-- Interview with Bruce Cockburn --
Celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter talks about his faith, activism and his recently released memoir, 'Rumours of Glory'
By Mardi Tindal -

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1 June 2015 - Q You gave your memoir Rumours of Glory, the same title as one of your songs, Rumours of Glory. What does that title say about your religious journey?

A Iíve certainly gone through different perspectives on the whole issue of God and Jesus and what it is to be a seeker. I think what that song is attempting to portray is the hint of God ó ďrumours.Ē

The hints are around us all the time, yet we tend not to see evidence of Godís presence as readily as itís presented. At least I donít. But once in a while it hits you, and this song was triggered by whatís described in the first verse. I was in New York, looking up between the buildings at the part of the sky that was visible, at dusk in winter. It was crossed by two vapour trails, and they were lit by the setting sun, which wasnít visible because it was behind the buildings.

The streets were darkening and filling with people coming out of their jobs. It was that ó the contrast between the relatively grumpy-looking crowd of people leaving work and trying to get on the subway, the grit of New York streets, and then this glorious image in the sky. It seemed like one of those hints.

As a title for the book, itís ironic more than anything. My career has been pretty good, but is it glorious? Iím not glorious enough to be featured in the tabloids.

Q You write that the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton has influenced you. Merton embodied a spirituality of paradox, as do you. You say youíre living your life as best you can in line with the word of Christ, and yet youíre not necessarily taking that word as gospel. You say that praying in the company of others can be nurturing, and yet question the value of religious worship or affiliation.

A I see a pattern full of that contrast. Itís full of ambiguity and dichotomy and slipperiness. Just look at people in any context ó it could be at a cocktail party or a worship service or a war. Youíll see all this stuff going on. Thereís beauty and grace, and thereís spite and ugliness. What I see is that Godís there in that relationship. Itís for me to be open to him and receptive. Thatís what I work at. A long time ago, when I was new to the game so to speak, the forms [of religion] were valuable. I still like ritual, but the ritual has to be about that relationship to God.

Q Much of this seems beyond words at all.

A I think thereís a trap inherent in taking words at face value. Sometimes thatís what you have to do, and itís appropriate, but other times you have to read the heart of the person speaking and look past the actual words. If I hear a minister preaching, I have to try to hear past the literal words if Iím going to take him seriously. Iím not saying that the words donít matter, because they do. But if you want to know whether or not to admit those words into yourself, you need to feel the heart of the person delivering them. Itís about the relationship with God.

Q You describe your early days in The United Church of Canada in your book, and tuning in to a sermon when you were 10 or 11 and noticing that the minister was talking about ďreal stuffĒ ó ďhe was nailing something.Ē

A I was sitting there with my parents and had my pad of paper and my pencil, getting ready to occupy myself during the sermon. For some reason, that day I listened to [the minister] speak, and it really made sense to me. In this case, I donít think I was looking past the words. I was looking at the words for the first time, and grasping that it wasnít just a guy up there telling you to wash your hands and pray or whatever.

Another powerful experience was my acquaintance with Peter Hall, the organist at Westboro United [in Ottawa], who taught me theory and piano. He was a real mentor, helping me appreciate music and get deeper into it.

Then in the 1980s and í90s, through my travels and connections with charitable work in various parts of the world, I was aware that the United Church was very active and very outspoken on some issues I thought were really important. The United Church has stood out as an agent for positive social change.

Q Youíve said that people who maintain a relationship with the Divine bear a special burden of healing. How do you see that call of Christ today?

A There are some obvious worldly examples. How do you exercise compassion and forgiveness to ISIS, for example? I have trouble with that. I want to kill them all, but I donít think thatís what Iím supposed to do. Thatís probably the most extreme example.

I feel like the worldís getting screwier and screwier and thereís a kind of entropy taking hold. The challenge is to respond to that increasing madness from a godly base.

Itís tricky. That one-to-one relationship with God becomes really important, although it can get off balance too. People do all kinds of horrible things thinking that God told them to do it. So you need some community around you to bounce off, to keep you moving in the right direction.

Q How do you maintain that relationship with the Divine?

A I struggle with a lack of trust, which I didnít know back in the day. When I was a more active churchgoer, I felt like I had a pretty solid faith. But I had a conversation with a Presbyterian minister friend of mine who said, ďDo you believe in an all-powerful, all-seeing God?Ē

I said, ďYeah, I do, but I donít trust him. I donít want to be available to him, because heís going to ask me to do [things] I donít want to do.Ē This is a totally wrong-headed way to think about it, but this is my default position, and I struggle with that. Iím winning, little by little ó or Godís winning. Itís getting better. The period of doubt Iíve gone through has been an exercise in going deeper.

Iíve been doing Jungian-based dream work for a long time, and through it Iíve come to find myself; Iím able to feel love from God and receive it.

MJ [my wife] recently started going to a Pentecostal church, but it doesnít conform to my previously held stereotype of a Pentecostal church. Itís full of spirit and brains and fun, a real sense of joy. I was shocked to discover this and finally let MJ persuade me to go with her. Then I got invited to play with the band. So I go now and sit in the church band as a guitar player. Itís an unfolding process.

Q Youíve had a lot of labels in your day ó including psalmist and prophet.

A And some less complimentary ones!

Q Which seem to fit now?

A You know, Iím just a guy trying to live. I donít have a convenient label for myself, but I can look with hindsight and see prophetic bits in the songs. Iíve written three songs since the book came out, and the most recent is a gospel song. So where is that going? I donít know. Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread light, at whatever level you can do it. Songs are one level, and itís not simple. You can spread light with dark songs, because they invite people to notice and respond to whatís around them. They are invitations to look.

Interview on Soundcloud (parts not in the above content)

This interview has been condensed and edited.

~ from United Church Observer by Mardi Tindal.

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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.