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.
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).