Lessons from Canada’s Poet: How Cohen’s Beauty Outlasts Fear

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims. 

Canadians are in an uproar. Much to their dismay, Trump used their beloved Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, twice over.  Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter and poet who died in 2016. I happen to be a huge fan of both his poetry and songwriting. He is a subversive figure who champions beauty. Trump is a divisive figure who champions fear. Cohen is an eloquent poet, Trump a brutish tweeter.

On Thursday evening of August 28th Trump’s campaign appropriated the lifegiving music of Cohen for the purposes of fear. The RNC used Cohen’s music to woo an audience and soften Trump’s rough image. The contradictory pairing of the venerated poet and Donald Trump calls for an examination of Cohen’s work. President Trump, his supporters and all of us would do well to learn from Canada’s muse.

The majority of Cohen’s songwriting is not explicitly subversive.[1] His honest beholding of beauty and pure expression of art, is itself, subversive to the powers.  He gently holds the beauty of humanity and of the created world while simultaneously witnessing the complexity of love’s suffering.

 Unlike the fast-paced consumption of modern media and politics, Cohen encourages somber yet pleasurable reflection. In the act of beholding beauty through poetry, our often-violent impulses for legal rights, guns, security and wealth dissolve. Marveling at beauty soothes us toward our more vulnerable selves. If society could simply be in awe of beauty, vulnerability might lead to compassion.

Imagery of Cohen’s “The Window” demonstrates the beautiful and vulnerable condition of humanity.

Now why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side?

And leave no word of discomfort
Or leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host, gentle this soul

The tension of beauty and pride, chosen love and frozen love, broken hearted and gentle soul evoke an exquisite tenderness for human suffering and love. Cohen is of Jewish descent and in several early writings he incorporated imagery of the suffering Jesus Christ. The first stanza brings to mind not only the spear in Christ’s side but also the spear in the side of the listener. For the spear “of the age” and the “powers that be” harm all of us in one way or another. 2020 is a stark reminder of how powerful entities harm people – black civilians, immigrant families, the poor. Cohen’s art touches the listener through beauty and inspires one to empathize with the wound in the side rather than extort it.

Works such as “The Window” cultivate empathy and reflection. Such practices are deeply needed in American culture. Cohen’s poetry stills the human heart and fixes our attention on beauty. His work calms fear and beckons our hearts toward peace. Like a mother gently rocking a baby to sleep, Cohen’s music woos listeners into a vulnerable surrender of beauty. The listener relaxes in a willing embrace. In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric to his base is like a parent exposing their child to a horror flick before bed time. Consequently, the child embraces the parent in white-knuckled fear.

One could say, “submission to beauty” is the power or spirit of Leonard Cohen. Evident in his poetry, written in “The Flame,” he submitted to beauty with raw vulnerability. This poetic spirit calls the listener, voluntarily, to bended knee before the sacred.[2] Conversely, Trump rhetoric orders people, often the marginalized, to bended knee via the smoke grenades of “law and order.”

During the convention Donald Trump and his political team, consciously or not, sought to harness and manipulate the spirit of Cohen – the power of submission to beauty – by using the song Hallelujah. Trump’s campaign emptied the meaning of Hallelujah by using it as a signifier or symbol for a faulty unity based on fear.[3]

The RNC used one of the most revered artistic songs of modern times, Hallelujah, and emptied it of its meaning by pulling on the spiritual strings of the conservative base. Consequently, a hollow Hallelujah becomes an empty signifier used for manipulation. The original song cues and signifies feelings of love. Unfortunately, the masses of the RNC mistakenly associate Hallelujah’s positive feelings with Trump’s spirit of fear.

The unparalleled beauty of Cohen’s melody disarms the hearts of listening Republicans and calls to the audience’s inner desire for beauty. Potentially, they opened their hearts with vulnerability and received not the healing of the artist, Leonard Cohen, but the poisonous lies of a con man, Donald Trump.

Cohen’s song Hallelujah typically ends with listeners awed into a profound solidarity and reflective silence. Cohen teaches we are all lonely and we all love. We are not alone in the exquisite pain and joys of love. Trump’s performance ends with raucous applause widening the chasm of division. Teaching not solidarity in existence but wealth in division.

