May 2018 - IF YOU WRESTLE WITH ANGELS, you will end up with a limp. When you struggle with God, engage the divine in lament-filled argument, cry out to the Creator for justice, hang on and refuse to let go without a blessing, you’ll end up with a posture bent over from the struggle and an uneven gait. Just watch Bruce Cockburn come onstage and you’ll see what I mean.
Known for hits such as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (from the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws), “Rocket Launcher,” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (both from Stealing Fire), Cockburn’s evocative lyrics, exquisite guitar virtuosity, and unique blend of folk, jazz, and rock has brought him numerous awards and accolades over the years. More than 30 albums and close to a half century of touring would take its toll on anyone.
But there is more going on in the career of this Canadian singer-songwriter. The quiet Christian spirituality discerned in some of his early work was broken open in the 1980s when he first visited Central America. Revolutions and dirty wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala opened his eyes to U.S. imperialism and the oppressive structures of global capitalism. Looking further abroad he became an advocate for ecological justice and the international banning of land mines. Closer to home Cockburn has railed against white nationalism married to the Religious Right while also passionately embracing the cause of Indigenous justice.
We haven’t heard much from Cockburn over the last few years. Writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, took up so much creative energy that songwriting dried up for a while. But the muse returned, and the result is a new album, evocatively titled Bone on Bone: A reference on one level to the arthritis that afflicts Cockburn (though his guitar playing is still stunning), but perhaps more so to the wear and tear of a life of pilgrimage and a spirituality of resistance. A life of wrestling with angels.
No wonder he sings of an “aching in my hipbone” - that’s what happens when you contend with angels.
A price is paid for deeply engaging the world’s suffering, seeing what is just beyond the range of normal sight, and bearing witness. Walter Brueggemann writes that prophets offer “symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness” as they “speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us.” The prophets, and their poetic singer-songwriter descendants, shake us awake when the powers-that-be prefer us to sleep. Many have recognized Bruce Cockburn as a prophet, even if he would demur at such a description.
When gloom and danger descend on the affairs of humanity, the dimming light can lull us to sleep. But in one of his most memorable lyrics, Cockburn sings that we’ve “got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” One interpretation of this 1984 song, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” is that the evils done in Central America by the Reagan administration required aggressive resistance. In “Santiago Dawn” (World of Wonders), he dreams of the dawning of liberation in Pinochet’s Chile as the “creatures of the dark, in disarray / fall before the morning light.”
But Cockburn knows that externalizing evil thoughts and deeds, projecting them onto our opponents, is too cheap. We are all “hooked on a dark dream” (“Dweller by a Dark Stream,” (Mummy Dust). In “The Whole Night Sky” (The Charity of Night), Cockburn sings, “derailed and desperate / how did I get here / hanging from this high wire / by the tatters of my faith.” Like a psalmist he confesses, “look, see my tears / they fill the whole night sky.”
But angels also move through the night. “Sunset is an angel weeping / holding out a bloody sword / no matter how I squint I cannot / make out what it’s pointing toward” (“Pacing the Cage,” (The Charity of Night). Weeping over the violence of the day. Weeping, perhaps, in anticipation of the night. The artist cannot discern the meaning of the bloody sword. Later in the song Cockburn sings, “Sometimes the best map will not guide you / You can’t see what’s round the bend / Sometimes the road leads through dark places / Sometimes the darkness is your friend.” Perhaps that angel will reveal itself more fully after the sun has gone down.
Cockburn is right that we need to “kick at the darkness.” But kicking at the darkness without wrestling with angels, without contesting the state of the world with the Creator, is self-defeating human bravado. Cockburn knows this. No wonder he sings of an “aching in my hipbone” (“Open,” (You’ve Never Seen Everything). That’s what happens when you contend with angels.
A price is paid for deeply engaging the world's suffering, seeing what is just beyond the range of normal sight, and bearing witness.
Now a denizen of the U.S., this Canadian singer-songwriter opens his new album self-reflectively with “States I’m In.” Old themes return as the song begins with the setting sun, a “curtain going up on the night time shadow play.” We are taken through a dark night of the soul replete with distorted reality, obsession, delusion, frustration, and vulnerability. But the night is not endless. Indeed, in the last verse we hear of “structures of darkness that the dawn corrodes / into the title montage of a new episode / whisper wells up from the deeps untrod / overthrows its channel and spreads abroad.” Whispers, rumors, dawn bursting forth. Kind of what we need these days, isn’t it? A new episode that will break the depressing monotony of what plays out on our screens and Twitter feeds.
There is deep spirituality on this album. Playing off the 13th century hymn “Stabat Mater,” Cockburn takes his place beside Mary, bearing witness to the cross. But “Stab at Matter” takes an apocalyptic turn as he bears witness to a world still hanging on that cross: “you got lamentation / you got dislocation / sirens wailing and the walls come down.” But there is hope in these falling walls. “You got transformation / thunder shaking / seal is broken and the spirit flies.” The empire might be imploding and the temples of our civic religion trembling, but all is a sign that “the Lord draws nigh.”
Some listeners will hear echoes of both Cockburn’s more explicitly Christian imagery of the ’70s together with the political edge of his repertoire from the ’80s on. But this is a political and environmental spirituality tried and tested by life on the road, the life of pilgrimage: temptations, dead ends, and miraculous moments of light and hope.
Whispers, rumors, dawn bursting forth. Kind of what we need these days, isn’t it?
Not surprisingly, there have been angels: “forty years of days and nights—angels hovering near / kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear” (“Forty Years in the Wilderness”). But this time the angels speak: “And they said / take up your load / run south to the road / turn to the setting sun / sun going down / got to cover some ground / before everything comes undone.” In this unspeakably beautiful song, Cockburn bears witness to the journey. You may be limping, bearing the scars of the struggle, bent over and tired, but there is another night coming.
You’ve got more ground to cover before it all comes undone. If that were it, some of us just might give up, say our bodies and souls can’t take anymore. But then, almost at the end of the album, Cockburn invites us onto the “Jesus Train.” In this driving gospel song, he sings, “standing on the platform / awed by the power / I feel the fire of love / feel the hand upon my shoulder / saying ‘brother climb aboard’ / I’m on the Jesus train.” Grace, my friends, pure grace. Can’t walk anymore? Are you derailed and desperate? Then get on board the train to the City of God.
Bruce Cockburn makes no pretense of being a spiritual guide, prophet, or even a conductor on the Jesus train. He’s simply bearing witness as a limping sojourner who is good company on this pilgrimage called Christian faith.
Brian J. Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto, adjunct theology professor, and author of several books, including Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.