The Importance of Fathers

 

As you know, if you read this blog regularly, I’ve been reading Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings.  She delves deeply into her early life, how her parents surrounded her with books and read to her in their nursery in their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the second phase of the book, entitled “Learning to See,” she focuses on her summer vacation north to visit her mother’s parents in West Virginia and her father’s parents in Ohio.   I have lived in West Virginia almost all of my life and so the descriptions of the life she saw here in the early part of the 20th century are very interesting to me.  I have been to the places she writes about – the towns of Clay and Richwood and the country all along the Elk River.

She writes particularly about one such trip she made very early in her life with only her mother.  They traveled by train to Clay, West Virginia and spent time in her grandparents’ home on a mountaintop there.  Eudora’s father came to West Virginia at the end of their visit to, as she puts it, “shepherd us home.”   Although she was very young then, she speaks of this memory about her father’s arrival:

. . . I was not too much of a baby to notice and remember how different it was when my father arrived on the scene.  A difference came over what we were doing, like a change in the wind.

I know what she means.  I remember something of the same in my own early life and I will try to express that before I end this post.  But the idea I have now is perhaps better expressed by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

That book actually began as two books – one the fatal story of Anna and the other the story of the life and redemption of Levin and Kitty.   The second story is far the better one.   Anna’s life is one mistake after another leading to dissolution and finally death but Levin and Kitty’s story is a great love story and a great story of victory in living.

 

Kitty Shcherbatsky

 

 

Kitty and Levin’s story begins with great disappointments on both sides.  Levin is head-over-heels in love with Kitty, but before he can bring himself to propose to her, she becomes enamored with Count Vronsky, who leads her on only to at last disappoint and mortify her by transferring his affections to the married Anna.

Kitty’s family does what it can to help her assuage her grief.  This includes, as the story goes, a trip to a German spa where Kitty meets another girl who works with the halt and the lame at there in service to Christ.  Kitty is drawn to this Varinka and comes to see that her own grief can be forgotten as she immerses herself in sacrificial love.

This is Kitty’s conversion.  It is real, and it is really brought about, on the human plane, by Varinka and a woman for whom Varinka works.  Kitty comes to venerate this older woman.

But when Kitty’s father, an old Russian prince, steeped in experience and tradition, arrives on the scene, things change.  It turns out that the old prince knew the woman Kitty has come to idealize.  When he meets her again at the spa, Kitty can see the woman in a new way through her father’s eyes as he speaks to the woman, as she reacts and as her father comments to her later about the woman’s character and earlier life.

Image result for anna karenina "prince Shcherbatsky"

Prince Shcherbatsky

 

 

Here is Tolstoy:

. . .  with her father’s coming all the world in which she had been living was transformed for Kitty.  She did not give up everything she had learned, but she became aware that she had deceived herself in supposing she could be what she wanted to be. Her eyes were, it seemed, opened; she felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy and self-conceit on the pinnacle to which she had wished to mount.  Moreover, she became aware of all the dreariness of the world of sorrow, of sick and dying people, in which she had been living. The efforts she had made to like it seemed to her intolerable, and she felt a longing to get back quickly into the fresh air, to Russia, to Ergushovo, where, as she knew from letters, her sister Dolly had already gone with her children.

But her affection for Varenka did not wane. As she said good-bye, Kitty begged her to come to them in Russia.

This scene from the book is far deeper and more subtle than I can convey in this post.  It is in fact a masterly dramatization of an elusive but profound dynamic of good fathering.   I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else even try to communicate this, in story or in exposition. Fathers, good fathers, are a sobering influence.  They see the people who surround their children in a different, more mature, less fanciful light.  They are sensitive to any attempt or effort to patronize or exploit their children.  When dad comes around, the nonsense stops.

When dad is not around, the nonsense often goes on unchecked.

 

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The Mark of The Beast

Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

 

 

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters.  If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is.  Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics.  The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth.  When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings.  Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.

Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing.   When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion.   You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

 

 

In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”

But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word.  The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.”   Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all.  Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.

While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.

We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation.  The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.

One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience.  In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope.  We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.

The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D.  It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.

What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader?  I suggest that it does a lot.  For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility.  That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.

Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations  point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves.    It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about.  You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us.  It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”

I hope you see how silly this is.  This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.

We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class.  We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.

Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power.  In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity.  The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.

If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own.  For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.

 

 

Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.

In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”

If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.

During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction

Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century.  After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God.  He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity.  He knew there would be repercussions.  He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:

One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little.  It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job.  If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it.  This is very easy [for them] to do.

There we have it.  Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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. . . .)