Wisdom for our Time: A review of Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon

[I just published this review in the Christian Courier but cannot repost a news article in Canada. So, to get around that, we are reposting it here and then at the Empire Remixed Facebook page.]

They say that wisdom comes with age. It isn’t always true, but when we turn to Canadian singer-songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, such deep wisdom is all there on his stunningly beautiful 2023 album, O Sun O Moon (True North).

By the artist’s own admission, this is a collection of songs written by an old man. But while some revert to sentimentality and nostalgia in their later years, Cockburn continues to face the realities of the present world in all of its threat and beauty.

The album begins with howls of anger and grief and ends with a vision of the resurrected dead singing while the bells ring out the good news of the return of Jesus. From howls to singing, from grief to joy, from lament to dancing. These are the realities of our lives, and it is only in this tension that wisdom is born.

From the opening track, “On a Roll,” Cockburn does not avert his gaze from the civilizational, ecological and political collapse happening all around us.

In a culture that manifests “social behavior/beyond belief” it is not surprising that the artist had a dream in which,

There was a storm
And all the earth was without form.

Echoing the prophets, there is a sense of de-creation that permeates our time;
a cosmic, societal and spiritual dissolution is afoot.

The approaching mortality that the artist experiences in his old age
seems to parallel a sense of ending, of death, in our culture.

Nonetheless, the artist announces that,
“Time takes it toll/But in my soul/I’m on a roll.”

And this album is evidence that now in his late 70’s Bruce Cockburn is indeed on a roll.

In the song,
“To Keep the World We Know,”
Cockburn teams up with Inuit singer, Susan Aglukark,
to address the apocalyptic reality of a “world gone up in flames.”

In the face of the climate emergency,
they long to somehow “keep the world we know.”

Mother Earth is weeping and that requires
both a repentance from the short-sighted greed
that is foundational to capitalism
and a profound spiritual renewal and redirection:

There’s a drive to live at the heart of things
Gotta sink a pipe into that spring

And let it water everything
To keep the world we know

A world of fire and drought is a world in desperate need of water.
And both Indigenous and Christian spirituality
insist that this kind of drought needs
deeper sources of living water if the watershed is to be healed.

The drought is both ecological and cultural.

There is a drought of kindness, civility,
and generosity that afflicts our political,
cultural, and even familial discourse.

So Cockburn offers us an uncompromising meditation
on the love command of Jesus in his song, “Orders.”

The song offers a list of different kinds of people:

The just the merciful, the cruel
The stumbling well-intentioned fool

The deft, the oaf, the witless pawn
The golden one life smiles upon …
The pastor preaching shades of hate
The self-inflating head of state

… only to conclude,

The list is long – as I recall
Our orders are to love them all.

The near impossibility of such a radical call to love each
other as Jesus has loved us,
is starkly put before us in this disquieting song.

While “Orders” tends to come at the very middle
of Cockburn’s live performances on the current tour,
he invariably closes his encore
with the equally uncompromising song, “Us All.”

And if Cockburn echoed the prophets in “On a Roll,”
then this song has clear resonances
to the book of Deuteronomy.

Here we are faced with choice
Shutters and walls or open embrace

Like it or not, the human race
Is us all

This is, of course, a covenantal choice.
Will you be open-handed and generous to your neighbour,
or close-hearted and tight fisted? (Dt. 15.7-8)
Will you recognize your political enemy as your neighbour?
Will you choose life or death?

The artist is old enough to know that this is no easy choice.

Indeed, he knows that
“Scars we inflict on each other don’t die
But slowly soak into the DNA/Of us all.”

If our enmity, our conflict, our hatred
has even shaped our DNA towards shutters and walls,
towards incivility and unkindness,
then how could we ever fulfill the love command?

Recognizing the depth of this struggle, the artist concludes the song with prayer:

I pray we not fear to love
I pray we be free of judgement and shame

Open the vein, let kindness rain
O’er us all

Through his own pain
and his witness to the suffering of so many around the world,
Cockburn grasps well the wisdom that,

Pain brings understanding
Your mistakes will set you free

To sink into the spirit
To clear your eyes to see.
(“O Sun by Day O Moon by Night”)

Again, no averted gaze, but a clear sighted vision of the world.

These themes of love
and attending to the reality of life in a world falling apart
come together in the beautiful love song,
“Push Comes to Shove.”

You see, when “reality calls” it all comes down to this:

The place that you hold in my life
Is the axis it all spins around

Push comes to shove
It’s all about love
The ring of your laugh is the sweetest of sounds

Perhaps echoing Psalm 33.5,
“the world is drenched in the steadfast love of God,”
Cockburn stands in good biblical wisdom
by insisting that “it’s all about love.”

Covenantal love, between intimate partners,
within all of our creaturely relationships,
and, at heart, with our covenantal God is what it’s all about.

Here, we meet the very axis around which the world spins.
Here we come to the very foundation of the world,
the heart of Cockburn’s spirituality,
the witness of love against the hateful evidence
all around and deep within each of us.

Almost half a century ago, Bruce Cockburn sang,
“O Love that fires the sun/keep me burning.”
(“Lord of the Starfields, In the Falling Dark, 1976).

With such a profound understanding of cosmic love
singing through this album
with an ever deepening wisdom,
it is clear that Cockburn’s prayer has been answered.

Looking for hope? Listen to this album.

Need a good cry? Listen to this album.

Wanting to reacquaint yourself with an old artistic friend?
Listen to this album.

Want to check out Bruce Cockburn for the first time?
Listen to this exquisite album.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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