Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination
By Brian J. Walsh
When a friend told me about this book late last year, I thought that all my Christmas had come early.
A theological treatise on Bruce Cockburn has been very necessary for years, but surely he was such a cult artist that no publisher would ever see a book on him as profitable. So fair play to Brazos Press for the courage and vision. And the author might have swayed the deal.
Brian J. Walsh has had some notable success, particularly his Colossians Remixed; Subverting the Empire, written with his wife, Sylvia Keesmaat, and read by most people I know with an imaginative Christian mind. I’ve used it as a foundational text for preaching through Colossians – twice!
A Canadian like Cockburn, Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto and Adjunct Professor of Theology of Culture at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology. That he was perfect for this particularly important and skillful task has been obvious for some 20 years since, in partnership with Richard Middleton, he wrote the first serious theo-musicology I had ever read — a very lengthy essay on Bruce Cockburn called, "Theology At The Rim Of The Broken Wheel."
Walsh does a good few things in Kicking At The Darkness; Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination. He confirms all your thoughts on your favorite Cockburn lyrics. (They were as theologically potent as you always thought!) He also reminds you how many great lines Cockburn has written, causing you to scuttle back to re-listen to every album right back to the first.
Walsh actually causes you to realize the width and depth and breadth of Cockburn’s theological comment. Songs that you hadn’t looked at closely because you were so taken by other songs on the same album, suddenly open up rich strata of Christian thought you’d never before considered.
The author’s approach is actually very simple and he uses this welcoming foundation to weave his immense insight into Cockburn’s songs to finish with much more than a commentary on Cockburn but rather a Christian worldview. He asks questions.
Walsh has used these questions before particularly in his books The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View and Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age, both again collaborations with Middleton.
The questions are: Where are we? Who are we? What is wrong? And what is the remedy? From these questions Walsh dialogues with endless lyrics of Cockburn’s to arrive at his answers in very articulate, Christian ways.
From Cockburn’s creation dance songs (particularly on Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws) and the brokenness of humanity on Humans , to the justice at the rim of the broken wheel ("Justice" from Inner City Front) and some sense of kicking the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight (with particular reference to the more recent album You’ve Never Seen Everything ) we are showered with memorable line, couplet or verse after memorable line, couplet or verse.
At times it seems that Walsh has become the thread that weaves Cockburn’s words together. Kicking at the Darkness is an astounding work on an astounding musical catalog.
For me, the book made me fall in love with Cockburn all over again. It caused me to listen to songs such as "Dialogue with the Devil" that had gotten lost in Cockburn's huge catalog. Yet, it led me way beyond that.
Kick at the Darkness gave me a refresher course in my Christian worldview. It led me into theological thinking and inspired me to imagine the way the world is — and how the world can be — and how, as a preacher, I can at least attempt to share those thoughts in ways that are perhaps a percentage as creative and imaginative as Bruce Cockburn.
Steve Stockman the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and blogs regularly on the intersection of faith and culture at Soul Surmise, where this reflection first appeared.