Brian J. Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto, adjunct theology professor, and author of several books, including Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.
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IF YOU WRESTLE WITH ANGELS, you will end up with a limp. When you struggle with God, engage the divine in lament-filled argument, cry out to the Creator for justice, hang on and refuse to let go without a blessing, you’ll end up with a posture bent over from the struggle and an uneven gait. Just watch Bruce Cockburn come onstage and you’ll see what I mean.
Known for hits such as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (from the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws), “Rocket Launcher,” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (both from Stealing Fire), Cockburn’s evocative lyrics, exquisite guitar virtuosity, and unique blend of folk, jazz, and rock has brought him numerous awards and accolades over the years. More than 30 albums and close to a half century of touring would take its toll on anyone.
But there is more going on in the career of this Canadian singer-songwriter. The quiet Christian spirituality discerned in some of his early work was broken open in the 1980s when he first visited Central America. Revolutions and dirty wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala opened his eyes to U.S. imperialism and the oppressive structures of global capitalism. Looking further abroad he became an advocate for ecological justice and the international banning of land mines. Closer to home Cockburn has railed against white nationalism married to the Religious Right while also passionately embracing the cause of Indigenous justice.
We haven’t heard much from Cockburn over the last few years. Writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, took up so much creative energy that songwriting dried up for a while. But the muse returned, and the result is a new album, evocatively titled Bone on Bone: A reference on one level to the arthritis that afflicts Cockburn (though his guitar playing is still stunning), but perhaps more so to the wear and tear of a life of pilgrimage and a spirituality of resistance.