Acclaimed Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has found his place as a Christian. Photo by Kevin Kelly

Bruce Cockburn and his longing for home

By  Allison Hunwicks, The Catholic Register
  • April 26, 2012

TORONTO - When talking to Bruce Cockburn, one is reminded of a line from a Charles Bukowski poem: “I am not even near to being one of them, but they are there and I am here.” It’s not that Cockburn sets himself as a man apart. Rather, he is conduit for a musical and spiritual energy and an artistry that has been embraced and celebrated around the globe. This is because Cockburn, apart from his reputation as a legendary Canadian singer and songwriter, prolific guitar player and passionate humanitarian, is just like many of us — trying to find a place to fit in.

This journey of life and music will be presented on May 4 in a Vision TV world premiere of a new documentary called Pacing the Cage, which follows Cockburn on his 2009 “Slice ‘O’ Life” solo tour and reveals him as artist, activist, Christian and nomad spirit.

“A lot of us, I think, have the sense that we don’t really fit in the world. There are people who are lucky enough, or maybe it’s bad luck, to think that they do fit,” Cockburn told The Catholic Register.

Cockburn has over the course of his career released 31 albums, been honoured with 13 Juno awards and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Despite these many accolades, Cockburn is a man much more comfortable on the road, a preference that is reflected deeply in his music. Dr. Brian Walsh, theologian and author of Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination, refers to this in the documentary as a sort of rootlessness that is juxtaposed with a constant longing for home.

“It’s the sense of home, as a destination, having a lot to do with arriving somewhere where you do feel like you fit,” said Cockburn.

“And in my picture of the cosmos, that doesn’t exist in this physical life. But, it’s out there somewhere.”

While Cockburn’s music has often been noted for its spiritual tendencies in its lyricism, he was not actively aware of his relationship with God right away.

“I remember in high school, reading the Bible for the juicy bits and being horrified and titillated at the same time with all the really bizarre things that the Old Testament is filled with,” said Cockburn, who found a more amenable understanding of Christianity through writers such as C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, as well as through his own experiences.

“Eventually, through a series of personal stuff in the early ’70s, I ended up giving myself to Christ and asking for help, and I figured at that point I better start calling myself a Christian,” said Cockburn.

His relationship with Christianity has morphed over the years into a sort of non-denominational approach and Cockburn manages to find a simplicity in his spiritual understanding that is free from dogma and fundamentalism.

“I think a personal relationship with God is what we’re supposed to be after and what God is after. That experience was a very crucial part of discovering and attempting to develop that relationship,” said Cockburn.

This view is reflected in his work as an environmental and political activist, a view often challenged by the actions of what Cockburn feels are fundamentalist confusions of a simple and loving relationship with God and one another.

“It’s all in the concept of loving your neighbour. I don’t think you have to be a Christian to love your neighbour or to value that idea, but certainly for those who identify ourselves that way have that as part of our mandate. You’re not loving your neighbour if you’re filling his land with land mines, or if you’re letting him starve or be brutalized by oil interests or whatever happens to be,” said Cockburn.

Despite his very frank and open acknowledgements of spirituality, Cockburn has never been pigeonholed into the genre of Christian music, a fact that he is greatly relieved by.

“It became a business. I’m not interested in that, and I’ve never been interested in that. That’s why I’ve stayed with tiny, independent record labels for all these years and let other people take care of the business because it’s just not what I want to be doing. I don’t want to be identified as part of a marketing scheme,” said Cockburn.

“It’s always bothered me to be filed in any particularly convenient file. That one (Christian music) was particularly abhorrent because it seemed to be directly in opposition to the whole point of being that kind of vehicle for sacred energy.”

This vehicle that Cockburn talks about is reflected in his stage performances, particularly notable in the Slice ‘O’ Life tour that is the focus of Pacing the Cage.

“When I play solo the focus is really much more on the songs. People can hear the lyrics, they notice the guitar parts.

“The point is to be the vehicle. To facilitate the sharing of experience, to facilitate love and people’s ability to receive God. That’s a grandiose way of putting something that’s much more immediate and it doesn’t seem so big when you’re doing it.”

In a line from the song the documentary takes it’s name from, Cockburn sings: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you, you can’t see what’s round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places, sometimes the darkness is your friend.”

These words seem somewhat dark for a man who is so beloved as an artist, and whose passion for his convictions is delivered in a strong yet gentle manner. However, Cockburn views his life as a product of divine purpose.

“I feel like I’m always where I’m supposed to be. I mean, I think that’s one of the things God does in our lives... part of my job is to figure out what I’m supposed to do there in that situation,” said Cockburn.

“Home is out there, and eventually, God willing, I’ll experience what that is.”

Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage airs on Vision TV, May 4 at 10 pm.

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