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Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination [Paperback]

Brian Walsh
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 1 2011
For forty years, singer and songwriter Bruce Cockburn has been writing beautifully evocative music. Bestselling author and respected theologian Brian Walsh has followed Cockburn's work for years and has written and spoken often on his art. In this creative theological and cultural engagement, Walsh reveals the imaginative depth and uncompromising honesty of the artist's Christian spirituality. Cockburn offers hope in the midst of doubt, struggle, failure, and anger; indeed, the sentiment of "kicking at the darkness" is at the heart of his spirituality. This book engages the rich imagery of Cockburn's lyrics as a catalyst for shaping and igniting a renewed Christian imagination.

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From the Back Cover

Christian Imagination and the Redemptive Work of Bruce Cockburn

"Kicking at the Darkness is a brilliant analysis of forty years of Bruce Cockburn's lyrics and their biblical and religious connections. Brian Walsh's explication is thoroughly researched and logical, and also compelling and entertaining. I read it from start to finish in one evening."
--Joel Goldberg, producer/director of Bruce Cockburn, Pacing the Cage

"Brian Walsh has offered us an enthusiastic celebration of Bruce Cockburn as a postmodern psalmist. Walsh engages in sustained reflection on Cockburn's sometimes dark and obscure lyrics and shows how they reflect a deep Christian sensibility that cherishes creation, groans along with the pain of a corrupted world, and yearns for the final revelation of beauty and justice. Longtime fans of Cockburn like me will find fresh shafts of light falling on familiar words; those who haven't yet discovered Cockburn will find themselves beckoned to encounter a world-changing artistic vision."
--Richard B. Hays, Duke Divinity School

"Brian Walsh is not just a theologian; he's a poet and a farmer, a father and a husband. He's an intellectual who likes good music; he's a lover of culture and a critic of culture. In this book, Walsh examines a musical legend and shows us how Bruce Cockburn's work can point us to God and to God's redemptive action in the world."
--Shane Claiborne, author, activist, and recovering sinner,

"I've been listening to Cockburn for three decades and reading Walsh almost that long, and I can hardly imagine surviving these times, let alone believing that joy will find a way, without the artistry and insight of both. This is an extraordinarily ambitious project, years in the making, and there is profound insight on every page. I recommend it with great enthusiasm and with immense gratitude."
--Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books

"What happens when one of the planet's leading Christian thinkers and writers engages with one of the planet's most brilliant songwriters and musicians? You'll find out when you read Kicking at the Darkness, Brian Walsh's new book about the music of Bruce Cockburn. I'm a dedicated fan of both of these men and I savored each page of this tremendous book."
--Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity and Naked Spirituality

About the Author

Brian J. Walsh (PhD, McGill University) is the bestselling author or coauthor of several books, including The Transforming Vision, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, and Colossians Remixed. He is a chaplain at the University of Toronto and an adjunct professor of theology of culture at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Ontario.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Window into Bruce Cockburn's Music Dec 28 2011
A friend of mine once said that there is no such thing as 'Christian music' or 'non-Christian music.' Instead, there is only 'good' or 'bad' music. After reading this book, I believe that my friend's preference for the good/bad music paradigm does not go far enough. Good music has to be creative, authentic, and reflective of life. This book is a fascinating commentary cum theological engagement with one of Canada's most celebrated musician and Christian thinker, Bruce Cockburn.

Brian Walsh has offered the literary world an profound work that engages our modern world with biblical insights, through the works of Bruce Cockburn. The title of the book is extracted from the lyrics of one of Cockburn's most popular songs, called 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time.' Walsh uses four main questions to helm his reflective interactions (21).

"Where are we? What is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves?"
"Who are we? What does it mean to be human?"
"What's Wrong? What is the source of brokenness, violence, hatred, and evil in life?"
"What's the remedy? How do we find a path through this brokenness to healing? What is the resolution to the evil in which we find ourselves?"

Walsh is generous with his praises. He calls Cockburn a modern 'psalmist,' 'prophet,' as well as a man with a 'certain storied perspective.' His music and lyrics stem from his strong Christian worldview, one that is able to grapple with the issues of the world with a theological imagination that does not diminish or dismiss the world with escapist music. Instead, Cockburn engages the culture, politics, postmodern paradigms, pluralism, and religion, with his brand of literary and musical prowess.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great gift for the Cockburn Afficianado. June 23 2012
It was a gift for a MAJOR Cockburn fan. A fan must-have. When you have all the albums, what next? The book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Psalmist, Prophet, Mystic, Storyteller Jan. 17 2012
In 1977 I was a 16 year old fascinated by the emerging music of the Jesus Movement. These were vinyl days when faith focused artists were emerging as proclaimers of the gospel.

