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Kicking at the Darkness

Rupert Loydell

Rcockburnbook.jpgKicking at the Darkness
Brian Walsh
Brazos Press, 217pp

Many Bruce Cockburn fans, myself included, have waited 30 years for a book on the singer songwriter. After so long it's disappointing to find that Brian Walsh's book, which is subtitled 'Bruce Cockburn and the Christian imagination' on the front and 'Christian imagination and the redemptive work of Bruce Cockburn' on the back, is not really about Cockburn at all. It's actually about how the theologian Walsh interprets Cockburn's lyrics within an evangelical context.

Although Walsh states that his viewpoint is only his interpretation, one has to ask if a mainstream biblical interpretation is appropriate when considering Cockburn's work, and why there is so little close reading or contextualisation here? All too often Walsh simply riffs on a theme, scattering song quotes as he goes. His tendency to mix and match Cockburn's lyrics from different albums and periods of the singer's life ignores the fact that Cockburn's views, beliefs and spirituality have radically changed over time. Although at one point Cockburn clearly experienced a Christian conversion and wrote some hymnlike songs about his faith, he has since distanced himself from the religious right, the mainstream church and orthodox Christian belief. To try to shoehorn him back into the last of these is disingenuous at the very least, and smacks of what one can only describe as 'U2 syndrome': Christians desperate to own those who articulate and interrogate matters of faith and doubt, but unable to acknowledge that the work is interesting because it is maverick and uncontained by dogma; unable to accept that it has spiritual worth but does not share their own beliefs.

Walsh may be right to not base too much on biography, but throughout the book there is a lack of specific relevant reading with regard to what has inspired and informed Cockburn's songs. Why, for instance, does Walsh discuss Dancing in the Dragon's Jaw without reference to the work of Charles Williams? This would enable him to understand the lion imagery in 'Wondering Where the Lions Are' and place the album in a mystical/visionary context. Similarly with 'Feast of Fools': why is there not more discussion of Harvey Cox's theology along with the medieval notion of the Feast rather than a passing nod to Cox's book of the same name and no mention of the wider context of secularism?

Theoretically, this book is consistently thin, preferring CS Lewis and Walter Brueggemann to any serious philosophy, sociology, theology, musicology or poetics that might help us to read and engage with Cockburn as a songwriter. It is also very selective, preferring to ignore the fact that Cockburn's songs are often about sex, fear, anger, war, violence, politics, desire, jealousy and love as human emotions and experience, not as metaphors for Christian belief. 

This is a smug, self-satisfied book which mixes and matches Bible verses with song lyrics. It is not only demeaning to an artist of Cockburn's cultural worth and artistic integrity, but also sad evidence that that the church still endorses and encourages this kind of misguided approach.