About Yesterday’s Class

Making an oral argument before an appellate court is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the practice of law.  You’ve got fifteen minutes, give or take, to convince a panel of judges that your side is in the right.  The judges will know the record of the case.  They, with the help of a staff of bright, young law clerks, will have studied the transcript of the proceeding below and the briefs filed by the parties – you and your opponent.  They will know the law, as well, since they will have in large part made it.   That is, the court to which you are addressing your argument is often the same court that wrote the decisions on which your argument is based.

Everything is at stake here.  If you won below, then you are at risk of having the decision in your favor set aside and being told to go back to square one and do it over, this time according to proper procedure.  If you lost below, this appeal is probably your last bite at the apple.  If you lose here, your loss is generally final.

And so the preparation for such an argument is exhaustive and intense.  It involves committing a good deal of the transcript of the proceeding below to memory so that you can, on a dime, direct the court, chapter and verse, to those parts of the record that support your argument.  And you must have read the applicable precedents so thoroughly that you understand their rules and every implication that might flow from each ruling.

And so, the saying is that every lawyer who argues an appeal has three arguments:  the one he plans to make; the one he actually makes; and the perfect, insurmountable argument he thinks of while he is driving home from the courthouse.

That sort of thing can happen to Sunday School teachers, as well.  I think it may have happened to me this past Sunday.  The advantage I have over the appellate advocate, though, is this blog.  I can, at my leisure, attempt to correct or bolster here what I said or at least meant to say in class yesterday.

You may have guessed where I think my effort failed.  Our New Testament lesson yesterday was Revelation 6: 1-8, the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

In the last two lessons that I have taught, we’ve been studying the life of Whittaker Chambers through a reading of his autobiographical book, Witness.  Chambers was a Communist in the 1930s and worked with an underground “apparatus” consisting of himself, numerous highly-placed government employees in Washington, D. C., and a Russian Colonel in New York City.  This cell operated to spirit documents and other information out of government agencies – one member of the apparatus was an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State and another was an Assistant to the Attorney General – to be photographed and then sent to party headquarters in Moscow, all in preparation for the revolution that Chambers and his comrades thought was inevitable.

In time, Chambers figured out that what he was doing in collaborating with the Soviet Union was a colossal evil and he thus left the apparatus, deserted the party, converted to Christianity and became a witness against those other traitors with whom he had worked.

All of that is very interesting and gripping drama.  There is more than enough here for a whole semester’s worth of classes, but this past week we focused particular on two statements of Chambers; one concerning how it is that rational men – like himself – could become Communists, knowing full well the violence of the party’s operations.  Chambers had this to say about that:

 

“Sooner or later, one of my good friends is sure to ask me:  How did it happen that a man like you became a Communist? Each time I wince, not at the personal question, but at the failure to grasp the fact that a man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing.
I force myself to answer: In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises”

 

Dr. S. Robert Weaver was the man to whom I owe my understanding of the Scriptures.  He was a graduate of Princeton University, having received a Th.D. there in the 1940s.  He served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of St. Albans, West Virginia for some 22 years.  I became a member of that church upon my baptism there (I was then 12 years old) in about 1964.  I listened to hundreds of his sermons over the years and was privileged to be a part of a bible study class he conducted for young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He spent a good deal of time on the Book of Revelation.  He told us that this book was “the least read and most widely misunderstood book in the Bible.”

I don’t know about the “least read” part, but it is very easy to see that the book has been grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted in our day.  You can start with Hal Lindsay.  His book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, ostensibly based on New Testament prophesy, first predicted that the world was going to end sometime before December 31, 1988:

He cited a host of world events — nuclear war, the communist threat and the restoration of Israel — as reasons the end times were upon mankind. His later books, though less specific, suggested that believers not plan on being on Earth past the 1980s — then the 1990s and, of course, the 2000s. But Lindsey did more than just wrongly predict the end of days; he popularized a genre of prophecy books.

