The cultural hermeneutics of ‘Spiritual Need’ in a Marc Cohn song
One of the main problems of the theological hermeneutics of popular culture is the question of whether a cultural phenomenon can be addressed as ‘religious’ at all if it is not clearly located in a religious context. If religion is a form of human consciousness, it is difficult to describe anything as religious except that which the individuals involved themselves perceive to be so. However, to rule out any form of ‘implicit religion’ at all would seem to be taking things a little too far. All the humanities are entitled to analyze and interpret phenomena from their own perspective.  Many theologians have recently emphasized that modern culture is by no means secular, that ‘lived religiosity’ is alive and well, and that this lived religiosity is a re-modelling or at least a legitimate successor of the piety of organized religion. ‘Sense and taste of the infinite’ (Schleiermacher) is present throughout culture and the media.  Others dispute this view, reviving secularization theory  by maintaining that religion is actually declining in industrialized countries, although they do accept that forms of ersatz religion may appear for a transitional period.
The debate, then, seems to hinge on the notion of ‘religion’. As long as there are no commonly accepted criteria for which notion of religion to use, the argument will go on. One approach would be to question the underlying interests leading to the different results. Scholars working in this area of research are often suspected of being too hasty to stamp the parcel with the label ‘religious’ simply to justify their own existence as scientific theologians. Their opponents are accused of reducing the variety of religious expressions and experiences down to easily measurable items such as ‘belief in God’ or ‘church attendance’.
As this has all been broadly discussed already, I thought it might be interesting to take those ‘cultural objectivations’ (Dilthey) into account that themselves reflect or depict the process of transformation. This puts one on safer ground from a methodological point of view, yet the nature of this transformation and its main implications are still open to an in-depth interpretation. In my article I will interpret the song My sanctuary from the 2007 album Join the parade by singer-songwriter Marc Cohn as a work of art that deals with the problems of organized religion Judaism in this case  and the search for ‘functional equivalents’ (Thomas Luckmann).
Before I begin, I shall point out that while my argumentation is based to a large extent on the lyrics, I will also try focus as much as possible on the music. I find it rather unsatisfying when theological interpretations of songs deal solely with the words not only because people often tend not to care too much about the lyrics, but also because this approach fails to take into account the nature of a song as a word-composition-performance unity. If there is a message, the music is clearly part of it.
Marc Cohn, born in
The song My sanctuary begins with the fade-in of a repetitive percussion pattern before at 0:09 the piano comes in Cohn’s distinctive percussive piano style. Despite the song being piano-based, the key is e minor, which is often used for guitar. The key also helps Cohn to occasionally reach high notes in his range without straining his voice too much. The prelude is based on a chord sequence of e, b/d and a strongly emphasized C7 that is often repeated throughout the song and that makes for a bluesy feel. There are also a lot of blue notes in the melody. The blues form is often used as a lament, as a way of expressing personal problems and the singer’s own view of them. This makes the song’s title “My sanctuary” especially poignant. Inherent in blues music, which must not be reduced to sadness and grief , is the idea of restoring the “somebodiness”  of a singer when it has been repressed or disrespected by society or hostile circumstances , be it the fear of being lynched or simply an adulterous partner. In singing the blues, the singer re-establishes himself as somebody who is not completely overwhelmed by his situation. The act of singing is one of defiance.
Overall, My Sanctuary is a serious ‘story’ kind of song rooted also in the tradition of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, when song lyrics became a mode of commenting on social issues in an intellectually challenging way, storing historical events and the feelings they evoked at the time in the ‘collective memory’ (Maurice Halbwachs) . Placing the song in this tradition implies that the personal affairs the singer wants to deal with are of a significance that extends beyond the merely personal. They are intended to be representative of something that most people are likely to encounter. Though the song focuses on the singer’s personal life in verses 1 and 3, its reference to a historical event of major importance in verse 2 is evidence of this.
The lyrics consist of three verses and a four-line chorus whose second line changes each time it is sung. Musically, there are only negligible changes of instrumentation which consists basically of piano, bass and percussion without cymbals or a snare drum and feeling throughout the first two verses and choruses. 
