I tried 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 you.
Backstage at Hotel Café, there’s a sign that admonishes performers about to begin their sets, “PLEASE DO NOT PLAY HALLELUJAH!!!” Leonard Cohen’s simple tune, with its unremarkable chord progression and one-word chorus, has come a long way. Cohen first released “Hallelujah” on his criminally overproduced 1984 album, Various Positions. His record label rejected the album, forcing him to publish overseas. As the first reviews came out, none of the critics even mentioned “Hallelujah,” the song that is now recognizable to millions and covered so often that some venues prohibit it.
The song’s susceptibility to rewrites has arguably been the biggest factor in its success. Cohen struggled with the lyrics for years, writing as many as 80 verses before whittling them down to the four he recorded for Various Positions. Later, in live performances, Cohen expanded the song to seven verses. Of these seven verses, John Cale covered five for I’m Your Fan, a Leonard Cohen tribute album released in 1991. This set of five verses would become the best known version of the lyrics because of Jeff Buckley’s guitar interpretation on his 1994 album, Grace. It is Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” really a cover of a cover, that has propelled the song from obscurity to anthem status.
But not all rewrites are created equal. A recent attempt by Marvin Olasky of WORLD Magazine offers to take “Hallelujah” to church. Olasky discards Cohen’s blend of sexual and spiritual yearning in favor of a sanitized, “theologically correct” interpretation of the life of David. Olasky offers his “improved” lyrics under the headline “Taking Every Song Captive.” The title is a reference to 2 Corinthians 10:5 in which Paul writes about his struggle with those who would lead the church astray, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” While Olasky believes that the popularity of “Hallelujah” is evidence of our innate sense of the divine, he suggests that it is best enjoyed “without the lyrics,” which are “sometimes sacrilegious.” He writes that Cohen’s lyrics “offer a union of sex and salvation” on the one hand and “a brooding, angst-filled, lonely ode to failure” on the other. But the tune, at least, is salvageable.
As a preliminary matter, it should be noted that Leonard Cohen is one of the world’s greatest living poets and Marvin Olasky is not. It is unsurprising, then, that his substitute stanzas fall far short of the artistic standard set by the original. In terms of artistry, Olasky is not unlike those who added the strategic fig leaves to the masterpieces of the Renaissance. But in an effort to be charitable, I want to take his concerns seriously and examine his position considerately even if his proffered solution is aesthetically disastrous.
Olasky’s objections to the lyrics are brief and less than fully explicit, but based on what he does say and what he chooses to rewrite, I would state them this way. First, Olasky is probably suspicious of Cohen’s use of Scriptural images and religious themes, because they are not employed according the their usual meaning in Christian circles. This suspicion is not entirely off-base. If one accepts that Scripture is uniquely important to our understanding God, then it is clear that its words and symbols should be treated with some measure of respect. Certainly, while Cohen’s lyrics have a certain gravitas, there is an element of flippancy as well.
This concern is evident in Olasky’s rewriting the lyrics as a relatively straightforward account of David’s history with God, sprinkled with Sunday School-style spiritual insights. In the original, Cohen is appropriating biblical figures—David, Samson, the Holy Spirit—to express his own spiritual doubts and evoke the same in the listener. When much Christian discourse is geared toward providing “answers,” this use of Scripture to underscore questions is undeniably transgressive. Olasky is probably concerned that it will undermine Scripture’s integrity and authority.
But I would defend Cohen’s transgressive use of Scripture insofar as it is a corrective against another kind of abuse. There is a sense in which insistence on “answers” and a narrow definition of orthodoxy can squeeze the complexity out of the biblical narrative. Doubt and frustration are native to Scripture, and Cohen’s lyrics reassert its interrogative dimension, reminding us that God poses a challenge to our understanding. The theme of “wrestling with God,” which is at the heart of the Old Testament, can be lost as we flatten out the 3-dimensional drama of the Bible into the 2-dimensional doctrine of the catechism.
Olasky’s second concern, about the sexuality in the lyrics, is a common worry about the “message” of a piece of art. It is true that Cohen explores the nexus of the sexual and the spiritual in “Hallelujah,” and it is equally true that sex is one of our culture’s predominant substitutes for the salvation found in Christ alone. Nevertheless, I think Olasky’s concern is misplaced. When people are led astray by the false promise of personal fulfillment through sex, it is seldom because of an explicit exploration of that possibility. Advertisers understand that effective “messages” are implicit rather than explicit. Word as such are less powerful to shape our core commitments than they are often billed to be, which is why both verbal instruction and censorship usually prove ineffective at controlling behavior. What is powerful are visions of the good life, social imaginaries that include sexual sin as a means to lasting happiness. Whatever message Cohen’s lyrics may offer, “the good life attained through sex” is not one of them, and for that reason, I think it is unlikely to do much lasting damage to the listener’s chastity.
Third, Olasky respects the despairing tone of Cohen’s lyrics. While his rewrite features a problem of sorts, it is essentially a strawman, because we know to expect a divine intervention within a few lines. Certainly, the good news of our salvation and reconciliation with God is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. The gospel cannot be overstated. But perhaps there is also value in standing in the shoes of those who have not heard it, in considering the reality of sin and the sin-darkened world without a constant reminder that it has been overcome. Without that perspective, we cannot hope to understand a character like David, who knowing nothing of redemption or resurrection could write, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long? Turn, LORD and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:3-5). Refusing to look upon the brokenness, doubt, and lostness that “Hallelujah” captures seems to cheapen grace while denying a hearing to the afflicted. And an acknowledgement of brokenness and failure is not exclusive of the praise of God, as Psalm 22 and “Hallelujah” can both attest (“They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment… I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.” / “Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but “hallelujah”).
In exchange for satisfying his objections, much is lost in Olasky’s tin-eared rewrite of “Hallelujah”: the evocative texture of the verses, the irony and black humor, the power to unsettle and disturb. Cohen’s lyrics feel truthful, even if that truth should not amount to much. Olasky’s feel phony and parodic. Cohen’s lyrics have a depth that comes from indeterminacy and inspires reflection. Olasky’s can inspire only acceptance or rejection according to the listener’s prior commitments.
“Hallelujah” may be overplayed or even overrated, but it has the potential to challenge us, especially as Christians. We have been inoculated against the reality of sin by immersion in a domesticated Scripture. In the reasserted darkness, our faith is tested. Our spurs of false confidence are filed down. We are forced to face the limits of our understanding and to acknowledge that while our salvation may already be accomplished, it is not yet fully experienced. We miss this opportunity if we insist on art that merely confirms our biases, with no life of their own to provoke or perplex us. So as we “take every song captive,” let us be sure to take them alive.
You can learn more about the history of “Hallelujah” in The Holy and the Broken by Alan Light (Atria 2012).