Top 10 End-of-the-World Prophecies, Time Magazine

Dr. Weaver saw the Book of Revelation not as a “blueprint of the future,” but as a message of hope to beleaguered Christians in the first century who were about to suffer persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  He taught that the “four horsemen” were not to be singularly identified with any particular historical events but, rather, were symbols of the recurring evils that would have sway during the era of the Church, that is, during the time between the Ascension of Jesus Christ and his return.  Those evils included war and economic woes.

Thus, when I read Chambers’ explanation of why men become Communists, my mind went directly to this passage from Revelation.  But here is the problem: no one else’s mind did!  When I asked at the end of the hour what connection there might be between Chamber’s explanation of why men choose Communism and this passage of scripture I could hear crickets.

But there are connections.  Big time, important connections.

In fact, I would argue that if Chambers had had a true understanding of this passage, he would never have joined the Communist party.

In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers was confronted again with this question:

 

“THE CHAIRMAN: What influenced you to join the Communist Party originally?

  1. CHAMBERS: It is a very difficult question. As a student, I went to Europe. It was then shortly after the First World War. I found Germany in chaos, and partly occupied; northern France and parts of Belgium were smashed to pieces. It seemed to me that a crisis had been reached in western civilization which society was not able to solve by the usual means. I then began to look around for the unusual means. I first studied for a considerable time British Fabian socialism, and rejected it as unworkable in practice. I was then very much influenced by a book called Reflections on Violence, by Georges Sorel, a syndicalist, and shortly thereafter I came to the writings of Marx and Lenin. They seemed to me to explain the nature of the crisis, and what to do about it.

We might say that Chambers’ motivation was a moral one.  We might have some sympathy for a young man who looks on destruction and then looks for a way to do something about it.  But what Chambers was missing and what we in our day very much need to have as we look at the convulsions of current events is a biblical perspective.

The Book of Revelation tells the reader that the history of this world will be marked by evil.  By just the kind of destruction and turmoil that Chambers witnessed on his trip to Europe.  Thus, the situation Chambers saw there in the 1920s was not unique, but only one more chapter, one more manifestation of the strife that the Apostle John wrote about in his message to the churches in Asia Minor.

Another thing that Chambers was missing and that an understanding of the Book of Revelation would have given him is this:  the evils in this world are spiritual.  They manifest themselves in material ways – war, famine, civil strife – but their origin is spiritual.  These evils are the deliberate workings of an evil, spiritual power and, thus, they cannot be solved by man’s devising, by a merely material response.   Man’s “five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains” will not, cannot, meet the needs of the day.

Chambers finally figured this out.  Tomorrow I’ll write about the second point from yesterday’s lesson: what we might learn from Chambers’ failure to make his first break from the Communist party a permanent break.

The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

Product Details

 

I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

**************************************************

 

Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part Five)

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

 

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”

The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?”  since that is how so many people see the issue.

 

But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question.  Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew.  He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American.  By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’”   So was the Apostle Paul.  So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus.  So what?

When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures.  His answer was, more or less:  I don’t see any contradiction.  To me it’s all one thing.

Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age.  He is right to do that.  He’d be wrong not to.

The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.

 

Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality.  One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:

Dylan is not an intellectual.  He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.

Dylan is not C. S. Lewis.  He is not a systematic theologian.  He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience.  Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience.  We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts.  We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  That’s not who Dylan is.  It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates.  Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.

Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs.   For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living.  He did not set out to find and exploit a market.  He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul.  Even if that took him away from the market.

Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others.  He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours.  The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel:  Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”

 

If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists?  That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?

Marshall offers several ideas on the point.  There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession.  In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on.  Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that.  He just goes on to the next chapter.

 

Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism.  This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here.  The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.

But the book is a wonderful piece of work.  I could hardly put it down.  The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated.  It deals with an amazing subject; this Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winning American poet.  Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own?  Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:

The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience.

Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And Amen.

Bottom line?  Here is the conviction the book leaves me with:  Dylan’s conversion was no stunt.  It was not a result of confusion or delusion.  He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold.  They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand.  They may be cherished.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (part 4)

I Corinthians 9: 19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(Readers; You may reach parts 1-3 of this review by going backwards, post by post, on this blog.  Start by clicking on “previous post” at the bottom of this post and keep clicking back in that manner till you get to the first.)

