Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; 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 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

(more later: work in progress)

Meditation on Psalm 123

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may 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 . . .

Bob Dylan

 

In the Psalm that was our lesson yesterday morning the ancient poet assumes a posture of servitude to God:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

 

In commenting on this Psalm, Eugene Peterson writes that the idea of servitude is anathema in today’s age: “Freedom is on everybody’s lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated.” But, he adds, “not many feel or act free. We are a nation of complainers and addicts . . .”

Peterson and Dylan are on the same page here.  We do not reject God in return for freedom or personal autonomy; we simply, in Peterson’s terms, “trade masters; we stay enslaved.”

 

This may be the greatest deception of the hour in which we live.  Our culture, top to bottom – including now the government – exalts the individual as the ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality.  Thus, today, we hear about one man’s “truth” that may be different from the “truth” of someone else.  Thus, today it is seen as sheer bigotry and closed-mindedness to hold to any objective sense of right and wrong, any sense of morality.  Today, the truth is not what was revealed to Moses and Isaiah and not what is revealed in Jesus Christ; but, rather,  whatever occurs in the mind of each man and woman.  No one can judge; there are no real standards.  Any discrimination is wrong.

This philosophy, which now reigns practically unchecked, is perhaps the principal dynamic in the dissolution of the family and thus the community and nation and finally, and ironically, the individual.

Here is Dylan commenting:

Tell that [that there is absolute truth] to someone and you become their enemy. There does come a time, though, when you have to face facts and the truth is true whether you wanna believe it or not. It doesn’t need you to make it true . . . that lie about everybody having their own truth inside of them has done a lot of damage.

 

We are not the masters of our own fate.    That’s just who we are; it’s just how we are made.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil and it may be the Lord

But we’re gonna have to serve somebody.

About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.

Joy About Judgement

 

I wrote a couple of days ago about those places in the Bible where inanimate creation is encouraged to – or even seen to – engage in the active praise of God.  You know – where trees clap their hands and where the rocks cry out. Today’s Psalm – Psalm 98 – contains one more instance of this – one that I was not aware of before this morning’s reading.  Here it is:

Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the Lord. . .

And, once again, this ecstasy is inspired by coming judgement:

. . . for He cometh to judge the earth . . . .

This psalm tells us more about the kind of judgement the earth is anticipating.  As I argued before, it is not the kind of judgment that sentences someone to jail or to the gallows. Here is how Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, renders the verse:

He’ll straighten out the whole world

He’ll put the world right, and everyone in it.

Meditation on Psalm 96

 

In this Psalm, all of creation, even that which we would consider inanimate, is called on to praise God:

Let the heavens rejoice

Let the earth be glad

Let the sea roar

Let the field be joyful

And all that is therein

Then shall all of the trees of the wood rejoice

This is not the only place in the Bible where inanimate creation is seen as expressing praise.  Isaiah talks about trees “clapping their hands,” and our Lord tells the Pharisees that if he would silence his disciples, “the very stones would cry out.”

But every time we hear of such marvels, they are expressions of ecstasy.  The heavens rejoice and the trees clap their hands because they are bursting with joy.  It’s almost like they know that singing and clapping would be terribly out of character and thus impertinent for them, but, given the circumstances, they just can’t hold it in.

And the circumstance – at least in the Psalms and the prophets – that the rocks and trees, the skies and seas – anticipate is “judgement.”  How can this be so?  Do we think of the rocks and trees as angry about something or other (heh – maybe mountaintop removal mining) and thus bursting with joy when they see that the bad guys are about to get their comeuppance?

No.  I don’t think that’s the idea at all.  And the teacher who helped me with this – as has so often been the case in my life – was C. S. Lewis.  In his book, Reflections on The Psalms, he explains that when we moderns read the Bible, we tend to think of “judgement” as being like a sentence pronounced against a defendant in a criminal case.  He says that this view of it may be consistent with the way the term is used in the New Testament.  But in the Old Testament, it is usually the case that the judgement that is anticipated is more like judgement for a plaintiff in a civil case where the emphasis is not so much on punishment but on recompense – on being made whole.  Look at Psalm 103, verse 6, where God “executeth righteousness and judgement for all that are oppressed.”  It is judgment “for” and and not “against.”  It’s the kind of judgement that the Psalmist writes about in Psalm 37, where he says of that man who waits on the Lord:

He [God] will bring forth thy righteousness as the light

And thy judgement as the noonday . . .

This is the judgement for which all of creation groans.

Meditation on Psalm 69

 

“Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness.”  Psalm 69: 20

“Some say the heart is just like a wheel: when you bend it, you can’t mend it. . .”

Anna McGarrigle, “Heart Like A Wheel”

Yes, there is value in reading the old translations of the Bible.   It is true that in many places the old translations are obscure.  The English language has changed so much in the time between the King James Version and now that sometimes the meaning is completely lost on a modern reader.  On another day I will argue for the poetic value of the old translations – how they sound and stick in the mind:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . .

Okay, that doesn’t really convey exactly what was going on.  It was not really a tax as we think of it today, it was more like a census.  But what a beautiful, direct sentence;  what cadence.
But all of that is a subject for another day.  Today I want to consider that the King James Version of the Bible is actually, in and of itself, a part of our history and culture.  So many of the words and phrases there have been plowed into our consciousness.
As I read Psalm 69 this morning I heard again the familiar themes of grief and trouble and cries for salvation and justice.  All quite dramatic and sincere, but in a sense, just more of the same.  Then I came to verse 20 and to this phrase: “Reproach hath broken my heart. . .”
“Broken my heart?”  What a cliché.   It almost sounds like the Psalmist has been listening to country music.  But, of course, it is actually the other way around.   Right here in this little Psalm is the only place in the Bible that this phrase is used.  I’m willing to bet that this is the birthplace of this idiom, this figure of speech, which has pervaded our culture for generations.  Point number one: that’s how important the Bible is – even from a secular point of view, it is impossible to have a deep understanding of our culture and, indeed, our language, without a familiarity with the Bible.
Point number two is deeper.  Let’s meditate for a moment on the meaning or poetic value of the phrase.  Forget for a moment the overuse and the cry-in-your-beer connotations that country, blues and rock music have given it and think anew what the words mean.
The Hebrew might also have been translated something like this:  “My inner life – the soul of me, my hopes and aspirations, my confidence – has been crushed, extinguished.”
Why has this little phrase so taken hold in our culture?  Let me venture a guess.  Because this is what actually happens to us.  All of us.  Yes.  Our inner lives, our inmost hopes and aspirations are crushed.  Not always – as in the country songs – by an unrequited love or an unfaithful lover.  Sometimes that; but there are a thousand ways hearts are broken, and all of us know intimately at least one of them.
And the phrase does not say “wounded” or even “deeply affected.”  It says “broken.”  That means that the thing is rendered useless.  It means that the thing doesn’t work any more.
How can you mend a broken heart?  Is Anna McGarrigle  right when she says that the heart is like a wheel – when you bend it, you can’t mend it?
If the heart is the inner strength, the inner life, and it for whatever reason is not merely injured but actually broken, that means it can no longer raise the will.  It cannot will itself back to health, back to where it actually operates to motivate us through life.  Some outside help is needed;  and that is the mission of Jesus Christ:

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted . . .