Love is not a victory march — unless you’re Marvin Olasky

I’m not yet ready to forgive Hemant Mehta Jessica Bluemke at The Friendly Atheist for sharing this story: “Christian Writer Ruins the Best Song Ever.”

Go ahead and follow that link, but be warned: Once you have read right-wing Calvinist lyrics, you cannot un-read them.

The best song ever Hemant Jessica refers to is one that I’d put on my own short-list of contenders for that title: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Cohen wrote more than 80 verses to the song, which was initially rejected by his record label, but has since been recorded more than 300 times by artists all over the world.

Marvin Olasky is a far better poet than Leonard Cohen … said Marvin Olasky.

Alan Light, author of the book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, offers an appreciation of the song for the BBC, saying of Cohen’s beautiful words and music, “It can fit into weddings and funerals. It can be there in the greatest moment of celebration or for funerals or in moments of tragedy. It’s still seen as kind of a sacred pop song, a modern hymn.”

Amanda Palmer said of “Hallelujah,” “If you were to tell me that playing this song as a cover is totally cliche, I’d tell you so is breathing.”

But here is one thing that no one has ever said about this song: “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if the lyrics were re-written by a right-wing Calvinist from the Bush administration?”

Yet still, somehow, Marvin Olasky seems to think this was something the world needed, and so he has presented what he humbly refers to as his “improved lyrics.”

He said that. “Improved.” Marvin Olasky thinks he improved Leonard Cohen’s lyrics.

Hemant has posted Olasky’s “improvements,” go ahead and click over to read them.

This is not what an improvement looks like. It’s not just that Olasky’s rendition is didactic — a poem replaced by a catechism — but also the horrifying substance of Olasky’s prosaic sermonizing. “But God has said, your child will pay / And from your lips He’ll draw the Hallelujah.” That’s Dobson & Huckabee after Newtown all over again — you sinned, so God will keep killing your children until you praise Him for it.


“Improved.” Remember that. Remember that’s what he bragged he did. Remember that the next time you see Marvin Olasky offering his political commentary or his revisionist history. Use that to gauge his reliability, wisdom, intelligence, prudence and honesty.

And if Olasky gets anywhere near “Joan of Arc,” or “Suzanne,” or “Everybody Knows,” or “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the authorities should press charges.

Olasky’s pompous embarrassment is good news for at least one person — Bono no longer has to worry about his “spoken-word” recording of the song being the worst thing ever done to it.

OK, to rid your mind of Olasky’s ignorant vandalism, here’s the man himself, Leonard Cohen, doing another of his songs that needs no “improvement”:


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  • tatortotcassie

    Also, anything Springsteen should be kept off limits from this no-talent moron. 

    “Atheists don’t exist.”  And right there, in three words, you have the basis for the fundy belief that peope who “claim” not to believe in God are only being stubborn and prideful because they just don’t want to admit that they actually believe in God.  . . . ow.  My head. 

  • Jurgan

    ” “But God has said, your child will pay / And from your lips He’ll draw the Hallelujah.” That’s Dobson & Huckabee after Newtown all over again — you sinned, so God will keep killing your children until you praise Him for it.”  But- that is what happened in the story- David’s child was killed for David’s sins.  Don’t get me wrong, this rewrite is horrific, but I have trouble seeing how he’s misinterpreting the story.

  • Nirrti

    So is he trying to do like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in that scene from the 1990 “Batman” movie? You know, when he goes around the art museam “improving” the paintings to the soundtrack of bad Prince music?

  • Lliira

    Well, I hate the original too. Love is “cold” and “broken”? Bite me, whiny little boy. When did we as a culture decide that being more-cynical-than-thou made someone a deep artiste? Because I think it’s past time we outgrew it.

    I know people who are absolutely terrified of marriage because of the things they see online about how horrible marriage is and how love always dies in marriage and look at the celebrities and blah blah… Cohen just keeps laying down bricks in that wall. Lie after lie after lie.

  • LoneWolf343

     Wow, way to prove him wrong, there.

  • Vass

    Lliira, have you listened to Cohen’s original lyrics?

    “You said I took the name in vain.
    I didn’t even know the name,
    But if I did then really, what’s it to you?
    There’s a blaze of light in every word
    And it doesn’t matter which you heard,
    The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
    And even though it all went wrong,
    I’ll stand before my Lord of Song
    With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

    What I love about this song is that it’s not just another angsty love song, it’s someone wrestling with the sacred and the profane, and songs about that don’t come around every day.

  • Vass

    Another Cohen song I really hope Marvin Olasky never attempts to ‘improve’: ‘Story of Isaac’.

