Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reading The Bible with Bob Dylan: Part One (The Early Days)

Bob Dylan has been called “the voice of his generation;” a title he himself despises and has done much to avoid.  In his own words, "If you examine the songs, I don't believe you're going to find anything in there that says that I'm a spokesman for anybody or anything really." At a very young age Bob Dylan became the darling of the budding counter culture of the 1960’s, and his songs were adopted as the slogans of that movement. Bob Dylan was seen as much more than a singer or a song-writer. Indeed, it was not at all unusual to hear words like “prophet,” or even “messiah,” used in connection with his name. Dylan described his experiences to Ed Bradley in a 2005 interview for 60 Minutes, “It was like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story. And you're just not that person everybody thinks you are, though they call you that all the time…You’re the prophet. You're the savior.' I never wanted to be a prophet or savior. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.”[1] Dylan can’t seem to shake the label of “Prophet of the counterculture” though. Even Pope Benedict, speaking about his predecessor’s invitation to Dylan to perform for him at a youth event held in Bologna, referred dismissively to Dylan as a “Prophet.” [2]
The reason that Bob Dylan is venerated in this way has everything to do with the power of his words. Bob Dylan, perhaps more than anyone else, gave voice to the deep and restless longings of a generation. New generations continue to identify with Dylan’s powerful music. Fans look to Dylan as an ally or even as a guide in their own search for meaning and purpose. As Albert Schweitzer wrote concerning the Historical Jesus, interpreters of Dylan’s music tend to be like those who look down a well and see themselves staring back. Michael J. Gilmour asks, “Do we find in Dylan a symbol of our preference for a secular prophetic voice apart from religion or for one subservient to the cross? Our point of departure determines where we end up.”[3] In the late seventies and early eighties, Dylan’s music became—for a time—explicitly Christian and evangelistic in its content, but biblical themes and questions of faith run throughout Dylan’s work from its very beginning to the present.   In searching for meaning in the music of Bob Dylan, fans cannot help but be confronted with the scriptures and the figure of Jesus Christ in particular.  Gilmour continues,

Whether interested in religion or not, listeners will agree that Dylan's perspective as a poet-singer often involves a grasping after and striving toward an indefinable Something, and he turns to the language of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures to help articulate this search. He sees a shadow and chases it. If and how we interpret that Other, that Something, is our business. Bob Dylan merely forces the issue on us, leaving us to reach our own conclusions. [4]

Below we shall explore some of the various ways in which Dylan has grappled with the Christian faith throughout his career. We will begin with his early days and work our way up to his most recent work.

Bob Dylan’s Early Days

Bob Dylan received the title of “spokesperson for his generation” largely as a result of his work in the early 1960’s. He is perhaps best remembered in the popular imagination as the writer of such anthems of the Civil Rights Movement as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-changin.’” Both of these songs contain biblical allusions and quotations. Dylan’s words in “The Times They are A-Changin’” come directly from the words of Jesus: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). Dylan sings,

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

The reference to the bible is obvious. The biblical allusions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” are somewhat more subtle. It is a song composed almost entirely of questions. It begins,

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

The song was famously performed by Dylan at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 not long before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In the song Dylan also asks,

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

Dylan echoes the words of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel: “Thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house which have eyes to see and see not, ears to hear and hear not” ( Ezekiel 12:1-2), which Jesus also echoes by turning them into the command, “ He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15). Just as the prophet Ezekiel rebukes the “rebellious generation” for their blindness and deafness, there is likewise a frustration in Dylan’s words that so many seem unable to understand the truth.  The answer, Dylan seems to suggest, is available to everyone. It is out there “blowin’ in the wind.” He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Dylan sang this song years later in his performance for Pope John Paul II in Bologna. The Pope had these words to say in response:

 A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life “is blowing in the wind”. It is true! But not in the wind which blows everything away in empty whirls, but the wind which is the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says: “Come!” (cf. Jn 3:8; Rv 22:17).

