I recently received an email from a Christian who read a blog I wrote about a Dylan song. He was previously a Dylan fan, but he stopped listening to Dylan after he became a Christian. He felt that his new found faith in Christ was incompatible with Dylan. Here is a portion of his email:
As I wrote in the posting, I stopped listening to Bob Dylan after attending one of his concerts in Melbourne, Australia, when he unfurled a banner with the eye of Horus emblazoned on it – which he uses as part of his logo. Because I am a Christian, I really wrestled with the issue of whether or not I should continue listening to his music, as I was a huge fan of his music and the nature of his lyrics, although there was a disturbing element to many of the songs in his “psychedelic” period. I was also uneasy about his recent allusions to “selling his soul to the Devil” or making a bargain with ?the Devil although he never said anything concrete about Satan. Once I looked up the meaning of his logo on the Internet I felt that he had taken a decisive step to link himself with Satan, and looking at his ambiguous comments in that light, it would appear that he is quite comfortable to joke around with the possibility of being Satanic, something which I fiind quite disturbing! I therefore deleted the hundreds of Dylan songs from my collection which was a very difficult thing to do, and have resolved not to listen to his music until he makes a statement denouncing his logo and any possible ties with Satan. I really would like to listen to his music but can no longer do so in good conscience. I am fully aware that God is the ultimate judge and this issue is ultimately between Bob Dylan and God; however, I wanted to e-mail you because you are a pastor and I thought it would be important to warn you that Bob Dylan may not be all that he seems (and that the spiritual nature of his music may not actually be related to Christianity, at all).
Would be interested to hear what you think,
Here is my response:
Thanks for the email. I am about fourteen months into my Dylan journey. I have been familiar with Dylan’s gospel albums for years, but I have only recently dove deeper in the Dylan universe. Your questions have got me thinking and reflecting on a Christians’ take on Dylan. The most important question for us Dylan fans who are Christian is whether or not Dylan himself is a fellow believer in Christ. Before I get to that one, let me answer some of your other questions.
You wrote in your email:
I am a Christian and would be very uneasy about promoting Bob Dylan as an artist whose music is suitable for use in the church. In recent times, if anything, he seems to have more of an affinity with Satan…! This is illustrated by —
(a) His use of a satanic emblem, the eye of Horus, as part of his logo.
(b) His seeking to identify with Robert Johnson (the bluesman who according to legend sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical ability).
(c) Following on from point (b), Bob Dylan was interviewed by Ed Bradley for ’60 Minutes’ in 2005 and said that he continued to make music in order to hold up his end of a bargain that he made “with the chief commander…on this earth and the world we can’t see”.
Here is my response:
(a) Dylan’s logo
You claim that the eye of Horus is a satanic emblem, when actually it is a Egyptian symbol. You could make the case that it is a pagan symbol and it certainly isn’t a Christian symbol, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “satanic.” Furthermore, while Dylan’s logo resembles the eye of Horus it isn’t the exact same symbol. Compare the two here:
The use of the eye is not only a pagan symbol, but has been used by Christians. Historically, the eye on top of the pyramid on the back of the one dollar bill has been interpreted as the “eye of providence.” The Latin phrase “Annuit Coeptis” means “He approves our undertakings.” William Barton, the artist appointed by congress to design the symbol originally used the phrase “Deo Favente Perrenis” –meaning “Enduring by the Favor of God.” So the eye could also be a Christian symbol. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t worry too much about symbols anyway. The meanings of symbols change from age to age and culture to culture. Have you noticed that the Scripture makes no clear statement on what are appropriate symbols for the Christian faith?
(b) His identification with Robert Johnson
I don’t know if you can make a case that Dylan is trying to identify with anyone. He refuses to work on “Maggie’s farm” and he refuses to be classified by genre, style, or popular influences. His music reveals an identification with folk, blues, country, and rock. In terms of artists, Dylan identified with Johnny Cash [video] who was a Christian. And if you are going to claim that Dylan sought to be identified with Robert Johnson, you have to also admit that Dylan also admired Blues singer Blind Willie McTell. Blind Willie became a preacher at the end of his life and would only sing spirituals [video].
