God is Liefde (4).
In “God is Liefde (3)”heb ik gezegd dat mijn buurman nog meer pijlen op zijn boog heeft. Ik citeer wat hij nog meer te zeggen heeft:
“Verder heb ik gezegd dat het mij zou tegenvallen als de God die jij beschrijft bestaat o.a. omdat het leven dan zinloos is en op zijn hoogst leidt tot een bestaan in dienst van een despoot die alleen mensen onder zich duldt en niet naast hem. "Ik deel alles met je maar het is en blijft van mij" is niet wat ik onder delen versta en voor mij zeker geen liefde. "Je mag gratis in mijn huis wonen en alles in dit huis vrij gebruiken als je maar, uit vrije wil, doet wat ik zeg en mij als absolute macht boven je duldt", neigt voor mij eerder naar slavernij dan naar liefde”.
De buurman heeft vet gedrukt “die jij beschrijft”. Als ik inderdaad een eigen beschrijving van God heb gegeven dan heeft mijn buurman gelijk. Dan zou ik een beeld van God neerzetten wat niet in overeenstemming is met wat God over Zichzelf zegt in de Bijbel. Maar klopt dit wel?
Ik heb juist willen benadrukken dat God de mens onvoorwaardelijk lief heeft. God is liefde en daarom doet Hij alles uit liefde en kan en wil Hij niets anders dan lief hebben. God heeft die mens aan het begin – in de Hof van Eden – alles gegeven wat hij nodig had om heel de schepping te ontplooien en tot bloei te brengen. Om langs een evolutionaire weg alles te ontdekken wat er te ontdekken valt. De mens kreeg daarin de vrije hand. Maar het geheel krijgt alleen gestalte in een band van liefde en trouw aan zijn Schepper, kortom in een liefdesrelatie met zijn Schepper. En binnen die wederzijdse liefdes relatie past het de mens God te eren als zijn Schepper. Schepper en schepsel vloeien namelijk nooit in elkaar over. En zolang de mens God bleef lief hebben was de verhouding tussen Schepper en schepsel ook geen enkel probleem. integendeel, het deed de mens juist goed om God te eren, te danken en te prijzen voor zoveel liefde.
Als ik naar het bovenstaande citaat van mijn buurman bekijk, dan zie ik dat mijn buurman een gezagsprobleem ziet tussen God en mens; een probleem dat in het begin- toen de mens nog niet in zonde was gevallen - helemaal niet bestond.
Maar de mens viel in zonde en met hem zijn nl. allemaal gevallen mensen en dat geldt zowel voor mijzelf als mijn buurman. Het gevolg hiervan is dat als iemand anders gezag over ons uitoefent, wij de neiging hebben om vanuit onszelf dit ‘gezag’ als iets negatiefs zijn te zien, iemand speelt de baas over jou, jij moet er onderdoor en die ander gehoorzamen. Jij, vanuit jouw kant, probeert zoveel mogelijk onder dat gezag uit te komen.
Toch is dat niet het wezenlijke van het begrip ‘gezag’ zoals God dat bedoeld heeft. ‘Gezag’ is door onze val in zonden maar al te vaak verworden tot het terroriseren van de ander. Gezag zoals God dat oorspronkelijk bedoeld heeft is van een geheel andere aard. Het wezenlijke van ‘gezag’ zoals de Bijbel dat ziet, bestaat in de eerste plaats nl. uit ‘dienen’. ’Dienen’ betekent: Je stelt uit liefde alles wat je hebt ter beschikking van die ander. Om die ander te redden, te helpen en bij te staan. Jezus is daar het beste voorbeeld van. Omdat Jezus vrijwillig een slavendienst op zich genomen heeft om ons te kunnen redden, heeft God hem de allerhoogste plaats in de kosmos gegeven (Fil.2:8,9). Zijn gezag ontleent Hij aan Zijn ‘dienen’ voor ons.
Ook in het gewone leven hebben mensen ontzag voor een leider die zichzelf heeft opgeofferd voor het welzijn van het volk. En dergelijke leider heeft a.h.w. een natuurlijk gezag, juist omdat hij door alle pijn is heen gegaan die jij nu mee kan maken. Dat zijn de echte leiders. Maar een despoot of dictator die door geweld aan de macht is gekomen en alleen maar gericht is op eigen gewin, roem en glorie, interesseert het welzijn van zijn onderdanen geen snars. Zulk soort despoten en dictators zijn er hier op aarde maar al te veel.
