Before There Was James Brown, There Was Jesus

The things worth their weight in theology are complex, tangled, lived-in, and in need of grace to find a way through. If it didn’t need G-d, it wouldn’t be theology.

When all else fails, try to create a sense of order and application to what we feel and experience. This is called doing theology: “A person shaping their life in a specific way, seeking discipline and consistency in relation to God, is theologizing, forming a reflectively consistent speech for God.” So says Rowan Williams, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is not hyperbole to say that Bob Dylan was a prophet. Nor is it bad logic. There is bad logic about Dylan, Judaism, Christianity, and prophecy, but we will try to avoid that.

Bob Dylan is a prophet because he asked me, when I was suffering: “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” That is the eternal question of embodiment. Of incarnation. It is what we need prophets for – to call it like it is, rather than ignore it because it's convenient. To admit being human hurts, that the world is a messed-up, difficult place to find yourself waking up.

Walter Bruegemann describes the Prophetic Imagination this way: “Prophetic imagination proceeds through these three basic steps: (1) it refuses denial and penetrates despair with honest cries over pain and loss that result from social injustices; (2) it overcomes amnesia by drawing on ancient, artistic traditions that energize the community to imagine and live into a more just order; and (3) it ends in hope and gratitude for the surprising gift of an emancipated future.”

I first heard Dylan, the way I first heard any music produced before 1982, in the living room of my childhood home, in the Midwest, in the early 80s. There was a magical cabinet in the living room that held the stereo and my stepfather’s record collection. It seemed bottomless and all- encompassing. Discs appeared from the rattan shelves and were placed on the turntable, and awe ensued. Sitting on the brown corduroy couch with the macramĂ© plant holder at one end, I would take in the music, and it would pool below my diaphragm, where it lived until I needed it.

The music would come out again, later, in times of pain and confusion, despair and hopelessness. It would not cheer me up. It would lament, grieve with me, roll around on the dirty floor of life and be real.

Driving over to see my most confusing love in high school, wanting to feel something that mirrored my intensity and need to find my place in the world, I played “Shelter from the Storm.” Over and over and over.

“Come in, she said, I’ll give you,
Shelter from the Storm.”

The second job of the prophet is to overcome the lure of amnesia. Cultural amnesia—that forgetting and not seeing what we don’t want to see—is so deeply human. It was the 1960s, and we forget that before the Civil Rights Act, and before the Civil Rights movement, and before Second Wave Feminism, and before the American Indian Movement and before the Poor People’s Campaign, Stonewall, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, there was the post WWII era.

This is the era that voices in America are reifying right now. It was not great. It was a nadir among many nadirs of our country’s history of not fulfilling the messed up, imperfect project of democracy that we set out on when our slave-owning, Christian, white, male founders tried to envision a just world not run by kings.

Bob Dylan woke us up to the times needing changing. Us. White folks in suburbia in the 60s being us. It is the cultural us that we think about when we talk about us in the 60s, like no one else existed. This is why it is reified and why it needed a prophet. There was a slumbering majority of white middle-class Americans and Dylan poked the bear.

Dylan drew on Woody Guthrie and the organizing moments of the 30s and 40s. He drew on the Beat Poets and their queer, wild, drug-addled, but cognizant world of dissent. He drew on the biblical justice of his Jewish upbringing. He wrapped it all up in the gospel music lament for the systemic oppression of African Americans that he heard late at night on the radio, from far, far away.

“It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)” is clearly the voice of a prophet describing the jeremiad of his generation. It is a voice of lament that Walter Bruegemann would understand. It woke us up. Dylan told the truth to the Greatest Generation about the failures, the people left out in the cold, the dangers and the pain of a generation seeing the fissures about to blow, seeing people of good intentions being conned into the intersectional oppression of a capitalist system that ate them for a snack.

Kyriarchy is something Walter Bruegemann called the Royal Consciousness—the control in religion that patriarchy, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the other isms can have when we conflate religion and the church with the state and capitalism. Dylan didn’t name it, but he sang it.

Dylan called out the pain, indignation, the visible and the invisible struggles, the structural damage of the world, the Kyriarchy and structures of power that fill out oppression in all its ugly forms, the pain of love, failure, the ways the world needs to change, the danger, the full on disasters, the forces bending justice and thwarting trajectories, that whole thing. He called it out, over and over, in song after song.

