Cross and glory in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

What prompted my earlier post on the theology of the cross and the theology of glory was reading this article by Laura Barton, one of a flood of articles over the past few days on Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” (a song which may achieve the unique distinction this week of being at both #1 and #2 in the UK singles chart, thanks to the head-to-head between X Factor winner Alexandra Burke and the late Jeff Buckley).

In her article, Barton contrasts Cohen’s original, 1984 version of Hallelujah with the “somewhat bleaker” later version as sung by Jeff Buckley and others. The final verse of the 1984 version reads as follows:

I did my best, it wasn’t much,
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

The later version ends with the following instead:

Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.
It’s not a cry that you hear at night,
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I’ve described Cohen as a theologian of the cross before, and the question I’d like to ask about these versions of Hallelujah is this: in which of these does Cohen sing as a theologian of the cross, and in which does he sing as a theologian of glory?

Laura Barton describes the original as providing “a kind of defiance over a defeat”, but she argues that “it is the brokenness of the later version of Hallelujah that has always seemed to me the song’s most essential quality”. We might therefore conclude that it is the latter which represents the theology of the cross, seeing truth in a “cold and broken” hallelujah, in contrast to the vision of future glory in the 1984 version.

However, this is to misunderstand the theology of the cross, to mistake it for the nihilism that sees ultimate reality as consisting of nothing but suffering and meaninglessness. The theology of the cross can often be mistaken for nihilism and pessimism, a wet-blanket theology getting in the way of the victorious Christian life, but (as Forde points out) “it is not possible to have a theology of the cross without resurrection”:

Without the resurrection theologians cannot speak the truth about the human condition, and without hearing and confessing such truth we have no hope, no resurrection.

The theologian of glory is (as Forde puts it) always trying to “see through what is made and what happens so as to peer into the ‘invisible things of God.'” In that sense, nihilism, cynicism and pessimism are all manifestations of the theology of glory, because they claim to have “seen through” the apparent reasons for hope and happiness in the world so as to peer into ultimate reality: “what life is really like”.

By contrast, the theologian of the cross, knowing that suffering and death are both real and precursors to resurrection, is able to “speak the truth about the human condition”; as Luther puts it, to “call the thing what it is” (as Luther puts it). To exercise “sober judgment”, in St Paul’s words.

Hence it is in the 1984 version of Hallelujah that Cohen speaks most as a theologian of the cross. In the later version, he has (so he thinks) seen through both love and faith, being left only with a “cold and broken” hallelujah (which is no hallelujah at all). This sounds “cross-shaped”, but the lack of resurrection reveals it to be the theology of glory, disguised as nihilism.

In 1984, by contrast, Cohen speaks as a true cross-theologian, calling the thing what it is: “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya”. He may experience suffering and the cross (“even though it all went wrong”), but a resurrection hope remains:

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

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8 Responses to Cross and glory in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

  1. Tom R says:

    I grew up hearing Harry Belafonte’s version of “Suzanne”, later Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” on the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers (“… Let’s kill another fetus now/ We don’t like children anyhow…, plus references to St Paul) and so assumed he was a BAC. Quite a surprise to learn he’s a Buddhist of Jewish background.

  2. John H says:

    Tom: when it comes to at least sounding Christian, Cohen seems to have followed a comet trajectory in which Various Positions represented his perihelion. As well as “Hallelujah”, “Coming Back To You” and (especially) “If It Be Your Will” are both littered with lines that are likely to make Christian hearers do a double take:

    If it be your will
    That a voice be true
    From this broken hill
    I will sing to you
    From this broken hill
    All your praises they shall ring
    If it be your will
    To let me sing

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    On the one hand, I think Theology of the Cross vs. Theology of Glory is a good way to get across what is wrong with some kinds of theological thought. On the other, it is easy for it to become not just an independent motif that can be used to throw out what should otherwise be accepted because it’s Biblical, but an aesthetic criterion. “Ah, yes. Bleakness. We shouldn’t seek anything beyond that.” “Desaturate the film or you’re portraying a Theology of Glory.” I’m glad you tethered the concept into actual teaching rather than allowing it to rule on its own.

    The Death of God theologians of the 1960’s rejected the Ascension as a “bad faith” concept because what was really good news to them was that God died in Jesus Christ. End of story. When motifs take on a life of their own, that’s what you can end up with.

    While the terms signify something useful when done right, I wonder if by using “Theology of…” they don’t try to be too total in scope.

  4. John H says:

    I wonder if by using “Theology of…” they don’t try to be too total in scope.

    Gerhard Forde would probably agree with you. One very helpful point he makes is that Luther speaks, not so much of a “theology of the cross”, as of being a theologian of the cross. IOW, it’s about how one does theology, rather than being a neat theological system.

    Indeed, Forde points out that the “theology of the cross” can itself become a version of the theology of glory, when presented as “the explanation of what the cross is about”, or whatever – as something we look in on from the outside, rather than the way in which the cross takes hold of us and draws us into its story.

  5. Rob says:

    This was a great post, John, thanks much for it. I also appreciate your comment above on the distinction between an abstract “theology of the cross” and being a theologian of the cross.

    I have to say that, in my longing for conversation by theologians of the cross, I have recently found good friends in Søren Kierkegaard and Walker Percy. Both emphasize the point you make on Christian hope contra nihilistic hopelessness. Whereas later existentialists became entirely fascinated with the questions Kierkegaard raised on the absurdity/misery of human existence and laid the groundwork for God-is-dead postmodernism, one of Kierkegaard’s aims was to reveal why truly good news has to come from outside of our existence, as “news from across the sea,” as Percy later put it. Good cross theology, that.

    The theology of the cross–and the place it puts us on the linguistic map–is one of the reasons why I’m convinced that Lutheranism is uniquely positioned to give real answers to the questions raised by postmodernism, especially when contrasted with other Christian traditions.

  6. rpg says:

    “And even though it all went wrong,
    I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
    With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

    Those three lines have touched me, recently.

    There’s more I could say, much more, but I think I’ll leave it there.

  7. bob says:

    Leonard Cohen is a Jew and a Buddhist, not a Christian. I think you are missing the point of the song.

  8. John H says:

    Bob: I’m aware that Cohen is a Jew and a Buddhist, and am not claiming him as a Christian. What I am claiming is that – as Jew, Buddhist and poet – he has identified and expressed truths and themes that are also important in Christian belief; scarcely surprising given he is (a) an acute observer of humankind, (b) the several explicit references to Jesus (and/or St Paul!) in his lyrics over the years, and (c) statements like this.

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