Review and Preview

In thy presence is fullness of joy

  In thy right hand are pleasures forevermore

Psalm 16: 1

 

This past Sunday’s lesson was Psalm 16.  There were several thoughtful reactions to the reading of the Psalm.  Some noted that the psalm was comforting, others that it was joyful and worshipful.  The teacher (that’s me) suggested that one of the distinctive features of this psalm is its comprehensiveness.  That is, it takes us through so much of the life of faith: the absolute trust; the turning away from falsehood; the fellowship of kindred minds; the fulfilled life and the hope for eternity.

Another distinction of this psalm is its inclusion of the word “pleasure.”   We sometimes take that word to mean something selfish and shallow and hedonistic – “worldly pleasures,” and all that.  But here it is, right there in the psalm: “In thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The Hebrew word that is here translated “pleasures” is used 13 times in the Old Testament.  Only twice – here and in a passage in Job – is it actually translated into the English word pleasure.  In most instances, it’s translated as “pleasant” and in a few others to the word “sweet.”

In class we talked about what the word “pleasure has come to mean in modern culture.”  For fun and to make a point we referred to Tom T. Hall’s song “Faster Horses.”  Here is what the old man in the song says constitutes pleasure:

Son, it’s faster horses

Younger women

Older whiskey

And more money

Image result for tom t hall

Tom T. Hall

We were sure that this kind of pleasure was not what the psalmist was promising.  What then is the pleasure that the psalm refers to?  What does the word mean in this context?

We talked of abstractions like “joy” and “peace” and we talked about pleasure being the absence of negatives like sickness and infirmity.

When asked to make these ideas a bit more concrete we came to the notion that joy or pleasure might be the full engagement in those human relationships that mean the most to us.  If we were given time and energy and opportunity to fully share our affection and wisdom with our grandchildren, for example, we’d call that pleasure.

Others suggested that joy or pleasure in this biblical sense might be found in the fullest exercise of our talents and strengths.  One such talent is music and one musician in the class described feeling a desire to do more with her talents than she had ever done.

And this suggests an idea that we did not develop in class, but that I think is fairly raised by the psalm and certainly by the experience of all of us.  Like our musician in class, we all feel like – no matter how close the friendship, no matter how deeply experienced and no matter how finely we may perform musically – or in any other talent – we always are left with the lingering notion that there was more that we did not get to.

I remember that Dr. Weaver quoting some passage  – not from the Bible – about friendship not being able to come to full fruition in “such a nook as this.”  The “nook” referred to is, of course, this earthly life, bound as it is by time and mortal limitation.  This was, for him, an intimation of heaven, where all that we have seen as promised in our relationships may be finally fulfilled.

Here is a quote from Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived:

THE MUSICIAN: Pablo Casals, who performed at the UN recently, is 81. He agreed to have Robert Snyder make a movie short, “A Day in the Life of Pablo Casals.” Snyder asked Casals, the world’s foremost cellist, why he continues to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”

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Pablo Casals

Even for a master musician like Casals, there is the sense that there is more out there, more to be expressed than even he has yet achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

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Meditation on Psalm 40

 

We Evangelicals are criticized for using the phrase “personal relationship with the Lord.”

No, maybe that’s unfair.  Maybe I should say that we are often criticized for abusing that phrase.  Perhaps the notion is that some of us take this to ridiculous extreme.  Every traffic light, every chance meeting, every trip to the store, all is a part of God’s wonderful plan for our lives and we know it and we might even let folks know that we have a pretty good idea how it’s all going to “work together for the good.”

A little of that goes a long, long way.

Oh, but we can err on the other side of this, too.  We can forget that God is involved in our lives and that He is working for the good in all that we do; in all that happens to us.  It is so easy to lose sight of that.  One reason, I guess, is that we are so turned off by those around us who just know that God prevented them from getting a parking ticket this morning.  But maybe the more dominant reason is our dogged penchant for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.  That is, we want to see ourselves in control of our lives.  It’s not as scary that way and it makes us feel better about ourselves, I guess.

And for many of us much of day to day life goes smoothly.   There is food on the table; we have enough health and strength to get through the day’s tasks and then there is plenty of entertainment around to keep us occupied.  We may be settled enough in our lives to have forgotten some of life’s rough passages.  You know, those places in life where we felt lost or helpless or threatened.  Alone and powerless.  Where we called on God and He delivered us.

It may even be that we lose sight of our desires.  Instead of hoping and dreaming for beauty and delight and fulfillment, we dismiss it all as so much adolescent fantasy and settle in and settle.  Rather than continuing to hope that God will “make the justice of our cause shine like the noonday sun,” we simply forget that we had a cause at all

One great curative to all such self-satisfaction, all such pride, and all such surrender are the Psalms of David.

You want to see someone who had a personal relationship with the Lord?  Well, David is the archetype for that.  For David, life was an adventure. Reliance on God was a matter of life and death, literally; daily.   For David, life’s rewards were from the hand of God and were abundant and fulfilling.

Many, oh Lord my God, are the wonders you have done

The things you planned for us no one can recount to you

Were I to speak of them, they would be too many to declare

For David, life’s failures and disappointments could not be ignored or assuaged or supplanted by distractions and diversions.  No, David took his disappointments and frustrations not to the local pub and not to any man cave, but to the Lord.  He did not engineer ways to buffer or numb himself to the frustrations of life, he remembered them, he agonized over them and he laid them before God:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

Likewise, David did not minimize his own failings.  He did not ignore how his own blindness had led to his trouble:

Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head; therefore my heart faileth me.

Look at the heart of this man!  How unabashed he is in his confession and grief!  How total his reliance on God!  How complete his memory of past deliverance.  How the hope for vindication rises in him!  He can taste it!

Would we be better men if we knew David’s desire?  Would we be less likely to dismiss or dilute our own desires if we had even a half-measure of David’s trust in God?  That is, trust in His power, His righteousness, and in His love for each one of us:

But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me

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.

 

 

 

 

The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

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.

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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

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)