Dy­lan’s lyrics steeped in bi­b­li­cal sym­bol­ism

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - TERRY MAT­TINGLY Terry Mat­tingly leads GetReli­gion.org and is a se­nior fel­low for Me­dia and Reli­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. His web­site is tmatt.net.

When Bob Dy­lan tells the story of Bob Dy­lan, he of­ten starts at a con­cert by rock ’n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the win­ter of 1959.

At least, that’s where he started in his re­cent No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture lec­ture.

Some­thing mys­te­ri­ous about Holly “filled me with con­vic­tion,” Dy­lan said. “He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he trans­mit­ted some­thing. Some­thing, I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”

A few days later — on Feb. 3 — Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, some­one gave Dy­lan a record­ing of “Cot­ton Fields” by folk leg­end Lead Belly. It was “like I’d been walk­ing in dark­ness and all of the sud­den the dark­ness was il­lu­mi­nated. It was like some­body laid hands on me,” Dy­lan said.

That story prob­a­bly sounded “rather strange to lots of peo­ple,” said Scott Mar­shall, au­thor of the new book Bob Dy­lan: A Spir­i­tual Life.

“What hap­pens when some­body lays hands on you? If peo­ple don’t know the Bi­ble, then who knows what they’ll think that means? … Dy­lan is say­ing he felt called to some new work, like he was be­ing or­dained. That’s just the way Dy­lan talks. That’s who he is.”

For mil­lions of true be­liev­ers, Dy­lan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that fol­lowed. Then his in­tense em­brace of Chris­tian­ity in the late 1970s in­fu­ri­ated many fans and crit­ics. Ever since, Dy­lan has been sur­rounded by ar­gu­ments — of­ten heated — about the state of his soul.

The facts re­veal that Dy­lan had God on his mind long be­fore his gospel-rock tril­ogy, “Slow Train Com­ing,” “Saved” and “Shot of Love.”

One civil rights ac­tivist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, cat­a­logued all the re­li­gious ref­er­ences in Dy­lan’s 1961’78 works, be­fore the “bor­na­gain” years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dy­lan songs or liner notes — 36 per­cent — con­tained Bi­ble ref­er­ences. Cartwright found 190 He­brew Bi­ble al­lu­sions and 197 to Chris­tian scrip­tures.

Also, Dy­lan told Peo­ple mag­a­zine in 1975: “I didn’t con­sciously pur­sue the Bob Dy­lan myth. It was given to me — by God. … I don’t care what peo­ple ex­pect of me. It doesn’t con­cern me. I’m do­ing God’s work. That’s all I know.”

What does that mean? Mar­shall col­lected ma­te­rial from stacks of pub­lished in­ter­views and has con­cluded that two words per­fectly de­scribe Dy­lan’s ap­proach to an­swer­ing th­ese ques­tions: “in­scrutabil­ity” and “iras­ci­bil­ity.” Plus, it’s hard to know when Dy­lan is be­ing “se­ri­ous, cranky or play­ful.”

Nev­er­the­less, faith lan­guage al­ways plays a cen­tral role. Mar­shall cites waves of ex­am­ples, in­clud­ing a time when Dy­lan was asked if his rau­cous “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — with its “every­body must get stoned” chant — was code for get­ting high. Dy­lan wryly noted that many crit­ics “aren’t fa­mil­iar with the Book of Acts.”

In his No­bel lec­ture, Dy­lan also stressed the role great lit­er­a­ture has played in his life, dat­ing back to gram­mar school days. Once again, there were re­li­gious themes.

Moby-Dick, for ex­am­ple, com­bined all “the myths: the Judeo-Chris­tian Bi­ble, Hindu myths, Bri­tish leg­ends, St. Ge­orge, Perseus, Her­cules — they’re all whalers.”

All Quiet on the Western Front mixed pol­i­tics, ni­hilism and hor­ror, and Dy­lan noted that he has never read an­other war novel. In that book, “You’re on the real iron cross, and a Ro­man sol­dier’s putting a sponge of vine­gar to your lips.”

With The Odyssey, he said read­ers have to live the tale, wrestling with gods and god­desses. “Some of th­ese same things have hap­pened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spell­bound by mag­i­cal voices, sweet voices with strange melodies.”

In the end, Dy­lan said, a song’s im­pact on each per­son is what mat­ters. “I don’t have to know what a song means,” he said. “I’ve writ­ten all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not go­ing to worry about it — what it all means.”

Mar­shall be­lieves one thing should be ob­vi­ous: If Dy­la­nol­o­gists want to un­der­stand Dy­lan’s life and art, they will have to wres­tle with all of his songs, in­clud­ing those drenched in Godtalk. Bi­b­li­cal lit­er­acy is an es­sen­tial skill in that work.

The bot­tom line, he said, is clear: “Dy­lan has never re­canted a sin­gle line from a sin­gle song.”

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