Both Bob Dylan and I celebrate our 80th birthdays this year. He was born in northern Minnesota, where I now live, and I was born in northern Michigan. We both come from iron mining towns (Hibbing, MN and Negaunee, MI). We both have lived through some turbulent times… I remember so well singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the late 60’s. But that’s about where the similarities end… Still, I wonder what Bob Dylan’s relationship is to Jesus Christ, particularly because I consider Dylan to be an American prophet speaking to the conscience of our culture.
Francis Beckwith, who teaches Church-State Studies at Baylor University, has long studied Dylan’s music. “When you listen to Dylan,” notes Beckwith, “you can hear that he has been reading classic literature his whole life. References to Dante and St. Augustine are as likely to show up as commentary about politics… he was quoting the New Testament [at various stages of his career]…Dylan has also soaked up generations of American music – especially folk, Gospel and blues.”
Dylan’s title song from the 2012 album “Tempest” is about the Titanic. “The captain, barely breathing, kneeling at the wheel. Above him and beneath him, fifty thousand tons of steel…In the dark illumination, he remembered bygone years. He read the book of Revelation and he filled his cup with tears…There is no understanding…the judgment of God’s hand.”
Beckwith suggests that Dylan has created a religious narrative about “the arrogance of man” and the “brokenness of our world.” Unlike our present “cancel culture” he isn’t into destroying or erasing history. Dylan “keeps returning to ancient truths, traditions and books that many ignore.” He wants to learn from the past. Instead of a lot of evangelical preaching today, Dylan’s music is filled with “medieval Christian images and literary references”. I wonder how much of a voice Dylan has in our present “cancel culture” with it focus on “critical race theory.” He seems to be skeptical regarding human motives and actions.
You can feel the prophetic lament in Dylan’s words, like those of the prophet Habakkuk. “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you have me look at injustice? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds” (Hab. 1:2-3).
Bob Dylan has agonized over cultural conditions for over 60 years and expressed that agony in many ways. Throughout his lyrics you can sense the voice of a biblical prophet. He has not caved to “cancel culture.” Rather, Dylan gives us a strong dose of lament. He speaks to the “brokenness of our world.” He challenges us to consider how we have lost our way. Jeremiah laments, “But my people are not so reliable, for they have deserted me…They have stumbled off the ancient highways and walk in muddy paths” (Jer. 16:15).
Dylan is not afraid to speak to pride and arrogance in our culture. Isaiah warns of pride. “…The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Is. 2:10). Dylan gives fair warning of what is ahead if we don’t see our own pride and broken condition.
Prayer for today: Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear the pride and arrogance around me and in me. Help me speak in similar ways to “the arrogance of man” and the “brokenness of our world,” while holding fast to and offering words of hope that are rooted in Christ.