Bob Dylan was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to the Swedish Academy, Dylan won,”for having created a new poetic expression within the great American song tradition.” In ways I relate to Dylan. We were both born in 1941. He grow up in Northern Minnesota, where I am retired on the lake. He had an influence on the youth movement of the early 70’s when I was a youth pastor. Being part of “the Jesus Movement,” we had a revival among high school students in our Lutheran Church located in Edina, Minn. “Blowing in the wind” was sung often, along with such songs as “A bridge over troubled waters” (Simon and Garfunkel). Intuitively we had a sense that Dylan was a “soulful” singer, speaking prophetically to the American soul.
Dylan, the poet, can be experienced as a prophetic voice calling men to go beyond the surface to struggle with the deeper issues of life. His songs can’t be reduced only to their verbal content. You are forced to find spiritual meaning to his songs. While not a devoted fan, I came to maturity as a man, during Dylan’s rise to fame. Like many others I saw him as a spiritual poet. Eugene Peterson notes, “a poet uses words not to explain something, and not to describe something, but to make something…….Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination….we do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience.” That is how we experienced some of Dylan’s songs during the spiritual revival in the early 70’s. I applied many of his lyrics to biblical themes, that spoke to questioning teenagers.
A poet will use words to grab your imagination. “Dylan is a profoundly spiritual poet, and his spirituality is profoundly shaped by the Christian Bible.” notes one observer of Dylan’s career. He once said, “I don’t think I’ve been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and there’s a world to come.” In 1980 he had a conversion experience in which he said, “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing.” This period resulted in two albums built around Christian imagery – “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved.”
By the 2000’s Dylan’s lyrics, “begin to reflect less the influence of any one religion and more a seeking, mystic bent.” In the final track on “Modern Times,” Dylan seems to reflect where all his spiritual wanderings have brought him. “Ain’t talkin,’ just walkin’ / Through this weary world of woe / Heart burnin’, still yearnin’ / No one on earth would ever know / They say prayer has the power to heal.” He did say once, “Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.” It seems he is just walking and not talking.
Back in the 60’s “Blowing in the Wind” was asking this question, “How many roads must a man walk down /before you call him a man?” Dylan’s answer was, “The answer, my friend, in blowin’ in the wind /The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Pope John Paul II at the 1997 World Eucharistic congress in Bologna, Columbia, before thousands of youth, referred to Dylan’s words by saying, “You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man! I answer you: Just one, only one. It is the road of a man. This is Jesus Christ, who said I am the way.” Yes, that is the road we take to become a man.