Olasky's Hallelujah: A Cold & Broken Anti-Poetic Monstrosity

Well, I pretty much wrote this post when I wrote the title. Goodness gracious me. I shouldn't take this so personally. Unleash the rantin'.

About a month ago Marvin Olasky wrote a post at World Magazine about Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah, the one made famous by Jeff Buckley and since covered by oh so many artists great and small. Olasky declares the lyrics blasphemous/irreverent, writes new lyrics for the tune, and asks Christians to upload their performances of his new and improved lyrics to YouTube.

Today a friend of mine posted one such video on his facebook wall, and here I am reacting to it. But I first read about Olasky's effort a few days ago, at Curator Magazine. There Nathan Chang ably defended the song from a Christian perspective, particularly Jeff Buckley's version (this is valid because Buckley made the song famous, not Cohen; no one thinks of Cohen's version first).

With all due respect to Dr. Olasky, when I read the article at Curator I read it more for the enjoyment of reading about Buckley's Hallelujah. I figured that the only reason this crazy idea to write new "Christian" lyrics to the song had gotten any press was that Dr. Olasky, a nationally prominent Christian thinker, had suggested it. I didn't even bother clicking through to his post, because I was sure no one would actually take it seriously.

I'd forgotten how dry the poetic souls of evangelical hipsters are. Videos have been uploaded.

Let's be clear on the level commitment to bowdlerization we're talking about here, in the name of "taking captive every thought [song]" for Christ. Dr. Olasky was a member of the Communist Party in the 70s, before becoming a Christian. He loves the tune to the Soviet national anthem. So he rewrote the letters to the doxology and Great Is Thy Faithfulness, then slapped them onto the U.S.S.R.'s premier piece of 20th-century musical bombast. As to the artistic merits of that glorious mash-up, I will say nothing, but will ask the reader to note how such a thing must inform the taste.

Over ten years ago, if NRO archives are to be believed, Dr. Olasky criticized politicians and their hangers-on for being too much like Zeus, and not enough like Jesus. That is, too devoted to honor, strength, duty, and purity. Instead of love and charity and sweetness and other Jesus-like qualities.

The hard and unkind orientation Dr. Olasky criticized is, inevitably, the direction the song and poetry of Hallelujah take when he lays Bowdler's ax upon it.

His biggest problem with the song seems to be its melancholic connection of sex and divinity.
[The words] are sometimes sacrilegious. Cohen penned a variety of versions, but the central stanzas offer a union of sex and salvation: Jeff Buckley called the version he used “the hallelujah of an orgasm.” Even apart from that, the lyrics form a brooding, angst-filled, lonely ode to failure, “a cold and broken hallelujah.” But that’s not the biblical hallelujah evident in the last of the Psalms, 150, which rightly starts and ends, “Praise the Lord!” 
The song is certainly spiritually discomfiting, but, I think, spiritually brilliant. It makes one to think of David and Bath-Sheba, and of one's self. Even if, however, we decide that the song is blasphemous, why must we kill it dead and then raise it as a nationalistic-christian-purity-frankenstein's?

This is the virtue of the Buddhist, agnostic, atheistic, irritatingly confused Cohen's lyrics: that they are agnostic, atheistic, and confused. The one real virtue of the pagans was their willingness to go out and die well when they knew they must die badly, as pawns of the gods or victims of the empty darkness. In Cohen's song we hear the hunger for a good god in a world like that, a failed search for exaltation in the arms of a woman and the breath of a spirit.

It's good poetry. If the song is blasphemous, throw it out. Slay it, and let it die well. If it is not blasphemous, save it. Humans that are saved will still always be human, they are not only spirit, but human. Songs that are saved shouldn't have their lyrics ripped off of them as if they were the filthy body covering over the clean spirit of the tune.

Ancient is the tradition of taking popular songs (reportedly even tavern tunes) and using the music for hymns. There has been debate throughout history about the good of this practice, but what is done in that situation is not what Dr. Olasky has done. Hallelujah is intensely personal, and the replacement lyrics too similar and bizarre in their echoes of the original. It would be one thing to put the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem of the tune of Hallelujah, or something else completely unrelated, but what has been done instead is to keep the refrain, and even key phrases of poetry. It's about hallelujah. Dr. Olasky is theologizing it, but it's already theological. He's editing and correcting without making it sufficiently other; he's bowdlerizing.

"Cold and broken hallelujah", a lyric that alternately makes me think of aloneness and loveless orgasm, is retained in this version...in the middle of verse that is choppy, militant, and relentlessly "redemptive" (read, "pure"). Listen, Christians, it's okay for one work of art to be sad or tragic or lonely or suicidal. God's Big Story is not.

Besides, can we not honor pagan art that is true? May we not mourn with our friend who is going off to die in the darkness because of his pride and hate? Are we that much better than him? The story of the Sons of Light in intertwined for a long time with the story of the Sons of Darkness, and we are brothers. Pour one out for your homies, O Christian. The singer of Hallelujah has no God. Shed a tear. Be beautiful and be sad.

Remember when I mentioned the Soviet anthem, and hard and unkind directions? Please read the lyrics (again, here), and tell me they don't sound like a good fascist purity hymn. This is not to say that Dr. Olasky is such a thing, but to say that being unkind to poetry results in ugly and crude propagandist verse.
Create in me a new, clean heart.
Give me now a strong, fresh start, 
So every breath I draw is Hallelujah.

You don’t delight in sacrifice.
You don’t excuse our secret vice.
You want from us a broken spirit, do you?
You’ve shown me what I did was wrong.
I’ll stand before You, Lord of song...
And if it's not propagandistic, it's clumsy.
Sin goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,
Adam’s fall, the major rift,
The baffled king neglecting Hallelujah. 
I would love to hear your comments on this. Decide for yourself. Below is the video my friend posted, and below that is Buckley's version. Which one actually sounds like a cry out to God?



  1. What is there to comment about? The original is so good, the other thing schould get buried asap!



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