You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said: “I am the way” (Jn 14:6). He is the road of truth, the way of life.[5]

John Paul understands that Dylan is asking questions that point his hearers towards the scriptures and Jesus Christ.

Although Dylan did not yet identify as a Christian, his songs were asking questions that directed people towards Jesus. Dylan, even at that time, was engaging with scripture. One of Dylan’s most explicitly biblical songs from his early days is, “When the Ship Comes In.” Bishop N.T. Wright, popular bible scholar and theologian, recently performed “When the Ship Comes In” at a Christian conference. He commented, "Thisis stuffed full of wonderful biblical imagery and it's basically eschatology.”[6]
The arrival of the ship that the song refers to is an allegory for a coming day of judgment when all things will be put to rights. At that time, there will be a reckoning. Everyone, both the righteous and the wicked, will finally get what they deserve. There will come a day, Dylan says, when the world as we know it will come to an end:
Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
’Fore the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking

Here, Dylan alludes to the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14:21. In the story, Moses is leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The image speaks of deliverance from slavery and oppression but also of judgment for the oppressors. In Exodus 14:26-29, the Egyptian armies are drowned, but the people of Israel cross over the dry land to freedom. In Joshua 3:14-17, the sea is once again parted—this time the Jordan River—and the people of Israel pass over into the Promised Land. Both of these stories seem to be at play in Dylan’s verse, as well as the eschatological future towards which they point. The “morning [that] will be breaking” suggests the age to come; it is the New Creation that is promised by the scriptures, a “promised land” beyond the world of sorrow and oppression.
The next verse imagines all of creation delighting in the arrival of the ship and rejoicing in seeing justice finally done.

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be a-smilin’
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand
The hour that the ship comes in

The personification of creation as celebrating at the coming judgment is similar to the imagery used in biblical passages such as Psalm 98:8-9:Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity,” or Isaiah 55:12: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” In Luke 19:40, Jesus too speaks of rocks crying out in praise.
            In the following verse Dylan talks about the victory of truth over falsehood and the binding up of evil forces:
And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean
Scripture talks of Satan as, “the Father of Lies” (John 8:44). He was the serpent that deceived Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-5). Scripture also tells of the day when Satan will be defeated, bound, and his lies silenced: “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more” (Revelation 20:1-3). In Scripture, the sea is also commonly depicted as symbolizing the powers of chaos and all that is evil and in opposition to God. It is often personified, as in Psalm 89: 9-10, “[God] You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.” All of these biblical images seem to be at play in Dylan’s imagery.
            Finally, the coming of the ship will mean good news for the oppressed, who will finally receive the honor they were denied in this age:
A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck
The hour that the ship comes in
Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’
The ship’s arrival, however, will be a terrible day for the oppressors, who will be taken by surprise. It will be too late for them. Once again alluding to Exodus 14, Dylan compares the oppressors to Pharaoh’s tribes. He also compares their defeat to that of Goliath at the hand of David (1 Samuel 17:49-50), emphasizing the victory of the “little guy,” the oppressed people.
Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in
Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered
“When the Ship Comes In” is a song that celebrates and longs for the justice of God. Although one can often feel powerless before the massive, systemic injustice in the world—where  the righteous suffer and the wicked flourish—Dylan has faith that God will set things right. Dylan’s proclamation in this song can serve as a shield against despair, and as a call to boldness in our fight for justice.

[1] “Dylan Looks Back”, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/dylan-looks-back/.
[2] First Things, “The Pope and the Pop Star” by Sean Curnyn. Online: (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2007/05/the-pope-and-the-pop-star)
[3] “Dylan at the Foot of the Cross: Longtime Disciple? Converted Soldier? Secular Prophet? The Questions Linger as the Troubadour Turns 70.,” Christ. Today, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/mayweb-only/dylanfoot.html.
[4] Ibid.
[5] First Things, The Pope and the Pop Star.
[6] N.T. Wright Sings Bob Dylan, 2012, n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online: http://vimeo.com/41782945.