The night sky slid over my car back in 1986, liquid, warm dark air, and the lights flew by on the deserted street, punctuating the feeling of safety. “Shelter from the Storm” was on constant loop in the tape deck. I knew exactly how long it took to rewind it to the beginning of the song. I could count in my head and then hit play and start again right where I needed to.

If you’d asked me —“Why Dylan?”—or “Why that song?”—I would have told you, it explains how I feel. The storm lived in my brain all the time. The storm was outside, but it was inside too, and I could feel that the outside matched the inside.

“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form”

I had never felt sheltered, I felt void of form, wild, howling with blood and mud and rage. The rage was mine personally, but it was also so much larger than me, the system was fucked, and we didn’t have the language yet to say it.

As I turned into the driveway, I felt myself symbolic, huge, larger-than-the-moment, part of a world keening to be heard.

There is a concept in child psychology called paracosm. A paracosm is a world we create whole, into which we can step, that is complex. The creator is not escaping, so much as deeply inhabiting, their subjective world. It can have elements of the real world, elements of culture and imagination, literature, characters, and rules. It has a language, a voice, a sophisticated take on reality.

Dylan did this for us. He, and a few others in the history of rock and roll, namely Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell could create a paracosm (note: your co-editors might add U2 and Grateful Dead to this list, at least). Outside rock and roll, I know it best in the worlds of Tupac Shakur and Lizzo, Bob Marley and Ma Rainey. Like the expanded universes discussed by comic book and movie fans, whole worlds, real in every detail, that one can step into and feel, explore, be.

The prophet draws on ancient cultural metaphors and artistic tropes to energize and incite us towards justice, freedom, redemption.

As a teenager, in the cold Midwest, Dylan used his radio to tune in to gospel stations. He found music that blew his mind and infused it with a longing that he could not name. He listened to the Staple Singers, to the Stanley Brothers, to the Swan Silvertones, Mahalia Jackson, and many, many others who showed up in his first albums, and really, in all his work.

Dylan called out the pain, indignation, the visible and the invisible struggles

His mother told Toby Thomson in an interview, “As a child Bob attended all the churches around Hibbing; he was very interested in religion, and all religions, by no means just his own.” He went to Billy Graham revivals as a kid and remembered Graham as though he were a rock star. “I went to two or three of his rallies in the 50s or 60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30 or 40,000 of them.”

His own religion was a full-on exposure to Judaism as is only possible when you are one of about 280 Jews in the town in which you grew up. It’s kind of funny to read about when Christian writers say about Dylan, how would have been “acquainted with the Hebrew Bible” or the “Hebrew Language and Scriptures.” I am not even sure what to say to that except “acquainted” is the wrong word, and yes, he would have been. He was Jewish. As were the prophets.

He loved Woody Guthrie and that led him into the protest world of the 1930s and 1940s and about whom Steve Earle, another talented folk musician, said, “He lived in political times.” Which is an understatement. Guthrie was a populist, lefist, communist-supporting advocate for the underdog from the Dust Bowl to the AFL-CIO, to the Anti-War movement and the world of New York writers including Charles Olson, who was the progenitor of the Beat Movement in which Dylan found himself.

Early on in his New York time, Dylan met Allen Ginsberg and absorbed the Beat Generation’s “Howl” of dissent. He said of them, “To the Beats, the devil was bourgeois conventionality, social artificiality and the man in the grey flannel suit.” And he agreed. That suited man shows up in no less than “All Along the Watchtower.”

And, Dylan loved Jack Kerouac’s “Breathless, dynamic bop phrases.” He became a lifetime reader of poetry – and Verlaine and Rimbaud, French poets popular with the Beats, who show up in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”

Bob Dylan had all of this at his disposal when he prophesied. All the culture, Bible, preaching, music, politics, dissent, poetry, history, religion, metaphors, tropes, and connections. He used every single bit of it to create a world, a paracosm, into which we could step, and inside which we saw and felt things that it was not previously possible to see and feel and know and understand.

Reading many Christian writers on Dylan can be a bit of a waste of time.

Reading many Christian writers on Dylan can be a bit of a waste of time. Their desire to do a Biblical matching-game misses the point entirely. The point is not that you can find Jesus quotes hidden in the lyrics of “The Times They Are A Changin,” because finding Matthew and Noah within is facile.