Nu even terug naar bovenstaand citaat van mijn buurman. Mijn buurman zegt met zoveel woorden dat het leven geen zin heeft zolang hij op zijn minst niet gelijkwaardig is aan God, hij wil op gelijke voet met God staan. Wil hij niet zelf als God zijn?. Maar – even aangenomen dat dit mogelijk zou zijn – zou mijn buurman genoegen nemen met een positie naast God? Maar wat is zo’n positie waard als uiteindelijk God beslist?. Moet bij zo’n positie niet de bevoegdheid horen om God te kunnen kritiseren en eventueel de laan uit te sturen?. Heeft het leven dan pas zin? Is dat liefde?
Wat mijn buurman hier beschrijft is precies wat die eerste mens gedaan heeft: de oerzonde om als God te willen zijn. Dat verlangen ligt sindsdien op de bodem van ons aller hart, met alle desastreuze gevolgen van dien. Dat verlangen heeft echter niets met liefde te maken, dat verlangen om als God te zijn heeft juist de ultieme slavernij gebracht.
Ach ,wat verlang ik ernaar om onder de stralen van Zijn glans en luister te blijven, want daar is het veilig en warm. Pas daar is de echte vrijheid. Daarom wil ik niets liever Heer, dan U gehoorzamen.
God is Liefde (4).
God is Liefde (3).
Mijn buurman heeft schriftelijk gereageerd op mijn tweede artikel: God is Liefde. Ik heb mijn buurman niet goed begrepen want hij schrijft:
“Nu heb je één statement uit zijn verband gerukt en één statement verkeerd verwoord. Ik heb gezegd dat ik aan niets op deze wereld kan zien dat God van de mens houdt en dat het bewust niet ingrijpen voor mij eerder op onverschilligheid wijst dan op liefde”.
Mijn excuses als ik e.e.a. niet goed heb begrepen en niet juist verwoord heb. Ik zal proberen antwoord te geven op wat mijn buurman hier schrijft. Want het probleem dat de buurman hier signaleert, leeft net zo goed bij christenen.
Als je goed om je heen kijkt, dan zie je in deze wereld veel lijden. Dat lijden zou je grofweg in twee categorieën kunnen verdelen. De eerste categorie is lijden dat ons overkomt. Op deze categorie van lijden kunnen we maar beperkte - of soms zelfs helemaal geen- invloed uitoefenen. Dat is lijden dat ons overkomt als gevolg van bijv. natuurrampen, epidemieën, ongelukken, handicaps en ziekten. Aan de vergankelijkheid van het leven ontkomt niemand . Elk nieuw geboren leven draagt de kiemen van de dood reeds in zich. Elk leven loopt uiteindelijk naar de dood met alle pijn en verdriet die daaraan verbonden is.
De tweede categorie van lijden wordt veroorzaakt door het lijden dat we onszelf en elkaar aan doen. Daar zijn we zelf verantwoordelijk voor. De bron daarvan is ons eigen hart. Innerlijke haat, boosheid, afgunst, begeerte, ontevredenheid, ontrouw, egoïsme en heerszucht worden omgezet in daden waar anderen het slachtoffer van worden. We kunnen een aantal gevolgen noemen: seks, alcohol of drugsverslavingen, huiselijk geweld, gebroken gezinnen, geweld verkrachting en moord. Ook kinderen worden hier het slachtoffer van. En op een globale schaal: heersers, bloeddorstige dictators en terorristen, volken die elkaar de oorlog aandoen en die miljoenen mensen de dood injagen. Door de geschiedenis heen zien we een enorme stroom van bloed vergieten.
En dan vragen velen zich af: als God dan van de mens houdt, waarom grijpt Hij dan niet in en laat Hij merken dat Hij aanwezig is? Schijnbaar laat Hij het allemaal maar gebeuren en houdt Hij zich afzijdig?.
