures exclusively as individuals.
Byrne is often witty - "Our loved ones demand honesty, but what they really want is better fiction" - and sometimes wise - "One would do well to be suspicious of all things sweet and cuddly" (and, we might add, of those cuddliness-mongers who promise to make the world safe for our children). In its goofy way, this book works like such earlier instances of Christian satire as Erasmus's Praise of Folly, La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, or Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It frees up religious apprehensions from their tendency to petrify over time into ethical codes or mere patterns of social conformity, more or less strictly enforced by more or less plausible leaders in whose hands lie merit awards, penalty points and, should the need arise, depleted uranium.
Byrne speaks in the more appealing voice of a mystical tradition that is as strong in western as in eastern religions, though it tends to be drowned out by moralistic clamour: "One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one's most treasured virtues are indeed sins... One may, however, upon reflection, come to accept this fact and then find a strange, calm center, a new model, a place of Astonishment and Peace." He does, however, make that region of surprising forgiveness known as heaven sound terrifically like a cool sushi restaurant. Compare one of the fourth-century desert fathers: "To die to one's neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad... Do not rail against anyone, but rather say 'God knows each one.'"
What "God knows" is, proverbially, not fully known to us. Indeed, as the Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart said (sounding like Groucho Marx on not wishing to join any club which would accept him as a member), "If I had a God whom I could understand, I should never consider him God." Byrne is both right and timely in his desire to detach himself from "contentment - the feeling that all is right with the world and oneself... most often born of a lack of oxygen to the brain", for the converse of sin is not virtue, let alone militant self-righteousness, but prayer, "which pierces so that it assaults / Mercy itself, and frees all faults", as Shakespeare has Prospero say.