The Cold and Broken ‘Hallelujah’ of the Evangelical Subculture

It’s not a secret that there is a lot of bad, bad art being made by Christians. Art that, like a senator’s campaign ad, disposes of quality and creativity to allow for an airtight theological agenda. And to be fair, this is not just a “Christian” problem. Turn on the radio and Lady Gaga and her really, really, really rich producers will tell you that you were “Born This Way”.

But the sad trend that I see within American evangelicalism isn’t simply to make art that isn’t “good”, but the act of selectively excluding art/books/music/etc. that do not meet the standard of “edifying”. In recent memory, Marvin Olasky over at World Magazine, an important Evangelical publication, has told me Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is wicked  and should be redone in a more “Christ honoring way”. As an orthodox (reformed even!) evangelical, this sort of holy-cleanup of culture sits uncomfortably… not to mention it’s a total buzzkill.

Olasky’s attempt to “reclaim” one of the greatest songs of the twentieth century is quite worrisome. The article, if you didn’t click over, essentially states that the music is wonderful but the tune is wasted on lyrics that are “a brooding, angst filled, lonely ode to failure”. So the author suggests that Christians rewrite the lyrics to be “Christ-honoring”.

But the problem with this is that it is completely untrue to the human condition.

Hallelujah may be “an ode to failure” (or whatever), but are not the feelings of shame, brokenness, and longing in Cohen’s song true expressions of the world, marred by sin, which God himself made and loves? I am saddened by not only this attempt to smooth over life with a glossy evangelical coating, but by the fact that this fundamentalist ‘anti-culture’ sentiment is still alive and well within the mainstream Christian subculture.

Sure, it may not be as curmudgeonly as it is in a pure fundamentalist church, but by denying the reality of suffering, hurt and human emotion in non-believers, evangelicals unknowingly distance their message and beliefs from the reality of the lives of those they want to reach.

I am afraid that the Olasky’s post encourages Christians to change the lyrics to Cohen’s masterpiece because it isn’t tidy and the truth in it is dusted in our shared fallen nature. There is pain, truth and beautiful mystery in Cohen’s words but if you aren’t willing to dig for it, you’ll judge it.

“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘Hallelujah’.”

What does it mean? It can mean so much. It was created with a keen awareness of the Creator, and though it may not be in line with the Nicene Creed, these words speak prophetically to how terribly difficult it is to love and how much pain is caused by exposing yourself to others. The liturgical imagery conjuers up images of Christ’s death or of faithful prophets of Israel, weak from their tears and the taunts of their national brothers, all but lost in paganism. It is there, but one must seach, it is not easy.

The Bible is clear that the world and all in it were made by God and give glory to God (Psalm 24:1, Psalm 89:11, Psalm 98:8). Still, because of the curse of sin in this world and the otherworldly nature of our salvation, we must train ourselves to pay attention to the image of God in creation. But life is hard and we all have a tendency to withdrawal to comfort zones, especially Christians.

The Christian subculture is safe. As I write this I am sitting in a coffee shop that is a young evangelical hub in my city. Everybody looks kind of docile and I am sure that there is a lot of deep, edifying conversation going on around me. But it’s a bubble, safe and free of any brooding, angst and loneliness. Not that the feelings of brooding, angst, loneliness aren’t there, but they are not expressed. It seems as if American evangelicals are trying to hide a deep dark secret: that they sin.

We need a vision of the Church that, in meekness, can wrestle with their sin out in the open, without pretending that everything is neat and tidy. We need to long for more stories about people, at the end of themselves, who cry a cold and broken ‘hallelujah’ at the feet of Jesus, not just looking for a quick and edifying fix to get them through the day.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    By this guy’s standard most of the Old Testament needs to be re-written.

  • http://jaketolbert.com/blog Jake T

    I read that article a while ago. The article hurt me, but not as much as his attempted re-write which falls colossally flat.

    That said, Watchmen ruined me on the song for several years. Gross and gross.

  • Amber

    I remember playing this song over and over, ad nauseum, in grad school during some particularly difficult and lonely parts of my life. It ministered to me (to use another poor religious cliche) like few “worship” songs have. To say “Hallelujah” in our brokenness and even in our coldness — is there anything more God-honoring?

  • http://www.thehighschoolsermons.com Mark Humphries

    Doesn’t it get old continually dumping on the evangelical subculture just to make identity points? We get it, your not like them. Your all grown up and more aesthetically aware, and the cultural dullards who still cling to their bad christian art need to be cleansed from the temple of cool.

  • Richard Clark

    Mark, are you okay?

  • Pingback: Major Key ‘Losing My Religion’ Is Majorly Lame

  • Hu’s On First

    One of the things that Olasky seems to find fault with in the original song is that it appears to contain romantic and/or sexual imagery. However, most of it actually originates from the Bible itself (e. g., the lyrics have allusions to both Bathsheba and Delilah, and none of the lyrics seem any more risqué than, say, Song of Solomon). He especially seems to have a problem with the fact that Buckley, among others, interpreted the song as an analogy between religion and sexuality. Except that the Bible does the exact same thing (e. g., the Church as the Bride of Christ; some theologians have even interpreted Song of Solomon as an allegory of this sort).

    The idea that sex is inherently “dirty” or something to be ashamed of is not Biblical. God doesn’t hate sex…he invented it! God didn’t make it shameful, it is man who has made it shameful by perverting it for his own selfish motives and desires. Too many Christians seem to have a Skoptsy view, rather than a Biblical view, of sex and sexuality. If you’ve never heard of the Skoptsy, read the Wikipedia article on them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skoptsy) or this mock hymn that satirized their beliefs (http://tinyurl.com/avho5yj). Sound like anyone you know?

  • joe

    The “secret” is that there is a lot of good, good art being made by Christians, and a lot of embarrassingly self-loathing writing. Mark Noll was right that there was a “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but it has now morphed into a scandal of obtuse blog columnists. Ryerson could take one lesson from secular culture: careful reading. Olasky never said the song was “wicked.” Rather he suggested it was inappropriate for such hyperbolic assimilation, given its conflation of existentialism and orgasmic exclamations with hymnody. And anyone who knows Leonard Cohen’s rap sheet might want to agree with the thrust there. I’m with commenter Mark here. The problem with this piece’s lament is simply that it is false. Evangelicals don’t reject the larger culture–they lust after it, court it, beg it for acceptance, and embrace it. Grass-roots level Evaneglicals don’t disdain pop culture, they just choose Toby Keith over Cohen. But their literati and pundits have a case of hipster envy. Just go look at CT’s Albums of the Year, for starters. Or go to am Emergent Church and see if you don’t catch the whiffs of Coldplay wafting here and there. Or read any Evangelical blog or issue of Relevant Magazine that doesn’t pant over Cormac McCarthy. Or if you need the hard stuff, make your stuff sick over at PATROL. The dismissal of Christian art distinctions was warranted decades ago in young movement with separatist issues, but now. LOL. If any work of that points out the difficulties and desperations of life is “Christian” art, we could all take Katie Perry’s sadder songs elevate them to our Psalters. Oh, wait, CT already did that. And now for our sermon illustration from Harry Potter…

    Ryerson’s bio blurp typifies the problem: even in our sanctimoniousness, we don’t want to be different, we want to be like everyone else, down to our consumer-driven likes of coffee and acoustic guitar licks. Which I guess is somehow superior to Mountain Dew and Britney Spears. At least WORLD is not afraid to be different or uncomfortable. Oh, but right, that’s a buzz kill. Sorry dude.

  • Richard Clark

    Joe, are you okay?


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