    You who build these altars now
    To sacrifice these children,
    You must not do it any more.
    A scheme is not a vision
    And you never have been tempted
    By a demon or a God.

  • Nirrti

    So people aren’t terrified of marriage because, you know…reality?

  • MikeJ

    Sing another song, boys. One of us cannot be wrong.

    I’m looking forward to his rewrite of “Don’t go home with your hard-on.”

  • Baby_Raptor

    Love isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It doesn’t automatically ensure happiness forever. 

    Sometimes love dies. And when that happens, it’s not at all unrealistic for people to look at it as cold or broken. Acknowledging that this happens and exploring the feelings one feels in the wake of it doesn’t make the man a cynical bastard, nor does it make him a liar. 

    Also, people listen to music because it resonates with them. Because it helps them cope, or understand themselves. So if you’re going to complain that artists need to stop being angsty emos, you’re going to need to figure out how to make the world stop sucking so there won’t be anybody for those songs and pleas to resonate with. 

  • Marc Tompkins

    Cohen, cynical on the subject of love?  I do not think that word means what you think it means.

  • I find myself identifying with the song precisely because love has been more painful to me than not.  It hurts, binds my heart in chains, and throws it into a dark oubliette to be forgotten about.  But that pain?  I know I am not alone, I know it will not break me, and I know that ultimately I am stronger than the pain.  

    And I feel better being reminded of that.  

    Incidentally, a song with a slightly similar thematic is “Danger” by Etro Anime (being about knowing how much love is likely to hurt you and following it anyway.)  

  • Matri

    That’s why we have the Blues.

    Real blues music.

  • reynard61

    “So is he trying to do like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in that scene from the 1990 ‘Batman’ movie? You know, when he goes around the art museam ‘improving’ the paintings to the soundtrack of bad Prince music?”

    Well, in his defense, at least he had the good taste (and sense) to leave Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” alone. My guess is that if Olasky got his grubby paws in it he’d paint a smile on the guy and add a word balloon that says “Praise God” or some such.

    (BTW: The movie was released in 1989.)

  • Fusina

    There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

    That thought is amazingly comforting to me, and a reversal of what I was told in a Gothard seminar (yeah, my Mom thought he was amazing) about how we are diamonds and every time we sin we are diminished, and god is trying to cut and shape us so that when he is done, if we do a lot of sinning we aren’t as big/pretty as we would have been if we had been good.

    Personally I would rather be an oyster with the ability to turn my pain and suffering into something beautiful. Like a poem or a painting–that sort of thing.

  • Turcano

    And if Olasky gets anywhere near “Joan of Arc,” or “Suzanne,” or “Everybody Knows,” or “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the authorities should press charges.

    With a tire iron.

  • I mean, I know all this secular philosophy is just me covering up for my Deep True Knowledge that Calvinism is the One True Way to…I think from reading those lyrics, it is about killing babies?  I’m sort of unclear but that is the vibe I’m getting.

  • I gotta say, I think being cynical is more like, looking at a melancholy song & being all “too cool for school” about it.  If we’re going to start with an axiom that “sad songs need to be outgrown” I think we’re going to have a…a lot of babies to throw out with that bathwater.

  • Jim Roberts

    This isn’t Cohen talking about marriage, this is Cohen channelling King David talking about marriage.  Just from the Chik-Fil-A posts, it should be pretty clear that King David earned the right to see love as cold and broken.

  • LoneWolf343

    I’m not clear why the Calvinist God would be in the business of punishing anyone. If everyone is predestined, it seems like a waste of time.

  • Isabel C.

    See, I like it: I like it because I also like Malificent’s speech in Sleeping Beauty, especially that sardonic “true love conquers all” bit at the end. Because it doesn’t. And believing it does will fuck you up. Love can be great; it’s not always; there’s nothing wrong with saying as much.

  • And if Olasky gets anywhere near “Joan of Arc,” or “Suzanne,” or
    “Everybody Knows,” or “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the authorities should
    press charges.

    Can we also keep him away from Paul Simon’s “Graceland?”  That seems like another song that would fit the criteria of “kinda Christian but not really Christian enough” for a self-righteous jackass who don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’.

  • I really like how Cohen treats his audience and his fellow musicians in that video. There is a lot of mutual respect there. Such a sharp contrast between him and Mr. Olasky.

