Monday, February 3, 2014

Reading the Bible with Bob Dylan Part Three: Born Again








In the late 1970’s, after a particularly tumultuous decade for the singer including a bitter and painful divorce, Bob Dylan announced that he had accepted Jesus as his savior and had been “born again.”  In an interview Dylan said,

 I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that. It’s an overused term, but it’s something that people can relate to. It happened in 1978. I always knew there was a God or a creator of the mountains and the sea and all that kind of thing, but I wasn’t conscious of Jesus and what that had to do with the supreme creator.[1]

Given the depth of familiarity with scripture evidenced in what we have already seen of Dylan’s work, it seems that he may have been simplifying things a bit for the sake of his testimony. At a concert in Syracuse NY, Dylan said to his audience, “Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Bob, why are you resisting me?' I said, 'I'm not resisting you!' He said, 'You gonna follow me?' I said, 'I've never thought about that before!' He said, 'When you're not following me, you're resisting me.’”
In the wake of his conversion, Dylan recorded a trilogy of Gospel albums that alienated some longtime fans but won him a whole new crop of admirers. He even refused to play his ‘secular’ songs, fearing that they were “anti-God.” During his live concerts, Dylan would preach to the audience between songs, making evangelistic pleas for them to repent and accept Christ before the coming Day of Judgment. The lyrics of Dylan’s songs expressed his new found faith and gratitude to Jesus Christ. In his song, “What Can I Dofor You?” in his Saved album, Dylan sings,

You have given everything to me
What can I do for You?
You have given me eyes to see
What can I do for You?
Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside
Filled up a hunger that had always been denied
Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide
And You’ve chosen me to be among the few
What can I do for You?

Dylan asked in “Blowin’ in the Wind,”

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Now he was saying that Jesus had “given him eyes to see.” For some, Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was utterly baffling. Reflecting on the biblical content of his music throughout his career, however, we can see that Dylan’s Christianity was a “slow train coming” for quite a while.
The obvious masterpiece to come out of Dylan’s Gospel phase is clearly, “Every Grain of Sand.”  Anglican priest, MalcomGuite’s analysis of the song—based in turn on Michael Gray’s—is both brilliant and illuminating, and my own reading follows his very closely. He says,                   

I must believe in God. Dylan calls up the echo, but only in order to put the vital question: what about the dark things, the things we ourselves have spoiled and broken, what about the sorrow, the violence the chill, the bitter dance of loneliness, the broken mirror of innocence? Can we believe? Can there be a providence or a God in the midst of temptation’s angry flame and all our memories of decay?[2]

The song is a confession. In it, Dylan looks back on the mistakes that he has made with regret but also with the assurance—despite his occasional doubt—that God sees him, knows him intimately, and has not abandoned him. Dylan’s song begins like this,

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

The scriptural allusions in this verse are multivalent.  The seed imagery reflects Jesus’ parable of the sower, but also Psalm 126:5-6:

Those who sow in tears
    shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    bringing his sheaves with him.

The imagery of “sowing” connects these two biblical allusions. The seed that is sowed—the new life being brought about in him by the grace of God—is sown in tears of remorse. There is a promise here, however, that weeping will turn to joy. This seed sown in him is a still small voice within him that seems to be dying and failing, but is fighting against the temptation to despair. In the next verse Dylan writes,

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

The singer resists looking back on his mistakes because the recollection of them causes him so much despair. It causes him to doubt whether or not there can ever be any hope of forgiveness for him. He compares himself to Cain, who had the chance to break the chain of original sin but instead only continued in the sins of his parents. Malcom Guite writes, “Cain also had the chance to break the chain and didn’t take it, there was nothing inevitable in his murder of Able, he is in fact warned and given new vision by God, ‘sin is couching at your door its desire is for you.’ The Master offers Cain a mastery over his own fury which he refuses…”[3] God is present in the moment of temptation, indeed in every moment. In the phrase “every grain of sand” Dylan alsp alludes to William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,”

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

This image too, however, is multivalent, alluding simultaneously to Psalm 139:17-18,

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
     If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

The Psalmist uses the image of grains of sand on a shore as away of suggesting a number beyond comprehension. It suggest the depth of God’s knowledge.
In the following verses, Dylan faces the mistakes he has made. He confesses that he continues to struggle with ever-present temptation, and that this struggle has robbed him of contentment. Ultimately, however, he takes solace in the fact God has not forgotten him. Dylan writes,

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

“The flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear” are the product of a different kind of seed, the seed of the singer’s own sins which choke the “breath of conscience and good cheer.” These weeds seem to be an allusion to Matthew 13:7, where the seed of the sower falls among thorns and is choked by them. Jesus identifies these thorns as “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” which choke the seed of the word and make it unfruitful (Matthew 13:22).  “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13), Dylan comes to the assurance that he is among those who God loves and has promised to make a blessing. The imagery of “every grain of sand” now shifts to allude to the seed of Abraham mentioned in Genesis 22:16-17, whose progeny will be as numerous as the sand upon the seashore.
            The next verse contrasts the vast multitude of those whose every hair is numbered (Matthew 10:29-31) with the many forgotten faces in the singer’s memory:

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

The singer has gone from rags to riches through the sorrow of his repentance. He has been given forgiveness and new life. Guite comments,

…the despairs and the temptations with which this song deals are precisely those of being at once known and unknown. He is one of the most well-known people on the planet: his name is known to all, and yet the name by which he is known is not his name and what he is known and remembered for is not himself, but his many artistic masks and personae. The temptations, particularly the sexual temptations of the Famous Musician on the Road are both frankly and delicately dealt with. The lust and rage that afflicted Yeats here become “temptation’s angry flame,” but in God’s eyes, the singer knows that the forgotten women who came and went on the road are also grains of sand, as precious as the named and famous, in the eyes of God, all that is remembered and confessed in the line.[4]

 “The bitter dance of loneliness fading into space” seems to be a reference to the singer’s many anonymous sexual liaisons. He sees his own innocence shattered in the forgotten faces of those who shared in his sin, whom he has used and forgotten. He hears the “ancient footsteps” of someone who is pursuing him among the countless grains of the seashore. He confesses that sometimes he knows that this is the presence of Christ with him, but other times he doubts.                  
 “Every Grain of Sand” appears on Shot of Love, which is the third of Dylan’s Gospel albums. The stridency and triumphalism of his earlier gospel songs is gone, and here we find a humbler confession of faith, that acknowledges times of uncertainty. The song ends not in doubt, however, but in faith. God sees him and knows him “like every sparrow falling and like every grain of sand,” an allusion to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”





[1] Benjamin Hedin, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader "I Learned that Jesus Was Real and I Wanted That" (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 150.
[2] “New Writings,” Malcolm Guite, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online: http://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/new-writings/.
[3] Ibid.
[4] ibid