Bruce Cockburn’s music has long been my guilty pleasure. Here was a Christian who would not be confined to the emerging genre of contemporary Christian music. More often than not Cockburn expressed his faith implicitly, with poetic lyrics rather than bland imitations of pop love songs.
He stood well to my left on faith and politics, but his skills as a lyricist, guitarist, and singer eased those conflicts. Even a paean to the Sandinistas of Nicaragua could be catchy and touching in Cockburn’s hands. His lyrics occasionally included coarse language, as did my untamed tongue in angry moments. Listening to Cockburn felt edgy and hip. Shifting into my midlife, which brought detachment about being edgy or hip, Cockburn’s music still resonated. “Last Night of the World” is one of his finer love songs, though it emerges (as Cockburn relates here) from a year of adultery.
With the new century, Cockburn began wearing out his welcome. His music had always turned gloomy whenever a Republican captured the White House, but his dark moods began to transcend even political tides. My pilgrimage to Cockburn’s intimate acoustic set in the nave of Washington National Cathedral in March 2007 was an effort to rekindle interest in my longtime musical hero. Seeing Cockburn in such proximity that night meant little more than nodding at a distant acquaintance on the street.
Yet Cockburn’s memoir, published in early November, quickly caught my interest, possibly as an explanation of this distance. The book provided answers on three fronts: his preference for ideological purity over even basic doctrinal clarity, his contempt for conservatives, and his follow-your-bliss sexual morality.
Consider Cockburn’s response to the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, which quickly amounts to his asserting that the United States had it coming:
The biggest surprise of 9/11 is not that it happened. The New World Order has not been universally welcomed. Given the untold millions of lives around the world wiped out, with apparent indifference by the United States in the span of a single lifetime, the bigger surprise is that something like it didn’t happen sooner.
There can be no justification for the indiscriminate destruction of innocent lives that was the World Trade Center attack, but the nation that Dr. Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” has perpetuated thousands of 9/11s across the globe. There’s bound to be some blowback. (pp. 454-55)
Throughout his memoir, Cockburn sees human-rights violations most readily when they are connected to U.S. foreign policy, or with weaponry exported by the left’s other bête noire, Israel. Thus victims of dictators in Guatemala and Honduras loom large, but victims in Fidel Castro’s Cuba exist only as props in these remarks by a Sandinista: “The Cuban Revolution, of course, was not so inhumane [as Russia’s]; it was a little better, though there were executions and repression and killings that probably were unnecessary, and we’re trying to be better than that” (p. 239).
It should surprise no one that Cockburn is resolutely hostile to the 40th president of the United States, who has been out of office for a quarter-century and dead for ten years: “This is the real Ronald Reagan: an international gunslinger wearing a bandolier of crack vials, taking territory and scalps, trading in chemical and biological weapons with the likes of Saddam Hussein” (p. 278). Cockburn easily assumes the basest motivations in Reagan and George W. Bush, but he becomes a lover of questions and symbols when his narrative turns to faith:
These days I’m inclined to think of Jesus as a collective animus figure, an archetypal image God has used to make real the possibility of being in a personal relationship with him. Jesus the revolutionary leader of the poor, Jesus the Son of God — both or neither. The point is not who or what Jesus exactly was, or whether he even was, but how we embrace what is offered (p. 199).
Every time Cockburn refers to doctrine it is with suspicion, as though even the Nicene Creed is but a weapon of the Man. The second paragraph of his preface cuts straight to the point: “Along the way I found Jesus Christ, then let go of his hand amid the din of disingenuous right-wing Christian exploitation” (p. 1). These villains become clear soon enough: Jerry Falwell (dead since 2007), Pat Robertson (an 84-year-old Christian broadcaster, mostly retired, who makes eccentric cameo appearances in the culture wars), or other Christians who suggest that autonomy is not the sine qua non of Christian morality (Cockburn wants autonomy for himself but not for nations.)
Cockburn tells a brief story of a fellow baby boomer who is taken aback when he realizes that Cockburn is living with his first post-marriage lover: “A look of surprise appeared on his face, immediately followed by a darkening expression. He bade us a polite but somewhat curt farewell. I never saw him again.”
It would not have helped had Cockburn’s friend stayed around for a calm discussion of living arrangements. “Neither of us was inclined toward marriage,” Cockburn writes about his relationship with Judy Cade. “I had had enough of that, and in my newly politically aware state, I felt that authority in the form of church and state had no business involving itself in my life. We were committed to each other, and that was sufficient.”
Indeed, that was sufficient for seven whole years, and then Cade moved along. Another seven-year commitment emerged about 20 years later; as Cockburn describes it, the rest of his time as a divorced man involved serially monogamous relationships of varying duration. This is tame in the life of rock stars but shameful for one who professes to live “somewhat in line with [Jesus’] Word, without necessarily taking it as, well, gospel” (p. 1).
During the latter seven-year relationship, Cockburn initiated a year of adultery — harming both his live-in lover and the husband of a woman he calls Madame X. Adultery is not the unforgivable sin (see John 4), but Cockburn has concluded that God choreographed it in his life:
God set this up. It wouldn’t have happened any other way. Maybe he rolled his eyes and sighed at having to resort to such a tactic, as maybe he often does. Somewhere deep in the collective unconscious, our souls were nudged into position to meet and share what little we did during the on-again, off-again year of our affair.
This is 100-proof solipsism, and Cockburn pours it on with a passing acknowledgment of the pain he caused:
There was a lot of pain for everyone involved, but pain is as much a part of life as being born — just ask the newborn infant, squeezed out of the den of the women in the guide of an angry little old person, resentful at being made to come back. Ask Saint John of the Cross, whose reform activism got him imprisoned in a six-by-ten-foot cell in a monastery basement, from which he was dragged into a public square for weekly torture sessions before he finally escaped.
