Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah…
But baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…
Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah…
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…
–Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
There is no greater irony that a whole generation was introduced to this moving, powerful song in the movie Shrek.
That’s probably something Leonard Cohen would have smiled about, honestly. This song is about the complexities of life, of lost love gone sour, of the highs and the lows that compel us to sing hallelujahs, through a lover’s sigh, through a heartbroken weep, through a spiritual moan. The droning, rhythmic rhyming of the song, along with the repetition of the core lyric “hallelujah,” in both major and minor chords, is a masterwork in songwriting, and is rightly beloved to this day.
And I first heard in a movie about a farting ogre who wants to be left alone.
Shrek is a dark, bizarro-world fairy tale, and was designed to be so by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney film producer who molded Shrek as a unsubtle middle finger to the Disney brand. Outwardly the parody is stark; the story is set in Duloc, a fantasy kingdom run by a tyrant who wants to rid the forest of fairy tale creatures, all the while insisting his sterile, joyless kingdom is the “perfect place.” In every corner, princess pastiche and fairy tale endings are mocked and brought down to the level of adolescent humor, farts, burps, and all. Nevertheless, the meaning of the film is one of realistic expectations: fairy tales aren’t real. Happy endings are rare, and when you get one, seldom will it look how you expected.
To this, I think Cohen would have approved. As do I.
Shrek has become a cultural touchstone, and a spawner of various and plentiful memes. The poignancy of the original film has been dulled by lackluster sequels and disappointing cash grabs. Like David, temptation dulled the shine of something that was good. Whereas David was tempted to abuse his power with Bathsheba, the property known as Shrek fell prey to the temptation of merchandising, sequel-izing, and diminishing returns. In the end, the song proved true, and all that is left of the property is a cold and broken hallelujah.
The Shattered Utopian Myth
There is no such thing as a perfect place. At least, not realized on this earth just yet.
The farce of Shrek is that it’s a satire of Disney’s films as well as company image and practice, promising happy endings all the while commoditizing nostalgia. It says to the audience, “The things you were promised are not real. Sometimes, the world is terrible, and the best thing it can offer is a flimsy duplicate of a magical reality. But, in the end, you might find happiness if you accept yourself, and others, for who you truly are, warts and all.” That’s a valuable thing in this world. However, that doesn’t mean that the venomous bite of satire doesn’t still sting, and remind us that more often than not, the Lord Farquaads of the world win. The utopia we were sold isn’t real. The swamp is reality.
I want to talk about utopias and dystopias for a bit, because at this point in time, we need to take a good look at the world and appreciate what it really looks like, and how it’s always looked like. Specifically, we need to talk about the dystopic reality of America, and the hard truth that, actually, it’s always been pretty bad.
America was built upon mythic foundations. As soon as Europeans landed here, the myths began churning. For the Spaniards, it was a wilderness with untapped wealth, hoarding gold and riches undreamt-of before. The English and French wanted this wealth as well, and found instead of gold, vast plains for farming, mountains for mining, and animals for trapping. But, over time, another myth began to settle in: a myth of a new life in a new world. This was when the common people started settling, from puritans seeking freedom from persecution, to poor settlers just wanting a chance away from the cramped cities of Europe. More and more Europeans spilled into the west, and gobbled up the continent, and when the United States was founded, a new myth found life: Manifest Destiny. This kick started the engine of discovery and land acquisition. When at last the USA spanned from sea to shining sea, we had declared the land tamed, conquered, and our Shining City on a Hill was all but complete. Fast forward to World War II, we came into unprecedented wealth and industrialization, fueling another myth: the American Dream. This myth has continued to tantalize the masses to this day, and spur many a dreamer to entrepreneurship and fortune.
If you will notice clearly that all of these myths exclude some people. Specifically, the indigenous people of the Americas before the Europeans arrived, as well as the African slaves and their descendants that Europeans stole from their home continent. Oh, and can’t forget the women who were disenfranchised politically until only the 20th century. Let alone all of the other immigrants from all over the world that are systematically disenfranchised and taken advantage of. The myths of America are not for them. They do not fit in America’s Duloc-perfect vision of society. For them, America has only promised a swamp.
There are many in America today who yearn for a supposed bygone age of greatness, that we must return to. That age was always a myth though, a myth that tantalized people to maintain the utopian lie we were sold. There have always been disenfranchised people in America. The past is not great, and never has been. Duloc isn’t real, and the king has always been compensating for something.
America has almost always been a dystopia, if we’re being honest. And we need to be honest, because our hallelujahs, though they might be in earnest, are not always filled with joy. They are all too frequently filled with pain, heartache, anger and fear.
Hope in the Midst of Dystopia
This semester, I’ve been given the opportunity to take a class on the theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. If you don’t know who these guys are, that’s fine; I didn’t until last fall. However, a number of my colleagues cite them as primary influences, specifically their insistence on hope. I’m going to be challenged by them, to be sure, not only because of the learning curve required when reading German theologians in general, but because hope is always a challenge.
Hope has always been a challenge, specifically to the reality of now. Hope is a belief in a future that things will be better, despite all of the terror and despair in the present. Moltmann wrote his theology of hope in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead of rejecting God, as many philosophers and academics did, Moltmann doubled down on a positive, hopeful eschatology, a promise that in the end, God in Jesus Christ will right what is wrong with our present reality, our dystopic present, and redeem it.
Moltmann and Pannenberg had no illusions about the myths we tell ourselves, or the dystopic realities of the 20th century. I often find myself wallowing in despair about how broken things are. In that, I find that I probably need a season of my life examining hope.
In other words, hope might get me to leave my swamp.
Hope can inspire hallelujahs that might be warm, whole, and joyful. The cold and broken realities may not last. Duloc’s tyrant might be overthrown. And we might indeed find a happy ending, if not a fairy tale ending. It certainly won’t be the way we expect it to be.
And that suits me just fine.