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Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

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January 31, 2013

Broken Hallelujahs or Naked Evangelism

In a recent review of a book that traces the life of  Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,”  John J. Thompson questions whether the popularity of the song is a way for a secular world to have a religious feeling without any serious commitment—as in, we can mess life up all we want as long as we stand before God singing “Hallelujah!” at the end.

 That may be true enough, but I think that we may be missing something as preachers, teachers, and evangelists if we dismiss people’s connection to this song too quickly. 

 

Cohen’s theology of this song also draws from the Christian mystics’ spiritual tradition that sees a deep relationship with God as being like an intimate, even sexual, relationship.  The sacred exists within and among profane humanity.  

However, the song is more of a confession of sin uttered before the Lord, not a defense of a life.  The narrator/singer is clear that he’s not “a pilgrim who's seen the light,” but rather someone who loved altogether imperfectly, who “could not feel” so  “learned to touch.”  He freely admits that “it all went wrong.”  Nonetheless, he concludes by saying that instead of hiding in the shadows,  “I'll stand right here before the Lord of song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”   Though his is “a cold and broken hallelujah,” it is still praise with all he’s got to give. 

This, in the end, is where all of us are, isn’t it?  Aren’t we Reformed folks the ones who freely admit that we stand naked and vulnerable before the Lord as we confess our sins?  We bare our souls--sometimes cold and always broken--each time we truly take stock of our lives before the Lord.  And hopefully we give the Lord all we’ve got as an act of love, gratitude, and faith, like little children who empty their pockets to give their mother gifts of love from the day—a pebble, a broken piece of glass, a feather, some string.  That’s about all we can offer, if we’re really honest--praise and the remnants of broken lives. 

Cohen’s song taps into this profound realization and opens up a starting place for people to connect with the depth of the gospel.  This is sacred ground—a soul as bare before God as Christ naked and bleeding on a cross.  To ridicule another’s vicariously naked soul before God and deem it insufficient is akin to mocking Jesus’ exposed suffering.   Such judgments during times of vulnerability are why people have turned away from the church.

If, however, we can use popular culture as a point of connection between what it is that speaks to people and our Christian tradition, building a bridge between the two in an open conversation that withholds judgment, we are more likely to draw people into a deeper faith where, clothed in the righteousness of Christ’s grace, folks will be more likely to move in the direction of God’s wholeness rather than lamenting its lack and contenting themselves with nothing but the “cold and broken.”  

Indeed, because they, like the sinners and the tax collectors of Jesus’ day, still utter their praise before God despite their awareness of their abject shortcomings, folks who identify with this song may be closer to God’s Reign than we good religious folks who condemn them for their theology being too shallow.  With such criticisms we can slam the door shut on people’s desire to follow the God who evokes their surprising and troubled praise.   Wouldn’t it be better to invite them in for a chat about Who evokes these strong emotions?  

 

Tags: cohen, evangelism, leonard cohen, music, popular culture, theology


  1. Doug, I hear your struggle. I wouldn't just drop this in a service, I don't think, without some exposition of it in a sermon. And it would need to be connected to scripture and our theology, as I tried to do above, which you're welcome to use if helpful. Only you, as the spiritual leader of your flock, can discern whether this would be helpful in Sunday liturgy. Maybe it's better-suited to an informal time of worship and a talk? Or maybe this could be used as a springboard for an online discusssion.

    by Teresa Stricklen

    July 10, 2013

  2. I have been pulled to this song but am not sure it's something I would do on Sunday. I like Kelly Mooneys version and also the Covington version as they are definatly Christian lyrics. My trouble is I am still very moved by Lenards version as written... do I want to really modify it, but if not then I think its not for in front of the pews. I also am Pcuas but in a little rural church of about 50 and 50 being on the young side of the bulk of the congreagation. On of our youngters (30ish) brought this to me. I am thinking of stepping out of the boat, but like the 11 others I am a little nervous. Would you sing this in front of your church?

    by Doug Roy

    July 3, 2013

  3. Thanks, Joe. I failed to fact check what was asserted in the original post that prompted this. I've edited the post accordingly. And now I have another Cohen album to listen to! "If It Be Your Will" is perfect for Maundy Thursday. Yes, Violet, it's because we want people to know more than a cold "hallelujah" that we want to evangelize. But we need to respect that sharing anything of one's spirituality is scary to folks and honor that even as we proceed to testify to what we know of God in Christ with the same kind of honesty of a soul bare before God.

    by Teresa Stricklen

    PC(USA) Staff

    February 4, 2013

  4. Thanks for your post, Teresa. As you know, Hallelujah is not Cohen's only song with deeply religious themes (have you heard his most recent album?). One minor correction: Cohen spent several years in a Buddhist monastery, but did not become Buddhist. His religion is, well, eclectic, but owes more to Christian images than anything else.

    by Joe Small

    February 4, 2013

  5. Thank you for this interesting post. Although I have a different take than either you or John Thompson I have always enjoyed the song. I don't know if you know but they used it on West Wing at one time. But back to my thoughts-That song and others like it with their melancholy melody yet spiritual emphasis cause me to want to weep and pray over the lost of the world. I don't think they are necessarily good evangelizing tools for the world but evangelizing tools for Christians so that they might understand the longings of those without Christ (Not that your idea is wrong, or John’s for that matter.)

    by Viola Larson

    February 1, 2013

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