Unfortunately, for fear filled power structures a paradox remains. Trump’s appropriation of the music, in effect, propagates Cohen’s message of beauty. Playing the song deposits its truth in the subconscious of listeners. Cohen’s expression of pervasive beauty is subversive to power structures by simply being in existence and Trump’s use of Hallelujah perpetuates Cohen’s
healing work.

His poetry is detached completely from consumerism, patriotism and other forms of power. To be in awe of Cohen’s art is to temporarily experience freedom from struggle while beholding beauty. Unwittingly, Trump’s campaign further propagated the humble yet eternal truth of Hallelujah. Unbeknownst to them, as Hallelujah wafted in sound waves to the ears of thousands of people, it carried sacred beauty and it’s unifying elements. However long it takes, no matter the loss, the disappointment, the suffering, beauty and love will out last.

The oppressed, the suffering and wide eyed cross bearers can find solace and enduring beauty in Hallelujah’s final lines:

I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah [Praise Yaweh]



[1] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018 Although his song Democracy is an explicit example of subversion: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cohens+song+onamerica&docid=607993096676966909&mid=4E E0A854F88A4B8CF3A74EE0A854F88A4B8CF3A7&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

[2] Paul Axton explains the coercive use of signifiers in his blog:Forsaking Chritian Ideology.
https://forgingploughshares.org/2020/08/27/forsaking-christian-ideology/

[3] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018

On Being White and Other Lies and Other Links

In honor of George Floyd and in support of bringing about reform and a more equitable and just society, in place of a blog, below are links which point to practical action and an article by James Baldwin.

https://8cantwait.org/?fbclid=IwAR31rG8tP4lj08Ttjx3IQ0JAQV7RnR2KoLW8d1ffCGRKhox8svkny5wGqck

https://www.google.com/search?q=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&oq=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&aqs=chrome..69i57.20198

Marginalization and Restorative Justice

Forging Ploughshares is offering a new course through our Ploughshares Bible Institute: Marginalization and Restorative Justice (Theo 250) will be taught and facilitated by Vangie Rodenbeck who has extensive experience in writing and teaching dealing with groups and individuals who are marginalized by society. The course will begin on January 20th and will run for 8 weeks until March 17th. The course fee is $150. Follow the link to register – https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings

Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death

One of the most interesting developments in recent theology is the renewed focus on the atonement or the meaning of the saving work of Christ.  There is nothing more basic to Christianity than salvation and many (I am thinking here of my experience with beginning theology students) seem to presume there must be absolute consensus. While there are a variety of biblical metaphors for atonement these are usually sorted out into the standard overarching theories: Christus Victor or Christ’s victory over Satan, satisfaction (which included particular readings of sacrifice and punishment) and the moral influence theory (Christ died to demonstrate the love or wrath of God). (Some would suggest that ransom constitutes a separate theory and note that divine satisfaction should be separated out from penal substitution.) More recent theories have evolved around Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory in which Christ as the last scapegoat undoes the scapegoating mechanism.  This fits well with development of nonviolent theories of atonement such as J. Denny Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor.  David Brondos sets forth ten additional soteriological models (e.g. redemption/recapitulation, theosis or the union of the divine and human natures, entry into the Kingdom, reconciliation, liberation, and proclamation).  One might term this a crisis in soteriology but, though there are competing models which contradict the others, the overall trend is toward a more participatory and transformational understanding of the death of Christ.  There is a gradual closure of the gap that is present in many theories between the benefits of the death of Christ (e.g. some reducing it to going to heaven) and living out the Christian life as a disciple (ethics).  Michael Gorman[1] suggests that all have fallen short (they are all stuck on the penultimate “how” and have missed the all-embracing “what”) in not naming “new-covenant” as the category under which all the others can be subsumed.[2]  Gorman is building on the shift to a more participatory understanding (entry into the Kingdom through living out a cruciform life) but the specific thing which this new-covenant brings about is peace (in Gorman’s explanation and in his exhaustive proof of this explanation from Scripture). What I would add to Gorman’s “new-covenant of peace,” which Gorman is far from alone in recognizing (though it may have gone unnamed as a theory of atonement), is that this “what” of salvation contains within it the very “how” he would set aside (the end or goal of salvation as the peaceable Kingdom gives us a direct insight into how it works as a displacement of a world grounded in violence). Continue reading “Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death”

Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ

The Netflix series Mindhunter dramatizes the beginnings of FBI profiling necessitated by, what would come to be called, “serial killers.”  Based largely on the work of John E. Douglas, who recognized that seemingly random murders often follow a pattern traceable to particular “psychological types,” the series illustrates Douglas’ application of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis to crime. Douglas brings psychology, and specifically the Freudian theory of masochism and sadism (death drive), to bear upon criminality so as to both identify the psychological make-up and experience of the killer and to predict future behavior. In the broadest terms, psychoanalysis is built upon the presupposition that the human disease (Freud was a medical doctor) is subject to prognosis because it follows regular patterns with identifiable causes and effects.  The more the disease – neurosis or psychosis – has a grip on an individual the more their behavior, thought, and personality, will follow a predictable (almost mechanical) pattern (the more the disease will “present” itself). In terms of destructive behavior and murder, the more the individual is given over to compulsion the more destructive and thus the more predictable their behavior. In this sense, a serial killer presents the perfect object of study as they have relinquished control (in their own description and as the series abundantly illustrates) to compulsions which are totally destructive.  Those who are most “out of control” better demonstrate the nature of the cause and effect power which animates their actions. The perfect presentation of the disease is to be found in pure death drive and destruction.   Continue reading “Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ”

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”

Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ

The NT understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ, reflected in the earliest theology, is that humankind exists under a delusion or a lie from which the truth of Christ redeems.  This is an understanding largely abandoned with the turn, worked out by Anselm, to the law as the final and full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. An aspect of the shift surrounding the atonement (from Christus Victor or its near equivalents to divine satisfaction) is that Christian truth was no longer counter to the truth of the principalities and the powers of this world. The era of Constantine, through Anselm, Calvin, and the modernist era are characterized by the development of a notion of secular truth which parallels the truth of Christ. The NT depiction of the truth of Christ is that it challenges the truth offered by this world and constitutes a new world and a new order of truth. Continue reading “Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ”

Roy Moore’s Gospel for Perverts

Are Roy Moore’s apparent moral failings one more example that Christianity has been tried and found wanting? Or is it as G.K. Chesterton would have it, that Christianity has been found difficult and not tried?  Is there perhaps a third option, a form of Christianity has been tried which produced Roy Moore and many like him? As a Judge he insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments, yet his accusers depict a predator, one of whom describes an attempted seduction under the auspices of his babysitting her when she was 14. His former West Point classmates remember a farm boy determined to succeed at the pommel-horse, who they admit, may have pursued virginal teenagers. Classmates Richard Jarman and Barry Robella describe a very serious and devout young man, “almost naïve about women.” If you’re from small town Alabama, Robella explains, it may be normal to ask out 14 or 15-year old girls. “His piety might have led him to younger ladies.”[1] Continue reading “Roy Moore’s Gospel for Perverts”

The Absurd Comedy of Andy Kaufman & Jim Carrey and Christ as a Joke

Chris Smith’s documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton,”[1] captures Jim Carrey’s channeling of the comedian Andy Kaufman in conjunction with the filming of “Man on the Moon.” Carrey as Kaufman is frightening in that Carrey seems to have killed himself off, at least for the duration of filming, so that one worries for his continued sanity – which as Carrey tells it worried him also. As Carrey describes the process, he gave control of himself over to Andy Kaufman, “I decided for the next few days to speak telepathically to people . . . That’s the moment when Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Siddown, I’ll be doing my movie.’ What happened afterwards was out of my control.” Indeed, Carrey seems to have lost control as he stays in character – either the character of Kaufman or the character of Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, the aggressively insulting lounge singer, Kaufman would occasionally become. Continue reading “The Absurd Comedy of Andy Kaufman & Jim Carrey and Christ as a Joke”