The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
Lilifyre
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The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Lilifyre » Mon Aug 03, 2009 10:41 pm

I've found that many people don't seem to understand the difference between Leonard's use of Jesus and Christian symbolism and the writing of a "Christian" song. I've run into this quite a bit on YouTube. If Leonard mentions Jesus or crosses or saints in his lyrics, there is always some Christian fundamentalist who insists this is a message to be "saved". As a Jew, I'm extremely offended by this attitude. I'm NOT anti-Christian, but I am anti-proselytizing (is that a word?). To my I see Leonard's use of Christian symbolism the same as the way Chaim Potok uses it in his novels. The perfect example is the book, "My Name Is Asher Lev". Asher Lev is an fictional artist as well as a Chasidic Jew. He uses Christian symbolism...the Cross and Crucifixion in particular...to express a concept of sacrifice that just doesn't have the same emotional equivalent in Judaism. It doesn't make him a Christian. Leonard does the same when he refers to "a cross on every hill" or speaks of Joan of Arc giving herself to the flames.

He has admittedly studied many religions and philosophies..."but cheerfulness keeps breaking through." I was struck by the reaction, in another thread, that the sacrifice of one Jew appears to be cause for celebration, but the sacrifice of 6 million is "too horrible to think about". That's my take on some of the comments, not a quote from any one person posting. That's what came thru to me. If that's not what was meant, I apologize for putting my own feelings into it.

Bottom like here, Leonard uses the tools available to him. He uses the words and metaphors that speak to the majority of listeners. He's not preaching the Gospell...at least not in the literal Christian way.
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
schubert
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby schubert » Tue Aug 04, 2009 2:11 am

Personally I think Leonard Cohen is a spiritual person in the truest sense of the word,without religion or dogma getting in the way.
Its what drew me to his music in the first place and certainly seeing him live was for me a spiritual experience,he just seems to give off an aura of a man who knows that the ego is just an illusion,quite the opposite of many christians I meet for whom dogma is everything.
Ive been to many church services where it felt more like brainwashing than anything spiritual and unfortunately the fundamentalists are the worst,and would probably be horrified by many of the things Leonard sings about.
Well thats just my personal opinion as how can anyone really know what leonard thinks about Jesus or Christianity.
He certainly seems like a man at peace with himself.I do like his quip "but cheerfulness keeps breaking through"very funny and insightful. :D :lol: :razz:
John Etherington
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby John Etherington » Tue Aug 04, 2009 2:35 pm

Hi Lilifyre,

There's a good section of Leonard's quotes regarding Judaism and other religions in Jim Devlin's book "Leonard Cohen in His Own Words" (I helped JIm compile this section of the book). Two of my own favourite quotes of Leonard's that were included, and both particularly relevant to your post are the following:

"Our natural vocabulary is Judaeo-Christian. That is our blood myth...We have to rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol not just as an experiment in sadism or masochism or arrogance. It will have to be discovered cause that's where man is at. On the cross". (LC 1968)

"I'm very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek" has got to be a figure of unparallelled generosity and insight and madness...A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I'm not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me." (LC 1988)

All good things, John E
Lilifyre
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Lilifyre » Tue Aug 04, 2009 11:46 pm

John, thank you for your input. As I suspected, Loenard views the whole "Jesus" thing differently than your average American "Christian". He's (LC) is a very deep person and looks at things on a deeper level than many. I guess that's why I like him so much.

As a Jew living on, not only the buckle of the Bible Belt, but on the little thing that pokes thru the hole, I get innundated by Fundamentalists everytime I turn around. So much of what I hear is insulting, not only to me as a Jew, but to those who are not willing to swallow, untasted, the narrow-minded view presented by American Fundamentalism. Leonard goes beyond that. I'm sure much of his personal philosophy has to do with his Jewish education as a child...in the mechanics of inquiry as much as the content.

I believe that both LC and Potok are of the same generation of American/North American Jews. They witnessed the Holocaust from afar as children. They most likely both viewed first hand many of the refugees and survivors of that time. They both grew up at a time of intense anti-Semitism.

I'll have to get that book. I'm sure it will reveal the answers to many of my questions about the MAN.
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
John Etherington
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby John Etherington » Wed Aug 05, 2009 2:36 am

Hi Lilifyre,

Leonard's interest in the figure of Jesus has always intrigued me. I was brought up by two born-again baptist parents, and much of their belief was of the "believe in Jesus or burn" mentality. Despite this, I never turned against Christianity as I might have done, and it was refreshing to find Jesus in a new setting when I discovered Leonard's work in 1968. Leonard was apparently brought up-part-Catholic bu his Irish-Catholic nanny. Ira Nadel says that the church represented romance to Leonard

From memory, Jesus first appears in Leonard's poem "For Wilf and His House", which is the second poem in his first book of poetry "Let Us Compare Mythologies". The fourth poem in the book is "Prayer For Messiah" which we see Leonard reciting in the "Ladies and Gentleman" movie. I have observed that Jesus is mentioned once in most of Leonard's early albums. He's there of course in "Suzanne" - the first song on "Songs of LC". We find imagery that might be associated with Jesus on "Avalanche" - the first song on "Songs of Love and Hate". Then we find him again in the second song "Last Years Man" (some women wait for Jesus, some women wait for Cain"), and in the opening words of the first song on "Live Songs" - "Passing Through" ("I Saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called calvary"), and also in the first song on "New Skin" - "Is This What You Wanted ("You were Jesus Christ my Lord, I was the money lender").

