Archives For Bob Dylan

I’ve written a fair amount about Christian music, and also about the Christian Music Industry (both the positive and the negative). One of the major weaknesses of “Christian Music” as an industry is that it can’t account for all of the solid music being created by solid Christians. It’s essentially a means of marketing one or two specific genres of music to a very specific demographic.

Bob Dylan 3Lately, I’ve been repeatedly listening to an excellent example of the kind of Christian music that has no home within the Christian Music Industry. The song is called “When He Returns,” and it was written by Bob Dylan in 1979. The song is part of Dylan’s “Slow Coming Train” album, which features more explicitly Christian subject matter in its lyrics than most of our modern praise songs.

Take a minute to read through the lyrics (I promise that you’ll be challenged and edified):

The iron hand, it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God

For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears

Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right
When He returns

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through
He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew

How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?

Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask

How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns

Amazing, right? If Christian radio listeners could put up with Dylan’s voice, I could see this little number cruising to the top of the charts. But you’re probably not going to hear Bob Dylan on Christian radio (I’ve heard of only sporadic instances of this happening), nor will you find his albums in a Christian retail store, even his “Christian albums.”

Slow Train Coming Bob DylanBob Dylan’s career took a sharp turn in the late 70s when he converted to Christianity and began writing songs about Jesus, preaching to music executives, and refusing to play his pre-Christian songs. So why isn’t he a prominent part of the Christian Music Industry? The answer is simple: because he never signed with a Christian record label.

On the one hand, this is entirely understandable. Christian record labels, radio stations, and retailers have enough on their plates without scanning every album ever produced for other music to promote. It’s just the nature of the thing.

But I think the lesson for us is that the line demarcating Christian music (to say nothing of God-glorifying music) from the rest cannot be drawn by the record labels, radio stations, or retailers. This task is left to us ordinary music-listeners, and it calls for discernment. I’m not saying that everyone should dig through all of Bob Dylan’s (or anyone else’s) albums. But I’ve been enjoying doing that, and it has turned up some unexpectedly explicit (in the Christian sense) gems.

And, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Do we really think that God’s working is going to be confined to the buildings and industries we create? Shouldn’t we expect to find God moving, prompting, and speaking in unexpected ways? It seems clear that with God, we should be expecting the unexpected. In this case, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find the same man who sang, “everybody must get stoned”—which, by the way, he claims has more to do with the book of Acts than hippie drug culture—singing:

“Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns”

Bob Dylan 2My father in law introduced me to the music of Bob Dylan. At first, I didn’t understand the appeal. But a few years and several albums later, Dylan has become one of my favorites. I won’t argue with anyone who finds his voice less than appealing, but I will say that he uses it skillfully. There is a reason that people are still intrigued by his music, and his influence on the development of modern music is absolutely incalculable.

In the 60s, Dylan was hailed as a prophet. His simple but enduring lyric caught everyone’s attention: “The times they are a-changin’.” He won the admiration of the hippie generation as well as the thoughtful analysis of Christian thinkers like Francis Schaeffer. This reveals the depth of his musical projects. For a variety of reasons, people were—and still are—interested in what Bob Dylan had to say.

I recently watched the 1965 documentary about Dylan: Don’t Look Back. Dylan’s demeanor throughout the documentary probably wouldn’t surprise anyone. He comes across as a young, talented visionary—confident, beloved, and mysterious. But I was struck by something that Dylan said on the documentary during an interview with Time Magazine:

“I’ve got nothing to say about these things I write. I mean, I just write ‘em. I’m not going to say anything about ‘em. I don’t write ‘em for any reason. There’s no great message.”

Think about the implications of this. A whole generation (and every generation since, to a lesser degree) was enamored with the songs that Dylan was writing, yet he tells a reporter that there’s no great message behind them.

Is it true that everyone is simply looking for something that’s not there when they listen to Dylan’s albums? Could Dylan really have been writing something meaningless that somehow become meaningful to the world around him?