The first verse goes like this:
Jewish imagery is present from the very beginning. The verse describes a Jewish congregation coming back from the final service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur, one of the most important Jewish holidays, is of course dedicated to the idea and process of atonement for the People , who have therefore “all been forgiven”. Yom Kippur also serves as the closing holiday of the Ten Days of Repentance which start with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The faithful have now been “washed clear before another year begins.”
The basic feeling expressed by the singer is one of being separated from the community. He refers to the congregation as “the chosen ones”, expressing a distance right from the start. Whilst he was also born Jewish, as “the faces of the fathers / They look a lot like mine”, he no longer feels part of the community, he only watches them “from across a great divide”.
When Cohn was asked on an internet forum interview about the story behind the song, he answered: “[T]he initial idea came on the day of atonement a couple years ago while I was watching everyone come out of temple, and I was feeling sadly disconnected from my own faith.”  The song clearly deals with the relationship between traditional religion and the individual who, for whatever reason, is no longer able to believe in the ancient teachings. The loss of faith is what induces the singing of the blues, it is an instance that evokes lament.
However, this is not where the story ends, not even the story of the first verse. Note the accented “Me I’m” in line 8: while the singer sang before about himself in relation to what he had lost, he is now singing about himself as he is now, about his own life. He is “playing in the park with my children”, and he hopes “they forgive me my sins” (my italics). The singer desires forgiveness from his own children, not through the rituals on Yom Kippur, and maybe not even from God. There has been a change of the forum to which the singer feels responsible. The idea of divine forgiveness is theologically related to confession “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Ps 51,4). In the song, however, the idea of having sinned against God has lost its plausibility, and God is replaced by the singer’s own children as the authority before which the singer repents. He does not refer to any particular ‘sin’ he may have committed, but is probably consumed with the guilt that every parent experiences at the thought of having neglected his children in some way or disregarded his duties towards them. Being a parent eo ipso means becoming guilty.
With this in mind, the importance of the first chorus can be understood:
The “High Holy Day” is yet another description for the Day of Atonement, the High Holy Days being the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As Yom Kippur is one of the holidays where even secular Jews usually attend the “sanctuary” (i.e. the temple/the synagogue), the opposition expressed by the singer is truly remarkable. His sanctuary is the park where he is playing with his children. Being together with his family takes on a ‘sacred’ quality, enabling him to “lay down the burdens I carry”. The “burden” is a metaphor that is used regularly in the language of gospel music  to mean everything that oppresses the singer, mainly, of course, the burden of sin (cf. Gal 6,2). Forgiveness from his children (which already seems to have been obtained, seeing as they are playing with him) is all he asks for. His humanity is restored not by divine, but by family forgiveness. This interpretation is underlined by the fact that the melody reaches its highest note on “lay down”, with the experience of being redeemed marking an emotional apex.
The second verse tells a totally different story and is the most ‘folk’ one in the song. At first sight, it seems to have nothing to do with the singer at all.
The historical event the verse refers to is the hurricane ‘Katrina’ which hit the southern coast of the USA, and the city of New Orleans (where the “Preservation Hall” stands), in August 2005. The verse is constructed using a ‘reportage’ technique that is used quite often in folk songs. Rather than shouting out “protest”, events are depicted in a seemingly factual way. However, this style, coupled with vivid imagery, creates a strong subtext of accusation: “Everyone was told / The levees wouldn’t hold” refers to the devastating failure of a number of US authorities which led to people “screaming from the rooftops” and eventually being “washed away”, i.e. drowning in the flood.
The singer’s anger is not just directed at human failure, however. Those who are left behind or have died are depicted by the singer as the “forgotten ones”. This echoes the “chosen ones” in verse 1, thus adding a hue of theodicy to the lyrics. Some are “chosen”, others “forgotten”, maybe not only by the Bush administration but also by God. The singer points at the unsearchable side of God, the deus absconditus, but no longer seems to be willing to go by the traditional answer: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Rom 9, 14). Instead, the process of “mourning” described in the song is removed from God altogether. The singer is personally consumed by what happened in August 2005. Verse 2 is not just a story, it is also an expression of personal consternation, including on a spiritual level.