I sense that Leonard identified with the suffering of Jesus in his early work, and also seemed to have some identification with him - especially when in "Please Don't Pass Me By" he sings "I sing this for the freaks and the cripples, and the hunchback and the burned, and the burning and the maimed and the broken and the torn".

Jesus isn't mentioned in "Recent Songs" but the figure of the Virgin is there in "Lady of Solitude". After this, Jesus features in "Jazz Police" when Leonard sings "Jesus taken serious by many, Jesus taken joyous by a few" (I'd forgotten this mention, until I looked it up in the Cohen concordance, to which there is a link on this site). Jesus gets his final mention in Leonard's recorded work in the black humour of "The Future" ("Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima"). I've no conclusions to make, but thought I'd share these observations.

All good things John E
Lilifyre
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Lilifyre » Thu Aug 06, 2009 11:42 pm

John, I really appreciate your personal knowledge of Leonard, along with your views on his use of Christian symbology.

I guess what I'm trying to say...and it's hard to put into words...is that Leonard is a very spiritual person, but his songs and poetry show a definite influence of his Jewish background. Your mention of his Catholic nanny is interesting. I have met many Jews of his age who, for one reason or another, learned catholocism better than most of their Catholic peers. Many Jewish children only escaped the Holocaust by being hidden in Catholic convent schools. I know that was not the case with Leonard, but my point is, it is quite possible to learn the mechanics and vocabulary of a religion without becoming one of its adherents. Western civilization is influenced by the very existance of Christianity. Even the popular neo-Paganism takes on many Christian characteristics. The trick for the non-Christian is to keep and express the non-Christian aspects of their being. That is what Leonard does so masterfully, in my opinion.

The Judaism that is expressed by Leonard is not so much the religion as the culture. But it goes beyond that. Perhaps it is something that can only be seen/sensed by a Jew. He takes that gut level Jewishness and describes it in Christian language. At the same time, he does not "sell out" his Jewishness. The example of what I mean by "sell out" is found in the songs of Dylan during the time he supposedly became a "born-again" Christian. He wrote songs to please an audience, in a sense he sold his soul for the money he could make from a popular genre. If you listen to Dylan's work before, during, and after that period, you can see the difference. His "born-again" songs lack the sincerity and integrity of his earlier work. They ring hollow.

In Leonard's poem, "Prayer for Messiah", I find nothing particularly Christian. The concept of Messiah is a Jewish one, afterall. Perhaps it sounds Christian to a Christian. To this Jew, it is wholely Jewish. In many ways, I envy Leonard's ease in expressing his Jewishness (not the religion, the soul) thru Christian vocabulary.
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Lilifyre
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Lilifyre » Mon Aug 10, 2009 12:53 pm

I'm sitting here playing some of Leonard's songs on YouTube...songs I seldom listen to. I came across Joan of Arc. I noticed that once again, Leonard takes a Christian personality...Joan of Arc...and mixes in his many Jewish influences. You can hear it in the music in this case. The repeated phrase of la la la.... comes from the Chassidic tradition. Many of the Eastern European Chassidic Jews use such "non-sense" syllables in their tunes. The tune also is very typical of a Chassidic Nigun (tune). The use of the violin, and other instruments in that sad sweet melody is so remeniscent of the Klezmir music of the Schtetl...think "Fiddler on the Roof". The only thing about this song that is not Jewish is the name "Joan of Arc" for as many Jews were put to the torch as heretical (by the prevailing authority at the time) Christians.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
John Etherington
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby John Etherington » Tue Aug 11, 2009 12:23 am

Hi Lilifyre,

Thanks for your kind words, and your own thoughts about the Jewish influences in Leonard's work. It may be true to say that his songs are more influenced by Christianity, and his writings by Judaism, but I haven't thought this through properly.

I think it's wrong to say that Dylan's Christian songs "ring hollow", since they are totally true to the fundamentalist version of Christianity. Dylan certainly seemed to buy the whole package for a while. Though, with typical Geminian duality, he was alledgedly having affairs with two of his backing singers at the time (which I imagine would not be approved of by most born-again hardliners!).

Despite their controversial nature, both of Dylan's two main "Christian" albums were pretty good in their own way. "Slow Train Coming" was a powerful rock album and hence the most popular. However, it had the most damning and black and white lyrics (i.e. you either have faith or disbelief, and there ain't no neutral ground"). "Saved" with it's "fire and brimstone" cover was the least accepted of the two. Though ironically, it was a much more soulful and joyful album, and closer to an authentic "gospel" sound. "Covenant Woman" and "Pressing On" are two of my favourite tracks. By the time of his next album, "Shot of Love" Dylan had integrated the Christian teaching better, and "Every Grain of Sand" is a beautiful and moving modern hymn.

