Monday, December 23, 2013

What Leonard Cohen missed....

Leonard Cohen's masterpiece "Hallelujah" has been covered by a vast number of world class musicians -- from Bon Jovi to Bono, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, KD Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Neil Diamond, Allison Crowe, and the Maccabeats each brought their own interpretation to this haunting melody, built around a simple chord progression "that goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift."


Beauty, simplicity, sound that cuts to the heart. I can't explain it: it is tragically beautiful.

Cohen's song is a cri de coeur: a long for meaning, beauty, truth, love, and transcendence in a materialistic, atheistic, profane, and sexualized world. His poetry appeals to the dignity we all seek, that for which we all inherently yearn, and that for which we all intuit is our right as beings in relationship. But in a nihilistic wasteland, this cry of the heart cannot be answered. There is nothing but self-reference to make sense of the desire for something greater than the atoms and energy that somehow make up these self-aware biosystems we call "human beings".

Yet we cry for more. We think we are important. We want to be heard. We want relationship. We want to be meaningful. We demand it -- any assault against "human dignity" is met with outrage -- yet on what grounds? If the atheist is right, all we are are material stuff in a particular arrangement, everything is just physics and chemistry, atoms and energy, and is theoretically reducible to the laws of the way stuff works.  Even that "dignity" and "self" and "outrage" is theoretically reducible to the atoms and molecules and chemical reactions and electromagnetic operations of the brain organ. It has no meaning or value beyond the material stuff of the brain organ that outputs it. There is no necessary relationship in the material world, only taxonomies that the brain organ organizes to make sense of the material world, and enshrines as "knowledge" or "truth" or "science". But even these are reducible and theoretically explicable in purely neuroscientific terms, which are themselves the output of those same physical processes they purport to explain. There is no way in the physicalist worldview to get beyond that same worldview to determine if it is correct or not. It is all just electrochemical reactions that respond to electrochemical reactions.

Yet everything we know about the world speaks of relationship, of order, of meaning beyond our own material constraint. It seems to me that either "relationship" is a fabrication of brain organs, or it is a reality beyond the brain organs that output "relationship" as a response to stimuli in a purely mechanical and material process. There is no other possibility -- it is binary -- either the universe is imbued with relationship, with logos, with love and we are products of that Relationship, that Logos, that Love; or all these things we value are valueless apart from some electrochemical process in a bunch of material stuff we call human beings.

This is, in short, why I could be either a Catholic or a nihilist, with no third choice.

Either everything matters, or nothing matters: God, the Incarnation, the Church, love, the sacraments, human dignity, goodness, truth, beauty, relationship, and meaning on the one hand; nothing on the other hand.

And that nothing is a real nothing: one can't even call it a cruel trick of the Universe to bring forth (by evolution, or emergent properties of particles, or whatever the physicalist tries to explain) a self conscious thing that longs for something that is nonexistent on its own terms, but must only be the byproduct of the evolutionary or emergent processes that allow for it. And all the scientistic atheist can do is resort to this highly religious language -- relationship, connection, order, rationality, knowledge, meaning -- to make sense of the response to stimuli in their electrochemical brain organs that simultaneously reject the notion that there is any hierarchy or order or intentionality to existence itself. Everything is either a random byproduct of energy, matter, chemicals, "stuff", etc., or it is a true product of Mind: of intentional relationship, of willed love, of God. 

For it all to be of God: that the universe is imbued with relationship and love from God who reveals himself as relationship (the Trinity) and love (1John 4:7-8) makes sense to me. For it to all be random happen-chance, that we are really just "stuff" that for no reason at all can reflect on whether or not we are just "stuff", does not even  produce an electrochemical output that coheres with everything else we know about the universe. For it to be true, all order, all relationship, all hierarchy and all values (why we should value one material thing like a spouse over another material thing like a carrot), simply crumbles to dust. Entropy and chaos win because order and intelligibility are the inexplicable anomalies.

So back to Leonard Cohen and the cry of his heart. Christ answers that cry; Christ is the only one who can even be addressed with that Hallelujah. He alone answers to that secret chord, that name taken in vain, that blaze of light, that Lord of Song. Given the sheer beauty of the gift that Mr. Cohen gave us, it was only a matter of time before someone brought out this submerged implication, and made the song even more beautiful when framed in reference to the divine beauty that we Christians now celebrate in the Nativity of the Lord. The band Cloverton has done just that in this Christmas Hallelujah.

To all men and women of good will, Christian or Jew, agnostic or atheist, I wish you all peace and blessings this Christmas. May we all come to know the love and relationship that we all seek, for which we were all made, and without which we can never be content.


  1. I appreciate your lovely Christmas message but I bristle a bit on the background you present to achieve it. First, Leonard Cohen is a Jew who has a great deal of respect for Jesus given that he was raised in Catholic Montreal. To suggest that bringing Jesus into the song Hallelujah elevates the song beyond what Cohen envisioned is presumptuous. First, Cohen worked on the lyrics of Hallelujah for ten years. Reading the lyrics written by Cloverton, I would deduce they didn't spend nearly as long. Just because your lyrics are about Jesus doesn't make them golden. More importantly though, Cloverton's version misses the entire point, the entire beautiful of Cohen's original song. It is easy to praise the Lord when things are going well, when someone is handing you an award, when you just won the championship, when you are thinking about Jesus' sacred birth. Cohen's song says, try praising the Lord when love is cold and broken and "when it all went wrong." To put it simply, try praising the Lord when your life sucks. That is faith. Now you have to ask yourself how a song which has as its chorus a religious message could become such a pop culture phenomenon when that culture is nihilistic. I can only conclude that every person has been there, been broken, been destroyed by love or life, and therefore identifies with the angst of which Cohen wrote. And every person who has survived their near drowning under the weight of their sorrows knows "something" kept them afloat, something bigger and better than themselves. But this universality of experience is lost when the song is twisted to praise one God, one religion, one faith. Ah, but Cohen did write:
    "There's a blaze of light in every word
    It doesn't matter which you heard
    The holy or the broken Hallelujah"
    So, maybe you and Cloverton are right. If the song impacts someone, if the songs makes the listener sing "Hallelujah," nothing else matters. Hallelujah!

  2. I appreciate the comments. I realize of course that Cohen was raised Jewish, and that he often references deeply Christian themes in his work. I also know well what it is like to praise the Lord when life sucks, from despair, depression, divorce, sickness, chronic unemployment, disease, abuse, or whatever personal traumas any of us have gone through. We are all human and we share the broken human condition, about which Cohen writes and composes so eloquently.

    There is nothing presumptuous about pointing out that the answer to this common fallen condition is in Christ. That is the Christian message. Nor does it disregard the very real suffering of all, whether we are cognizant of this or not. The culture is nihilistic (I doubt that can be seriously argued against) but the human person rarely is. Despite our brokenness we still are made for health, grace, love, relationship, dignity, and happiness.

    This is why I first point out "His poetry appeals to the dignity we all seek, that for which we all inherently yearn, and that for which we all intuit is our right as beings in relationship." and "We demand it -- any assault against "human dignity" is met with outrage". Cohen tells us what the human condition is, and his music is a cry from the heart against the indignity of it all. He gives us a glimpse of what a satisfactory answer would mean: hallelujah. But he has no way to get there, as far as I can tell.

    If you have some third way to get there, apart from Christ, what might it be? It seem truly binary to me-- we are either made in the image of God, made for love relationship with God and each other to live as fully human persons; or we are happenchance composites of electrochemical activity that are curiously self aware for no reason.

    Peace to you this Christmastide.