Numerous scholars have described the capacity to cope with contingency (Kontingenzbewältigung) as an important function of religion. Mourning is an essential part of that function, and funeral services may play an important role in fulfilling it. While the singer is far from denying the importance of somehow coming to terms with terrible events and their effects on human beings, he no longer looks for the divine help that is offered “at the churches or the chapels” but sticks to another tradition, which is of course historically related to religious ceremony: the New Orleans based “Jazz funeral”. 
A brass band escorts the coffin from the home or the church through the streets to the cemetery, playing hymns or sacred songs. After the body is buried, the music will change pace, featuring up-beat numbers and dance songs. More recently, traditional religious hymns have sometimes been abandoned altogether. The ‘consolatory’ effect comes from the playing, the dancing, the sweating, or the ecstasy , and not necessarily from the religious content. Coping with contingency is a function performed by the music itself, the jazz funeral or the memorial concerts at the famous “Preservation Hall”.
However, this transformation is more fragile than the first one, as the second chorus suggests:
You could almost hear the ghost of some old trumpet player say
This time, the line “This is my sanctuary” is not a confession by the singer, but is ascribed to not an old trumpet player, but “the ghost of some old trumpet player” who seems to hover above the audience or the singer. Moreover, the utterance of the line is marked as fictional, as “you could almost hear” him say so, indicating that the words have not really been said. Instead, the sense is that they could have been, should have been said. They are an expression of the singer’s basic feeling, but now is not the moment for spoken words.
The second chorus is followed by an instrumental bridge where a brass band is featured more prominently than before, underlining the jazz funeral feeling.
In the third verse the singer turns back to his personal life, but again with a reference to “the chosen ones”:
The singer suggests that “waiting for a saviour”, i.e. the Messiah, is pointless, when a more concrete form of ‘salvation’ can be found in the earthly pleasures of sex and love. In the true vein of soul music, he understands loving human relationships as inherently religious: the singer and his spouse “congregate in mystery”, which replaces religious congregation. This approach belongs to the Ray Charles tradition. Charles may have been the first to use the power of gospel music as a vehicle for lyrics which describe desire for a woman, thus giving sex, love, desire and the self-expression of a man singing about it a religious quality.  The third verse is only half as long as the others, as if the singer had nothing more to say.
The mixture of sex and religion is also present in the last chorus:
If the bedroom is the sanctuary, then it is a natural consequence to call intercourse a ‘prayer’.  But there is more to it than that. The last chorus is again introduced as quote: the singer’s spouse is ‘whispering’ it. She is the origin of the transformation of meaning that the singer then adopts as his own by singing it in his song. The mutual understanding between the couple is thus shown to reach beyond the realm of the sexual. They complement each other perfectly, and to be fully accepted in such a way may be what constitutes the redemptory quality of the relationship for the singer.
After the third chorus, the instrumental bridge is repeated, but the singer now repeats the song title “My sanctuary” over and over again, joined most appropriately by a gospel choir which somehow ‘sanctifies’ the religious transformation the singer has been depicting. The combination of a brass band, a gospel choir and Cohn’s portrayal of himself as a soul singer beforehand makes for a rather triumphant feel: the song is no longer a lament, but the story of a personal discovery of ultimate meaning. The singer has finally found his own sanctuary.
Despite this, the song does not end on a high note or in a grand tutti finale. The singing and the instruments fade out, and at the very end nothing can be heard but the percussion pattern that was present at the beginning of the song, bringing us back to where it all began. The confession of the singer’s new ‘religion’ may only be valid as long as the song lasts. Once it is over, the quest for religious meaning in our times will begin once more. 
