Published October 14, 2016
Most of the conversation that followed Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature missed perhaps the most important window into the work of the great poet (since, yes, he is a poet, and thus eligible for a prize in literature). And that is that Bob Dylan’s poetry is deeply, profoundly shaped by the Bible.
Ours is a secular age, and spirituality, which is often the most important influence on so many artistic geniuses, is oddly forgotten or overlooked. Many observers have noted Dylan’s Jewish heritage, but not the Christian faith of a man who wrote several overtly Christian albums and who, even before his conversion to Christianity, called his pathbreaking album “John Wesley Harding” “the first Biblical rock album”.
Dylan’s relationship with religion is complex. As Robert Zimmerman, he had a Bar Mitzvah. And though Dylan has since accepted Jesus as his savior, and has made clearly Christian music, he has also at times rejected the label of Christian. He has expressed consistent disdain for organized religion and dogma. And precisely because Dylan is such a poet, his lyrics are multi-faceted, allusive, mysterious, and work on several layers. They aren’t “about religion” in any sort of simplistic way.
However, this is still certain: Dylan is a profoundly spiritual poet, and his spirituality is profoundly shaped by the Christian Bible.
He once said, “I don’t think I’ve been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come.” This is not just an expression of being “spiritual” in the bland sense. The phrase “world to come” is itself a Biblical phrase, and moreover the idea that “this is not the real world” shows a man who sees things spiritually first and materially second. Which is extremely fitting for an artist.
In another interview, Dylan said, “I can see God in a daisy. 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.” This shows how Dylan views things through a spiritual lens, and that this spiritual lens is shaped by the Bible.
Take a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which has been widely and correctly hailed as a ’60s protest song and an existential song. The mysterious answer to the song’s questions — “The answer my friend / Is blowin’ in the wind” — brings to mind nothing if not the ruach, the Bible’s Hebrew name for the Spirit of God, which means wind, breath, and spirit. Genesis describes how “the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the ruach of God was hovering over the waters.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that the Spirit of God is like the wind, which “blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.”
How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned? How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? The only answer to both our political and existential problems is a radical openness to the Spirit of God, which blows where it wills, which can be glimpsed in a daisy as well as in the Bible. The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind… The answer is mysteriously allusive just like the promptings of God in the human heart, which must be experienced rather than taught. This is a classically “Dylanesque” picture of spirituality and of man’s relationship to existential questions and the Spirit, which is also profoundly Biblical.
Dylan’s most explicitly Biblical hit is undoubtedly “All Along the Watchtower,” which is a riff on the prophecy from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah, where two watchmen on a watchtower see two riders approaching. “‘There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief / ‘There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.'” The first stanza is all about existential angst, about the futility and violence of the modern world. “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth / None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” In this consumerist world, we drink, we steal, we work, but nothing seems of real value.
“‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.” Who is the thief, but Jesus Christ, who describes himself as returning to Earth “like a thief in the night”? Indeed, “the hour is getting late,” the thief informs us, another Biblical catchphrase about the return of Christ. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke / But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.” The seeming futility of life is something that we need to rise above, and the reason we can trust Jesus is that he’s “been through that.” He is not a distant God but has become incarnate as a man and lived through what we’ve lived through.
Which takes us to the third and fourth stanzas: “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view” and “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This is the reference to the prophecy from Isaiah 21. The two riders, messengers, are announcing the fall of Babylon. In the Bible, Babylon represents sin and wickedness. Just like the Jews were trapped in Babylon due to their own sin but later rescued by God, so we can escape our own personal Babylons if we just trust in God, instead of seeing the futility of Babylon and concluding that “life is but a joke.” The fall of Babylon is also a theme in the Book of Revelation, referring to Christ’s Second Coming, which the “thief” verse already refers to. The approach of the two riders both refers to God’s action in our life here and now, and God’s ultimate return to fix everything, both bound up in those verses, the way they often are in the Bible.
I could go on and on. Dylan’s work is immense, and his lyrics are deeply dense, packed with references, allusions, and multiple layers of meaning. Books can and have been written about them.
What is clear is that Dylan’s work is deeply shaped by the Bible, and by the Biblical worldview. Not just in the superficial sense that it keeps referring to it and echoing its themes, but also in the more profound sense that Dylan’s own worldview is deeply Biblical. It is spiritual, first and foremost, viewing the spiritual world “first” as the bridge through which we live in the material world, which itself only sends us back to the spiritual world. And it is deeply Biblical in its longing for God, whether it is encountered as art or as the Spirit or as Jesus Christ himself, as the answer to our existential quandaries, as our companion — and as our Savior. If you’re going to be faithful to Bob Dylan as an artist, you can’t miss that dimension of his work which — for those who have ears to ear — is everywhere.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.