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.

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