As my last observations show, the song is certainly not meant as a real annunciation of new sanctuaries, but rather as a reflection on the meaning of religion at all, once the individual feels unhappy with its organized forms. In the interview mentioned above, Cohn confesses: “I feel the way a lot of people do, I think. Which is that I’m aware of a spiritual connection and need that I have, but have often struggled with religion per se.”  The notion of ‘spiritual need’ is a useful one, functioning as a kind of bridge between the depiction of the singer’s own sanctuaries and the remaining doubt once the song is over.
Here we run into difficulties, however. The history of the term “spiritual need” (religiöses Bedürfnis) is still as far as I am aware to be written. It seems to rise to prominence at the end of the 19th century  and is commonly used these days without further clarification. Given the fact that every culture in history has developed some form of religion, and that all kinds of meta-narrations have thus been available for thousands of years, why did the term “spiritual need” evolve in the first place? The idea of ‘need’ implies a lack, a void that has to be filled. How does this void originate in the spiritual realm? An answer to that question would require a deeper inquiry into the history of modern religion than we are able to deliver here, but it can safely be said that it has to do with the changes in the theory of cognition and the forced criticism of religion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. “Spiritual need” evolves after traditional religion is no longer considered to be a given instance. On the one hand it signifies a rather abstract and general need which leaves its subjects unsure about the way it might be fulfilled (unlike hunger, thirst, sexual desire or even ‘the need for freedom’ etc.).
On the other hand, the term seems to imply, as Cohn also indicates, some sort of connection with the ‘higher sphere’, whatever the subject’s concept of that may be. To feel a need in itself implies the idea of the possibility of fulfilment, even if such fulfilment cannot be achieved by the individual who feels the need. This is why die-hard critics of religion deny the existence of any spiritual need whatsoever.
Cohn, however, does not. I argue that My sanctuary might be understood not as the promulgation of a new religion, but rather as the depiction of spiritual needs and their possible temporary fulfilment. The song expresses three concrete spiritual needs. Maybe they are just the singer’s, maybe he feels “the way a lot of people do”. Verifying this would require empirical data or cross-readings with other works of cultural hermeneutics, which is not our task here. The first need conveyed by the song is that for an ultimate accountability and the need to be forgiven by the instance that represents it. The second is a need for ways to cope with contingency, which never ceases in a fragile world. And the third is a need for acceptance and fulfilment in the here and now. The singer implies that these needs can at least once in a while be met in the responsibility for and the security of a family, in the ecstasy provided by music (i.e. at funerals or memorial concerts), and the integral love of another human being.
Usually, when this point in an interpretation has been reached, Christian Practical Theology senses “challenges” (Herausforderungen). Representative of Christianity, it feels challenged by the fact that some humans try to meet their spiritual needs in a way outside of organized religion.  To some extent, this is understandable. There have been times when the institution of the Church provided all that was necessary in the realm of the spiritual. Other than that, however, the notion of “challenge” tends to be misleading. Practical Theology is prone to showing that transformed ‘answers’ (i.e. answers like those given by our singer) are inconsistent and that they do not deliver what they promise to achieve. It is often argued, for example, that families and partnerships are strained by excessively high expectations, and that it places too great a demand on sons, daughters and spouses to ask them to fulfil a quasi-religious function. This may be true. But the assumption that ‘transformed’ religiosity is doomed to failure does not in itself mean that people might as well turn back to traditional religion. Alternatively, theologians tend to acknowledge that there is some truth or meaning in individualized sanctuaries, but that only the teachings of traditional religion can really fulfil all spiritual needs.
The ‘challenge’ is thus, in the way of thinking of many theologians, to better explain the meanings of Christianity. It is taken for granted that it is the ‘truer’, ‘deeper’ and more panic-proof form of religion. But to think that way means to miss the point entirely, for ‘transformed religiosity’ may as it does in this case imply severe criticism of traditional religion. There can be no simple turning back, even if those looking for new sanctuaries do sense that the substitutes they have found might not be as safe as they wished. (Incidentally, it would be absurd to accuse the pop universe of not taking failure or fragility into account when almost half of all pop songs are about failed love, leaving or being left.)
