Sixteen years ago nineteen-year-old Robert Zimmerman moved from Minnesota to New York City. He left behind his past, his family, and his name. Ahead was his new life as Bob Dylan, influential singer-songwriter. Over the years countless artists have recorded Dylan’s songs, and he has toured the world. Dylan is one of the three major trendsetters in popular music, the other two being Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The press has hailed him as a prophet, a leader, a teacher, a messiah, a poet, the voice of young America, and the conscience of his generation. Dylan says he’s just a songwriter.
Throughout his career Dylan has reflected his religious upbringing. Raised in a strict Jewish home, he fills his songs with religious language, biblical references and characters, and theological questions. He views man in the light of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Man must choose to follow God and truth or fall into death, decay, and ultimate judgment.
“Gates of Eden” (1965) says the world is evil but “there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.” Dylan sees the world as “sick … hungry … tired … torn/It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born” (“Song to Woody,” 1962); as a “concrete world full of souls” (“The Man in Me,” 1970); and as a “world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be free” (“Shelter From the Storm,” 1974). Technologically advanced America threatens human freedom, feels Dylan, who confesses that “the man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen/But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.” In “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965), his sermon in song line by line decries the phoniness of society’s games. “Human gods” make “everything from toy guns that spark/ To flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark.” “Not much is really sacred,” Dylan concludes.
Early in his career Dylan wrote many finger-pointing songs about man’s inhumanity to man. He sang out against racial prejudice, hatred, and war. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” perhaps his most famous song, asks, “How many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?”
Freedom and sin are major themes in a number of Dylan’s songs. “With God on Our Side” (1963) is a satirical justification of war. In “Masters of War” (1963) he lashes out at the war profiteers who make money from young men’s lives. He concludes that “Even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do.” This cool, calculated evil will be punished, for “All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul.” Dylan retells the story of Abraham and Isaac in “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965). Abraham questions God, who replies, “You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me coming you’d better run.” Abraham complies, knowing that peace with God comes only through obedience to God’s directives. Ten years later Dylan reiterated that in “Oh Sister”: “Is not our purpose the same on this earth/ To love and follow His direction?”
Hard Rain, his most recent album, contains a live concert version of “Lay, Lady, Lay,” written in 1969. Dylan adds these lyrics: “You can have the truth/But you’ve got to choose it.” Is man ultimately responsible for sin? Is man really free? Yes, man is free to choose to obey or disobey divine directives, but he is responsible and will be judged (“I’d Hate to Be You on That Dreadful Day” and “Whatcha Gonna Do?,” 1962).
Dylan reads the Bible, and his favorite parts are the parables of Jesus. The album John Wesley Harding, recorded in 1968, two years after his nearly fatal motorcycle accident, contains a song patterned after those parables. “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” tells of Frankie Lee’s thirst for wealth and his sensual lust, which ultimately bring his downfall and death. Frankie Lee denies that eternity exists. Dylan moralizes, “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.” So many people fail to think of anything besides their own quest for wealth; eternity means nothing to them. “Three Angels” (1970) play horns atop poles as people, oblivious, hurry by. “Does anyone hear the music they play?/Does anyone even try?”
Dylan views man spiritually. In “Dirge” (1973) he confesses, “I felt that place within/ That hollow place/ Where martyrs weep/ And angels play with sin.” In “Simple Twist of Fate” (1974) he writes of one who “Felt that emptiness inside/ To which he just could not relate.” Man’s spiritual cavity too often remains vacant.
Dylan has criticized the established religious institutions. “Got no religion. Tried a bunch of different religions. The churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds and neither can I,” he said early in his career. He hit at the attempts of churches and preachers to be relevant in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (1966):
Now the preacher looked so baffled
When I asked him why he dressed
With twenty pounds of headlines
Stapled to his chest
But he cursed me when I proved it to him.
Then I whispered. “Not even you can hide.
You see, you’re just like me.
I hope you’re satisfied.”
Religious institutions are impotent: “The priest wore black on the seventh day/ And sat stone-faced while the building burned” (“Idiot Wind,” 1974).
Dylan views God pantheistically. “I can see God in a daisy,” he told an interviewer. “I can see God at night in the wind and rain. I see creation just about everywhere. The highest form of song is prayer. King David’s, Solomon’s, the wailing of a coyote, the rumble of the earth.” In his modern-day psalm “Father of Night” (1970), Dylan praises God as the creator of night and day, heat and cold, loneliness and pain. He is the Father of all “who dwells in our hearts and our memories,” the “Father of whom we most solemnly praise.” Dylan’s prayer for his generation and all succeeding people is outlined in “Forever Young” (1973): “May God bless and keep you always,” may you “know the truth,” be righteous, upright, and true and “stay forever young.” For as he wrote earlier, “He not busy being born/ Is busy dying.”
“Sign on the Cross” (1967), perhaps Dylan’s most enigmatic song, says that the sign on Jesus’ cross can never be forgotten—“And it’s still that sign on the cross/ That worries me.” Men cannot escape that symbol and what it means.
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1972) deals with death. “I Threw It All Away” (1969) points to love as the ultimate force for good in the world. “Oh Sister” tells of dying, being reborn, and being “mysteriously saved.” “Shelter From the Storm” finds Dylan wearing a crown of thorns and bargaining for salvation. “Long Ago, Far Away” (1962) warns that those who promote brotherhood might end up hanging on a cross. “Isis” (1975) speaks of quick prayers that easily satisfy. Priests recite “prayers of old” as the face of God appears in the streets in “Romance in Durango” (1975). “Joey” (1975) pictures a God of retribution who will punish evil acts.
