After a break for the holidays, today I’m resuming blogging through Christian Scharen’s outstanding new book Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God. I invite you to grab a copy of the book and join me in reflecting on it.
Chapter 2 of Broken Hallelujahs finds Christian Scharen mining the life and work of Leonard Cohen for signs of God’s presence. Prior to reading this chapter, I knew precious little about Leonard Cohen, other than that he is the writer of “Hallelujah” which has become ubiquitous on television in the last decade, especially on American Idol. Thankfully, for readers like me, Scharen provides a helpful overview of the arc of Cohen’s life and career to date.
Having familiarized readers with Cohen’s life and career, Scharen proceeds to highlight four themes (tradition, calling, desire, and brokenness) that seem to account, at least in part, for so many being drawn to Cohen’s art. These themes are particularly prominent in two of Cohen’s key works, which Scharen examines in some detail: an album called Various Positions and a volume of poetry entitled Book of Mercy, both published in 1984. Having been steeped in Judaism from childhood, the traditions of Cohen’s faith find their way to the surface of his songs and his poetry, but not necessarily in a tone of pious proclamation, but rather that of firsthand testimony from one who is vigorously engaged in or, better yet, engaged by the tradition. Repeatedly, Cohen’s songs and poems evince a sense of calling and vocation, at times frustrating and on other occasions exhilarating, but which Cohen humbly accepts and which he offers to God that God might work through him. His being rooted in a specific tradition and compelled with a sense of calling, both of which allow him to see himself as but a small contributor in a much bigger story, open up the possibility for him to testify in his compositions of both the surging pulse of desire and the heartache of brokenness.
Scharen does not necessarily or explicitly commend Cohen as a model of faithfulness. Yet as he highlighted the presence of these themes in Cohen’s work, I couldn’t help thinking perhaps Cohen can show us part of what it means to be faithful as God’s people. What if we felt so at home in the tradition of the faith that our faith could find ways to the surface of our speech, our actions, our work, but not necessarily as mere pious proclamation, but rather as firsthand testimony that we are vigorously engaged in or, better yet, engaged by the tradition? What if we could be honest about the fact that a sense of calling and vocation is as often, or perhaps more often, frustrating than exhilarating? What if we were able to testify of both the surging pulse of desire and the heartache of brokenness, and not merely in “safe-for-the-whole-family” generalities, but in grounded-in-reality specifics? And isn’t it interesting that these same themes bubble to the surface in the life and work of person after person in scripture, from Moses to David to Jesus to Paul?
In what ways do you see these themes emerging in the culture around you or in the lives of people you know?