During a two-week media blitz tour of the United States in support of their new album, U2’s lead singer Bono was asked which song by another artist he wished he’d written himself. Without hesitation he said Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song he described as “extraordinary.” Laboriously written over years and released on his 1984 album Various Positions, “Hallelujah” has become one of the most famous pop songs ever with more than 150 cover versions, some as popular as Cohen’s own. (Jeff Buckley’s version is of particular merit.)
Currently on a North American tour at the age of seventy-four, Cohen has been on the music scene for more than forty years. A Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter, Cohen has achieved the pinnacle of his art, receiving accolades for both his music and his writing. Many of his songs bear religious themes that echo his long immersion in Jewish thought and Scripture study. As a child, he spent long hours at the side of his Rabbi grandfather studying sacred writ, with the Prophet Isaiah emerging as his favorite. His appeal has to do largely with his willingness to articulate beautifully his own seeking—of God, of truth, of the pleasures of life, and of his own struggles with depression and loss. What many find in his writing is an authentic voice helping them to speak of their own holy and broken lives.
Of all Cohen’s songs, only this one is larger than life—a literal pop culture icon. “Hallelujah” is the kind of song that seems as if it has always been written. Of course that is partly because its main theme, the chorus “hallelujah,” has indeed “always” been written. It is the ancient Hebrew word הַלְלוּיָהּ meaning “praise God” and is found over and over in the Psalms. It also strikes a chord because of the interplay of the music and lyrics. The song rewards careful reading. Three versions exist: Cohen’s album version, a live version from his tour in support of his seventh album Various Positions, which includes a couple new verses, and a compilation version first sung by John Cale (The Velvet Underground) in 1991 that combines the two versions Cohen himself has sung.
This song, and Cohen’s work generally, provide the jumping off point for a book I’m currently writing on theology and pop culture. It has the working title, Broken Hallelujah: Pop Culture, Imagination and God. I draw on Cohen, and especially this song, for a few reasons. First, it is important to me that it is not a “Christian” song. It is, first of all, a pop song with immense and broad appeal—so much so that it was even used in the wildly popular animated family film Shrek. Second, it does have a particular religious depth, drawing on Biblical references. The song begins with a reference to King David, well known both as a musical genius and a womanizer, and also alludes to Samson and the Exodus, where Moses learns “the name” of God. Third, however, it is not “just” a biblical song but one that draws from those roots to speak about both the power of the Holy and the brokenness of human life.
The song begins with David but moves progressively out of the Bible and into the challenges of daily life. The last verse speaks to the challenge of living. A deep humility about human goodness comes through as Cohen sings, “I did my best, it wasn’t much.” Perhaps this is easier to say in Canada, but in eternally optimistic USA where pastor Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now became a best seller, such sentiment is often dismissed as misguided—a downer, at best, and at worst unfaithful. Theologically, however, I think Cohen is spot on; his lyrics get what a faithful life means. In this life, all we are capable of is a broken hallelujah. We’re only able to raise a broken hallelujah because of what God has done for us. Knowing that keeps us from trying to please God with our shiny “holy hallelujahs” and allows us to be honest about ourselves, our need for God’s mercy, and our call to join in God’s mission of mercy in the midst of a broken world.
Broken Hallelujah as Theological Perspective
It bears a bit further unpacking if I am to make the case for how I draw upon the song “Hallelujah” and especially this phrase, “Broken Hallelujah,” for thinking about pop culture in relation to faith. “Broken Hallelujah” offers a wonderfully poetic shorthand, a way into a fundamental view of human life as a broken reality, broken beyond our ability to fix. The Christian term for this is “sin”—a concept that many people today see as an antiquated and unenlightened idea. However, that cultural shrug in response to the idea of sin usually is a reaction to the idea of sin as “sins.” The shrug throws off the presumed legacy of a medieval and psychologically damaging introspection in relation to sinful acts and impulses which modern liberated society now knows are actually normal. Like: sex is not “epilepsy” or the “influence of the devil”—it is created by God as good, and psychology and biology tells us it is supposed to feel good. Or: alcohol is not the “devil’s drink”—wine, for instance, is the beverage of the feast, and medical research tells us that in moderation it has numerous health benefits.
While some Christians focus narrowly on these sorts of issues (e.g., code morality regarding things like the sinfulness of having sex or drinking alcohol), such questionably bad acts are not what I mean when I speak of human life as broken. What I actually mean to say is that we are broken to the core. The Christian tradition sometimes calls this by a Latin phrase: incurvatus in se. The term literally means “the self curved in on itself.” In common parlance we call it “navel gazing.” I love the phrase because it so directly points to the human fault. It reminds me of the joke: “Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?” Add to this, then, an over-optimistic sense that we can work out some spiritual peace for ourselves (through Yoga or “just being a good person” or even by attending church). We end up with this: sins are bad acts, and if we just act better we can feel good about our relation to God and to others in our daily lives. It’s a view encapsulated in the 1970s therapy slogan, “I’m okay, your okay.”
Cohen’s song, however, is grounded in another view of life. A way to read Cohen’s meaning is that we want to pretend that we have a “holy hallelujah” to offer God when actually all we ever have is a broken hallelujah. The Christian story is that through the gift of Jesus Christ we are judged fairly, seen for what we are (navel gazers, every one of us), and despite it all, forgiven. That gift of God’s holiness, through Christ, gives us a “holy hallelujah” to sing even if our lives are always “broken.” We share in something “unbroken” if you will. Cohen gets at this beautifully in his portrayal of the one who, despite it all, is able to “stand before the Lord of Song” with “nothing on my lips but Hallelujah,” a circumstance that implies something like the Seraph putting the hot coal on Isaiah’s lips. It is a way of saying that God gives us a standing we do not earn, and a purity that is not from us, even as it begins to draw us into becoming what we were intended to be and will be in the end.
Living in this mixed state, with unclean lips yet bearing the gift of God’s purifying touch on our lips, points to another classic Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator. We are by birth joined to a sinful world, and as sinful creatures, we are simply “peccator,” that is, sinners through and through. That means we seek ourselves even in doing good; we presume that we are good, worthy, and righteous because of our own good acts. Or, more likely, we just love our selves and our pleasures so much that we don’t really care either about other people or about doing good. Britney Spears’s recent anthem, recorded and released in the midst of her personal flame-out, is ironically titled “Gimme More.” It is not that I think Ms. Spears or anyone else needs to find Jesus and thereafter only sing songs of glory in the narrow sense. People who sing only hymns or explicitly spiritual songs often are those who feel the need either to earn or prove their salvation through good behavior. No, instead when we find ourselves confronted by the accusing judgment of God, and give up, literally, by dying to ourselves and being ‘born anew,’ then we can begin to live out of a “justus,” that is, a right-ness that is not one’s own but given. Then we can sing, with Cohen, “and even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.”
Christian Scharen is Assistant Professor of Worship at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently writing Broken Hallelujahs: Pop Culture, Imagination and God (Brazos Press 2009).