April 14, 2017


The Broken Grace of Leonard Cohen (Paul DeCamp, April 13, 2017, mARTIN mARTY cENTER)

 Editor's Note: The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Chuck Berry; the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan; the public feud between then-President-elect Trump and the cast and creators of Hamilton; and other recent events have all served to underscore the significance of music in our public life. Today's issue is the first installment in a new series from Sightings, featuring contributions from a mix of scholars and performing artists, on the manifold ways in which popular music and religion intersect. [...]

Cohen's iconic song "Hallelujah" was recently identified as a "secular hymn" in a Journal of Media and Religion article coauthored by three communications scholars at Brigham Young University: professors Steven R. Thomsen and Quint Randle and master's student Matthew Lewis. "While nonreligious in nature or intent," they write, "the secular hymn is a pop song that allows the listener to experience the numinous by creating an affective state that parallels a spiritual or religious state of mind." [...]

Literature and music can often be interpreted as having religious modes, as well as themes and issues considered "theological," but Cohen regularly tapped the well of religion with a seriousness of purpose that few popular artists before him or after could match. He engaged the divine throughout his career, at a time when the power of faith had arguably been diminished by the despair of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. Cohen was raised in Judaism by parents who told him he was a direct descendent of the high priest Aaron. He was also an ordained Zen monk, an appreciator of Christianity and Gnosticism, and a reader of Hindu philosophy. Among his peers, Cohen's religiosity made him somewhat of an anomaly. He exhibited a rare spiritual seeking that could not be reduced to mundane curiosity or fashionable affect, and he undertook this journey with the severity of a scholar, but went beyond pure theology.

Among his greatest feats was the constant placement of irony and cynicism (defining features of his cultural moment) in tension with a deep and abiding sense of awe. His poetic sense was profoundly Jewish, and therefore biblical. His work feels very old, but always, at the same time, very new. It is steeped in the lyricism of the Psalms as well as the folk revival of the 1960s, drawing as much from the Hebrew prophets as from Bob Dylan; in the process, he closed the distance between the two: a holy irreverence tempered by measured faith.

Another tension, that between the sensuous and the ascetic, was also a hallmark of Cohen's career. His narrators often found themselves faced with women who were repositories of wisdom and mercy. Sex was spiritual incarnation, and there was salvation to be had in the flesh. But while a sensualist, Cohen was also wont to seek mortification as a Zen disciple. For six years he lived atop Mount Baldy with his roshi just outside Los Angeles, where he was said to keep a menorah in his cabin near the zendo. Once asked by an interviewer whether he was religious, Cohen simply replied: "I am religious in that I know the difference between grace and guilt."

Posted by at April 14, 2017 7:40 PM


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