Bruce Cockburn Book Excerpt - from Journey to Christ

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From Chapter 3    

Journey to Christ 

Although Bruce’s parents were agnostics and he was raised an agnostic, he attended Sunday school as a child and young adult. This most likely gave him a reasonably good grounding in the basic stories of the Old and New Testament.  Of course, as a teenager, he and his friends, “used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one.”[1]

Bruce and his family outwardly conformed to a rudimentary Christian faith to fit in with the 50’s ethos.  He grew up in a very Christian-centered world.  In the 50’s and early 60’s, not being a Christian or even a Jew was a pretty radical thing, especially if you talked about it. Even today, as secular and profane as the Western world has become, an openly agnostic or atheist candidate would probably not be electable to a major office in the United States.  We are steeped in the Judeo-Christian worldview and its stories from birth, especially people from Bruce’s and my generation.

Bruce said of his early albums that, “I wasn't a Christian yet when I made those records although I was heading (being dragged by the nose might be better) that way.”[2]  Leaving aside who or what may have been dragging him by the nose, it is clear in the early albums that philosophical and spiritual concerns were uppermost in his mind.  Almost all the early songs show a far greater interest in what’s going on inside his mind than in the outside world.

Man of a Thousand Faces is a very curious metaphysical song from his debut album.  It opens with some deliberate strumming with the sound of waves underneath.  The title may come from Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is an exploration of mythology, heavily influenced by Jung’s ideas about archetypes and universal consciousness. Campbell uses the term to show the similarities between the stories of different traditions.  Some of the images are consistent with a mythological connection, such as ”the glass eye of the idol”, “things forbidden,” and “jewels on the Serpent’s crown.”  Bruce calls himself a “man of a thousand faces,” which may mean that he either doesn’t know who he is, or that he doesn’t show his true face or feelings.  Rather than embracing this multiplicity (or the commonality that Jung and Campbell see at the core of it), Bruce is genuinely troubled by it in this song.  As he says in his memoirs,


In his novel A Perfect Spy, John Le Carr tells the story of a boy brought up by a con artist father.  He grows up to be a chameleon, blending in with whomever he’s with, so much so that his genuine self disappears under all the quick-change facades, leaving the guise of the moment to be the truth.[3]


One of the many interesting images in the song is the opening image.  In the opening line, Bruce says that he is “looking to be by a window/that looks out on the sea.”   This is followed a couple of lines later, by this thought:


Surf of golden sunlight
Breaking over me
Man of a thousand faces


There are a couple of curious things about this extended passage.  The first is that rather than simply being at the ocean, he wants to be behind a window, looking at the ocean. Metaphysically, this would suggest a separation from the object of his desire.  And yet, as he imagines the sunlight as surf, the sunlight penetrates the window and breaks over him.  The images and the way they are presented here have a dreamlike quality that continues throughout the song.  The thousand faces may also be suggestive of dreams where objects seem to change appearance and shape from moment to moment.

 In the following verse, it appears that he is looking out a window at a garden. “In the Garden paths take form,” but a hailstorm obscures the way.  There are “things forbidden, things unknown” and Bruce “must travel on alone.”  Capitalizing garden suggests that Bruce is referring to the Garden of Eden.  Eating the apple brought death into the world and forced the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden.  So Bruce, like our Biblical forebears,  must leave.

In the next verse, he says that, “In memorium friends come round/but the hard ground holds its own” which suggests something or someone has died.  “Time for pulling, time to ride” suggests to me the familiar Pete Seeger song Turn, Turn, Turn which comes from Ecclesiastes, where everything has a season and “a time to plant, a time to sow”.  Bruce says in the following line that it is “my turn, but where’s the guide?”  But as he said in the previous verse, he must travel alone.  There is no guide.  There is no one who knows the way.

Still he longs for the sea, “the jetty...and the gulls”, where “truth is hid.”  He asks a second time: “anybody here know/where such a place is?”  Having left the Garden, he’s stuck in a city whose towers are “jewels on the Serpent’s crown” and the space between them is twisted “till every eye is blinded.”  There is no help for him in this place, because everyone is blinded to the true reality.  Given the image of the serpent, it also suggests the inhabitants have been tempted and blinded by false knowledge.

Finally, he asks God to make a deal to end his agony and confusion:


Lord will you trade your sunlit ocean
With its writhing filigree
For any one of my thousand faces?


Bruce is enmeshed in a spiritual or existential dilemma.  He has a vision of where he needs to be, but he has no tools to help him get there.  Getting there truly would be a “hero’s journey” in Campbell’s parlance.  The question is whether God would make such a trade for one of his faces, particularly if they are simply false masks?  Or is there even a God to make that trade?

The image of “sunlit ocean/with its writhing filigree,” or more prosaically, the intricate, shimmering pattern of the sunlight sparkling on the water is something that will reappear in a number of songs, like a thread connecting them together. 

Thomas Merton has some very pertinent things to say on the subject of masks that have a bearing on this song.  He says in New Seeds of Contemplation that,

The problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self… God leaves us free to be whatever we like.  We can be ourselves or not, as we please.  We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal.  We may be true or false, the choice is ours.  We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.[4]

In this light, Bruce’s dilemma is connecting with his true self.  The sea, the light, and truth are always with him.  They are hidden in plain sight in the illusions and falsehood of the exterior world.



[2] Bruce Cockburn. Answers to questions asked by the Humans discussion list. July-November 1995.  Quoted on

[3] Bruce Cockburn and Greg King. Rumours of Glory, HarperOne, 2014, p. 29.


[4] Christine M. Bochen, ed., Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, New York, NY, 2012, p. 55.


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