 

So Bob Dylan studied with the Lubavitchers, attended his son’s bar mitzvah, visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and has been seen on occasion in one synagogue or another on one Jewish Holy Day or another.  Does all or any of that undercut the notion that Dylan believes the New Testament?  Believes that Jesus is the Christ?

At first glance, we might be tempted to say that it does.  The New Testament tells that adherence to the Jewish ritual law is no longer necessary.  Salvation does not lie in the keeping of the law, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  We don’t merit salvation.  No man is justified by the keeping of the ritual law.  Someone will argue that Dylan’s actions here all point to an opposite conviction and a return to Jewish practice and to the Jewish faith.  He is participating in those very rituals that the New Testament rejects.  How can he be Christian?

Well, let’s try to think of some other examples that we might compare Mr. Dylan’s conduct to.  Who are some other Jews who met Jesus, and how did they handle their allegiances – familial and communal – when it came to the old rituals and practices?

Oh, here’s one!  Saint Peter!  What a convenient example!   He, like all the rest of the Apostles, was a Jew and we can be as sure of his belief in Christ as we are of anything.  The New Testament, which chronicles Peter’s discipleship at the feet of Jesus Christ is, far and away, the most reliable historical source out of the ancient world.  If we would doubt the accuracy of the New Testament, we’d have to ignore every other source of ancient history.  The evidence supporting the accounts in the Biblical Gospels is overwhelmingly stronger than that supporting any other ancient source.  In other words, the evidence for Peter’s discipleship ( and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for that matter) is far, far stronger than the evidence that there ever was a Battle of Thermopylae.

So, yes, Peter was a Jew who met Jesus and became His disciple.  He witnessed the resurrected Christ and ate fish with Him on a beach in Palestine.  He believed.  He, accordingly, was free from the requirements of the ritual law.  His faith in Christ was so strong that he suffered martyrdom.  Tradition – not the New Testament – tells us that he chose to be crucified upside down because he did not deserve the same death as his master Jesus Christ.

But the Bible tells us clearly that there was a time when old Peter himself continued to observe the old Jewish ritual laws.   Here is how the Apostle Paul tells the story:

 

Galatians 2: 11 -13 (The Message)

Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade.

 

How about that?  Why was it that Peter reverted to observance of Jewish ritual?  To hear Paul tell it it was because of the pressure put on Peter by other Jews.   We must accept this at face value if we credit the scriptures as authoritative, but what might Peter have said about this business?

Would he have said that he lost his mind and forgot the saving work of Christ and decided it was the best thing for him to go back to the same systems of rituals he kept before meeting Jesus?  Did his pulling back here mean that he was not a Christian?  Or might Peter have said something more along the lines of this “I’ve known these guys for a long time.  I don’t see the rituals as a means of salvation, but the old rituals are cultural and communal ties among us old friends.  I did what I did to avoid offending them.”

Again, I am not arguing against Paul’s stance here or his final analysis of the situation.  I’m just saying that there are such things as communal and cultural ties and there is some value in keeping the peace with one’s neighbors to the extent that you can.  Again, I’m not saying that Peter was right to do what he did.  I’m just saying that, you know, this kind of thing is understandable.   And maybe more understandable for Dylan than for Saint Peter.

Dylan’s son is Hebrew by birth.  A bar mitzvah is a part of the culture that surrounds him.  In fact, part of the culture that Dylan himself embraced or at least participated in until his conversion.  How could Dylan refuse to take part in or at least acknowledge the significance of this ritual?  Would Jesus have demanded that?

And let’s look at Paul himself.  In the Book of Acts we see him “purifying himself” before entering the Temple in Jerusalem: “. . . and he went into the temple to give notice of the time when the days of purification would be completed – the time, that is to say, when the sacrifice could be offered for each one of [the men].”  Acts 21: 25-26

I don’t for a minute pretend to know all that was going on here in this passage, but it seems a very safe bet to me that Paul submitted himself to Jewish rituals – you know, “the Law” that he jumped all over Peter for observing –  for the very purpose of keeping the peace among believing Jews.  The distinction, I guess, is that Paul did what he did among Jews and out of the hearing of the Gentiles.  But the point for now is that observance of Jewish ritual by Jews is not an indication of unbelief!  It is not inconsistent with faith in Christ.