The idea is, rather, that every single thing Dylan wrote was purposefully infused with Tanakh and New Testament: people, ideas, quotes, and references. That we should search them all out, one-by-one, to prove his Christian bona fides, is tiring to me. It turns a wild tangle of creative forces into a true or false question on an exam: “Was Bob Dylan a Christian?”

Prophets don’t work like that, including Jesus, who actually played the same game of “hide the reference” in what we have reported he said in the Gospels. Hiding quotes from the Prophets, the Torah, Psalms, the Writings, was part of what Jesus did. It brought the cultural tropes and metaphors to life for the Jews of his time, so that they could see another possibility. They felt the wind of his power blowing through the words, but they didn’t need, and we don’t either, the quiz at the end. We just need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are you different after one song, one album, one lifetime of this music enveloping your reality?”

Tracing the idea of pain and repentance in the way Dylan saw it, through his prophetic imagination, made me different after a lifetime of his music filling my car. Understanding that howling, singing, praying, raging, whirlwind of humanity that shows up in “Tangled Up in Blue” changed my relationship to G-d and to myself, even if I never called it “Christian.” Had I followed the metaphors and questioned them, instead of letting them do their magic, I might have actually turned away. I was not thinking about Jesus back in 1986, I was thinking about the storm inside me and I needed to feel loved, understood. I felt human through the lyrics, the metaphors.

Prophecy needs metaphors, it digests them and feeds them to us so that we feel. They are not always there so that we can think. They are there to bring us into the flow of humanity and make us feel our place.  For metaphors, you need the tap roots of culture, and that includes scripture, but it cannot be reduced to just that.

Prophets finally offer something greater, something more, a world suffused and infused with love, redemption, justice, and salvation for all.

I did not know what shelter felt like. I did not know what Jesus offered. I did not know what it meant to be wrapped in grace. But Bob Dylan offered that to me in the way the lines “shelter from the storm” got solid and clear and slow. It was there; I could feel it. I just hadn’t gotten to it yet.

One of the complexities of embodiment, of incarnation, is that we experience G-d’s love through human love. We experience G-d’s justice through human justice, we experience G-d’s peace through human peace. We are inextricably tied to each other in G-d’s love.

Can you trace “Corrina, Corrina” from Mississippi John Hurt through Dylan to Taj Mahal, and realize that the pain of needing to be loved, needing forgiveness, grace and comfort comes into this music through two streams? One is clearly G-d, and the other is human romantic love. The lament is “Baby please come home.” To me, my soul, this world, life. We are home to each other and to G-d in the world of word made flesh.

The G-d of salvation, redemption, the living G-d who holds out the promise to us of another ending, a different possibility lives in the gospel music, the voice of the church on the radio late at night playing the Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson.

We know that this is salvation, a promise, another reality, a bend towards justice. What is less clear is that prophecy lives in music we don’t peg as religious, but cultural. In other words, in rock and roll. And yet, an artist, no less than Bruce Springsteen, told us this could be the case. 

When the band U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen gave the speech, as he did earlier for Bob Dylan. And he said: “Before there was James Brown, there was Jesus . . . We are creations of the heart and of the earth and of the stations of the cross, so get over it.”

Dylan’s prophetic voice gives us a conversation with G-d in which he is wailing, howling, pleading, begging, and crying our pain into the void, making the grief and longing clear.

He was able to articulate the connections between all the systemic oppression, the kyriarchy, the dangers of late capitalism through metaphor and with incredible power. It is so clear in “All Along the Watchtower.”

“Businessmen, they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line

Know what any of it is worth”

He knew from the Beats that the devil was the bourgeois conventionality that brought our thinking minds under the influence of that kyriarchy. He knew from the Gospel the degradation of the human spirit that we can cause each other through kyriarchy. He knew from Woody Guthrie that capitalism wasn’t in everyone’s best interest. And it all came through his music.

In “Hurricane”:
“How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed
To live in a land
 Where justice is a game”

And then Dylan gives us a vision of what it feels like to be saved. From “I Shall Be Released” we hear the promise that the world we live in is not the end and that there will be possibility.

“I see my life come shining
From the West down to the east
Any day now, Any day now,
I shall be released.”

There is a component here for white listeners and white fans in the Dylan lineage, of being liberated by the labor of the African American singers, who have a unique connection with G-d, for reasons that no one questions. It is okay for gospel music to embody a religious place because of the emotional labor it performs and the love it exhibits for all of us. Dylan learned his love of gospel, not available to him in white Jewish Minnesota, as the voice from afar, the spiritual, disembodied voice. The voice of forgiveness and salvation.