In My sanctuary, the criticism is not made explicit but it is easily unlocked. The question is, then, firstly, why consider family as the forum of ultimate responsibility, and not God? This may be because the family offers a true experience of obligation; guilt is real and forgiveness is concrete, whereas religious laws are often experienced as heteronomous. Furthermore, in traditional religion sin is often a merely theoretical concept, while redemption is difficult to understand and usually without consequences. Secondly, why dance, shout and sing instead of performing a religious ritual? Here, I think, a distinction has to be drawn. The performance of a ritual may well include techniques of bodily relief such as singing or dancing. The point in question is therefore not rituality itself, but rather the dogmatics attached to it. The singer is certainly not ready to believe that all the “forgotten ones” are now safe with God or that the hope of resurrection will bring any kind of consolation. The jazz funeral (or a similar event) emphasizes the terribleness of what happened without offering cheap solace. It celebrates the life of the person who is mourned for instead of proclaiming what are alleged to be certainties but which are in fact nothing more than insecure prospects. Thirdly, why seek fulfilment and acceptance in your partner and not in God? Sure, the notion of divine justification can be interpreted as universal acceptance, but how can we know that this kind of acceptance is not just a matter of fantasy and imagination? Does it not have to be mediated in some way in the ‘real world’? The love and acceptance of a human may be less universal and more fragile (and people generally do know that), but, again, it is, at least sometimes, concrete and real.
Ernst Troeltsch’s question as to “why the satisfaction of these needs is allowed to be considered as absolutely given in Christianity”  is even more relevant today. Practical Theologians are on the wrong track if they take it for granted that theology has all the answers and merely seek a better explanation of how it be so. To perceive ‘transformed religiosity’ also means to open oneself to the meanings and the patterns of interpretation it offers. 
To reconsider the critical side of the transformation process is, in my opinion, one of the true challenges faced by Practical Theology today. Rather than staking proprietary claims to ‘lived religiosity’ or outperforming it with Christian doctrine in an apologetic way, the first thing to consider is the ‘truth’ contained in the offerings of modern (popular) culture. As there are catches and differences enough expressed within the pop universe, theologians need not feel obliged to introduce them themselves.
This is even more important if you take into account the fact that Christianity and ‘transformed religiosity’ can rarely be neatly separated nowadays. People may well say the Lord’s Prayer in a Sunday service and sing along wholeheartedly to a song like My sanctuary after lunch. They may believe in the values and ‘teachings’ of the pop universe and still have their children baptized in the Church. At least theologians who deal with pop music (often accomplished musicians themselves) usually know that they are standing with one foot in each garden, that they live with two different value systems which are in some way critical of each other. A huge number of people live like this without actually being aware of it. This makes it all the more important not only to learn what the singer of My sanctuary means by singing it, but also to understand what it means for a Christian  to listen to it. Maybe it means nothing, but then again, maybe it is sometimes of consequence.
In the interview I mentioned before, Cohn concludes by stating that the question of religion is “an ongoing journey for me, and I’m happy to say I took my five year old to the
To conclude, my point was twofold: on the one hand, songs (and other cultural phenomena) such as My sanctuary cannot be fully explained by a theory of secularization but rather indicate that the idea of a transformation of religion may indeed be valid. On the other hand, theology may not always be appeased by this kind of transformation. If the interpretation of popular music is of significance for understanding the Lebenswelt in which we live today, and I am sure it is, then theology must take into account the many aspects in which the modern life and traditional religion differ considerably. But to pre-judge who is right and who is wrong evidences a pitiful lack of comprehension of the many Christians who live and breathe in the presence of popular music. 
 See Günter Thomas, Implizite Religion. Theoriegeschichtliche und theoretische Untersuchungen zum Problem ihrer Identifikation, Würzburg 2001.