I attended a music festival aptly named Jesus '77 at a campground outside Hamilton, Ontario. I heard some of the early Jesus culture prophets including Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, Mike Johnson, and Moose Smith.

From the handful of albums I had acquired, I was experiencing a renewal of my childhood faith and opening of imagination to the soul carnival found in concert venues and festivals.

In the Jesus '77 merch tent, I flipped through stacks of fresh vinyl endlessly searching for the next album to take home. In those days, I would spend $7 or $8 experimenting with new music. I would judge some of my purchases based on the album jacket and what I hoped would be matched sonically on both sides of the album.

When my eyes fell on Bruce Cockburn's 'In The Falling Dark', something mysterious happened. Without knowing fully why, the monochrome photo of Bruce and the song titles invited me to imagine another way of telling God's story.

From the first time the needle resonated in the groove of that album to this day, I revisit Bruce's discography the way some people return to a favorite cottage by a murky lake.

Now, about Brian J. Walsh's book; I say 'thank you, thank you, thank you!'

The book is subtitled 'Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination'. Walsh treats the Cockburn fan to a rich exploration of themes found in Bruce's songs.

Bruce has an encyclopedia worth of recorded music (31 albums).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Day Prophet Jan. 3 2012
I am not a fan of Bruce Cockburn.

This is not because I don't like his music, but rather because, other than 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time', I simply don't know it. To be honest, I'm more familiar with the Bare Naked Ladies cover of 'Lovers' than of the original, which is to say that until I learned that the song was a cover, I assumed that it was a BNL song. Although I am not prone to displays of patriotism, I suppose my ignorance of all things Cockburn could be considered an insult to my fellow Canadians.

Brian Walsh would consider this less an act of treason and more an act of heresy.

When I began my graduate studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, it quickly became clear that Cockburn's work was considered secondary literature in the biblical studies courses taught by Sylvia Keesmaat (who, by the way, is Walsh's spouse and co-author of Colossians Remixed, a book for which I was the research assistant). Although it was clear that Cockburn's lyrics were rich with poetic imagery and prophetic critique, I was never compelled to listen to or purchase one of his many CDs, operating under the assumption that since Cockburn has produced an album nearly every year since 1970 that such prodigious output was symptomatic of poor musical quality. This was an obviously ignorant assumption because, as I've since learned, Cockburn is, to put it mildly, an accomplished guitar player whose passion for the instrument is evident in his playing.

Anyone who knows Brian Walsh knows he is very passionate about three things ' the Bible, theology, and Bruce Cockburn.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read for Cockburn fans, old and new Dec 26 2011
By Michael Levitt - Published on
Confession time: Before reading this book, I was vaguely familiar with Bruce Cockburn, and may have only heard his music a handful of times. Not by intent, but somehow missing the connection between my listening ear, and the radio stations play lists.

Think of your favourite (favorite for my American brethren) musical artists. Now think of the first time you ever listened to your favourite artist. For many of us, that first moment was a virtual explosion of emotion and nerve-tingling excitement.

Brian Walsh's chronicles of Cockburn's musical journey provides a window into those nerve-tingling experiences. Dr. Walsh describes Cockburn as a modern-day theologian (we need more of them!), and Bruce's lyrics provide the bridge between us, and God.

Dr. Walsh didn't write this book over a summer holiday. It took him years to compile, journal, reflect, and gather insights into what Cockburn was attempting to show us, through his artistic gifts.

If you're a long-time Cockburn fan, this is a book that will help you dig deeper into the true meaning of Cockburn's music. If you haven't (yet) experienced Bruce Cockburn and his four decades of musical blessings, this book should wet your appetite.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For the Cockburn fan looking or hoping to explore his songs in depth...keep on looking. Sept. 11 2013
By THowerton - Published on
Have you ever had the experience where you were sitting in a stuffy college class with late springtime bursting with beauty and surprises and melodious sounds just outside the shut-up window where you could catch glimpses but could not hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it? All the while you were sitting inside that stuffy classroom on a hard seat listening to your professor drone on and on while a light on the rising ceiling sputtered and buzzed as it decided whether or not to give up the ghost and your classmates were scattered around the room shifting sleepily in their seats as they lazily tooled with their phones and the second hand on the clock seemed to have a hard time pressing forward? Well, if you have, then you have a sense of what I experienced as I trudged through the first two chapters of Brian J. Walsh's book "Kicking at the Darkness", a book that I was so looking forward to reading and then almost put down before finishing the second chapter. What kept me going you might ask? Only snippets of Cockburn's wondrous lyrics occasionally reproduced that were able to sing in my memory and make me long to open that classroom window.

