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

Love is not a victory march — unless you’re Marvin Olasky January 11, 2013

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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Helena

    Forgive me if I prefer the Handel. I’m listening to Haydn’s Die Schnopfung, right now. I recommend it.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I have the hardest time trying to convince hardcore Catholics that Let It Be is not about a vision of the Virgin Mary.

    “But: “Mother Mary comes to me”. Who else could that possibly be?”

    “Mary McCartney…Paul’s mum…who died when he was a teenager…”

    Doesn’t help that the tune has rather a hymnal feel to boot.

  • It’s just a sign, His will a soul was flouting
    Our loving God withdrew his loving hand
    Say good bye to Alexandra doubting
    Then say good bye to Alexandra damned

  •  Actually, I quite like that. Evil theology if I take it at face value, but some powerful language. What’s it from? Google is unhelpful.

  • interleaper

     An improvement *cough* of Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving”, I surmise.

  • Ah! Yes, the power is from the original. Which I’ve never heard before, and is quite lovely. Thanks!

  • Thanks! I was going do to the whole song, but then realized it would take a while.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If you read the next few comments, you’ll notice that the person being complimented here is Cohen[‘s songwriter], not you.

  • Makabit

    Don’t get me wrong, this rewrite is horrific, but I have trouble seeing how he’s misinterpreting the story.

    Because he’s taking a complicated story about terrible loss and the abuse of power, which both the Bible and the song make haunting and unbelievably sorrowful, and turning it into a trite bit of snideness.

  • Makabit

    Because Cohen’s song references David’s affair with Batsheva, Olasky jumps to a later event in that episode, the death of his first child by her. Which is less X-rated, and also allow Olasky to ignore the whole point of the damn song. 

  • Makabit

    I read it as his saying that David will be forced to praise God for the child’s death. Which is even worse.

  • Which– kids dying being more acceptable than a little sexy time– sort of is the whole problem, innit.

  • Makabit

    Well, the affair with Batsheva is hardly ‘a little sexy time’, there’s a minor matter of murder as well, not to mention a considerable ambiguity in the text about issues of consent.

    But from Mr. Olasky’s perspective…I’ve no idea what the hell goes on in his head, but he does seem to head directly for the most morally dubious point of the story, and then hang out there gloating that David…whose belief in the power of God is, oddly, the pretty much the one thing that is never in doubt about him…is forced to acknowledge the power of God.

    It’s just an incredibly bad piece, and is an insult to Leonard Cohen, King David, and, frankly, God. I’m sure they’ll all rise above it, but really…bleah.

  • Tricksterson

    That’s the first I knew of that.  Maybe because I’m an ex-Catholic that’s what I assumed too.  Maybe it can work as both?

  • Tricksterson

    You know, I looked up Cohen on wikipedia and he’s Jewish, the son of a rabbi and, in the article at least there’s no mention of him being an atheist, so where does Olasky get off calling him one?

  • vsm

    It’s a bit unclear how the opening is supposed to tie into the rest of the article, but I thought he meant it was the song’s popularity that showed atheists believe in God. It’s not among the ten finest or clearest argument I’ve ever read.

    As for Let It Be, I’m with the hardcore Catholics. The song is clearly written in a way that would make you think of the Virgin Mary. I don’t believe many people would call their own mum “Mother “, but “Mother Mary” is apparently a common way of referring to Jesus’. There’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest it isn’t her either, and the song loses some of its universal appeal if we’re only supposed to think of Paul McCartney’s mum while listening to it, though I’m sure she was a lovely woman.

    I’m not sure if hardcore Catholics would be very sympathetic to Modernist/Post-Modernist arguments about the unimportance of authorial intent, though.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Sure. It’s music–it can be interpreted whatever way the listener chooses. If someone wants to hear it as being about consolation from the Virgin Mary, they’re free to do so.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    1)  Marvin Olasky resembles a character in Tucson Furry Fandom named “Karno” who is known for some really sick & twisted comic strips.

    2)  These “improved lyrics” are better described as “bad filk”.

  • Kirkaz

    So the scripture-twisted lyrics of the original song should be retained, and Olasky has no right to write a more biblically accurate version?

    After listening to both, I appreciate Olasky’s version–and I ain’t no right wing Calvinist.

  • LoneWolf343

     Oh, I know Karno! Not in person, just familiar with his work. I wouldn’t call him “twisted” as much as “ribald.” The furry fandom has produced much worse. Heard bad things about the person, though.

  • vintermann

    Oh, you hear lots of atheists too claiming that atheists don’t exist, too. Usually when there’s something negative being said about them. 

    Positive, “Atheists are better educated and have higher IQ” they’re OK with, but if you try “Atheists give less to charity” you will hear that atheism is not a thing anymore than not believing in unicorns is a thing, and so they can’t be referenced as a group.
    In general, “it’s totally unfair to treat us as a group, unless you’re saying something positive” is a widespread sentiment everywhere, but I find the atheist version of it particularly amusing.

  • vintermann

    Go ahead. This happens all the time. Communists have “stolen” plenty of psalms as well through history. Olasky may have a dubious theology, but in general his attitude of “liberating” songs would probably make for a better world.

    Just not in this particular case…

  • I know I’m very, very late to this, but I wanted to say anyway, the Catholic version to which you refer was itself a repurposing of a Shaker hymn:

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
    ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
    And when we find ourselves in the place just right
    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

    That’s as much as I recall of the original version.