Once in a sermon I quoted Woody Allen. I offered the quote as evidence that his world and life view was worthy of unqualified condemnation. Still, a day or two later I received a note of admonishment. My anonymous critic informed me that I had no business mentioning anyone so vile from a Christian pulpit.
On the other hand, I’ve known members of my congregations, apparently orthodox, definitely involved, who never commented on any doctrinal point. But they were always keen to dialogue over any cultural reference I may have offered up during a message.
I know many who would reject Bob Dylan as a fit subject for Christian analysis.
I think I understand the point of view.
I am nowhere near endorsing it.
The fact is Dylan matters.
He matters not simply because he made a profession of Christian faith in the long ago and recorded three (was it three?) Christian albums. He matters because he exemplified an era. He exhibited with a vigorous elan the mood of the Sixties. He balanced a kind of wary unsettledness with a cautious hopefulness in the generation which saw the assassination of JFK, the agony of Vietnam, and the progress of the Civil Rights movement in America. He did all that in his twenties, and if he had died by age 30, he would already have achieved legend status.
“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Now, amazingly, he has entered his ninth decade.
Still touring. Still writing. Still baffling.
Bob Dylan is the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Perhaps there will be others, but he was the first Edmund Hillary to ascend that Everest. And though purists may be outraged at the lowering of the Nobel bar, most of us believe the choice to be just and in fact, overdue.
Long ago he lost his voice. It was never classically admirable in any case. It certainly did not please everybody. But it pleased me, and I miss it. Dylan can still sell out concerts and sing in a low non-musical growl for the simple reason that he is Bob Dylan. And for most of us that’s enough.
Dylan gave us several variations on the theme of breakup and regret. Most memorably there was the epochal “Like a Rolling Stone” nominated, appropriately enough, by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest rock song ever. It was the song that epitomized “Folk-Rock,” a genre which Dylan practically invented all by himself. The song’s message was delivered brutally with something not unlike a snarl. The underlying message was “It’s over and I’m glad it’s over because you’re suffering and you deserve to suffer.”
Then there was the unforgettable “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” rendered even more hauntingly beautiful by the perfect Peter, Paul and Mary cover.
My own favorite is the puzzled lament titled, “Just Like a Woman.”
“When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world.”
I feel especially unqualified to render judgment on the topical songs. I don’t think Dylan had any choice but to land decidedly left of center. It was a thing predestined. He migrated from Minnesota to New York, wrote folk songs, and refined his twenty-something sensibilities in the Sixties. Add to that that he fell in love with a beautiful girl (Suze Rotolo) from a Communist family.
If he didn’t make leftists of right-wing Southerners like myself, he at least tugged us toward the center. Some of us budged. I live an hour away from Oxford, Mississippi. I love the University there and I love the associations with Faulkner. But Dylan had the capacity to level withering indictments to make us see that bad things were happening in places we loved.
“He went down to Oxford Town,
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his skin was brown…”
So prolific was he that I have no doubt Dylan threw away songs which would have been considered the supreme masterpiece in another composer’s repertoire. In his first extended interview with Rolling Stone he casually mentioned, “I wrote five songs last night.”
I don’t think he ever recorded my favorite song, at least my favorite poem in a song, in a studio session. There are bootleg relics and Joan Baez’s exquisite cover. I mean the song “Farewell, Angelina.”
I claim no special competence to interpret Dylan’s Christian phase. It was far too short as a musical season. I can only hope it was authentic as a Christian confession. Was Dylan ever a Christian? Is he a Christian still?
Of course, I do not know.
There is no question which begs more for the response, “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind” than this one. But that answer would be too predictable and more than a little trite.
It’s almost impossible to accurately diagnose a celebrity’s Christian profession through the distorting lens of public media. After the publication of the Watergate tapes Billy Graham intimated that Richard Nixon had fooled him. If Richard Nixon can deceive Billy Graham in person then anybody can deceive me through the media.
Of course, we can all hope.
And I do hope.
After disavowing any claim to competence, I can lay claim to some insider knowledge. I won’t go into detail, but it is the “knowledge” of a friend of a friend sort. And the intelligence I’ve received third hand is that there is good reason to hope the conversion was real and the convictions abide still.
“Will I ever learn that there will be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns”
Many of Dylan’s songs are haunted by a kind of mournful regret. There are good reasons for that.
We come nowhere near being tempted to hold Bob Dylan up as any kind of Christian model. He would be the last one to ever nominate himself in that category. There is good evidence that he was the betrayer in the relationship which led him to write “Don’t Think Twice.” We labor under no illusion that he was perfectly innocent in the destruction of the failed relationships he laments. He publicly blamed himself for the failure of his marriage to Sara. We know hardly anything about his second marriage, except that it began in secret and is now ended.
If I could recommend one song you may not have heard I think it would be “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”
That song evokes a depth of nostalgia sufficiently vivid to call forth tears. It’s a good nostalgia though.
The nostalgia which brings me the most pleasure is adorned by recollections of Bob Dylan’s music. It includes the memory of friends listening to the songs over and over, amazed that he gave such perfect musical expression to so much of what we felt, addressing our questions−if not answering them, while leaving us with something we never quite recaptured in after years.
“Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.”