Walsh, to be sure, is a man who is passionate about the topics that he presents in this book (Cockburn, a particular epistemological perspective of Christianity, and how art as expressed through an "unrestricted imagination" can act as a sometimes prophetic glimpse into something greater and more true). While he uses Cockburn's art and lyrics as a springboard his primary concern is that of expressing and exploring a particular Christian worldview that he has found embedded in Cockburn's work. Walsh (painfully at times, as if you are in a lecture hall listening to a professor describe his research model) takes pains to carefully explain in the first two chapters what he is setting out to do in his book and that he is not necessarily representing Cockburn's beliefs as they actually are but as he believes they may be. In the rest of the book he explores some ultimate questions (where are we? why are we here? who are we? et cetera) and passes through not a few of Cockburn's songs to draw out a specifically Christian worldview that takes the suffering of humans and nature alike as that which will be redeemed by a Creator God. Walsh approaches his subjects in repetitive and reflective fashion and while you may read some of Cockburn's poetry that is produced here to expound upon Walsh's thesis and be reminded of how fantastic a poet and wordsmith that Cockburn is you will also find that trudging your way through Walsh's explanatory narrative is difficult and dry.

Walsh himself expresses how the art and imagination of Cockburn and the literary expressiveness of certain biblical passages have encouraged him to dive into poetry (he often blends the two: Cockburn and biblical passages) but the result, I'm afraid, is rather painful. At least it is as presented within the context of this work which is scholarly in tone and teeth. The regurgitation, repetition, and frequent recall that Walsh employs just makes for a heavy hand when exploring something like Cockburn's poetry, even within the context of presenting a worldview. I was a bit disappointed with the read but for Walsh does use the byline of the book to notify us ("Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination") so I guess we were somewhat warned.

There were two things that helped me make it through this book and ultimately made it worthwhile of my time and attention: 1) the frequent references to Cockburn's lyrics helped them sing pleasant melodies in my mind, punctuating it like a respite of finding a cool pool with some lazy fish flitting about in the midst of a dry desert and (2) a reminder that we all need to possess a vision of what can be and not settle for what is. I was reminded of this very important point and it left me wondering when and where I had forgotten it.

2.5 stars.
17 of 25 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sad, Confused, Vague, and above all.....lacking a Thelology of any kind... Jan. 1 2012
By J.P. Randall - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've loved the music of Bruce Cockburn for nearly 35 years now. I've always enjoyed Bruces music, his arrangements, magnificent playing and his voice. This book by Brian Walsh, however, seems more to be an attempt at idol worship and approaching the object of his passion with answers, no, not answers, insights, but suggested insights, but maybe not the insights of the writer, blah, blah, blah......Buy Bruces CDs, enjoy them, keep them and if you want a sound theology....spend your time elsewhere, and you'll begin to understand where "we are"......Bob Dylan said more in his quote..."You don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows" , than this author did in this absolutely dry , vague and boring volume. Bruce Cockburn is a gift to us, but the comparisons to prophets, especially Biblical ones, is way ridiculous....Everyone can "claim" a theology, most are simply this review. Unless grounded in something substantial, they don't weigh much. JPR
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes. Dec 16 2013
By George V. Hudgins III - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
What a great addition to the growing library of music and spirituality. "Christian imagination" is under-explored and under-appreciated. This volume is an excellent homage to a musical hero from a diehard fan. It is also a wondrous volume of theology.

Thank you for it.
5.0 out of 5 stars a positive kick for "kicking at the darkness" Feb. 1 2013
By Allan Byer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I loved this book about Bruce's work, although the jump to the premise that Bruce's work somehow rekindles the "Christian imagination" was at times a bit much. I do appreciate that the author did mention several times that Bruce no longer declares himself to be only a Christian. digging into the songs and the mysteries of Bruce's work was fascinating. I recommend this book for any Bruce Cockburn fan, but also advise reading Jim Heald's "World of Wonders" which takes a more open view of interpreting BC's spirituality expressed in his songs.
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