(c) Dylan’s bargin with the “commander-in-chief.”
Here is the transcript from the end of Dylan’s interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes in 2004. [video]
Bradley: Why do you do it, why are you still out here?
Dylan: Well it goes back to the destiny thing. I made a bargin with it, you know, a long time ago, and I am holding up my end.
Bradley: What was your bargin?
Dylan: To get where I am now.
Bradley: Should I ask who you made the bargin with?
Dylan: (Laughs) With, you know, with the chief…the chief commander.
Bradley: On this earth?
Dylan: In this earth and the world we can’t see.
I don’t see anything here that makes this sound like a deal with the Devil. Dylan initially said he made a deal with “destiny.” The “chief commander” could very well be God. Dylan had a powerful encounter with Jesus in 1979. Dylan refused to become a pious little church boy. He did call Jesus his hero in a 1987 concert in Boston. Before singing his gospel song “In the Garden,” Dylan said, “I’m gonna sing a song about my hero. Everybody’s got their own hero. I don’t know who your hero is, maybe Mel Gibson . . . maybe for some people it’s Michael Jackson . . . or Bruce Springsteen . . . Anyway I don’t care nothing about none of those people. I have my own hero. I’m gonna sing about my hero now.” [video]
So the big question is whether or not Dylan is still a Christian. Every religious, philosophical, and music lover wants to claim Dylan for their own. After reading Restless Pilgrim by Scott Marshall and Maria Ford, I became convinced that Dylan is a believer, but he will always be a mysterious one.
As a pastor, I do not incorporate Dylan into church life too often. I do quote from Dylan in my sermons from time to time, because after all Dylan is a poet. For me personally, my Dylan journey has been a part of my spiritual journey. Dylan has been influential in my thinking about God and life. My encouragement to you is to listen to your conscience. The Holy Spirit will reveal to you if listening to Dylan is acceptable or not. Romans 14:14 says, “Nothing is unclean in itself, but to him who it is a sin, it is a sin.” If your conscience, empower by the Holy Spirit, will not let you listen to Dylan, then don’t. If your conscience doesn’t convict you then I would encourage you to listen Dylan and listen to him as a Christian. Listen to him through the filter of Scripture and Christian tradition.
In listening to Dylan as a Christian, this is a good opportunity to practice Reader Response Criticism, a popular postmodern kind of literary criticism. In reader response, the meaning of literature is created by the reader not the author. I don’t suggest this for Bible reading, but for listening (and reading) Dylan it is perfectly acceptable.
For example, some people hear “Mr. Tambourine Man” and think that Bob is singing to his drug dealer, but for me when I here “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I hear Dylan singing about Jesus. I am not saying that Dylan intended this to be a song about Jesus when he wrote it in 1965, but I hear it that way. And I don’t think Dylan would I have a problem with it. When I hear “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” I hear a call to prayer. And on it goes…
I hope this helps!
Bonus: I didn’t send this in my email, but here is a transcript of an interview, I heard recently where Dylan talks about God and art.
1981 Dylan Interview with David Herman, London, July 2, 1981
Dylan: Not to say though, that art is valueless. I think art can lead you to God.
Herman: It’s that it’s purpose?
Dylan: I think so. I think that’s everything’s purpose. I mean if it’s not doing that it’s leading you the other way. It’s certainly not leading you nowhere. It’s bringing you somewhere. It’s bringing you that way or this way.
Herman: Well, if it expresses truth and beauty then it’s leading you to God?
Dylan: Yeah? (laughs)
Herman: Well, wouldn’t you say?
Dylan: If it’s expressing truth I’d say it’s leading you to God and beauty also.
Herman: I’ve always thought that those were the only two absolutes that there were.
Dylan: Well, beauty can be very *very* deceiving. It’s not always of God.