Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Broken Hallelujahs by Christian Scharen [Featured Review]

Page 2 – Broken Hallelujahs by Christian Scharen

The fascination with whether something is “Christian” or not is a theological error, an insistence to “believe in glory, not the cross,” (20). That is, American Christians have a tendency to treat sin as minor, using Christ as a handy boost to overcome it and thereby lead a good life and get into heaven instead of recognizing our participation with Him in crucifixion and resurrection – dead because of our sin and alive because of His sacrifice alone. The error of “glory” makes salvation a quantifiable element under our control, if something displays the content deemed acceptable it can be labeled as “Christian” and thus sanctified, but if it strays or exhibits problematic content (Scharen uses the example of U2’s “wandering” in the 90’s) it cannot be labeled as such and thus should be avoided. Gone is the power of Christ and the loss experienced in the crucifixion (see in the cry of Christ: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Scharen shapes Broken Hallelujahs into a progressive argument, building each chapter on what has preceded it. In chapters two and three he explores the brokenness and soul in the music of Leonard Cohen and Billie Holiday, and in chapter 3 wraps the idea of those who are broken and suffering into the core of who God is, using the story of the Exodus and the cry of Christ on the cross.

In the second half of the book he shifts his argument. Chapter four, titled “Grace and Karma,” compares popular Christian methods of dealing with media – such as Focus on the Family’s Plugged In magazine with what Scharen has suggested so far. It is the “do good to be good” idea that he describes as “Karma” – a mindset that produces a way of living that is opposed to the idea of grace. Chapter five draws from the writings of C.S. Lewis, mainly An Experiment in Criticism, to reinforce the argument so far. Finally he gives examples of media which he suggest are “filled with life” despite not being “Christian.”

All of Broken Hallelujahs works up to this idea: what parts of culture are flowing with the life that comes from God? Labels are little more than the mere letters of which they are constructed. Thus, we must find some way to discern that life in the culture we submerge ourselves in. We begin to see that God is often found in brokenness, in the imagination of his creations, and in that which promotes life, love and justice.

As Scharen uses the entirety of the book to work progressively through his argument, there is a period where the reader is required to hold judgment in suspension. I felt, somewhere around the end of chapter four, as though I was halfway through a book I had read many times before. It is in this that Broken Hallelujahs finds one of its strengths and its greatest weakness.  The way in which the chapters build creates a wonderful comprehension at the end of the last chapter, but the limbo the reader must live in until that point can create an obstacle to actually getting to that point of comprehension.

It is worth it. While the whole of the argument is significant, there are points in the midst of it that shine. The idea that American Christianity exists with a focus on a sort of immediate “Karma” is fantastic.  This notion of Karma, or the Hindu insistence of good living in order to improve the next life upon reincarnation, is antithetical to Christian doctrine and verbally dismissed within the Christian mindset. To say that many Christians live by such an idea brilliantly displays the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is American Christianity.

Later in that same chapter, at the core of Scharen’s use of Lewis as support, is an idea presented by Lewis himself in An Experiment in Criticism. He uses the French words savoir and connaitre. Both can be translated, in English, “to know,” but just like saber and conocer in Spanish, the former means to know by way of knowledge – simply, sterilely – to “know about” a thing.  The later is much more intimate. It has the idea of knowing “with” something, as if from the inside.

Although Broken Hallelujahs is about music and the search for God in our broken world, deep down it has much to do with language and the power it has over the way we see the world and live within it. Scharen excellently highlights the danger in placing our own manufactured labels on things within the world – all of which can be considered as creations of our almighty Creator. While his ideas may not be entirely original, the words he uses add clarity to the discussion, while never straying away from the brokenness that every fallen being has in common.

[1] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Summary of Key Findings,” U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Internet. http://religions.pewforum.org/reports, (Accessed 1/6/12).

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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