The other stream of salvation that Dylan brought to life is the salvation possible in human love, earthly love, romantic love. He knows he is not the first, as in “Tangled Up in Blue” he references the poets from the 13th Century, love poets he learned about from the Beats. Men who lived centuries ago and who used human love as a training ground for divine love and service.

We know this to be true. We don’t need to theologize to know that divine love uses us as a channel to bring something more to the world when we love.

Dylan brought this kind of love song to us as a path to possibility. He brought it to us in songs like “Under Your Spell” and “Make You Feel My Love.” It was a double vision, a palimpsest or a pentimento. One vision is of earthly love and the other of divine and unconditional love and they are weaving, interpolating, stepping to the fore, and then back as the song unfolds. You peel one back and the traces of the other remain.

This desire, this trope, this metaphor that brought aliveness and possibility through love weaves its way through much of the ballad-style love music of the 1960s and 70s. It feels like a true desire for redemption. It feels like love is a way to experience salvation on earth.

Women in the lyrics of Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, CSNY—or really, any man writing meaningful lyrics in the 60s and 70s—are G-d. Spirit.

This metaphor spreads through folk music, through rock and roll, through the voices of the male performers. They wanted solace, love, to be lifted out of the mire of the world by the connection to someone so divine that she would first grieve with you and then change you into the better future you you could be if you were saved.

Women in the lyrics of Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen,  CSNY—or really, any man writing meaningful lyrics in the 60s and 70s—are G-d. Spirit. They are the feminine aspect of the divine to whom you marry your soul for the redemption promised you, starting with Abraham and going all the way through to the trippy revelations that seem obscure but are just the promise that this can’t be it, this cannot be all, and that love— whether the Logos or the lady —can transform you right here on earth.

This is a deep desire for the feminine aspect of G-d as she manifests in their lives.

This love can be the love between Jesus and the church, or older yet, G-d and the people of Israel, married on Friday night to sing and dance through the Sabbath and wipe out all pain in the joy of creation, justice, freedom, and redemption.

This is a prophet creating possibility through the metaphors available in the culture to feed the prophetic imagination. Back in “Shelter from the Storm”

“Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I'll give ya shelter from the storm”

Those moments are salvation. In a sermon this morning, our preacher said: “Our experience of divine love is often through human love.” I would say not often, but metaphorically, always.

This is a metaphor of possibility but also one of labor. Women in the songs redeem. They justify. They shelter. Like the gospel singers on the radio, they bring you closer to G-d. As a teenager, I was able to do the gender-flip effortlessly. I wanted shelter from the raging world, and I could feel myself as one Dylan meant when he said “you.”

There was a person waiting at the end of that driveway who I dreamed would protect me and care for me and make me feel love. I knew to want it and believe in it, but when I walked into the house, up the stairs, very very quietly, and snuck past the sleeping forms of the parents, I was not entirely the person Dylan drew for us in his songs, at least not the one who got the redemption. I arrived, in the midnight dark, as myself. I never got the redemption I was looking for, but I also didn’t know enough at the time to give it to anyone else, either.

Now, I feel the space between me and the men Dylan moves through his songs. I know that I am the lady with the silver bracelets, the stripper with the book of poetry, the one with flowers in my hair. I don’t see that in myself. I do see that giving love, redemption, forgiveness, shelter, love is a powerful position. It is simply not that of the hero from the song, and it was easier to be him. When I slipped into someone’s arms in the dark with Dylan still blowing through my brain, I was trying to get relief.

I listen with different intention to the place of the divine feminine in the songs, and I look at my life, and wonder if now, I can play both roles. Could I claim the shelter for myself, grant it, and be everyone in the song? This is another form of double consciousness. Perhaps the greatest metaphor Dylan has given me is the one where at least two things can be true at once.

My stepfather tells me that Dylan was in it to be a rock star, not a prophet.

My stepfather tells me that Dylan was in it to be a rock star, not a prophet. He says in a text, when I ask him about this: I think he used all those influences to get his message across. Dylan also advised the Beatles to get serious about their lyrics, which was a great influence on John Lennon in particular. He told them they should write about more serious things and that their stuff was good but it was like bubble gum.

I am sure that it is possible to be both a prophet and a rock star, I text him back. And he agrees.

Dylan did convert to Christianity, from Judaism, in 1978. This is a fact of great interest to me personally, but I am not at all sure it impacted his prophecy. He was a prophet before and after, in every sense of the word. He himself said, “What I learned in Bible school was just… an extension of the same thing I believed in all along, but just couldn’t verbalize or articulate.”

He also slyly admits his roots in the major prophets of Jewish tradition. “Roots, man – we're talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots, I suppose.”

Let’s parse this out with “All Along the Watchtower,” because it is important to see that Isaiah can stay Isaiah, while Revelation sneaks in there too, and they can simply co-reside in the space of our pain, while hinting at a wide world of prophecy. The metaphor for the song comes from Isaiah 21:1-10. It is promising the fall of Babylon to a downtrodden people. The idea that there will be freedom at the end of the misery of exile. And then, the thief sneaks in there from the New Testament. He resided in Revelation 16:15, in Matthew 24:43, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.

What works about the references is they are metaphors that show us grief, possibility, and G-d’s work in the world. They contain the same miraculous negative capability that all of Dylan’s prophecy does. He can hold two conflicting ideas in his head and instead of going crazy, he makes it into art and moves our souls.

He also steals some lines from T.S. Eliot and Kris Kristofferson, of all weird combinations of people. Not weirder than the Curtis Mayfield song Dylan covered, “People Get Ready,” which was later played on stage by U2 and Bruce Springsteen in Philadelphia in 2005. He knew he was speaking the language of G-d, but he was also out to change the world, if that is what my stepfather means by being a rock star. When people study the diffusion of innovation in culture, I am not sure they ever look at music, and they should. The movement of ideas, feelings, the zeitgeist, the times, the changes, the interests and concerns of that moment, place, generation, and crowd. Dylan changed how we feel music. He changed the people with whom he made music, and he changed the categories of possibility in music.

Now, if you were raised to see Jesus as the only way to redemption, this lack of a clear path through Dylan would seem crazy-making, and I can see how you would go looking for Jesus and the Bible in his lyrics to console you that your way, truth, and light exist there in the rock star you love. I could not argue. They do exist and there are tomes and volumes out there to prove it.

God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways. – Bob Dylan

But if you take Walter Brueggemann at face value, then the only requirements for prophecy are to cry out the pain and grief of the current world, and to promise that there can be, and already is, something else waiting for us all in G-d if we can be creative and get there. You use what you can to get there—and to bring the people listening to you there with you.

If it sounds like I am having an argument in my head, or on paper, with someone standing just out of your line of vision, I am. This is how theology grows and responds to the world. We are all having a conversation with someone just out of the frame of the shot, who may have said something before you, as the listener, walked in.

I heard it, and my response is what you have in front of you. But who am I talking to? Christians who find it important that Dylan passes the true/false test. My stepfather, who is the greatest musical mind of the last 70 years, he is in there, telling me things I am not so sure I agree with. And for sure, with all of the Christians who misunderstand the prophets as pointing to Jesus, when they were pointing to G-d. It is a small distinction, but a big one for me and maybe for Dylan and all the other converts out there with a strong grounding in Torah.

Something Dylan said in 1991 when he accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement is of particular relevance to this spiritual reinvention. He said, “Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said… you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.”

When I was getting divorced and in graduate school and lost and miserable, I played “Tangled Up in Blue” over and over and over, from August when we separated to the following May when the divorce was final. I sat in the garage in my car, and before I put my seatbelt on, I put the CD in the slot and hit the button. It was the line about “soon to be divorced” that spoke to me first. It was my reality. Eventually, though I was drawn in by the hope in the song, that love would keep looking for me even if I moved, changed, or fell apart.

I was looking for integration. Integration of my life into the life of G-d, and integration of what I have experienced into the flow of life and love. I was looking for redemption for myself and for the broken world in which we live. I was looking for more than one thing to be true at once.

Eugene Peterson, another theologian of prophecy, took a quote from Nietzsche as the title for his book on the prophets: “The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Dylan dedicated his life to that long obedience, taking everything that came his way and creating a discology of prophecy. His words have woken us up, made us cry, found us lost, given us hope, and showed us a way to the promised land. They have proven to us that we can hold more than one thing as the truth, or maybe that whatever one thing we hold as the truth, there is always at least one more thing that is true.

In “Maybe Someday” he writes,
“Maybe someday when you’re by yourself alone
You’ll know the love that I had for you was never My own”

Michelle Auerbach