Editor's note: The great American singer/songwriter/poet Bob Dylan turns 70 today. In observance of that occasion, here's an excerpt from the new book, The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times (Westminster John Knox), by Michael J. Gilmour. Learn more about the book and Gilmour at the end of this excerpt.
"Who is this character anyway?"
—Sam Shepard (referring to Bob Dylan)
"Who do people say that I am? … Who do you say that I am?"
—Jesus (Mark 8:27, 29)
I taped a photocopied picture of Bob Dylan to my office door during the time I spent thinking about and writing this book. It is my favorite picture of the singer, taken likely in the fall of 1975. He is standing in a cemetery by a large crucifix, in the Catholic grotto in Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac's grave is in this cemetery, so the motley crew touring with Dylan at the time stopped by the Beat writer's hometown to pay their respects. There are other photographs of this visit to the Lowell cemetery showing Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg sitting cross-legged at Kerouac's grave.
The picture on my office door shows Dylan standing in front of the tall statue, his feathered hat just inches below Christ's nailed feet. He carries a large tree branch as a walking stick while the camera looks up into his face, capturing both the singer's stoic expression and the Messiah's agony all at once. The picture has symbolic potential that illustrates challenges facing those interested in Bob Dylan's relationship to religion.
For one thing, though Christ is in the picture, Dylan is the focal point. Christ on the cross looks off into the distant heavens, remote and inaccessible. Dylan, on the other hand, stares penetratingly into the eyes of anyone looking at the photograph. It is actually difficult to focus on the crucified figure, which is off center. We view Christ at a slight angle. He appears high in the frame of the picture, and we cannot make eye contact with him. Dylan's shadowed eyes, on the other hand, stare back at us from dead center of the picture. He has an authoritative, confident stance—one thumb coolly placed in a pocket, jacket thrown over his shoulder like a cape. The other hand grasps his walking stick firmly. He could be Moses leading his people, poised to strike against the rock (see Exod. 17:5-6).
Viewed this way, the picture brings to mind John Lennon's 1966 observation that the Beatles are "more popular than Jesus now." Lennon's words always struck me as a reasonable observation rather than irreverence, despite the controversy that ensued. He calculated the shock value, no doubt, but it remains true that more kids flocked to Beatles concerts and record shops at the time than to churches. The picture on my door suggests something similar. It is hard to see religion—the figure on the cross in this case—with Dylan's imposing gaze commanding an audience. He is in the way, blocking a clear view of the icon behind him. The Dylan mystique is hard to ignore; moreover, many claim to find just as much wisdom in his canon of work as in the Sermon on the Mount.
Dylan stands in the very place of "the one whom Jesus loved," the only male disciple at the foot of the cross. Viewed this way, the photograph does not indicate a singer guilty of megalomania or showing any disrespect. Quite the opposite in fact—it suggests reverence for the one towering above him as he humbly takes his place at the master's feet.This is not the end of it, however. The Ken Regan photograph on my office door suggests other things as well. For one thing, Dylan stands at the feet of the dying Jesus, just where his most devoted followers kept watch on the dark day the statue depicts. According to the evangelist John, "standing near the cross of Jesus" were various women, including his mother, his mother's sister, and Mary Magdalene. And there was another. Standing beside Jesus' mother was the mysterious, nameless, male figure known only as "the disciple whom [Jesus] loved" (19:25-26). This character shows up a few times in the Gospel of John and is the only male disciple left standing by the side of the condemned Jesus, after all others had fled in fear (e.g., Mark 14:50). This close companion of Jesus sits at his teacher's side during a sacred meal (John 13:23; also see 21:20), hears the first reports of the resurrection, is second on the scene after Mary Magdalene to peer into the empty tomb (John 20:2-5), and recognizes the risen Lord ahead of St. Peter (John 21:7). The most touching reference concerns Jesus' mother, Mary. From the cross, the dying, eldest son entrusts her to the care of this close friend: "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home" (John 19:26-27).
There is a third possibility. Perhaps as we consider the Dylan presented in this photograph, standing menacingly or meekly at the foot of the cross, we should be thinking of the nameless Roman soldier also described in the New Testament Gospels. Apart from the beloved disciple, he is the only other man of note identified as standing in that place. Significantly, as we think of the joker that is Bob Dylan, this figure is of two minds. His presence at the scene implies, on the one hand, the actions of a sinister figure participating in the grisly execution. Perhaps it was this very soldier who pounded the nails or placed the spear in Jesus' side (John 19:34). On the other hand, the soldier at the foot of the cross experiences a profound transformation. Something happens to him as events surrounding the crucifixion unfold, because as Jesus takes his last breath this soldier declares, "'Truly this man was God's Son!' " (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39) and "'Certainly this man was innocent'" (Luke 23:47). Unlike the disciple whom Jesus loved and the women standing at the foot of the cross who were loyal friends from beginning to end, and unlike other villains in the Gospel narratives who do not change their opinions, this soldier evolves from killer to believer. Which is it in the photograph? Are we looking at the swagger of a murdering soldier or the humility of a new convert?
People will draw their own conclusions about this photograph: Does it depict the singer in the foreground, distracting the gaze away from Jesus? Is Dylan the musician at the foot of the cross, subservient to this religion, and standing in the place of the beloved disciple? Or is he the newly insightful Roman, transformed by an unexpected encounter? Some gladly embrace the idea of Dylan as a secular prophet, a term permitting a semblance of religiosity that does not actually connect the singer to a faith tradition in any way. He might pose with a crucifix, for instance, but this does not indicate any connection to Christianity. It makes sense, therefore, that Dylan draws the eye away from the crucifix, this symbol of what some consider vacuous organized religion, with its conformity, hypocrisy, irrelevance, and anachronism. Others, however, look to Dylan's songs as windows opening on something far bigger than the artist and his art. The songs allow us to catch glimpses of a never-defined but nonetheless genuine transcendence. It is all in the eye of the beholder.
