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)