Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading the Bible with Bob Dylan Part Five: Narrow Way


As it has throughout his career, Dylan’s recent work continues to be steeped in the language of the Bible. According to Malcom Guite, Dylan’s 2006 album ModernTimes, “has the greatest number of scriptural allusions of any album since the born again period.”[1] To be sure, the songs are by no means overtly religious or devotional like his Gospel albums were. His recent songs tend to be non-linear collages of allusions taken from diverse sources such as old folk songs; political figures; poets, such as Ovid; and, of course, the scriptures.  Guite says about Modern Times, “Genesis and Exodus seem to predominate, though I believe the final song, ‘Aint Talkin,’ an allegorical summary of Dylan’s life, contains allusions to the account of Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ in the Garden of resurrection.” The lyric he refers to is,

As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Up the road around the bend
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback, at the world's end

Dylan alludes to the scene in John’s gospel when Mary takes Jesus for the gardener (John 20:15-17). The heart also speaks of his heart burning which is a reference to another Post-resurrection encounter with Jesus in Luke 24:32. The singer is also “still yearnin.’” What is it that he yearns for? Truth? Salvation? In the final line, Dylan reasserts his conviction that we are living in the End Times.
            Dylan’s latest album Tempest, like the earlier Modern Times, is likewise rich with biblical imagery. London’s Telegraph describes the album as, "one of his [Dylan’s] darkest, bloodiest and most foreboding collections of songs, set in a barren landscape of Godless self-interest, moral equivocation, and random violence."[2] Dylan originally intended to make something much different. He says, "I wanted to make something more religious…I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread — than it does with a record like I ended up with."[3]
            The album begins with “Duquesne Whistle” a song about a train. The lyrics have an apocalyptic subtext that point us back to “Slow Train Coming.”

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like it's gonna sweep my world away

Later in the song, Dylan sings about “the sky blowing apart” and the sweet voice of the Virgin Mary calling out to him.

Can't you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like the sky is gonna blow apart
You're the only thing alive that keeps me going
You're like a time bomb in my heart
I can hear a sweet voice gently calling
Must be the mother of our Lord
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like my woman's on board

The third track of the album, “Narrow Way” has a refrain which is multivalent but clearly references Jesus’ saying about the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). In keeping with Christian teaching, the singer knows that he cannot possibly work his way up to God. He sings, “you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”
Dylan writes,

I've got a heavy stacked woman, with a smile on her face
And she has crowned, my soul with grace
I'm still hurting from an arrow, that pierced my chest
I'm gonna have to take my head, and bury it between your breasts
It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday

Here the singer also compares himself to Saint Teresa of Avila, who is often depicted in ecstasy being stabbed in the breast by an Angel with an arrow. An image of the Saint graces the cover of the album. Indeed, the title of the record, Tempest, is more than just an allusion to Shakespeare’s play; it may also allude to the words of Teresa:So it is, in truth; for I used frequently to recollect how our Lord, when the tempest arose, commanded the winds to be still over the sea.”
            Pay in Blood” is a particularly difficult song to interpret. Throughout the song the refrain is repeated, “I pay in blood, but not my own.” At times, it sounds like a promise of vengeance, but at other times, it sounds like an appeal to the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. The multivalent meaning, like those of “Narrow Way” is surely intentional. Dylan writes,

Low cards are what I've got
But I'll play this hand whether I like it or not
I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God
You could put me out in front of a firing squad
I've been out and around with the rising men
Just like you my handsome friend
My head's so hard, must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own

The song appears to be a conversation between at least two individuals, possibly between the singer and the devil or some other accuser who says,

 I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done
Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake,
I'll put you in a chain that you never will break

The possibility that the accuser is Satan is supported by a reference to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, where Jesus resists the temptation to turn stones to bread by saying “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, ESV). The singer quotes this verse directly to his accuser,

Man can't live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own

The song has other biblical references such as,

The more I take the more I give
The more I die the more I live

The singer’s words echo Jesus,’ “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25, ESV).
            The title track of the album “Tempest” is based on the sinking of the Titanic. At nearly fourteen minutes, it is downright Homeric for a pop song! It is reminiscent of other old folk songs about the Titanic such as “It Was Sad When that Great Ship Went Down” and “Titanic (Husbands and Wives).” Often these old folk songs interpreted the sinking of the Titanic as a Tower of Babel style judgment on the hubris of human beings. The lyrics of one such song “The Great Titantic” reads,

While they were building they said what they would do,
 We will build a ship that water can't go through;
  But God with power in hand
  Showed the world that it could not stand.[4]

Dylan’s tale is likewise cast as an apocalyptic judgment. He even depicts the Captain looking back on his life and reading the Book of Revelation as the Titanic sinks,

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears

When the Reaper's task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgment of God's hand

If the vessel described in “When the Ship Comes In” is a ship that will carry its passengers to glory, the ship in “Tempest” is one that leads only to ruin.