Leonard (generous as ever) said the following about Dylan's Christian records:

"People came to me when he put out his Christian records and said "This guy's finished", "He can't speak to us anymore". I thought those were some of the most beautiful gospel songs that have ever entered the whole landscape of gospel music" (LC 1985).

All good things, John E
Lilifyre
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Lilifyre » Tue Aug 11, 2009 6:39 pm

John Etherington wrote:Hi Lilifyre,

Thanks for your kind words, and your own thoughts about the Jewish influences in Leonard's work. It may be true to say that his songs are more influenced by Christianity, and his writings by Judaism, but I haven't thought this through properly.

I think it's wrong to say that Dylan's Christian songs "ring hollow", since they are totally true to the fundamentalist version of Christianity. Dylan certainly seemed to buy the whole package for a while. <<snip>>
Leonard (generous as ever) said the following about Dylan's Christian records:

"People came to me when he put out his Christian records and said "This guy's finished", "He can't speak to us anymore". I thought those were some of the most beautiful gospel songs that have ever entered the whole landscape of gospel music" (LC 1985).

All good things, John E
Thanks for your response, John. I don't want to debate Dylan since this isn't a Dylan fansite, so I'll make this brief. You look at Dylan's "Christian" recordings from the standpoint of a Christian. I see them from a Jewish standpoint...very different. When I say they "ring hollow" I mean they lack sincerity/true belief. That's what I heard in them, altho I haven't listened to them in a very LONG time. His "social action" songs of an earlier time seemed more real. Those "Christian" songs revealed "feet of clay" to me. My opinion...may not be that of others.

As to Leonard's comment. In everything I've heard or read by Leonard, he seems to follow the line, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything." That's one of the things I like aobut him. He is positive to everyone. He finds good in everyone and eveything. "Beautiful" does not equal sincerity, in my opinion. Many Jewish song writers have written some very "pretty" Christian songs. It's not that hard. Hey, even Cartman from Southpark did it. <grin> I've done it myself.

Your statement about Leonard's songs being more influenced by Christianity and his writings by Judaism, again I see things a bit differently. He uses the symbology/language of Christianaity, but expresses very Jewish ideals. Over the millenia, Jews have been forced to hid. We do it well.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
siouxsie
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby siouxsie » Sun Sep 06, 2009 5:50 pm

This is an interesting subject and it's been good to read your views.

I've always loved the way Leonard views Jesus. He sings about him as a wonderful man, with none of the trappings of religion around him.
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TheBigJerkface
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby TheBigJerkface » Fri Jul 16, 2010 9:08 pm

Lilifyre wrote:I've found that many people don't seem to understand the difference between Leonard's use of Jesus and Christian symbolism and the writing of a "Christian" song. I've run into this quite a bit on YouTube. If Leonard mentions Jesus or crosses or saints in his lyrics, there is always some Christian fundamentalist who insists this is a message to be "saved".
The problem is that these dangerous American religious extremists are typically not intelligent enough to understand metaphor.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Want to see someone turn red and spit fire? Explain to one of them, in detail, what 'Hallelujah' is REALLY about.
TheOneFisher
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby TheOneFisher » Thu Mar 21, 2013 9:28 pm

Hello,

While I don't know LC, and it's not fair to speak for anyone else, we can use his own words.

"As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality."

This isn't metaphor, and it's definitely not traditional Judaism.

What is truly "dangerous" is a people who have been completely set apart and chosen to be a blessing, and then refuse to accept the way that God chooses to bless the world through them. Instead of embracing it with pride, and glorifying God because of it, they turn inward, become ethnocentric, and totally miss out on the beauty that they could be.
AlexandraLaughing
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby AlexandraLaughing » Tue Jan 06, 2015 9:59 am

I just wanted to comment on this topic, Lilifyre, because as a Catholic I think are absolutely right about the way LC uses Jesus and Christian symbolism.

When LC was young, the Jewishness of Jesus was just being rediscovered, including by Catholics. LC employs Jesus as a Jewish hero.

Jews rightly complain that we have stolen all their imagery, their Scriptures and anything we wanted from their culture. So it's fair enough for someone like Leonard to make so much use of ours, in creative ways. LC's Joan of Arc, for example, has absolutely nothing in common with the Catholic saint, except horse-riding and getting consumed by fire. She's just a metaphor he's borrowed for his own purposes. And fair enough.
Vicomte
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Re: The use of Jesus and Christian symbolism

Postby Vicomte » Tue Jan 06, 2015 12:08 pm

Sorry but I think people try and see far too much in some of Leonard's songs.

Joan of Arc is a genuine song about Joan herself, no more, no less, he is not using her to be translated as something else and I would have thought that to be quite obvious.
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