Want to watch a really interesting fight?
Put a bunch of Bob Dylan fans -- true believers -- in a room with a really good sound system. Make sure the flock includes old-guard Rolling Stone subscribers, a couple of academics with doctorates in literature, some born-again Christians and some Jews -- cultural Jews and Jews who practice the faith.
Ask this question: Is Bob Dylan (a) a Jew, (b) a Christian, (c) some other brand of believer, (d) a mystic who has faith in faith, period, or (e) all of the above.
Each person gets to play three songs to help make his or her case. Let the arguing commence. Yes, the arguments will only get louder after Dylan the poet receives his Nobel Prize.
I'll state my prejudice right up front. I have never interviewed Dylan, but I have talked to people close to him (including a family member) and here is what I think: I see no evidence has Dylan has lost faith in God. I see no evidence, in this public remarks, that he has lost faith in Jesus. I see lots of evidence that he has lost faith in Bob Dylan.
How do you write about Dylan without exploring the religious themes in his work? Beats me, but here is a New York Times super-short summary of his art, in a hard-news story about the Nobel Prize announcement:
Within a few years, Mr. Dylan was confounding the very notion of folk music, with ever more complex songs and moves toward a more rock ’n’ roll sound. In 1965, he played with an electric rock band at the Newport Folk Festival, provoking a backlash from fans who accused him of selling out.
After reports of a motorcycle accident in 1966 near his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Mr. Dylan withdrew further from public life but remained intensely fertile as a songwriter. ...
His 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” was interpreted as a supremely powerful account of the breakdown of a relationship, but just four years later the Christian themes of “Slow Train Coming” divided critics. His most recent two albums were chestnuts of traditional pop that had been associated with Frank Sinatra.
Christian themes? That's it? What about the Jewish roots of much of his art? How about that classic "Infidels" album in which Dylan turns the secular, "real" world inside out, creating art in which up is down and black is white and, yes, believers are now see as "infidels" who reject materialism?
If you are dealing with the basic facts that cannot be denied, the actual content of the lyrics and the notes on the page, then you can say this with confidence:
The bottom line: He is an American songwriter and artist, one with roots deep into America's spiritual and musical soil.
"Dylan has made it absolutely clear that he is a serious student of country, folk, blues, rock, Gospel and every other kind of American music. That's just a fact," said movie director Scott
Derrickson, a lifelong Dylan fanatic who wrote the forward for the book, "Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan."
"It's clear that he is fluent in the language and symbolism of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. … It's hard to dip your toe into his music without sensing the deep respect he has for the role that faith has played in the music of our culture. There has always been a sense of transcendence in his songs."
If you are looking for a short trip through the spiritual timeline of Robert Allen "Bob Dylan" Zimmerman, check out this piece from Religion News Service. I liked this summary:
... Dylan is still filling concert halls and arenas and rocking late into the night. He’s been quoted in Supreme Court decisions, and St. John Paul II once built an entire homily on Dylan’s classic song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The first volume of his memoirs, “Chronicles, Volume One,” was critically as well as popularly acclaimed when it appeared in 2004.
Scholars of Dylan -- and they are legion, with many offering entire courses on the singer’s record catalog -- have long highlighted the religious imagery of his work. From Old Testament references in “All Along the Watchtower” (1967) and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1976) to the New Testament basis of “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979) and the spiritual yearning of “Thunder on the Mountain” (2006), Dylan’s lyrics and music have long reflected his own restless, seeking soul.
However, it's really best -- in this case -- to read the news stories while listening to Dylan's music, with the lyrics printed out. If you are looking for a grand summary of his life, by the man himself, then many scholars would tell you to start with this piece -- "Every Grain of Sand."
Yes, there is a question here. Is it "master" or "Master" in the reference to the hand of the Creator?
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed
There's a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair
Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand
Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beams down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I'll always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand
So here is my question: Has anyone seen a mainstream news story that features quotations from this very personal Dylan epic, a song that almost always plays a key role in his live performances? Please leave us URLs of the best stories that you have seen.