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Leonard Cohen, spacer Leonard Cohen, "Banjo" (2012)
BY: Denis Haack
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A Broken Banjo Bobbing
On Leonard Cohenís latest album, Old Ideas (2012) he records a song simply named, ďBanjo.Ē Itís a simple, unadorned song, yet the images he weaves into the lyrics are haunting if you let them sink into your imagination.

Thereís something that Iím watching
Means a lot to me
Itís a broken banjo bobbing
On the dark infested sea

Donít know how it got there
Maybe taken by the wave
Off of someoneís shoulder
Or out of someoneís grave


Cohen is an accomplished poet, and the alliteration in the third line focuses our attention just as it has the musicianís. An object, ordinary, out of place, directionless, mysterious yet somehow meaningful, created for beauty but now adrift. This is who we are, who I am. How thankful I am for the clarity this thoughtful Buddhist monk brings to expressing truths I believe yet struggle to speak about in ways that touch on both mind and heart.

Thereís something that Iím watching / Means a lot to me. The first two lines are lovely because they could point to anythingóand that makes the object of his concern all the more remarkable, Itís a broken banjo bobbing / On the dark infested sea. Instead of something grand and impressive, there is unabashed, unnoticed humility here. Perhaps it is significant that it takes a monk to spot the thing floating in the water in the first place, to identify its shattered existence and find its meaning. Everyone else is too busy hurrying past along the shore looking for something that seems more important.

Itís a fatal condition, and a sad one, a musical instrument both fractured and waterlogged. The music has been silenced. I thought in those terms when I first heard that Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), so justly famous for his 3-finger banjo picking style, had died. I remember the first time I heard him play and wondered how one person could possibly produce such a flowing cascade of notes.

And the image grows more horrible, though at first it seems innocuous enough: Donít know how it got there / Maybe taken by the wave. Thatís what waves do, sweeping up on the sand and sucking away the childís toys they are using to dig in the sand. But this is no gentle wave, but rather a destructive force worthy of science fiction: Off of someoneís shoulder / Or out of someoneís grave. We remember the impossible memories of the tsunami wiping across the shores of Japan in March 2011, laying waste to houses, familyís lives, and nuclear reactors. It was a moment when videos posted online were too fascinating to ignore yet too awful to watch. Untold tons of rolling water crushing bodies and uprooting cemeteries.

The ancient Hebrew poet spoke of similar brokenness, but in terms of the wilderness that lay just outside the safety of their communities: broken us in the place of jackals / and covered us with deep darkness (Psalms 44:19). Here the crushing of life is so complete that the prophet Isaiah wrote of its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel / which is smashed so ruthlessly / that among its fragments not a shard is found / with which to take fire from the hearth / or to dip up water out of the cistern (30:14).

As I reflect on these words and images I wonder why the horrors of brokenness are not more equally dispersed in this world. I enjoy reading philosophy and theology and have read the various responses to that question proposed over the centuries, so I can confidently say that there is no answer. No answer that ultimately satisfies, or that ties up all the loose ends of doubt.

Leonard Cohenís song endsÖ well, Iíll let you listen to it and decide for yourself.

At this point my hope is in the voice of one who made a promise so audacious as to be preposterous, had he not gone on to endure the final breaking of torture and death, only to rise again as the ultimate Overcomer. When stating his mission Jesus reached back into the text of Scripture to identify himself with the one promised by the prophet Isaiah, the one anointed from beyond the edge of time and space to bind up the brokenhearted (61:1).

The language of the text assures us this is beyond the merely palliative, meaning the rightful King will bring healing to the same depths to which the brokenness extended. We are not told how this will be accomplished, and should not try to figure it out. It is enough to know the promise remains, and in that we can hope.


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about the author
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Denis Haack
Denis is the author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didnít Tell You About Having It All and has written articles for such journals as Reformation & Revival Journal, Eternity, Covenant, and World. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
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Nanking (Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman, 2007)

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