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: