For some twenty-five years I’ve been a devoted follower of the music of Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Born May 27, 1945, in Ottawa, Ontario, Cockburn (pronounced “Co-burn”) has released thirty-one albums with over 7 million copies sold worldwide. Recognized widely as both a brilliant guitarist and a masterful poet-lyricist, many of his most memorable songs have been inspired by his travels around the globe, and rise from an expansive humanitarian and environmental vision.
Though long identified as a Christian artist, Cockburn’s lyrics are rarely confessional, still less apologetic, in any explicit sense. Where Christ is present in his music, he more often remains nameless, touching our senses lightly, shimmering, as in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, from within the “inscape” of things.
In a 2002 interview, Cockburn describes his faith as “less attached to the visual imagery [of Jesus] that we read about in the Bible” and more like “an ongoing process of trying to understand things more deeply.” Asked about his image of Christ, he says, “I have the sense of Christ as a bridge in a way, but an organic, living, breathing, pulsating bridge from me to God.” Above all, Christ seems to shine for Cockburn in persons—beautiful, broken persons—as Hopkins writes, Christ “Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”
In “Rumours of Glory,” Cockburn mines the explosive play of paradoxes between darkness and light, sin and grace, defeat and glory, which characterize the human condition.
You see the extremes/ Of what humans can be?
In that distance some tension’s born
Energy surging like a storm
You plunge your hand in
And draw it back scorched
Beneath it’s shining like Gold but better
Rumours of glory
Cockburn sings with pointed compassion of people crowded together in mass anonymity—“each one alone but not alone”—each person opaque in their loneliness and translucent all at once. “Behind the pain/fear / etched on the faces / something is shining / like gold but better / rumours of glory.”
Like almost no other artist I’ve known in my pilgrimage of fifty years – save, perhaps, Thomas Merton – Cockburn has gifted me with a language for in-seeing a world limned in resurrection hope, even while I stumble half-blind through my daily tasks like the blind man of Bethsaida, who after Jesus’ first attempt to heal him could only see people “looking like trees and walking” (Mark 8:24). But Christ is there, hidden in light and shadow, calling us forward into our freedom.
In “All the Diamonds,” one of his most beloved songs among long-time fans, Cockburn sees Christ coming toward us, ship-bound and shining, “like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade”; and again, “like a crystal swan in a sky of suns.” In “Look How Far the Light Came,” Cockburn invites us to see the dance of divine light in “glasses of wine on a crate” set before two friends, where persons and the earthly elements “seem to glow from within.”
Across many decades and dozens of albums, I have followed Cockburn’s music not because his artistic genius points back to himself but because his music somehow mediates an image of the world ordered by faith, a living bridge to a world redeemed in Christ. Indeed Cockburn’s sense of Christ himself as a “pulsating bridge from me to God” evokes the darkly liminal spaces of a perilous journey in open-eyed faith, those spaces between Jerusalem and Emmaus where we feel our hearts “burning within us” (Luke 24:32) even while we cannot yet imagine the promised destination.
By contrast to so many self-styled (and slickly marketed) “Christian artists,” whose music seems to conflate faith with triumphal certitude and whose image of Christ appears frozen in flood-lit, transfigured glory, Cockburn dares to seek after him in the gray shadowlands between life and death, despair and hope, defeat and glory. Christ remains a “rumour,” stirring in all things, “like Gold but better.” The dark light of faith between Good Friday and Easter Sunday remains a suggestive half-light, never cleanly resolved.
Nowhere is this tensive dynamic better realized than in Cockburn’s devastating recording of 1984, “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” a song written after he had spent several days visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in the border region of Chiapas, Mexico. Set darkly over a hypnotic guitar riff, the song paints a scene of descending dread as a helicopter gunship approaches the refugee camp, “second time today,” while “everybody scatters and hopes it goes away.” In his notebooks from the camps, alongside the names and stories of the survivors, Cockburn had scribbled: “I understand now why people want to kill.” Cockburn is that rare artist today whose work blends with disarming force both the mystical and prophetic strands of the Christian tradition.
Cockburn’s long-awaited autobiography, Rumours of Glory, has just been released, and I’m having a hard time putting it down. I’ll save my thoughts about the book for a future post. For now, I’ll leave you with “Gavin’s Woodpile,” a darkly beautiful lament for a world increasingly bereft of solitude, bled dry of humanity, and colonized by greed, where Cockburn finds hope shimmering, if momentarily, while chopping wood outside a friend’s cabin under a red-blood sunset Eucharist:
A mist rises as the sun goes down
And the light that’s left forms a kind of crown
The earth is bread, the sun is wine
It’s a sign of a hope that’s ours for all time.