Leonard Cohen And The Glory Story Bumper Sticker Reflex Part I

Not A Marble Arch Or Victory March I’m a little slow on the draw on […]

Matt Johnson / 3.29.10

Not A Marble Arch Or Victory March

I’m a little slow on the draw on this one but anyone else see the Olympics opening ceremonies? KD Lang sang a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song popularized by Jeff Buckley). I know I’m over-thinking it, but to me, this moment was a perfect example of our culture’s bumper sticker reflex to re-tool the meaning of something to mean the exact opposite of its original. Anybody remember Reagan’s use of The Boss’ “Born in the USA” lyric? Same idea, really.
To me, one of the most meaningful and chillingly real to life lyrics of Cohen’s song is this:

“I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”

Cohen’s Unwitting Sound-byte Theology Of The Cross

I’ve always loved Cohen’s cryptic-Zen-genius-with-a-splash-of-biblical-imagery lyrics. And as far as I can tell, this tune seems to mostly be about the bitter sweet of loss and failure in love. I’m going out on a limb here but this Hallelujah lyric snippet–to me anyway–has always seemed like a pro-theology of the cross moment. Our world loves to see love like a James Cameron movie (i.e. theology of glory) when in fact, true, biblical love involved a man becoming a bloodied mess on our behalf (theology of the cross). Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah, indeed.

As Lang sang out the last Hallelujah of that verse, you could hear the enormous crowd begin to cheer. As I listened, I was utterly baffled at how such a sobering refrain could get sports fans whooping and hollering. It’s all context and delivery, I guess. It seemed odd that such a melancholy song in that moment was somehow being translated by the crowd as a “triumph of the human spirit!”
(next post I’ll talk about a theology of the cross in pastoral ministry)
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3 responses to “Leonard Cohen And The Glory Story Bumper Sticker Reflex Part I”

  1. DZ says:

    Great post. I completely agree. 'Hallelujah' has become something of a modern anthem – a go-to musical touchstone lying somewhere between sacred and profane. I was not surprised to hear that even Cohen says there should be a moratorium on cover versions. (I'm partial to John Cale's recording, btw). I'm convinced that people like it because it sounds 'spiritual': just enough references to the Bible that Judeo-Christians feel comfortable – surely those lyrics must mean SOMETHING – yet safe enough not offend anyone (because no one actually understands what Cohen is trying to say). It makes us feel like we're tapping into something deep… The mystical attraction secularlized. And musically, it definitely has a hymn-like beauty and cadence.

    The song may have made sense in the context of that Haiti telethon but at the Olympic opening ceremonies it was just ridiculous. Which isn't to say KD didn't sing it well.

    Can't wait to read more.

  2. Matt Johnson says:

    True that, DZ. I've not heard the Cale version but will check it out for sure.

    I don't entirely get what Cohen is trying to say either but I do get a general "feeling" from it that seems to make sense: love can be complicated and there's something about being humbled / broken that causes a "hallelujah" to well up in us.

    There's also a kind of masochistic bent to the song as well but that's probably best left for another discussion. More to come!

  3. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    We could have quite a lengthy discussion about Cohen. He's not even close to a religious man but being Jewish has meant he finds the images and stories useful, often to subvert but in some cases to affirm (when there is a usefully subverse element to it). If you get a chance (and haven't already) go read his poem "Isaiah", where he describes how absurd and ludicrous Isaiah's warnings of disaster would have been thought of at the time that he spoke.

    Cohen's song has all the qualities of an anthem and the sounds of gospel music triumph but the actual performance and text subvert that at every point. I'd have to write about that later when I can get ahold of the text.

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