Bruce Cockburn has been part of the folk/rock scene since the 1960s. My interest in his music dates to my university days in the 1970s. He has entertained and, especially, challenged me time and again. Many Christians have been struck by his refreshing lyrics, expressing personal faith in a manner less sentimental than much of Christian contemporary music.
His autobiography, Rumours of Glory (2014), is not “your standard rock-and-roll memoir,” he says, which means it’s less about partying and more about physical and spiritual journeys and political activism.
He informs readers up front that, while Jesus Christ entered his life and music in 1974, he subsequently “let go of his hand.” Their relationship has since “ebbed and flowed,” but he has determined to live his life “somewhat in line with his Word.”
As a mystic, Cockburn has tried to keep both “Jesus the compassionate activist” and “portal to the cosmos” close to his heart. But don’t expect dogma and doctrine. As a free-spirited artist, he uses guitar and voice to portray joy, love, pain, beauty and mystery.
One of the strengths of Rumours of Glory is the context it offers for his celebrated songs, released on more than 30 albums. The lyrics “tend to be triggered by whatever is in front of me,” he writes, “filtered through feeling and imagination.” An alternate guide to some of his lyrics is Brian J. Walsh’s Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (2011).
In “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (1983), for example, Cockburn counsels “Spirits open to the thrust of grace” to “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Doing anything less, he intimates, is a vacuous pursuit of Christ.
When my alma mater, Memorial University in St. John’s, NL, bestowed an honourary doctorate upon Cockburn in 2007, deputy public orator Annette Staveley dubbed him “a grim traveller in a dawn sky,” whose discography “bears witness to the horror and the holiness of the human condition.” His intense “imagery offers us glimpses of the divine.”
His spiritual songs, he explains, “are about celebrating the Divine and our place in the cosmos, and doing so from a place of seeking, from a desire to know, as best we can, the heart connection with God, however one might define such an entity.”
Cockburn’s music reflects the unconventional spirituality of a postmodern psalmist who deserves a louder hearing in Christian circles.