Dylan’s observances, it seems to me, are more like those of Paul than those of Peter’s.  That is, they are done within the Jewish community and culture alone, outside the hearing, as it were, of the Gentiles.  Bob could be keeping the peace; assuring his blood tribe that he hasn’t forgotten himself or the heritage of his people.  He has not removed himself from their culture and community.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part 3)

 

 

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by [Marshall, Scott]

 

 

 

(Readers; Here is part three of a continuing post reviewing Scott Marshall’s new book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.  You can get the first and second installments by clicking back, post by post, on the “previous post” link at the bottom of this post.)

 

Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me, “
Just so you know where He’s coming from.

Bob Dylan, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”

 

 

 So, we have a three-way tug-of-war going on here,

 

with the Christian Dylan fans, like me, pulling one way – i.e. Dylan’s experience with Jesus Christ was a real, actual event (Dylan himself described it as “knee buckling”) and his gospel songs were not motivated by a desire for publicity but are authentic expressions of a converted soul, of a man who has met the Lord and, despite his open sympathy for the Hebrew community, of which he and his children are inseparably a part, and in spite of Dylan’s more recent writing that is less directly concerned with the Gospel and in spite of any crazy, excessive behavior Dylan may have engaged in since that time, he has never disavowed his confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and never disavowed a word of the songs he wrote as a result of that experience;

Secular fans pulling another way – that Dylan’s “gospel period” was just an emotional phase, not untypical for artistic types, but it has no spiritual or lasting reality and though Dylan himself has not directly and expressly disavowed his experience with Christ, such a disavowal can be fairly inferred from Dylan’s downplay of his gospel songs in recent concerts, his open participation in Jewish rituals and his rock-star behavior.

(Let me be clear about that last thing.  Marshall’s book hints that there are rumors of Dylan doing the kind of drinking and womanizing lately that we’ve come to expect of musicians while on the road.  The book does not detail or suggest any support for such rumors and I am not here implying that there is any truth to it.  All I am saying is that if such rumors are out there, it is a cinch that this tug-of-war team will use them to establish their case.)

The third team in this battle is, of course, Dylan’s Jewish buddies and fans.  The book tells that Elie Wiesel viewed Dylan’s conversion as “a tragedy” and that Paul Shaffer, the long-time music director for the David Letterman Show, admitted that he was brokenhearted by the news of Dylan’s confession.  This group sees Dylan as one of their own; one of their very best.  Dylan’s embrace of Christ is at best a kind of family embarrassment to them and at worst a real collaboration, by a former hero, with a deadly enemy.   This group will repeat almost all of the arguments made by the secularists as described above and add great emphasis to the evidence of Dylan’s later attendance at bar mitzvahs and other Jewish celebrations and his involvement with the Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish group.

It is the goal of Marshall’s book to sort it all out.

 

(more on the way. . . .)

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part 2)

 

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by [Marshall, Scott]

 

Readers;  Here is the second installment in my review of Scott Marshall’s new book on Bob Dylan.  The first part of it is one post back from here.  You may go to the bottom of this post and click on “Previous Post” to get the first part.

 

 

Sister, let me tell you

About a vision that I saw

You were drawin’ water for your husband

You were sufferin’ under the law

You were tellin’ them about Buddha

You were tellin’ ’em about Mohammad in one breath

You never mentioned one time the man who came

And died a criminal’s death.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

 

 

Bob Dylan’s  new songs were not warm and fuzzy.  They were not of the ‘let me suggest that you try to be good’ variety.  No, these new songs were preaching.  They were a presentation of the gospel and personally confrontational.  Dylan telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”

They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions
They talk about a life of brotherly love
Show me someone who knows how to live it

Bob Dylan, “Slow Train Coming”

 

His rhetoric was straight out of a tent meeting.   He told his listeners that they were not self-sufficient and that they could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

 

And it wasn’t only the songs.  They were straightforward enough, but for a couple of years there, Dylan actually preached the Gospel to his concert crowds between numbers.  He refused to play the old hits that so many of the ticket-buyers had come to hear and actually went on long raps about Jesus the Messiah and His coming again.