  • Seraph4377

    He’s not. But the fact that he actually thinks he’s giving glory to God with that story is pretty disturbed. The writers of the Old Testament had a tendency to think of children as property (see Job), and even modern Jews don’t always see God as above reproach. However you look at it, someone comes out of that story not looking too good. There’s a reason you don’t hear about it as much as the fight with Goliath. But this schmuck thought that it was a good story about God’s justice. This says very bad things about him.

  • Magic_Cracker

    In Jr. High I was invited to a fundamentalist Bible study, which I attended. The leader, a “youth pastor” (which title seemed so, so strange to my Catholic ears), drove me home and on the way, played a hideous, rewritten “Imagine” taking John Lennon to task for imagining “there’s no heaven,” and by “taking to task,” I mean “condemning to Hell.”

    Anyway, aesthetics are important. Artfulness is next to godliness, IMO.

  • Eamon Knight

     I present a very large middle finger to the entire “atheists really believe in God” crowd. I know what it is to believe in God. And I know what it is to not believe in God. And the latter is not just another variety of the former, and it’s not psychological (as opposed to philosophical) denial of the former, and it’s not a running away from the former, and *fuck* any two-bit apologist who claims to know what’s going on in my head better than I do.

  • lovecomesfromlife

    I really dislike the bit where Olansky suggests that David’s child will be forced to praise God as a punishment for David’s sin.  As I was reading it, and I’m an atheist, I went, “Ewww, no.  That is not good.”

  • Otrame

    If it be your will, if a voice be true,
    From this broken hill, I will sing to you
    From this broken hill your praises they shall ring
    If it be your will to let me sing.

    If it be your will, if there is a choice
    Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice.
    Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell.
    If it be your will to make us well.
    Show me slowly all I only know the limit of
    And dance me to the end of love

    There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.


    That man is a global treasure.

  • Cosmicdancer

     And you’ve just hit on a popular reason why people say Calvinism, as interpreted by the average Christian,  doesn’t make sense. 

  • Isabel C.

    Agreed. Although I’m less thrilled about the anti-abortion line in “The Future”. But hey.

  • Vermic

    Olasky writes that taking songs captive for Christ is “a minor hobby for me—I put some words of ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ and the Doxology to the stirring music of the former Soviet national anthem”.  Clearly, this man must be stopped.

    I suggest responding in kind.  We’ll abduct a beloved Calvinist hymn (suggestions?) and “improve” it with some verses about, say, common descent.  Then I’ll contact Olasky and arrange a prisoner exchange.

  • Jim Roberts

    I suggest anything by William Cowper. If there’s a hymn writer who was more damaged by Calvinism, while still adhering to it, I pity them greatly.

    Cowper had some sort of mood disorder, undiagnoses during his lifetime, and as part of that came to believe that, despite his love for God, we was not among the Elect. He believed he was chosen to write great hymns of the faith but damned for eternity.

    Knowing that, the lyrics for O For A Closer Walk With God:

    O for a closer walk with God,
    A calm and heavenly frame,
    A light to shine upon the road
    That leads me to the Lamb!

    Where is the blessedness I knew,
    When first I saw the Lord?
    Where is the soul refreshing view
    Of Jesus and His Word?

    What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
    How sweet their memory still!
    But they have left an aching void
    The world can never fill.

    Return, O holy Dove, return,
    Sweet messenger of rest!
    I hate the sins that made Thee mourn
    And drove Thee from my breast.

    The dearest idol I have known,
    Whate’er that idol be
    Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
    And worship only Thee.

    So shall my walk be close with God,
    Calm and serene my frame;
    So purer light shall mark the road
    That leads me to the Lamb.

  • LL

    Christian Republicans always think they can “improve” things by sanitizing them and/or adding a hefty dose of God. Their efforts are good for a chuckle, at least, at their cluelessness, just not much else. 

    I’m not a huge fan of “Hallelujah” myself. It’s certainly not Buckley’s best song, but it also didn’t need to be Bowdlerized by some self-important twit.

  • Vass

    I just remembered this site I used to go to ten years ago, ReVersed Song Lyrics. It was a whole collection of popular songs with new and terrible Christian and anti-evolution lyrics. ‘Hey, Hey, We’re Not Monkeys’, for example.

    But the one that really struck me was ‘Smells Like The Holy Spirit’. All I remember is the chorus:

    The Messiah
    He’s no liah,
    Praise him or face
    Eternal fiah.

    I’d never been exposed to that sort of Christianity before, and I was so confused at the juxtaposition of praise and hellfire there. So much cognitive dissonance.

  • SisterCoyote

    Marvin Olasky thinks he improved Leonard Cohen’s lyrics.

    improved Leonard Cohen’s lyrics.

