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Leonard Cohen’s legacy: Common grace marches on

Reflecting on the singer's songs and life.

Considering I didn’t move to Canada until 1986 and lived in Latin America for most of the decade before I barely heard of Leonard Cohen during my time in Latin America. When I did hear Cohen sing, well, The Voice – already then miraculously fogging an octave down to about six intervals – didn’t get past my prejudice for, say, a melodic, honeyed voice like James Taylor’s.

It took Cohen’s long-time backup singer, Jennifer Warnes’ often eerie, haunting, sometimes reverential 1986 tribute album, Famous Blue Raincoat to draw me into Cohen’s fold. Even then, though, I remained comfortably on its margins. I listened to the lyrics over and over, wondering, intrigued. Cohen’s lyrics were never obscured by over-production, his melodies vehicles for the words. How could the satirical post-modern send-up “First We Take Manhattan” come from the mind and deep heart of the writer of the mysterious “Joan of Arc”? The two seemed poles apart – the first nearly cynical, the second mystical, transcendent.

New songs of Zion in today’s strange lands

Then came Ten New Songs in 2001, co-written and produced by Sharon Robinson. That was the first pure Cohen CD I bought – but not till 2004. I was hooked, gaffed, pulled up on deck and captured alive for the next 13 years, unable, never wishing to escape Leonard’s ever-thickening poetry. His lyrical and liberated spiritual probing of his own Jewish heritage, limned with eclectic Zen stuff that I still barely get, was suffused more and more with biblical allusions, peppered with sexuality that was as often more comic than prurient.

With more cultural savvy and human affection than I could usually imagine, Cohen trolled tenderly and respectfully into cultures and people against which I had often developed significant indifference, heading to hostility. My faulty living-out of the message of sola gratia in which I had lived for more than 50 years hadn’t really opened me up to embrace all that much unconditional love towards people who didn’t think, live and sound like me. (And that despite working cross-culturally for years.)

Then came Leonard Cohen. This “lion-hearted priest” – literal translations of the Latinate and Hebrew roots of his names – was becoming my own priest. He helped pry open my own up-tight heart. Cohen – Zen priest, while always remaining a beloved member of his Montreal synagogue – widened and deepened my own spiritual vision, parlaying vivid, often disturbing experience into songs of human depravity and salvation.

It turns out that Cohen, a priest from Judaism, Christianity’s spiritual mother, was singing some new, oddly keyed songs of Zion in today’s strange land. He has helped me sharpen the focus of sola gratia with heavy applications of common grace, that oft-confessed, fearfully explored part of Reformed confession. Loving boundaries, we draw common grace’s boundaries in pretty tightly. Leonard Cohen suggests that maybe the boundaries we like to see clearly come nowhere near where the Author of common grace has placed them.

Looking, often dangerously, to belong  

For example, in Ten New Songs, Cohen and Robinson sing “Boogie Street,” a stirring, poignant anthem about more than music’s power. With the closing lines,

O Crown of light, o darkened one?
So come, my friends, be not afraid,
We are so lightly here
It is in love that we are made
In love we disappear,

Here Cohen deepens the prayer mode most concretely founded years earlier with “Hallelujah.” Though “Hallelujah” is his most famous song, by the end of his life, I rank it only in my “top five” of his remarkable opus.

“By the Rivers Dark” on that same CD stands as a devout prayer directed to an otherwise unnamed “he.” A confession and thanks-filled ode, it thrills with the verses

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
To Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, ‘This heart
It is not yours.’

Here is Cohen at his spiritually argumentative best. He questions, rebels, finally recognizes he is not his own – but is never completely certain to Whom he belongs in life or in death. That isn’t always comforting for Cohen or us, but it is honest.

Cohen’s wandering pilgrimage stops at a long series of way stations. Long, international tours so exhausted him that, by his own admission, the only way he could keep going was to consume three bottles of wine on concert nights. Thus the genesis of that paradoxical line,

I fought against the bottle
  but I had to do it drunk.

Remarkably, he survived those years of exhaustion and non-stop writing, coupled with regular use of all manner of psychotropic and psychedelic drugs. A multi-year stay in a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles probably saved his physical life, though during those years his manager made off with his earnings, leaving him broke. It seems almost right to thank that faithless steward, because likely Cohen wouldn’t have written and sung around the world the old songs and the new songs of Old Ideas in order to regain some financial security.

Ever-new Hallelujahs as the years wind down

In Old Ideas, Leonard begins a final series of albums which engage constantly, candidly, always humourously his own mortality:

I love to speak with Leonard  
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd  
He’s a lazy bastard  
Living in a suit.

More, though, here he consciously wraps himself in devout, if unclear metaphysics, expressing unbreakable faith in Someone beyond:

Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it’s better than before

Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without the costume that I wore.

No one should ever dare try to wrestle Cohen into Christianity. Yet anyone of Jewish or Christian heritage can’t help but be haunted, encouraged by “Show Me the Place,” with its bold allusions to human sexuality as a mysterious element in Jesus’ Incarnation:

Show me the place, help me roll away
    the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this
    thing alone
Show me the place where the word
    became a man
Show me the place where the suffering
    began.

As if propelled by his inevitable death, Cohen kept writing, touring for years, finally hobbled by cancer compressing his spine. The doxological “You’ve Got Me Singing” from 2012’s Popular Problems stands as one of pop culture’s most robust testimonies of divine sovereignty and humanity’s duty to live in undying praise. Though written a few years before his death,

You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had

hark back to “Hallelujah.” Yet, “Hallelujah” was far more than a song; instead it was a theme, offering a legacy of Hope, in all a long persistent prayer uttered by a sinner, begging forgiveness and urging others to do the same.

When only weeks before he died, Cohen released his final CD, You Want it Darker, he was indeed, “out of the game,” but clearly “ready, my Lord.” Far more upright singers have tried to draw a noisy world closer to prayerful meditation than Leonard. But few if any have done it for so long, down so many roads of doubt and faith. Not a bad legacy.

Author

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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