A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

 In Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Gratitude, Theology

I think we all like backstories. I especially like the stories behind songs. Did you know Paul McCartney’s original working title for “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs”? Iron Butterfly’s  “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was originally titled  “In The Garden of Eden,” but the lead singer was so inebriated he could not pronounce the words – so they left the title the only way he could say it.

Recently, I read the backstory of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” written and recorded in 1984. Not known as a devout person, it came as a surprise to everyone that Cohen showed up in the studio having written a lyric normally reserved for religious artists. Years later, he said that he had “wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world…”

Cohen went on to say, “The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend…and reconcile and embrace the whole…mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand …. at all – Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

His insight completely took me aback. We have all heard sacred words taken in vain or misrepresented but never had I heard a secular artist express such a complete understanding of what I think Scripture means to say Hallelujah.

I was raised in a world where Hallelujah was reserved for those moments at church when emotions were running high and, typically, the music was loud. There were isolated interjections when the pastor hit his stride or the offering had been especially good. A few in the congregation always wanted to say something other than “Amen” so they would throw in a “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” now and then.

But on the whole, Hallelujah was not something we said outside of church. It was saved for Sunday and spring revivals – and certainly not used in the way as Cohen said: “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

So how do we as Christians push Hallelujah deep into what Cohen called “the ordinary world”? How can we embrace it all, even when we don’t understand?

Frederick Buechner would say that praise is not offering God compliments but that “we learn to praise by paying attention.”  Nothing special. Nothing highly emotional or even calculated. Not waiting for a right moment or place. Hallelujah comes in the most ordinary ways. We say it when we see beauty in the most ordinary things.

Marilynne Robinson would say, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

Paul would say this is what he meant when he said to give thanks in all things. Life is joyful and people are kind. So we break bread and give thanks. We say Hallelujah.  Life is difficult, irreconcilable, messy and painful, but we still break bread and give thanks. We still say Hallelujah.

At times, it may be a cold and broken Hallelujah. It may not be a shout, but we find a way to murmur God is faithful and we can trust him because we are His.

In the Psalms, Hallelujah is often used both to introduce and to conclude a poem. Everything is contained within them. All the glory and the loss. The exultations and the laments. Sorrow and success. The temporal and eternal. Life and death.

Everything is held between two Hallelujahs. I think it’s true of our lives as well and, in the end, I believe we will all sing Cohen’s words:

“I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

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Showing 27 comments
  • Toni hibbs
    Reply

    Great words Fred!
    Thanks…
    And Hallelujah ❤️
    Hugs

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Toni. Welcome home!

  • Larry Smith
    Reply

    Well said, Fred. For some reason, that song speaks to us, spirit-to-spirit, despite its confused lyrics and mixed references. Each time I hear it I am moved, deeply, without really understanding much of what Cohen is trying to say, including: “The holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah”. We are reached in non-rational ways. It is all a wonder, and your comments help. Thanks, L

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Larry. With a short format like a blog you cannot qualify everything and while some of Cohen’s allusions and images are not mine – I think saving “Hallelujah” for the good times is not adequate. “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him.”

  • Jennifer Carson
    Reply

    I think Hallelujah might be that place when we can fully let go and embrace the thing we are fighting or fearing the most. I believe often it’s in that place that we find the peace and rest we are desperately searching for. Thanks for sharing Fred!!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      It’s the letting go, isn’t it? Jennifer, you are such a gift to this community.

  • johnwpearson
    Reply

    Amen! Our son, Jason, introduced us to Leonard Cohen’s gritty and glorious album, “Old Ideas.” Powerful!

  • Russell Brown
    Reply

    HALLELUJAH

  • Marv Knox
    Reply

    Splendid, Fred. You described the Hallelujah gospel of the least of these, the wounded healer, the suffering servant, the last who shall be first, the ordinary Christian living an ordinary life yet glimpsing the transcendent in the … ordinary. Thanks.

  • Susan Phillips
    Reply

    “Not known as a devout person”?

    Quick google search: Cohen is an observant Jew who also practices Buddhism. He is not “secular.” So, then I ask, is the author myopically Christian?

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Susan. Yes, the author is Christian but, hopefully, not myopic. When I read the backstory to the song in a number of sources there was not much hint about Leonard Cohen’s faith at that point in his life. Obviously, that has either changed or no one mentioned it in the interviews, etc. I had no intention of making conclusions about Leonard’s faith and probably could have edited that single comment out and not lost the intent of the quote.

  • Mike Murray
    Reply

    Would someone please post the etymology of the word “hallelujah”? If memory serves it has something to do with calling God “Allah”. Common ground? Well, we can hope! And, memory does not always serve!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I don’t recall that being the case, Mike. The reference to God is at the end of the word and is “yah” for yahweh. The “hallelelu” simply means praise.

  • Joe Leininger
    Reply

    What we know is so small compared to how much we are asked to lived into and deal with. We pay attention, as Buechner suggested. We throw up our hands and say, “I don’t get it. But blessed be the name,” as Cohen offered. And we live in the hallelujah, believing that somehow it all makes sense in the end and that a good God is over it all. Hallelujah for sure! Well done once again, Fred and thank you.

  • Russ Hall
    Reply

    Pentatonix has released a very beautiful treatment of Cohen’s song. You may have to endure a short commercial to get to it. https://youtu.be/LRP8d7hhpoQ

  • Rebecca Harrison
    Reply

    As I stand in a very long line to vote reading this, I am encouraged … the line represents my jury of peers and I am reminded that there is so much more than meets the eye in all of us. My responsibility as a Christian is to see the good and be thankful. Praise is freeing

  • John Kelly
    Reply

    This post made take in a deep breath….and relax.

    Thank you. 🙂

  • Lisa Johnson
    Reply

    Oh my, Fred – this is such a lovely explanation of the richness of this song. I have always liked it, but never “got” it. Have you heard his new one – “You Want it Darker”? Thoughts? I almost get it…

  • Gail McGlothin
    Reply

    Thanks for reminding me about the blessings we get out of our cold and chaotic world with all the Hallelujahs thrown in.

  • Barb Pinson
    Reply

    Thank you…a moment of pure grace to read this lovely reflection.

  • Peb jackson
    Reply

    Cohen has been longtime favorite partially for his gritty and real reflections, kinda like Johnny Cash in Hurt. Thanks Fred for digging deeper into the reality behind this marvelous song and artist.

  • Ann Mckusick
    Reply

    The song is mainstreamed. Cohen’s desire to see the sacred push into the secular is happening. Love your words, Fred. They are a reminder for me to keep pushing.

  • Mark Petersen
    Reply

    Thanks for leading with a Canadian singer/songwriter, Fred.

    My theory on Canada (when it’s living up to what it can be) is that it can show the world a different way, life from the margins, as we are a forgotten, insignificant and thin ribbon of population strung out for 6,000 km along the northern US border. I think Cohen does that with this song as well. He shows the cold and broken hallelujahs still reverberate in the heavens. And when it was interpreted by k.d. lang at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, my love for this song and its beauty only deepened.

  • Mike Murray
    Reply

    I am reminded in your remarks and the comments Fred of the first question in the Westminster Catechism: “What is Mans’ chief end?” Answer: “Man’s chief end (purpose for living) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” (Parentheses mine). Hallelu- Jah, just about sums it all up. Thanks!

  • Scandi
    Reply

    Yes! Finally someone writes about Ordinary life.

  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith
    Reply

    Five kids really is a lot of kids! Great title.

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