I’ve been a Bruce Cockburn fan since the 1970s. Songs like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Call It Democracy, The Trouble With Normal and If a Tree Falls gave voice to my concerns about injustice, poverty and the environment.
Songs about his Christian faith — like Rumours of Glory, Lord of the Starfields, Sunwheel Dance and Festival of Friends — encouraged me in my own faith.
So when I got a chance to interview the Juno Award-winning singer and songwriter a week ago, I was both nervous and delighted to talk to one of my musical heroes.
The conversation was sparked when I learned he had returned to church after a 40-year absence.
During that time, Cockburn never stopped believing in God. But he grew apart from church after he moved to Toronto in the 1980s.
"I never found a church in Toronto that felt like home to me," he said. "I just kind of stopped going."
Now living in San Francisco with his wife and daughter, he started attending church again at the urging of his wife who was going to the Lighthouse Church in that California city.
At first he was reluctant, but finally gave in. The first Sunday he was "blown away" by the love and acceptance he felt from the congregation. "They didn’t know me, but love filled the room," he said, adding "It felt like the church I was waiting for."
Not only did he start attending again; he also joined the worship band.
"They needed a guitar player, so they were foolish enough to ask me," he said. "It’s a meaningful way for me to participate."
As for his faith now — where is he at?
"It’s a continuing journey," he said. "I don’t feel I have the corner on understanding anything. I just have a desire to have a relationship with God, a day-to-day thing."
While he doesn’t have "any hesitation" identifying as a Christian, he’s starting to wonder if that’s such a good thing to say in public these days now that some parts of Christianity in the U.S. are linked to Donald Trump, right-wing politics and anti-vaccination.
If someone asks if he’s a Christian, he still says yes — "but not one of those," he said. "Yes, I’m a Christian, but I got vaccinated."
Of the polarization in the U.S., he said "Things are really bad here." The term "liberal," has become "an epithet," he said, quickly adding he can be tempted to see conservatives negatively, too.
"When I think of Republicans, I have to tell myself not to think of stereotypical knee jerk images that come up," he said.
He wishes things weren’t like that. "It’s just politics," he said. "We should be able to discuss all the things that concern us and find solutions rather than forming tribes and fighting each other."
When asked about where his songs come from, the winner of 13 Juno Awards said they are gifts that "come from God."
"I still have to filter it," he said, adding "Unfortunately, that means God is stuck with me as a filter."
Winnipeg singer-songwriter Steve Bell is also a big Bruce Cockburn fan. "He changed my life," he said.
Until he heard Cockburn’s music, Bell thought Christian music could only be didactic with straightforward lyrics — like musical sermons that needed no explanation and had no room for interpretation.
But Cockburn’s use of poetry and metaphors in his songs required listeners to "dig into" the lyrics to find their meaning, Bell said.
"He wasn’t evangelistic. It was like he was leaving a trail for us to follow, in a melody and a poem," he said. "I was immediately intrigued by him. That was so foreign to me."
Cockburn’s protest songs and songs about social justice also opened new avenues of expression, Bell shared. "That really resonated with me. He was like a thundering desert prophet."
Bell, who went on to create an album of Cockburn cover songs called My Dinner With Bruce, remembers going to his first Cockburn concert.
"When I walked in, my universe was small," he said. "When I walked out, it was huge. He broke open my world. It was almost like a conversion experience."
As for Cockburn’s faith, "it’s always been important to me to have some kind of relationship with God," he told me. "I think that should be the centre of everyone’s life. I’ve tried to keep it at the centre of mine."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.