Ultimately, we see in Dylan what we want to see. We find in his songs what we want to find. Occasionally, one of my young students will look at the picture on my office door and ask, "Who's this?" Aware of his penchant for wearing literal and figurative masks, I am inclined to respond with the only honest answer I can think of: "I don't know. Who do you think he is?"
Schweitzer presses his claim further by suggesting that the historian/biographer does not merely find his/her reflection in Jesus but instead "create[s] Jesus in accordance with his own character" (italics added). The Jesus that historians find is to some degree a fiction, Schweitzer suggests, and the same is true of analyses of the life and work of Bob Dylan. We find the Dylan we want to find. The endless ambiguities Dylan puts before audiences (like the photograph) contribute to our diverse conclusions, but, more to the point, the exercise of studying Dylan is self-revelatory.The great musician, humanitarian, and academic Albert Schweitzer once commented on the resemblance of biographers to their subjects. Remarkably, it is as if the writers look into a deep well and see their own reflections staring back at them, for in telling another's story, they reveal much about themselves. Schweitzer specifically had in mind nineteenth-century historians writing about Jesus of Nazareth, but if I may be so impertinent as to suggest a parallel situation, the same holds true for those writing about Bob Dylan. Schweitzer observes that biographers/historians approach their subjects with more than simple intellectual curiosity. "The historical investigation of the life of Jesus did not take its rise from a purely historical interest," he writes in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. "It turned to the Jesus of history as an ally in the struggle against the tyranny of dogma." Schweitzer's comments raise an important question about those choosing to investigate Dylan's life and work. What motivates them? Is there more than purely academic, historical, or biographical interest at play? If so, do we seek to claim Dylan as an ally in some kind of struggle in the same way nineteenth-century historians found their own "thoughts in Jesus", as Schweitzer puts it? To return to the potential meanings of the picture on my door, do we find in Dylan a symbol of our preference for a secular prophetic voice apart from religion or for one subservient to the cross? Our point of departure determines where we end up.
The possible reactions to the picture on my door might suggest polar opposite positions—either Dylan replaces religion in some sense (drawing one's gaze away from the crucifix), or he submits to it (standing at the foot of the cross as a longtime disciple or newly converted soldier). There is still another possibility, one presenting us with a middle ground most listeners of his music will likely accept. The crucifix stands behind Dylan. If we consider this with attention to Dylan's art, putting to the side for the moment notions of religious meaning and his personal connections to it, we can allow this picture to symbolize an important background for Dylan's aesthetics. The singer's deep connection with American roots music indicates knowledge of a cultural inheritance soaked in the Bible and Christian tradition, in addition to the religious formation stemming from his Jewish heritage and his study of the New Testament later in life. Dylan enhances his knowledge of religious material by drawing from wells other than music. Literature he knows also conveys biblical and gospel content. For instance, Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory mentions religious characters on occasion, like the preacher announcing, "'The day of th' comin' of th' Lord is near! Jesus Christ of Nazareth will come down out of the clouds in all of His purity, all of His glory, and all of His power! Are you ready, brother and sister? Are you saved and sanctified and baptized in the spirit of the Holy Ghost? Are your garments spotless? Is your soul as white as the drifted snow?'" Dylan employs some of these familiar phrases in the songs, stage remarks, and interviews during his gospel period (1979-1981). The account of the crucifixion in the Gospels and the infinite number of artists telling that old, old story inform Bob Dylan's musical ancestry, and there are signs of this influence everywhere in his work, from Bob Dylan (1962) to Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart (2009). Dylan's position in front of the crucifix symbolizes this cultural, literary, musical, and religious backdrop and all its influence on his work.
One final thought about this picture. As mentioned, viewers look up into Dylan's face and beyond it to the figure on the cross. According to Christian tradition, Jesus speaks to God in heaven when he is on the cross, as in the words "'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'" (Luke 23:46). Christ in the picture is looking up to the open sky, to the one in heaven, who is high above Dylan as well. God is present in the picture to the extent that the crucifixion scene includes dialogue with the Father in heaven. It is God as mediated through Christian discourse, and this God is, in the language of the photo, above Dylan and behind all he does.
Dylan often mentions God in his songs, and though he rarely attempts to define what the term means, he still points us toward that vague Other. Particularly in the post-John Wesley Harding period, one commentator observes, "Whether speaking of, to, for, or about God, … Dylan is consistently Godconcerned" (James S. Spiegel, "With God (and Socrates and Augustine) on Our Side," in Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Thinking), Open Court, 2006). Frequently this God-concerned language is biblical as well. During a period of convalescence following a motorcycle accident in 1966, the time leading up to John Wesley Harding, "Dylan had begun to read the Bible with conviction, keeping an open copy on a stand in his Woodstock study. He studied pertinent passages like a student seeking an advanced degree in religion. Biblical references now swarmed around his songs, taking his music into previously unexplored territories" (Robert Santelli, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956-66, Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Whether interested in religion or not, listeners will agree that Dylan's perspective as a poet-singer often involves a grasping after and striving toward an indefinable Something, and he turns to the language of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures to help articulate this search. He sees a shadow and chases it. If and how we interpret that Other, that Something, is our business. Bob Dylan merely forces the issue on us, leaving us to reach our own conclusions. In my view, this is the good news according to Bob Dylan.
Excerpted with permission from The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times by Michael J. Gilmour, published by Westminster John Knox Press. Gilmour is associate professor of New Testament and English Literature at Providence College in Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music and editor of Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music.
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