Martin Luther Didn’t “Redeem” Secular Songs & Neither Should We

Portrait of Martin Luther
Portrait of Martin Luther (Lucas Cranach the ElderPublic Domain)

Back in December 2012, World Magazine’s Marvin Olasky encouraged his readers to “take every song captive” — which, in this case, referred to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Olasky wrote that the song, which has been used in everything ranging from Watchmen to Shrek, has an almost liturgical feel, musically speaking. And yet, he recommends listening to it without the lyrics because “the lyrics form a brooding, angst-filled, lonely ode to failure, a cold and broken hallelujah.’ ” Even better, he recommends coming up with your own, more spiritually uplifting lyrics for the song, and includes his own “improved” lyrics as an example.

Olasky’s article prompted several responses. My Christ and Pop Culture colleague Nick Rynerson wrote:

Hallelujah may be “an ode to failure” (or whatever), but are not the feelings of shame, brokenness, and longing in Cohen’s song true expressions of the world, marred by sin, which God himself made and loves? I am saddened by not only this attempt to smooth over life with a glossy evangelical coating, but by the fact that this fundamentalist anti-culture’ sentiment is still alive and well within the mainstream Christian subculture.

Elsewhere, The Curator’s Nathan Chang compared Olasky’s approach to the song with Jeff Buckley’s. (Buckley turned in what is arguably the most popular and beloved rendition of the song.) Change writes:

[“Hallelujah” is] a song that grasps how emotionally and spiritually complicated imperfect love is, that contrasts the experience of broken love with that which is perfect, steadfast, and unchanging, even in the midst of suffering for our faults. This is the greatness of the song, and the delicate balance that is held between the beauty of the melody and the teetering emotions in Jeff Buckley’s voice from defeat to ecstasy and everything in between. One cannot help but be moved by it, which is why it’s so often used for cheap emotional impact in soundtracks — but that’s another thing altogether. This song’s fame has skyrocketed because it has a sound that is transcendent and it has words of mystery and prayer without alienating its listeners. It speaks to the central tension of sin. What Olasky has done in trying to reconquer’ this song for Christ is sanitize the humanity out of it.

If Olasky wants to create a safe, sanitized version of “Hallelujah” then that’s his prerogative. Several folks have already responded to his call and posted videos on YouTube of their renditions of his version. However, I find it to be yet another example of Christendom’s knack for taking something that is acclaimed and celebrated in the “secular” world and making it more palatable, acceptable, and, well, Christian — and in the process, diminishing and trivializing it. It’s no longer art, but rather, propaganda. In a GQ piece titled “What Would Jesus Do?,” Walter Kirn called it “ark culture” and defined it thusly:

Ark culture is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some dumb decision that to compete with them — to compete with N’Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie & Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street — the faithful should turn from the centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music and those outsider paintings in which Jesus has lime green bat wings and is hovering lovingly above the Pentagon flanked by exactly thirteen flying saucers, and instead of all that head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale.
What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing… has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith. Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement. Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top.

When somebody suggests taking an Olasky-esque approach to culture, somebody inevitably defends the process by pointing out that Martin Luther did the exact same thing. In addition to challenging the Catholic Church, writing numerous treatises on the Christian faith, and inventing some fabulous insults, Luther also wrote hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee”. And, so goes the story, he would take popular songs sung in the local taverns, replace the sinful words with more religious ones, and turn them into songs for his congregation to sing.

The truth, however, is a bit more complicated than that. Or, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) puts it:

In the interest of historical accuracy, in fairness to the reformer, and for the purpose of conversation about appropriate worship music today, this claim must be challenged, or at least be carefully qualified. At its worst this claim is a misrepresentation of fact. At its best, it is a misleading oversimplification of Luther’s intention and his practice of liturgical music.

The ELCA’s article completely undermines the notion that all Luther did was swap out “bad” lyrics for “good” ones, as well as the notion that such an approach to worship music is even wise and worth pursuing. For example, they note that even if you implement new “Christian” lyrics for a song, secular associations with the song’s music may prove problematic come worship time (emphasis mine)

The historic example of the hymn, “From Heav’n Above” (for which the original tune was replaced with a new one because of the tune’s connections with nonsacred activity) shows that the association a particular tune carried with it affected its use in worship. Certainly many tunes that were originally coupled with secular texts have found their way into the canon of Christian hymnody. The tune Ash Grove (ELW 547 & 881) is a Welsh folk melody but holds few secular connotations for most Americans. The tune is now more closely associated with the texts found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship than the original secular text. Therefore, the associations connected with this tune are not as problematic as they would be by writing sacred words to a tune like “Jingle Bells,” for example.

I must confess that the mental picture of the great reformer visiting taverns, making note of the musical genius he found there, and encouraging his congregation to use the rollicking tunes to praise the Lord is an amusing one. But it “has no basis in fact” as one music professor puts it. This constantly recycled story, and its refutation, ought to serve as a reminder that Christians aren’t simply supposed to try and copy whatever it is that “the world” does well.

As a teenager, I was constantly frustrated by the music coming out of the Church. Not only were the perenially upbeat lyrics woefully inadequate to deal with the emotional turmoil I was experiencing at the time (admittedly, I was a pretty angst-ridden kid), but musically, it was limp and uninspired. It was as if Christian artists were intent on copying whatever musical trend or genre had been cool five years earlier. There was apparently no need or desire to write music that was creative, original, provocative, or relevant. (Thankfully, I soon discovered a slew of Christian artists who were attempting to create original, powerful music, and I’ve discovered many more since then.)

I fear the approach advocated by Olasky, and (unwittingly, perhaps) supported by those who pass on the Luther myth only feeds the impression that the Church doesn’t really care about music, that it’s creatively and artistically barren, and that Christians are fine with producing substandard, unoriginal, and cheesy art so long as the message (i.e., the lyrics) comes through loud and clear, and the medium be damned. In other words, that we’re fine pumping out music that nobody, except those of us already in the choir, wants to hear, or considers relevant, interesting, inventive, beautiful, etc.

If you want to “redeem” or “take captive” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” then here’s how to do it: take the song “as is,” warts and all, and deliver a rendition that puts Jeff Buckley’s to shame. Or better yet, use it as inspiration to write music that ultimately transcends its influences, that makes people stand up and take notice because of its beauty, originality, and power. That, of course, is something every artist worth their salt ought to be striving for, but it should be doubly true of those artists who claim to serve and honor the First Artist.