The Pretender
by Jackson Browne

I’m going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again
Say it again

I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening
I’ve been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it’s the wink of an eye
And when the morning light comes streaming in
You’ll get up and do it again

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

Ah the laughter of the lovers
As they run through the night
Leaving nothing for the others
But to choose off and fight
And tear at the world with all their might
While the ships bearing their dreams
Sail out of sight

I’m going to find myself a girl
Who can show me what laughter means
And we’ll fill in the missing colors
In each other’s paint-by-number dreams
And then we’ll put our dark glasses on
And we’ll make love until our strength is gone
And when the morning light comes streaming in
We’ll get up and do it again
Get it up again

I’m going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Thought true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender

Now then. What is this poem/song doing on an evangelical church web site?


As far as I can tell it is about people who start out with great dreams and get to a point in life where they understand that they really haven’t accomplished much of anything that really matters in the long run. Because they are co-opted by a meaningless culture with meaningless values. They are pretenders. Buy a house, start a family,  get a job, go to work everyday, come home tired, and the next day do the same thing. And the next. And the next …

There was a day in the song writer’s life when he thought that all the world needed now was love, sweet love. That was the only thing there was just too little of. But now he is wondering why it did not bring the changes to the world that he was sure it would.

Veterans dream of days gone by when life was dangerous and they were fighting for things that mattered and now they are barely able to stay awake at a traffic light and no one knows and no one cares who they are or what they did. And others do not know that the man sleeping behind the wheel put his life on the line so they could have the privileges, freedom, and peace they now enjoy.

Little boys and girls live for the sound of the ice cream truck coming. Their joys are simple and they are easily satisfied. And who can say that they are more transient or more immature in their pursuits than the rest of us? The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.

Happy lovers bask in the excitement of each other and know that they can make the world a better place, while a ship sails away with all their dreams on board.

And so the song writer decides to bask in the temporal pleasures of sex with his gal and surrender to the meaningless pursuits of a meaningless culture with meaningless values. Just be a happy idiot, live for the accumulation of money, and believe the lies that the ads throw at us.

And the poem ends with a final plea, born out of a final hope that maybe, just maybe, true love can compete with the love of money. “Would you pray for me?” he asks. “I started out a true believer, but I surrendered”. No happily ever after here. The song is dark and depressing. And for far too many – true.

What now should be the Christian response to such a bleak view of life? A happy-smiley-kissy-face approach where we say “just come to Jesus and such bleakness will all disappear” will not do the trick. Anyone who holds to the view in the song needs to see that the hope of the faithful is real and not just pie in the sky when you die by and by. They need to see that we agree with them that life seems abundantly meaningless. Perhaps the first place to take them would be to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Omit the last couple of paragraphs from Ecclesiastes and you have this song. Maybe we need to be honest enough to admit that we  too, sometimes feel like all our efforts at making the world a better place don’t really matter at all. Maybe we need to make sure all our smiles are genuine. And then show them real, life giving, purpose creating, God given hope, that does not disappoint (Romans 5:1-5), that sustains and is based on a Person, not on our ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

It is hard to witness the Gospel in the face of such pessimism, in part, because of the cynicism that surrounds the Christian faith. People believe a lie about the Gospel and those who cling to it. But they believe it because there are so many who give evidence that the caricatures of Christianity are true. This song was written, after all, by the same man who wrote:

Well they call him by the prince of peace
And they call him by the savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

The Christian faith is a faith of hope, as all religions are. Of course, many believe that the hope for future bliss is nothing more than wishful thinking, although it seems to me that it is better in any case than the view that states “life is hard, and then you die.” But Christian hope is different from any other, most importantly in this: it is based, not on our performance but on the performance of God himself. We have hope because God came down, lived and died and rose from the dead. He makes us His children on the basis of faith in Him, not on our goodness, or effort, or performance. We are helpless, hopeless, pretenders, no different from the man in the song. And God came and picked us up and gave us life and gave us hope. He enables us to erase pretense.

But then, as the Apostle John points out, all who [by faith] have the hope of seeing Jesus as He is, will purify themselves, even as Jesus is pure (I John 3:1-3). We will grow in conformity to Jesus Christ, from the heart and in our actions. This is what a cynical, depressed, hopeless people need to see. Grace that takes away our boasting and at the same time pushes us into the good works that God has planned for us to occupy ourselves with (Ephesians 2:8-10). And they need to see that we too know that life is full of pretense and disappointment and discouragement and failure. And that the only difference is Jesus Christ.

Here is Jackson Browne singing the song alongside of Crosby, Stills and Nash. I chose this particular version because all the guys are  nearing the end of their careers and one can only guess how much of the song rings truer to them now than it did when it was first written. Browne wrote the song when he was twenty-eight. He turns sixty-five this year.

I am so glad that he wrote this. It resonates with me. It is true and it is real. It is just incomplete and I want me and the church to demonstrate that life need not be made up of pretenders.