 The argument is, in the German discourse, stretched most prominently by Wilhelm Gräb, Lebensgeschichten Lebensentwürfe Sinndeutungen. Ein Praktische Theologie gelebter Religion, Gütersloh 1998, and Sinn fürs Unendliche. Religion in der Mediengesellschaft. Gütersloh. 2002. See also Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith. The Irreverent Spritual Quest of Generation X, Hoboken NJ 2000, as well as his excellent web site http://www.rockandtheology.com [
 See for instance Detlef Pollack, Säkularisierung ein moderner Mythos? Tübingen 2003; Pippa Norris/Ronald Inglehardt, Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge 2004.
 The results presented in this article are without a doubt valid for Christianity as well.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_in_Memphis; make sure to check the “discussion” section as well for a deeper interpretation of the song [
 See Carl Ludwig Reichert, Blues Geschichte und Geschichten, München 2001.
 James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation,
 The historical background is, of course, racism and slavery, whilst the origin of the blues form as such dates back to the time after abolitionism when black people’s hope for social equality was bitterly destroyed by segregation and the economic uselessness of formal freedom. The question of whether only black people are entitled to or even capable of singing the blues has run its course in the wake of the worldwide success of blues music. As long as people of whatever colour experience repressive circumstances and have a guitar around, there will be the blues. Cone’s fierce “yes” to the question most probably has to do with white rock stars such as The Rolling Stones or Joe Cocker being perceived as representative of blues music by the media at the time.
 Bob Dylan’s The death of Hattie Carroll from his 1964 album The times they are a-changing about the persistent racism in America is a prime example. See the in-depth article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattie_Carroll [
 I quote the lyrics according to the CD booklet. There are a variety of slightly differing versions on the internet.
 See Lev 16 for the biblical background.
 http://www.marccohn.net/forums/thread/2848.aspx. [
 Two well-known examples are “Burden down” and “Down by the riverside”, which might be referred to in the 2nd line of verse 1.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_funeral [
 For an in-depth examination of the notion of ecstasy in popular music, see Gotthard Fermor, Ekstasis. Das religiöse Erbe der Popmusik als Herausforderung an die Kirche, Stuttgart 1999.
 The combination of gospel and rhythm ’n’ blues is present in the 1950s Ray Charles songs I got a woman (which is an only slightly altered version of the gospel song It must be Jesus), Hallelujah I love her so and What I’d say. These songs are said to have generated hefty arguments in the black communities as to whether the combination actually misused the emancipative power of gospel music and denied its value for black Christian identity.
 The ‘prayer’ may also be a grateful reference to Paul Simon (whom Marc Cohn admires). Simon provides similar lyrics in his song That was your mother from his 1986
 This interpretation may be supported by the fact that the last song on Join the parade My sanctuary being the penultimate one called Life goes on leaves the audience with a rather sober acoustic guitar and string-quartet-based celebration of life which goes on eternally “without your father or your mother”, “without your children down the line”, “without Elvis, without Jesus” and even “without every living thing”. Not much consolation in that, I’m afraid.
 http://www.marccohn.net/forums/thread/2873.aspx [
 The term is present in the work of scholars such as Friedrich Niebergall, Ernst Troeltsch, Georg Simmel and others. I hope to dedicate more in-depth research to this topic in the near future.
 Unfortunately I do not know how Jewish theologians deal with this problem, if they sense one at all.
 Die Frage, “wesshalb die Befriedigung dieser Bedürfnisse im Christenthum als auf absolute Weise geschehen betrachtet werden dürfte“ (Ernst Troeltsch, Ueber historische und dogmatische Methode der Theologie, in: Ernst Troeltsch Lesebuch, ed. Friedemann Voigt, Tübingen 2003, 23).
 See Wolf-Eckart Failing / Hans-Günter Heimbrock, Gelebte Religion wahrnehmen. Lebenswelt Alltagskultur Religionspraxis, Stuttgart/Berlin 1998, 162.
 I will not talk about the possible meaning for Jews.
 See . I can personally attest to the religious importance for the grown-up of attending a service with his own children.
 Why, for instance, do more and more people request popular music in church weddings and funerals? These songs are possibly considered to have a special meaning for them, or may be ‘the soundtrack of their lives’.