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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Kicking at the Darkness" (Brian J. Walsh)

TITLE: Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination
AUTHOR: Brian J. Walsh
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011, (222 pages).

A friend of mine once said that there is no such thing as 'Christian music' or 'non-Christian music.' Instead, there is only 'good' or 'bad' music. After reading this book, I believe that my friend's preference for the good/bad music paradigm does not go far enough. Good music has to be creative, authentic, and reflective of life. This book is a fascinating commentary cum theological engagement with one of Canada's most celebrated musician and Christian thinker, Bruce Cockburn.

Brian Walsh has offered the literary world an profound work that engages our modern world with biblical insights, through the works of Bruce Cockburn. The title of the book is extracted from the lyrics of one of Cockburn's most popular songs, called 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time.' Walsh uses four main questions to helm his reflective interactions (21).

  1. "Where are we? What is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves?"
  2. "Who are we? What does it mean to be human?"
  3. "What's Wrong? What is the source of brokenness, violence, hatred, and evil in life?"
  4. "What's the remedy? How do we find a path through this brokenness to healing? What is the resolution to the evil in which we find ourselves?"

Walsh is generous with his praises. He calls Cockburn a modern 'psalmist,' 'prophet,' as well as a man with a 'certain storied perspective.' His music and lyrics stem from his strong Christian worldview, one that is able to grapple with the issues of the world with a theological imagination that does not diminish or dismiss the world with escapist music. Instead, Cockburn engages the culture, politics, postmodern paradigms, pluralism, and religion, with his brand of literary and musical prowess. This is how Walsh describes Cockburn as an artist.

"The artist engages the world, sees something there, and finds just the right words and music to put that experience into a three-minute moment that somehow captures things for us, somehow give voice to what we had intuited but didn't quite have the words for it. The artist opens our eyes so that we see and experience the world anew, more deeply, and maybe in a way that brings some kind of healing for us." (26)

Of Cockburn's prophetic voice in ' Lovers in a Dangerous Time,' Walsh writes:

"Here is art that achieves an awakening prophetic power, an art that bears witness to the mystery of lovers open to the thrust of grace, a song that can nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness to the dominant ideology. Here is a song that can liberate our imaginations both by naming our time as a time of darkness and by embracing love as a subversion of that darkness, an anticipation of the light. And here is a song that not only calls forth interpretation but also invites appropriation." (39)

Like a biker negotiating a row of traffic cones, Walsh snakes through the different musical pieces in Cockburn's impressive array of achievements to highlight themes surrounding creation, the fall, the doctrine of man, ecological concerns, the plight of darkness in sin, the hope of light in Christ, the ugly pains of the world, and the corresponding joy in God. Some of Cockburn's music contains political commentaries as well.

This book is clearly Walsh's tribute to an artist who has been influenced heavily by his Christian convictions. It is also a commentary and a respectful engagement of Cockburn's theological themes as well as an appreciation of Cockburn's insight of the world we are living in. Walsh sees Cockburn's worldview through 'small windows.' 'Lamp-warm windows' allows the spotlights of this world in. 'Grimy windows' represents an imperfect world. 'Prophetic windows' point to some kind of hope toward the horizon. 'Prayer windows' enable one to admit one's dependence on Someone Divine.

Closing Thoughts

As I read through the book, I ask myself whether the themes in the book are Cockburn's or Walsh's. At one point, I begin to wonder if the cover photo is that of the author or of the musician. (It's Bruce Cockburn!) It is thus helpful to be reminded of Walsh's four theological assumptions in his interpretive framework (33-34), to remind us that the author is still Walsh.  The way Bruce Cockburn has infused his theological understanding with the music he writes, is almost the same way that Walsh knits his theological knowledge with his interpretation of Cockburn's works. In other words, just as Cockburn's theology and music are integrated as one, Walsh's sustained reflection on Cockburn seems to suggest that both Walsh and Cockburn are dancing to the same tune. Whether that is true or not, only Cockburn can tell. I like the way Walsh summarizes the nature of art.

"Art cannot save us, but it can shed a light. It can open our eyes." (190)

As readers, this book will give us a way to build Christian imagination. A new way to understand home, hospitality, theology, and of course, music and art.

"For Cockburn, home is neither an accomplishment nor a possession, but a gift to be received with an open hand. AS a gift, home cannot be secured with a tight, self-protective grasp. We must loose our grip and open our hands to an embracing hospitality. Only with such a stance can we sing with confidence, 'one day I shall be home.'" (85)

In a world of human drivenness, achievement-oriented technological world, and management strategies on how to get things done according to human ways, this book is an opportunity for humans to move from consumerism to appreciation of the world. This book is not an easy read. Those who dare to swim through it will reap rich dividends. I think I am going to really love Bruce Cockburn's music.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

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