Praise what, exactly?

This year, for the first time, the same song is competing for the UK Christmas no. 1 music slot, with a title borrowed from a famous Jewish-Christian exclamation.

Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song ’Hallelujah’ exploded into mass consciousness after it was sung by this year’s "X Factor" winner, Alexandra Burke, a 20-year-old former waitress from north London whose soaring, honeyed voice and good looks wowed both the judges and the public. Her cheesy version -- watch it here, complete with clips from the hysteria-heavy show -- has become the fastest-ever music download.


Alexandra’s success has provoked Jeff Buckley fans into campaigning for their hero’s angst-ridden version, which is not so far from Cohen’s growly original. (The best rendition of Hallelujah is, in fact, that of K.D. Lang. She doesn’t have Burke’s or Buckley’s looks, but manages to hit emotional heights without ever being overwrought. TV contestants, take note.)

Alexandra’s version is likely to make the number one spot, with either Buckley or Cohen hitting number two. Whatever happens, the money rolls in for Simon Cowell, the X-factor mogul whose company owns the rights to all three versions.

Meanwhile, what does Hallelujah -- a first-rate pop song, which took Cohen five years to finish -- mean? Praise the Lord for what, exactly?

He boiled down some 80 possible verses into its present five. David plays a secret chord that pleases the Lord; then a picture of domestic surrender, that some read sexually; then a love ’n war verse -- "I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah" - before ending with a typically Cohen fusion of sacred and profane: "..remember when I moved in you / the holy dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah." 

At the time he wrote it, a Jewish contemporary who had also gone religious, Bob Dylan, said Cohen seemed to have taken to writing hymns. (Dylan discovered Christianity, Cohen Buddhism). Hallelujah might just be that very modern hybrid -- a secular hymn, that offers faith in something bigger, a transcendence, while avoiding anything that smacks of taking responsibility for the new knowledge.

What Cohen himself thinks it means --

"Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system 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 you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ’Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation."

-- suggests what contemplatives call a "peak experience", when the awesome oneness of everything hoves into view. But "embrace the thing"? What thing? What name? The Jewish "cannot-be-named" or the postmodern "nothing-outside-me"? Without the knowable God at the other end of a peak experience, it’s narcissism, not otherness -- however it feels. As a snapshot of contemporary religiosity -- quite happy to borrow from the language of faith, while seeking its intensity if not its morality -- Hallelujah may be worth putting under the magnifying glass.

Back here in secular, recession-hit UK, there is not much theological discussion about the meaning of Hallelujah -- and a good deal of parodying, which is a standard British response to excess of any sort. My favorite is from a radio DJ, Chris Moyles, who describes the melancholy tragedy of missing out on part of his family’s food order from the local Indian restaurant:

"Oh Saturday was a special night
The X Factor final was so tight
We ordered takeaway from the Prince of India
We had onion bhajis for the wife
And chicken korma with pilau rice
But when it came they’d forgotten my lamb bhuna
My lamb bhuna, my lamb bhuna,
My lamb bhuna, my lamb bhuna".

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10 years ago
As a ''lost'' Catholic always seeking to return to the fold, you lost me again. There is nothing profane in the union of a man and woman. And if folks don't see things your way, we are not narcissistic. Judgment never ends for Catholics in their journey towards a knowable God. About this song, Cohen also said: ''It's the notion that there is no perfection--that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.'' We cannot know perfection here but that is no excuse for lack of faith. Faith is in the not knowing but believing anyway.
10 years ago
'The challenge of atheism in its various guises is one that has the potential to deepen what is said about our (Christian) commitments. 'Not for nothing did Olivier Clement, the French Orthodox theologian, write about 'purification by atheism'. To come to the point where you disbelieve passionately in a certain kind of God may be the most important step you can take in the direction of the true God.' 'We can learn to better understand ourselves and to better understand other believers when we learn to understand unbelievers...' ~ Rowan Williams
10 years ago
I respectfully submit that the best version of "Hallelujah" is John Cale's.
10 years ago
For tonal value, I like the verions by the Roaches.
10 years ago
Praise Why? is as important question of Praise What? or Praise Whom? Pray can also be substituted for Praise. Our prayers add nothing to God. It is hubris to think otherwise. God is perfect and needs nothing from us. We certainly should not presume to direct God with our prayers. Praying for vocations does not actually move God to call anyone not already being called - rather it makes us more disposed to listen to our own vocation. Prayer for the sick makes us more disposed to provide direct care to them. Those of us who went to Catholic school had years of prayer intentions for this, that and the other thing, as if God can be bought off by our meditation. That's not how it works. The fact of our praying is the most important thing. It does not matter who we pray to, but that we are praying to something outside ourselves. These prayers God does listen to and respond to as well by opening our hearts..
10 years ago
Now, about atheists. There appear to be two types. The first type are the ethical atheists, who refuse to believe in God because of the conduct of the religious. They preach against God out of love for their fellows. This is actually amusing, for once one's actions are motivated by love, what one professes is irrelevant. Those who act out of love are always acting as instruments of God, so perhaps we should listen closely to the criticism of professed atheists. The second type are those who have given the matter no thought at all and are not even agnostic. These atheists can be dangerous, since they may act sociopathicly, giving other atheists a bad name. Atheists who just don't care won't be converted by argument (and we likely won't find them reading this blog). All we can do is love them - not through correction but compassion.


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