I don’t think so.

Let me be clear: I don’t claim to know Bob Dylan better than he knows himself. But it does seem clear to me that people only engage in artistic endeavors because they feel some compulsion to do so. No one ever wrote a song by accident. Lyrics don’t just happen to rhyme, nor do they fit into song structures or tell stories of their own accord.

It may well be that Dylan wasn’t fully aware of what he was trying to get at by writing those songs. Perhaps he intentionally wrote some things that he considered nonsense. But the artistic enterprise itself draws from something deeper.

Human beings create art in a search for meaning. We know that this world is more meaningful than the bare facts might indicate, so we tell stories, we sing songs, we paint pictures. We adorn our world in an effort to highlight its true significance.

So there is a deep sense of irony in Dylan’s words. Essentially, he was claiming that his search for meaning had no meaning. But perhaps the “great message” behind Dylan’s music was the search itself rather than any answers that he may or may not have discovered in the process.

Dylan eventually converted to Christianity, recorded two albums that were over the top Christian, and generally made a big deal of his faith (he is far more ambiguous now). It is clear that Dylan was expressing a message and attempting to convey meaning through his music at this point in his life.

But it is also clear to me that Dylan was exploring truth and meaning through his pre-1965 recordings as well. I can’t be convinced that songs like “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” or “When the Ship Comes In” are meaningless. I find them powerful attempts to find and convey meaning.

As Francis Schaeffer would say, try as we might to believe that this world is meaningless, we all know deep down that this world and we ourselves are overwhelmingly meaningful. And when we try to deny this reality with our art, our artistic creations themselves betray the truth of the matter.

 

Christians sometimes think that if we could just get someone rich, powerful, and influential to turn to Christ, then the rest of the world will follow. Most of us have had these thoughts from time to time. If the right movie star or rock star or athlete or politician or philosopher or scientist or whomever could be influenced with the gospel, this person could then reach the world.

The idea is that the influence that this person has built up through her fame will automatically transfer into influence for the gospel. If this person has had the ear of our culture through her songs or athletic skills or political prowess, then won’t everyone want to listen to her talk about her newfound faith?

It’s a nice thought, but probably not.

As rock stars go, few have had more of an influence or enjoyed more name recognition than Bob Dylan. What if we could win him over for Christ? Well, we did. In the late 70s Dylan converted to Christianity and was very outspoken about it. He even recorded a couple of albums that were so heavy in Christian content they made Michael W. Smith sound secular.

In his excellent book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Steve Turner describes what it was like to be at a post-conversion Bob Dylan concert. Dylan sang his songs calling people to repentance and faith in Christ to huge crowds. Did people listen to Dylan singing about Jesus the same way they had listened to him sing about the war or drugs or guys playing the tambourine? No. They booed. They shouted for him to play his older songs.

In Steve Turner’s experience, Dylan’s influence as a musician didn’t transfer directly and proportionately into influence for Christ. People were into the Dylan who sang about peace and a-changin’ times, but they weren’t into the Dylan who sang about Jesus.

Turner explains some of this in terms of our misunderstanding of art. In other words, we think that songs are sermons set to music. Those of us who are more preaching-minded feel that our sermons will be made even more powerful with musical accompaniment, but it just doesn’t work like that. The message is more embodied than spoken. Art works more through indirection than through direct address. I’m not saying that our faith shouldn’t manifest itself in our music, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t expect a song to work in the same way as a sermon. And we shouldn’t expect people to suddenly get behind the Christian message when it comes packaged with folksy guitar, crazy vocals, and a harmonica.

I don’t want to overstate anything. God can and does use whomever He wills. I don’t doubt for a minute that many people were influenced by Dylan’s faith. But I don’t think our hopes for the transformation of the world should be contingent on the conversion of the famous and powerful. As much as we are drawn to this top down approach, it seems that God prefers to work from the bottom up.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)