    Improved. Leonard Cohen’s. Lyrics.

    I’m just gonna be over here sobbing quietly.

  • Jenny Islander

    Worst.  Filker.  Ever.

  • fraser

    Of course atheists believe in God. That’s why they’re going to impose sharia law on us, just like Newt Gingrich predicted.

  • TheDarkArtist

    When you grow up, you may learn that, many times, those are exactly the things that happen. Love can be painful and difficult, and it’s always been that way.

    But, you keep living in your little fantasy world, I’m sure it’s comforting to you.

  • The_L1985

    One of the first things I remember looking up on the Internet that wasn’t for school was the lyrics to “Awesome God.”

    Let’s just say that upon reading it, I suddenly realized why even the extremely right-wing private Christian school I went to didn’t teach us the verses, only the chorus and hand movements.  So much bitterness and hate in those verses–and the chorus was actually pretty decent for that sort of song, too, so it makes me a bit disappointed at the wasted potential there.

    Another rather sickening display of (racist!) “Christian” tribalism, this time in a style vaguely reminiscent of reggae music:  “Hey, Hey, Man, Do You Know My Lord?”  In which we learn that people only worship traditional African deities because they are possessed by demons.  I’m sure the lyrics to this execrable song are on the Internet somewhere, but I’d really rather not have to look at them ever again.

  • Also, anything Springsteen should be kept off limits from this no-talent moron.

    Especially Land of Hope & Dreams.  

    This train carries saints and sinners
    This train carries losers and winners
    This train carries whores and gamblers
    This train carries fools & kings 
    This train carries brokenhearted
    This train carries thieves & sweet souls departed
    This train … all aboard!
    I said this train…Dreams will not be thwarted
    This train…Faith will be rewarded

    Yes, I know the chorus is an expansion of This Train Is Bound For Glory.  I prefer Bruce’s more expansive (and IMO more Christian) version.

  •  I love that his “proof” that atheists really believe in God is to cite the bible.

    Y’know, because atheists believe the bible as a reliable source of what they themselves believe.

  •  I am SO reminded of the hilarious and terrible ending to to the game I once played with friends of writing Christian Rock by just  randomly inserting Jesus into other songs:

    Well he was just thirty-three
    And I, I could see
    That before too long, I’d have to worship him.
    Now I’ll never pray to another (ooh)
    Since I saw him hanging there

  • SketchesbyBoze

    He’s just some Joseph looking for a manger.

  • Tricksterson

    Come on, who are you going to believe?  Yourself or someone who’s never even met you?

  • Tricksterson

    Not a Calvinist hymn but I greatly prefer Gwydion Penderwenn’s pagan version to the original Catholic.  I have had lousy luck lately with linking on Discus so I won’t but here’s a sample of Gwydion’s lyrics (not familar enough with the original to quote from memory except for the line “They whipped Him and stripped Him” which should give you an idea}

    Oh She walked on the water and the wind was Her horn
    The Lady laughed and everything was born
    She lit the sun and it’s light called him forth
    Then the Lord of the Dance first appeared on the Earth

    Dance then
    Wherever you may be
    For I am the Lord of the Dance said he
    And I’ll lead you all whever you may be
    For I am the Lord of the Dance said he

    I danced on the morning that the world was begun
    I dance with the moon and the stars and the sun
    I was called form the darkness by the song of the earth
    I moved towards the Light and She gave me birth

  • Jackie A.

    This reminds me of when one of my Sunday school teachers (That poor, poor woman) tried to get us, a group of hyperactive first graders, to sing an, ahem, “improved” version of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”. The lyrics went something like this: 

    “Jeremiah was a prophet, 
    A spokesman for the Lord, 
    He foretold the coming of Emanuel 
    Something something something something”…
    The only reason I remember this is because we were so horrible to that poor woman that she quit before the year was over. 

  • LoneWolf343

     Well, I suppose that an alternate interpretation would be that got is creating people solely for the purpose of punishing them, but that’s just horrible.

  • Rae

    I was just going to say that rewritten “Imagine” was the song that I was thinking of when I saw the line of “Christian Writer Ruins the Best Song Ever.” Only, when I heard it, I was so sad because the guy in church who was performing it was so very talented… 

    And I think that  even if you do believe in God, “Imagine” can still be a good reminder of how we should treat people regardless of religion.

  • Rae

    The extremely right-wing Christian institutions I went to didn’t just teach us the verses, but the hand motions (or kicking or stomping) that went along with those verses as well! 

  • LoneWolf343

     It’s almost like a biblical prophecy, isn’t it?