Cockburn is now married for a second time and the father of a young daughter. Maybe the second time around, both in marriage and fatherhood, will clarify what it means to love a woman wholeheartedly.
Cockburn’s memoir provides engaging moments when he writes about his childhood, his college years, and a youthful journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a freighter. He treats his first wife, Kitty, mostly with kindness as he recalls the tensions that drove them apart. He is self-effacing about his talent and pokes fun at his younger self as an imitator of Jimi Hendrix.
He bares his soul when writing about praying that Jesus would help him control a habit of being distracted by other beautiful women in the presence of Kitty. He describes Jesus as a tangible presence during their marriage vows at St. George’s Anglican Church in Ottawa. He is sad about visiting other churches during his tours but never finding the same spirit that existed at St. George’s, which has since affiliated with the Anglican Network in Canada and become St. Peter and St. Paul’s Anglican Church. He writes of his surprise at stumbling across some honorable conservatives after he took up competitive shooting as a hobby.
Still, Cockburn spends a leaden third of his book instructing his readers in the finer points of the political and spiritual left. When holding forth on foreign policy or fundamentalism — the clearest definition he provides of this looming threat, from his own brief dabbling, is “You do and believe what the Bible says you do and believe” (p. 15) — Cockburn becomes the droning crank who ruins a night at the pizza joint.
These chords are central to Cockburn’s self-understanding, and they have been for decades. Many of Cockburn’s fans may believe this makes him prophetic. Perhaps Cockburn was an emergent pilgrim before emergent was cool. But it has come between us. I can stand only so many discordant notes.
Bruce Cockburn’s first ten albums or so (up through Humans) are among the most precious things in my collection. There is so much soulful longing, trust in the Lord, and simply beautiful poetry and guitar playing on them. He did indeed go off the rails though. Ideology knocked God off the throne of his heart. I can’t help but think of his young plea in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon”: “Jesus, don’t let Toronto take my song away…Jesus, don’t let tomorrow take my love away.”
I counter that Bruce’s life, growth, and increased wisdom has taken him deeper into Love that is true and without fear. A love that sees the down-trodden as “non-other” and has become more inclusive and not ruled by control and fear. I believe this is what Jesus spoke of and lived as well as the Buddhist principles of being present in the moment and dropping judgement. The path to the divine is mysterious and those who claim to have it all figured out are lying or blind. All of us want to feel complete and have things wrapped up in… Read more »
I confess to being a bit confused here. Are you saying that you will no longer listen to Cockburn? That is how the article seems to end. I am also unclear on how Cockburn’s politics (especially his disdain for Reagan) fit in with your more general argument. I get the sense that his politics is as much a problem for you as his theology. Perhaps the problem is his leftwing dogmatism (and no doubt it is, like rightwing dogmatism, wholly obnoxious), but maybe I am missing something here. Cockburn’s more recent albums progressively dissatisfying (no pun intended), and occasionally downright… Read more »
Ben, if Cockburn’s politics mattered to me as much as his eroding theology, I would have stopped listening to him 30 years ago. But yes, I am troubled by his left-wing dogmatism. I’ve yet to find right-wing dogmatism in rock & roll. I do not expect even near-perfection from any musician.
What I have written is my reflection on why I now have trouble taking Cockburn seriously. I am sure these points will not pose a problem for the great majority of Cockburn’s admirers, and I do not need to change their minds.
Pretty sure being anti-war and anti-killing and anti-subjugation of poor people around the World are Christian values and not “left-wing dogmatism”.
I caught Bruce in concert last summer in Milwaukee (with Matt Gunter and Matthew Olver) and loved it guiltlessly. He jammed on the guitar and sang pretty much all our faves from the last 40-odd years. Yes, he’s become a bit of a Boomer flake. So have so many pop-musical greats of that generation–Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, even Bruce Springsteen to some extent. We listened to Cockburn because of his music and his Christian vulnerability and these are still there on his early albums. I don’t expect Christian or philosophical depth from rock stars. I expect longing and sometimes great… Read more »
Friends, I reviewed Cockburn’s memoir far more than his music. My review critiqued not one snippet of Cockburn’s lyrics.
I do not expect theological depth from rock stars, but when they wade into theology — as Cockburn does in justifying a year of adultery — I hope they will show even a child’s grasp of basic moral categories.
Let he who has not sinned….
really good article. have had my own wanderings away from God and into waving my tiny fist at the usa etc., now over, and i wince at bruce’s “political” (ie lefty, “i’ve cornered the market on compassion” hate-fests)bilge and mystical meanderings. can only hope he gets back “under the mercy”. his late 70s albums were my soundtrack as a young christian.
I’ve followed Jesus because I’ve always believed that only the Infinite can speak of the Infinite, all others are imposters…and because I’ve seen without a doubt that Jesus has been working in my life to meet all needs, if not my wants. The true path to life is the narrow path that Jesus talked about. John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Humans cannot stand dissonance. When they embrace what God clearly forbids, then God must become smaller and their desire must become larger. No wonder Cockburn has come to dismiss Jesus as some Jungian archetype…He… Read more »
I’ve loved Cockburn’s work since discovering him while I was a teenager who bought the just-released Stealing Fire after reading a glowing review. I’m a Christian and have been aware that Cockburn’s faith was and increasingly has become quite different than mine. But what a disappointment to read of his so-called God-ordained affair. I’m left wondering why his “pain is as much a part of life as being born” principle doesn’t apply to Ronald Reagan and global politics: So yeah we’ve caused a lot of suffering, whatever, it’s just a part of life.
The irony of American Christianity: Jesus and all of his teachings were clearly leftwing.