 

This raised the hackles not only of his hip fans, it did not sit well with his family.   Bob Dylan, Robert Zimmerman to them, was born and raised a Jew and all this talk about Jesus was, to put it mildly,  strange to them.  One of Dylan’s aunts, Ethel Crystal, told an interviewer that she thought the “whole gospel thing” was “done for publicity.”

Hoo-boy.   For “publicity?”  He turns against everything his fans thought and hoped that he stood for, angers and disappoints concert-goers, has his concert promoters and record producers ready to drop him, and this is for publicity?

I can believe a lot of things about Bob Dylan, not all of them flattering, but I can’t believe that.

And it is here that we get to one of the interesting and well-developed themes in the book: the tension between Dylan’s Christian confession and his Jewish heritage.

First, a bit of disclosure here.  I am a Christian.  I was thrilled with Dylan’s profession of Christ, bought all three of the “gospel” records, and attended a concert in Charleston WV in February of 1980.  Dylan’s conversion could not have been better timed for me.  I had always been a Dylan fan and in 1980 I was twenty-eight years old and finding out a bit about the real world and learning that the faith I had been raised in was really a matter of life and death.  I loved these songs then and I still love them now.  In fact, while I was reading this book I went back and watched videos of his performances during these years.  I am ever more impressed by what Dylan did.  When he tells the Grammy Awards crowd –every rich, self-satisfied, and famous one of them – that they’ve gotta serve somebody, well, that does something for me.

A bit more about me.  My life in the church has never included anything even approaching prejudice against or hatred of Jews.  In fact, I have a hard time understanding anti-Semitism, given my personal experience with those who claim lineage from Abraham.  I have found them to be the most responsible of citizens – family conscious, hard-working, sensible, and caring people.  And when I was taught the Bible I was instructed that almost all of it – save the Books of Luke and Acts – was written by Jews.  Jesus is a Jew – a direct descendant of King David – and his Bible was the Old Testament – the Torah and the Psalms and the Prophets.   I feel almost ridiculous having to say this – it all seems so obvious to me.  But in the book – in this book, I mean, not The Book – the strange divide between Christians and Jews is highlighted.

Scott Marshall quotes Ruth Rosen, the daughter of Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, on this issue:

For the majority of Jews, the New Testament is a closed and unfamiliar book because it is identified with the age-long persecution of the Jewish people in the name of Christianity.  Because most Jews believe that the New Testament promotes anti-Semitism, they think there could be nothing in it which would sustain Jewish life and values.  Thus, the common Jewish assessment of the New Testament is formed by a preconditioned impression. In many ways, Jewish experience seems to support this assessment.  However, the majority of Jewish people do not feel inclined to verify the assessment by an investigation of the New Testament itself . . .

I have seen it both ways.  In conversations with two Jewish friends, both of them Ivy-League educated and both deeply schooled in the traditions of their elders, I found one who had read and understood the New Testament and who, to my complete shock, said this: “Oh, I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, all right.  It’s just all that Catholic voodoo I can’t get around.”

The other was surprised when in the course of a conversation I mentioned that a great deal of the New Testament consists of letters that were dashed off by one Apostle or another to churches or fellow-workers in the faith during the first century.

What’s the point of all of this?  Well, when one considers the question of Bob Dylan’s faith, one must come to the matter with the knowledge that this issue is, to say the very least, a hot button in Jewish circles.    Scott Marshall comments that a change from the faith to atheism would be more tolerated and accepted in Jewish communities that a conversion to Christianity.  There is, accordingly, a lot of bias and interest involved on both sides of this question.  Christians, like me, who want to believe that Dylan’s confession was sincere and permanent and others who want to see the matter as a “phase” that their own favorite son soon “got over.”

 

(more later, work still in progress)

 

[