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 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)

 

[

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.