Bob Dylan pioneered the message song; he remains at its forefront. He asks metaphysical questions and tries to give some answers, which are less than Christian. But he has affected many young people and continues to do so. We need to understand what kind of spiritual guidance he gives.
Daniel J. Evearitt is the assistant pastor of Tappan Alliance Church, Tappan, New York.
For Tolkien Fans
Late last summer at an informal gathering in Bethesda, Maryland, J. R. R. Tolkien’s daughter, Priscilla, announced that the long awaited The Silmarillion was finally at the publisher’s. And Tolkien devotees have more than that book to look for. Letters From Father Christmas, written for his children when they were young, and a new biography will soon be published.
Clyde Kilby’s delightful anecdotal book entitled Tolkien and The Silmarillion, published last spring (Harold Shaw), provides a good introduction to the Oxford don. C. S. Lewis’s comment that he served as Tolkien’s “midwife” becomes clearer after Kilby tells us of his disorganized, eccentric manner of work. And we also understand why it has taken Tolkien’s son Christopher so long to put The Silmarillion into publishable form.
In its Writers for the Seventies series Crowell has reprinted a 1972 Warner volume, J. R. R. Tolkien, by Robley Evans. Evans adds little to Tolkien criticism; both style and content are relatively undistinguished.
Those who enjoy Tolkien will want to read Patricia A. McKillip’s latest novel. The Riddle-Master of Hed (Atheneum, 228 pp., $7.95), the first volume of a trilogy, has several things in common with Tolkien’s work. It takes place in another world and tells of the end of an age. The plot turns on a quest, though of a different nature from Frodo’s. Some of McKillip’s names sound elvish, and language and names are central to her story.
By her clever creations McKillip saves her story from being merely derivative. She makes the vesta, an animal “broad as a farmhorse, with a deer’s delicate triangular face,” live. The ability of a man to change shape, to become a vesta, provides her with a striking image. Her description of what it’s like to be a strong, free animal, warm and white against the cold snow, has a dream-like quality. Protagonist Morgon’s Great Shout splits the High One’s house from top to bottom, and ends the first volume. That conclusion is a cliff-hanger; I hope the second volume will be published soon.
Another story for older children and adults (nine and up, says the book jacket) from Atheneum examines Margaret Redmon’s life after death. Song of the Pearl (158 pp., $6.50) by Ruth Nichols is a difficult book to follow. She mixes a little reincarnation with some apocryphal sayings of Jesus, a gnostic hymn (the title of the book is the hymn title), a little Indian superstition, and some other religious ideas. (Nichols is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.)
The story is interesting. But the religious implications are so intertwined with the plot that I doubt whether nine-year-olds would appreciate it at even the simplest level. Nichols’s talent is wasted in this religous story.
Ursula K. LeGuin, best known for her science-fiction stories, has written a lovely short tale, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else (Atheneum, 89 pp., $5.95), for older children and adults. This, too, can be called a religious book, but in contrast to Song of the Pearl it is simple, unaffected, moving. Why am I different? What do I want from life? How shall I live? What things are worth sacrifice? The narrator and his friend discover the answers to some of these questions as the story progresses. LeGuin uses the first-person style effectively, allowing it, as well as the plot, to show the protagonist’s maturation.
Gong! The scene changes. Another gong. Another scene changes. Gong.… And so on throughout the film. Those gongs are the most memorable part of a less-than-grade-B film—C-minus, perhaps.
The Passover Plot, released by Atlas Films, is a silly movie made from that bad book by Hugh Schonfield so much talked about a few years ago. The story, à la Romeo and Juliet: Jesus takes a drug to slow his heart to an imperceptible beat. He’s crucified but never dies. Thus a fake resurrection. The movie is fairly faithful to the book, and it’s obviously unbiblical. Add to the weak plot poor pacing, both under- and overacting, and a badly written and edited script.
Most of the actors are television rejects. The pauses Jesus makes between phrases slow the film to a crawl. His face is expressionless, his voice inflection free. His movements are rigid, studied, self-conscious. Another character (his name is unimportant; in fact, it’s difficult to tell who is who) shrieks all his lines in a hoarse, rasping voice—and he lisps. His facial muscles do double duty; he’s supposed to be a Zealot. John the Baptist is a little better, though he, too, is portrayed as wild-eyed.
Is the plodding “Passover Plot” a put-on?
Pilate is the only character worth watching, but unfortunately he is off camera most of the time. He looks and sounds natural, unlike the rest of the cast, who either scream or moon. The sympathies of the audience go to Pilate and not the oppressed Hebrews. Creaking Caiaphas calls Pilate “governor,” which jarringly comes out “guv’nuh.” He sounds as if he belongs in My Fair Lady.
The script-writers attempt to sound biblical and literary. But they undercut their efforts by throwing in such American slang as “lay low.” Perhaps the whole thing is a put-on.
Occasionally the cameramen give us some nice touches, and visually the film is not badly edited. A particularly effective shot comes when John the Baptist is arrested. He has just baptized a woman and stands in the water waiting for other converts to step forward. The crowd is afraid of the Roman soldiers on horseback watching nearby. As John turns in the water to see what has mesmerized the crowd, one of the Romans rides into the water, and the camera shows us the pounding horse’s hoofs flailing and churning the water.
The good camera work is too often undercut by the director’s bad blocking. At the end of a Jewish uprising the bodies of the victims are seen lying equidistant from one another in the sand. Most of the scenes have a rigid, tableau-like appearance. That lack of fluid movement, too, slows down the pace.
The producers of The Passover Plot are trying to cash in on the renewed religious mood in this country. We can count on not only reviews but also word of mouth to thwart them.
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