[1] Guite, “New Writings.”
[2] “The Dark Side of Dylan: Yes, His New Album Delves Deeply into the Shadows. But Then, so Does the Gospel.,” Christ. Today, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online:
[3] “Dylan on His Dark New Album,” Roll. Stone, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reading the Bible with Bob Dylan Part Four: Ring Them Bells


After three Gospel-oriented albums, Dylan’s music became less overtly Christian but continued to be rich with biblical themes, just as it had been throughout his career. An interviewer asked why Dylan’s new material seemed only “remotely religious.” Dylan responded, “They’ve evolved. I’ve made my statement, and I don’t think I could make it any better than in some of those songs. Once I’ve said what I need to say in a song, that’s it. I don’t want to repeat myself.”[1] He even went back to singing his old “secular” material. He explained, “It’s like the songs aren’t…how can I put it? Those songs weren’t anti-God at all. I wasn’t sure about that for a while.”[2]
Dylan has also recently been rumored to be a supporter of the Chabad Lubavich movement. He has been known to attend Jewish religious events including the Bar Mitzvahs of his sons, as well as synagogue services. All of which has led some to speculate that he has left Christianity to return to the Jewish faith of his family. Dylan’s music, however, continues to have many references to Jesus, the Christian tradition, and the New Testament. Recently he even recorded an album of Christmas songs, Christmas in theHeart. In a 1997 interview for The New York Times, Dylan said,

Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.[3]

 Dylan does not belong to any particular religious body, and he has distanced himself from his fire and brimstone, evangelical days, but does appear to have maintained a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Dylan is far from secular in his outlook. One of his most explicitly religious songs in his post-gospel period is “Ring Them Bells.” The song can be read as a lament for the growing secularism of contemporary culture and as a call to return to God and to an older and simpler time. It is also a critique of the Church, which Dylan sees as having grown complacent. The song begins,

Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
’Cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride

The opening lines contain an anachronism, “ye heathen,” which suggest an allusion to Joel 3:11 in the King James Version of the Bible:
Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen, and gather yourselves together round about.” God is calling on the nations to assemble in the Valley of Decision for judgment. This song too, then, is about the Day of Judgment, a recurring theme in Dylan’s work. The term “heathen” has also has come to be understood as a term of derision used by believers against unbelievers; and yet the singer tells the heathen to ring the bells from the sanctuaries. These are presumably church bells. This suggests a subtext of critique of the ‘believers’ who have abandoned the faith and have become like unbelievers. The city dreams because it is asleep. It is not prepared for the judgment. Joel 3:12 reads, “Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about.” The whole world is asleep, “on its side,” and rather than progressing, things are moving backwards. The world may have progressed technologically, but it has regressed morally. Christendom has devolved into paganism. The “bride” here undoubtedly refers to the Church who is the bride of Christ.(Ephesians 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-9), but she too is running backwards. Dylan, in another song, sings that “the groom is still waiting at the altar.”
            The next verse is addressed to the Church, and more to specifically St. Peter, who represents the Church. Dylan writes,

Ring them bells St. Peter
Where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

Peter often serves as the representative of the apostles in the Gospels, and Jesus often addresses him as a representative of the others. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to him, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Roman Catholics recognize Peter as the first Pope. The singer calls upon the Church to let the people know about the coming judgment. Time is getting short and the old days are disappearing. The singer laments the disappearance of a simple and more agrarian lifestyle. The image of “the sacred cow,” while borrowed from Hinduism, is not meant as a reference to eastern religion but as a way of describing the old world in which people lived closer to the earth and closer to God. The image of Rush Hour not only alludes to the ending of the day but also conjures images of industrialization, smog, and the “rat-race” of the modern world. It is a stark contrast to “the wheel and the plow.” The singer is calling on the church to summon the world back to the old-fashioned values that it has discarded.
            In the following verses, the ringing of the bells seem to be not only a call to judgment but an announcement of hope and a proclamation of the Gospel. They go,

Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells, for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies

It seems probable that the “Sweet Martha” the singer references here is the Martha of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, and the witness of the resurrection. If so, it seems odd that she be referred to as “Sweet Martha,” rather than as “Saint Martha,” since both Peter and later Catherine both retain their titles as saints. Another possible identity for “Sweet Martha” could be Martha, the eldest daughter of Bob Crachit in Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. This would make “the poor man’s son” to be Tiny Tim, who dies because Bob Crachit is so grossly mistreated by his employer Scrooge.  Bob Crachit is the prototypical “little guy” and symbol of the poor working class. Regardless of her identity, she is told to ring the bells so the world will know that “God is one.” This is clearly an allusion to Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema of Jewish liturgy, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.”  Also from this verse, we learn that not only is the world asleep, but the shepherd is asleep as well. This is clearly directed to religious leaders and echoes Ezekiel’s denunciation of the shepherds of Israel, “My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezekiel 34:6). The blind and deaf refer to the people who came to see Jesus, whom he described as “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The “chosen few” is clearly meant to refer to the saints who will judge the world when Christ returns (Matt. 22:14; 1 Corinthians 6:2; Rev. 20:4). The final lines of these two verses are particularly stark. The “child that cries when innocence dies” indicates the extent of the world’s sinfulness. To be born is to lose one’s innocence. The song ends with this verse,

Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong

The relevance of Saint Catherine is not clear. Perhaps Dylan mentions her because of Saint Catherine’s cathedral just outside Jerusalem, or the St. Catherine’s cathedral build on the site of Moses’ vision of God in the burning bush (Exodus 3). Maybe it has to do with a particular quality of moral clarity that Dylan sees in a world where they are “breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” The singer here laments the continuous presence of war. The ringing of the bells in this verse is in part to commemorate those who are fallen. “The lilies that bloom” suggest death but also resurrection. Although “the fighting is strong,” it seems as if people no longer understand why they are fighting. Motives have become ambiguous and the distance between right and wrong has narrowed.
            “Ring Them Bells” is a powerful song that is full of biblical resonance, and that is a clear indication that Dylan continues to believe in the message of scripture and continues to expect the imminent Day of Judgment. John Dolen asked Dylan in an interview, "When you look ahead now, do you still see a 'Slow Train Coming'?" [Referring to the title of Dylan’s first gospel record] Dylan replied: "When I look ahead now, it's picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it's going like a freight train now."[4]

[1] Hedin, 153.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Dylan Revisited,” Newsweek, October 5, 1997, n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online:
[4] BoB Dylan: Looking at the Spiritual Undercurrents of the Tempest Album, Dr. A.T. Bradford. Online: