Sometimes it feels like Bob Dylan says: "I practice a faith that's long been abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road"

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Kees de Graaf

Has Dylan become multi-religious?

 In part VIII his analysis of Dylan’s song "I contain Multitudes" my respected fellow Dutchman Jochen Markhorst analyses the line: “Everything’s flowing all at the same time”.

In his analysis Markhorst comes up with a Dylan quote taken from Dylan’s 2012 Rolling Stone interview which reads: “There’s truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more”.
Markhorst then concludes: “Dylan articulates the insight that most of us do reach, sooner or later: that the Great Truths of all religions, cultures and times overlap. We hear an expression of that insight here, in the key line of the fourth verse, also one of Dylan’s Eternal Themes: “Everything’s flowing all at the same time”. A Great Truth that we encounter often enough among Buddhists anyway, and is also expressed quite literally that way in the narrative that, at least in the Western world, is the most popular and widely read Buddha story, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta (1922):“The river is everywhere at once, at its source and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and only the present exists for it, and not the shadow of the future”.

To further back up the point Markhorst wants to make, he also quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. Markhorst writes “No doubt Dylan had several aha-moments when reading Meditations, but a checkmark in the margin he will have made at Meditation 43, “Time is a river, a violent torrent of events coming into being; and as soon as it has appeared, each one is swept off and disappears, and another follows, which is swept away in its turn”, and if not, at Meditation 37:“If you’ve seen the present, then you’ve seen everything — as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever. The same substance, the same form. All of it.”

When we read this we had to rub our eyes. Is this really true? Has Dylan become a multireligious person? Has Dylan indeed finally come to the conclusion that something like “the” truth does not exist and that “the Great Truths” as Markhorst calls them– overlap and can be found in all (world)religions? I’m sure it would be a relief for the vast majority of Dylanologists if this were the case.

However, we have to disappoint them. It is not what these words “There’s truth in all books. In some kind of way” intend to say. On the contrary. There is a big difference between "truth" and "the" truth. Let us try and explain this.
If one believes that God truly and exclusively revealed Himself in the Books of the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament,  and that this is "the" truth, does that mean that wisdom can only be found there? Of course not. Glimpses and traces of this exclusive truth have filtered through to all world religions and ideological systems and in the books which represent these religions and ideologies. Or to put in in simple words: If it is true – and we believe it is true - what Jesus exclusively says of Himself in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” does this mean that He is the only person in which truth can be found? Of course not. Although He exclusively owns this truth, this truth is passed on to his followers and to anybody who is willing to receive this truth. Therefore to find glimpses and traces of this exclusive truth elsewhere is a matter of discernment. And Dylan is a learned and wise man who has this capability of discernment.

Markhorst believes that when Dylan wrote the line “Everything’s flowing all at the same time” he was inspired by a line from the Buddha story, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta (1922) and by Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. But is this undeniable? We don’t think so. We can find similar quotes in the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon (990-931BC), many centuries before e.g. the Bhagavad-Gita and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations “were written.

Here are some passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes which prove that a line like “Everything’s flowing all at the same time” might just as well have been inspired by the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes 1:7: “All the rivers run into the sea, Yet the sea is not full; To the place from which the rivers come, There they return again” .
Ecclesiastes 1:6: “The wind goes toward the south, And turns around to the north; The wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit”.
Ecclesiastes 3:20: “All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust”.
Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10: “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us.(NJKV).

It is true, Dylan said in his 2009 Rolling Stone interview that he liked “the morality thing” in ancient writers like Plutarch, Cicero, Tacitus and a Stoic writer like Marcus Aurelius. But is this really so odd when you consider that it was the Apostle Paul who himself quoted the Stoic poets Epimenides and Aratus in the Bible in Acts 17:28 “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (NJKV)? .
Therefore it is much more likely that Stoic writers like Epimenides and Marcus Aurelius were inspired by the Tenach and more specifically by Biblical books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. It explains why the Apostle Paul cites Stoic writers and why Dylan said that he likes “the morality thing” in these Stoic writers.

In part Part XVI of his analysis of “I contain multitudes“ Markhorst states that the journalist Jody Rosen, as far as the interpretation of Dylan is concerned, “falls into the same trap as so many reviewers, analysts and fans before her: she, too, equates the narrator with the writer”. But when Markhorst writes that “Dylan articulates the insight that most of us do reach, sooner or later: that the Great Truths of all religions, cultures and times overlap” Markhorst walks into the same trap he warns Jody Rosen not to walk into.

When Markhorst says: “Dylan articulates the insight that most of us reach” Markhorst also equates the narrator with the writer. Why would he do that and at the same time reproach others who do the same thing? Simply because it may suit his agenda. Someone on the internet called this “the ABC” phenomenon. “ABC” stands for “anything but Christ”. It means that a wide variety of world views is acceptable for ABC folks, except the (Jesus) Biblical one. When Dylan, either implicitly or explicitly, refers to the Bible or supports the Judeo-Christian world view in his lyrics, these ABC folks immediately object and say: “do not equate the narrator with the writer” or “who says that Dylan personally believes these things” etc.

Apart from all this, in his December 20th 2022 Q&A session in The Wall Street Journal Dylan states: “I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it”. Although we admit that we find it a bit hard visualising Dylan lighting candles in churches, we believe Dylan is sincere here. Remember that this is a Q&A session. Dylan’s answers to these questions were not given spontaneously but done in writing and therefore fall in the category what Dylan elsewhere calls: “thinking it all over and I’ve thought it all through”. Therefore, this statement from Dylan once again confirms that he still a devout Christian and a pretty orthodox one at that!

Indeed, it was Walt Whitman who wrote: “I am large, I contain multitudes”. But then again, was it not the Apostle Paul who struggled within himself with two identities in Romans 7? Look what he says in Romans 7:15: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (NLT) . Paul finds many contradictions, many conflicting moods, within himself and because of this he concludes in Romans 7:24 “Oh, what a miserable person I am! "(NLT).
Although it is against his will, Paul finds that multiple sins still have access to his mind and these try to pollute his soul. He does not say so literally, but Paul might just as well have concluded: “I contain multitudes”. And who is to say that Dylan may not have had the apostle Paul in mind when he wrote this song?

We conclude that the insight which Markhorst imposes on Dylan “that the Great Truths of all religions, cultures and times overlap” is wrong. Dylan did not say that. It only reflects Markhorst’s personal belief.

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Published on: 10-11-2023 17:20:57

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Merci Kees,

Both kind words and criticism are always welcome. Especially if it points out impurities or inaccuracies on my part. Regarding your criticism I do allow myself a modest retort, though: I’m afraid you are a little guilty of strawman argumentation. I’m pretty sure that I really never, not in this article either, claim to know what Dylan thinks. As you yourself correctly quote, I merely report, neutrally, that Dylan is articulating an insight. In this case, "There's truth in all books". I see therein a bridge to what the narrator in Dylan's song posits (n.b. the narrator in the song, not Dylan himself).

Also surprising was your assertion that I believe “Dylan was inspired by a line in Hesse's Siddharta”. Not only does that seem extremely unlikely to me, I really do not claim this anywhere (to be sure, I just reread my own piece). It is rather gratuitous to then refute that never-posed assertion, but alright. At the risk of turning this into semantic hair-splitting: all four Ecclesiastes quotations you bring up as evidence that Solomon was earlier than Marcus Aurelius and the Bhagavad-Gita (which seems rather irrelevant to me anyway), are missing the point. This all articulates “historic recurrence”, these are all “everything-repeats-itself” aphorisms, which is a more than a nuance different from the denial of linear time in the "Everything's flowing all at the same time" quote.

By extension, equating what journalist Jody Rosen does with what I write is rather nonsensical. Jody Rosen equates the "you" in Dylan's "The Philosophy Of Modern Song" with Dylan. I equate Dylan with Dylan in an interview with Dylan. After all, the interviewee is Dylan himself, and not a persona in a book or a song. It seems hardly a bold statement that Dylan means "I, Bob Dylan" whenever he says "I" in an interview.

This does not mean that I am thereby "imposing an insight on Dylan". Which of course would be insufferably immodest and pretentious for my part - even when quoting from interviews, I think I always build in a caveat (in this case, "he articulates the insight" as opposed to “he’s articulates his insight).

I am aware that strawman argumentation is a popular instrument to demonstrate intellectual brightness, especially on-line, and there’s no law against it, obviously, but I do have an opinion: overly elegant it is not. However, I'm grateful for the space you provide for a rebuttal.

Hartelijke groet uit Utrecht,
Jochen Markhorst

I was not familiar with the witty (dis)qualifier ABC, Anything But Christ. Witty, but I dare to state it’s rather unlike me. It would be quite ridiculous to deny traces, references and echoes of Christ in some Dylan songs. Still, if you insist on placing my Dylan writings in something as oppressive as a "personal belief" pigeonhole (which seems ironic, coming from you), then, for Christ's sake, I’d choose ABC. Most certainly not the CIA (Christ In Anything), anyway.


Jochen16-11-2023 20:33

Kees is framing every song of Dylan in his own Christian way. Dylan has a period, long ago, that was right. Dylan is religious in a broader way than “ the lessons” od dominee De Graaf. Read the books of Markhorst, he is not framing, but let us see possibilities.


Bertus Voortman12-11-2023 21:51

Dear Kees,
I always say "there is no sense in trying", to pin Bob Dylan´s faith down or to track that anyway.
Faith in my eyes is a very personal thing and it never interested me, what Dylan believes.
He´s starting every night with "You go your way, I´ll go mine, after the laid back view on life, that happens what happens.You know, there is a lot of stuff under the bridge, but I don´t care anymore.
But it is also true, that Dylan on Rough and Rowdy Ways is reflecting a lot about the last step in a man´s life. And I could also write books about that, but I leave that to Jochen, and this time I really see no reason to attack a free-minded writer.
The book Rough and Rowdy Ways Side B from Jochen Markhorst is available since some days and there he writes about "I ve made my mind", Black Rider" and Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, and go to the chapter "God will pardon me, that´s his job",
I´am a religious person (but I not only) read.....
or from a Van Morrison song"I live my life not just in one key".
Greetings from Darmstadt,



Marco Demel12-11-2023 12:32

What an insightful and encouraging piece! Thank you for reflecting on the expressive art of this gifted man and his own reflections of the Creator as well as the double standards of the world.


K Hewson12-11-2023 11:58

Interesting but not surprising coming from a Christian like you. You may be right but to me there's no evidence Bob Dylan adheres totally and exclusively to the Christian faith. In my books I tried to expose what he said without concluding on his inside beliefs.


Francois Guillez12-11-2023 08:57

I agree with your assessment, Preken van Kees de Graaf. I like how you distinguish between Dylan's allusions to general knowledge/common human wisdom & myths found in all religions/cultures, and the more specific Biblical knowledge & judgments which Dylan so often refers/alludes to, or directly quotes. I suppose many people, fans, want Dylan to be "on their side." But in some way, he always is, expressing in his songs how we must keep free from the "guardians and protectors of the mind."


Danny Blue12-11-2023 07:41

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