"Hallelujah" Gets Enlisted in the War for a Christian Christmas

by Mike Barthel

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has had a weird history. From the schmaltzy (but great!) original recording through John Cale’s lyrical rearrangement and Jeff Buckley’s radical reduction, it’s become an object of abstract emotional grammar, used less for its words than for its gestalt feeling and its ability to convey meaningfulness even in the absence of actual meaning. Its aesthetic beauty feels so timeless that it’s like being in the same room with the Mona Lisa: you just sense you’re in the presence of something important, and you should pay attention, even if you miss the point of the original object. I had always thought that this progression represented a kind of emotional flattening, a removal of meaning rather than a supplantation of meaning. But Susan Boyle’s version makes it clear that, in the eyes of the world, “Hallelujah” is now about Jesus. Which is weird, since it’s about the Old Testament.

Maura’s Johnston’s take on Boyle’s version — from that writing and a subsequent e-mail correspondence these thoughts spring — attracted some interesting comments! Here is my favorite:

You bet I’m happy to be in Susan Boyle’s audience. Per this list, on the one hand the words of the verses don’t matter because the beauty of the word Hallelujah means praise to God and that’s what the host of Angles sang to the shepherds on that glorious night. And, you can be sure that was a big luscious chorus. On the other hand the words do matter because in spite of sin one can humbly ask for and receive forgiveness. Then be free to sing praises to God uplifting the soul to thankful worship of love with the word Hallelujah. After all this is the meaning of Christmas. The Gift is after all a Christmas album that tells “The Story” and sings praises to God. Susan Boyle has put Christ back into Christmas. She weaves all these songs all together to say so. The song Hallelujah with the true meaning of the word is only one thread in this tapestry.

Well! For those of you familiar with the song, this take will come as something of a surprise. Cohen himself has encapsulated the song’s meaning as being about the many different kinds of hallelujahs, an explanation which one might note does not include the word “Jesus.” Same for the song itself, which sticks pretty closely to Old Testament stuff: King David, Samson, the Ten Commandments (“you say I took the name in vain”), Genesis (“there’s a blaze of light in every word”), and so on. And also fucking! Boyle’s version doesn’t explicitly call out the J-dogg either, but as Maura notes, it does everything it can to avoid the verses in favor of the one-word chorus. She gives full shrift to David and Bathsheba but then only does half of the “baby I’ve been here before” verse, omitting the key “it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” line that’s been leaned on so hard in the past to create that sense of mournfulness.

All of this would be weird if she was trying to create another iteration of Buckley’s paean to attractive sadness. But she’s not. She’s trying to create a Christmas song, and those are less about meaning than about creating a mood; the approach of referencing the Bible and moving straight into the catchy chorus is not so different from, say, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or whatever. But, of course, those are rooted firmly in the Gospels. “Hallelujah” represents a kind of Christmas Creep for the Old Testament itself. What’s happened to Cohen’s song is the same thing that’s happened to Jews in America: they have become, in the eyes of Christians who don’t actually know any Jews, sort of proto-Christians.

Of course, as my future in-laws like to say, worse things have happened to the Jews. Generally speaking, America is probably the best country in which to be Jewish (at least among countries that aren’t Jewish theocracies), which you can blame in some part on Americans’ cheerful ignorance of Judaism. Not that this ignorance is honorable, necessarily. Growing up in rural New York State, I was not aware until sometime in my twenties that one of my friends in high school actually was Jewish, much less what that implied about her celebration of various holidays. (I also did not realize until fairly recently that she probably had a crush on me, which will tell you something about my high school experience.) Now that I have been to a small liberal arts college and spent ten years dating a member of the tribe, I have become aware of just how little many Christian Americans (or, in the case of me and my parents, culturally Christian/religiously atheist Americans) know about Judaism. Oh sure, we know it exists — after all, it’s right there on the census form along with Zoroastrianism! But many of us don’t know how it works, exactly. For instance, as I have forced my girlfriend into contact with the goyim, here are some things that have been thought in regard to her Judaism:

• That it would be polite to send her a card for Passover.
• That I would not be allowed into a synagogue.
• That it is really sad she is not with her family for Christmas.
• That we are actively celebrating Hanukkah.

I’ve become culturally Jewish enough now to find these mostly amusing (I strongly relate to the dentist on that one “Seinfeld” episode), and certainly beneficent confusion is preferable to anti-Semitism. (And it runs both ways: for the first few years of our relationship, I was repeatedly told that I was Catholic.) But this sort of ignorance is what allows the weird relationship between American evangelicals and Judaism to sustain itself, and Boyle’s cover plays directly into this sort of thing. I’ve always seen the way megachurchers regard Jews as kind of like how the head of the Cobble Hill car service in Motherless Brooklyn thought of lesbians: as people who are “wise and mysterious and deserve respect.” With the increased interest in the Bible as a literal document free of any historical or cultural context has come a respect for Jews as the most important figures in Bible I: The Quickening. Given that most Americans don’t spend much time around Jews, in the popular imagination they have become living historical artifacts, like a Shroud of Turin that eats latkes.

And so as context is sheared away, anything smacking of contemporary Christian values has become nominally about Jesus. That’s what all those “Hallelujah” covers have accomplished. By making a song about different kind of transcendence (joy, orgasms, triumph) just about suffering, the tune became eligible to qualify as a Song About Jesus, who also suffered attractively. Cohen’s solidly Jewish song is being used the same way Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck use stories about American history: to emphasize the importance of faith over mere humanism, the quality I always thought was at the root of “Hallelujah.” Clearly, that’s the message the commenter above got from the song, and as wrong as she is, she’s also, in her way, entirely right. Maybe Jesus wasn’t Cohen’s point, but it was certainly Boyle’s point.

Already malleable enough to qualify as a kind of consensus composition, “Hallelujah” has been transformed again, this time from a song whose lyrical meaning had been stripped away to one whose meaning and context have been entirely transformed, almost obliterating the original. I can’t imagine Cohen is too bothered by this; after all, what more could a Jewish songwriter dream of than writing the new “White Christmas”? And maybe we listeners shouldn’t be too worried, either. After all, if we know anything about the song, we know that it a master of disguise, and just when you think its story is finished, it moves again. Hallelujah, the king is dead; long live “Hallelujah.”

Mike Barthel heard there was a sacred chord.