Laat ik beginnen met te stellen dat God altijd veel groter, wijzer, liefdevoller en rechtvaardiger is dan wij ons ooit kunnen voorstellen. Ons verstand is simpelweg te klein om Hem te kunnen begrijpen en daarom past ons bescheidenheid en moeten we de hand op de mond leggen. Daar moeten we ons voortdurend van bewust zijn. Niet voor iedere vorm van lijden hebben wij een pasklaar antwoord. Dat wil niet zeggen dat we vanuit de Bijbel helemaal geen antwoord kunnen geven op deze vragen. Het antwoord zal echter nooit uitputtend zijn. Eén ding is zeker zegt de Bijbel: God is liefde en daarom heeft Hij het goede lief en wil Hij ook het goede voor de mens. Hij is rechtvaardig en daarom haat Hij het kwade en voert er een strijd tegen. En Hij heeft wel degelijk ingegrepen. In die strijd tegen het kwaad heeft Hij al de alles beslissende overwinning al behaald toen Zijn Zoon stierf aan het kruis en de zonde van de wereld op Zich genomen heeft. Zo heeft Hij de oorzaak van het kwaad al weg genomen en straks ook alle gevolgen.
Laten we eerlijk wezen. Achter die vraag waarom God niet ingrijpt zit eigenlijk vaak de eis dat God de gevolgen van het kwaad moet weg nemen zonder de oorzaak ervan in onszelf aan te pakken. De mens heeft van God in het begin een zeer ruim mandaat gekregen. Maar we hebben er een puinhoop van gemaakt. We hebben onze verantwoordelijkheid niet genomen maar misbruikt. We hebben gekozen voor het kwaad. Nu wuiven we onze eigen verantwoordelijkheid weg en willen we hebben dat God voortdurend puin ruimt zonder dat er iets verandert aan en in onszelf. We zijn als een drugsverslaafde (zondeverslaafde) die telkens een nieuwe shot eist om de gevolgen van de verslaving weg te nemen zonder de oorzaak aan te pakken. We zijn dodelijk ziek en hebben dringend hulp nodig. Het goede nieuws is dat God iedereen die om hulp vraagt wil helpen en zal genezen.
De vraag waarom God (nog) niet ingrijpt wordt ook in de Bijbel gesteld. Men vraagt (2 Petr. 3: 3) “Waar blijft Hij nu?” Maar dan is het antwoord: “voor de Heer is één dag als duizend jaar, en duizend jaar als één dag. De Heer is niet traag in het nakomen van Zijn belofte, Hij heeft alleen maar geduld met u, omdat Hij wil dat iedereen tot inkeer komt en niemand verloren gaat” (2Pet. 3:9).God heeft oneindig meer geduld dan wij hebben. Wij willen altijd alles meteen. Maar God duldt het kwade omdat Hij nog zo veel mogelijk mensen wil redden. Maar er komt een dag waarop alle onrecht recht zal worden getrokken en alle tranen van de ogen zullen worden afgewist.
Mijn buurman had nog meer te zeggen. Daarover in een volgende aflevering.
God is liefde (2)
Mijn buurman heeft gereageerd op onderstaand artikel ‘God is Liefde’. Mijn buurman vroeg of ik kan bewijzen dat God de mens lief heeft. We gaan proberen om iets meer de zeggen over de liefde van God. De liefde van God is in de eerste plaats onvoorwaardelijk. Het is niet zo dat als wij God lief hebben, Hij ons ook lief heeft. Integendeel. Hij heeft ons lief ook als wij Hem niet lief hebben en Hem haten. Bekend is de uitdrukking: God heeft de zondaar lief maar haat de zonde.
De eerste mens kreeg het gehele beheer en de ontwikkeling van de schepping in handen. Hij kreeg a.h.w. carte blanche. Maar hij vond dat niet genoeg en wilde als God zijn en heeft God naar de kroon gestoken. Hij heeft Hem a.h.w. vermoord en is een vijand van God geworden en heeft zijn ziel verkocht aan Gods tegenstander de duivel.
Die eerste mens- die ons allen vertegenwoordigt - heeft de hele mensheid in zijn val meegesleept zodat het virus van die vijandschap tegen God in ons aller leven is door gedrongen. Of we dat nu beseffen of niet. Mijn buurman is hier eerlijk over. Mijn buurman heeft gezegd dat als voor hem onomstotelijk bewezen kan worden dat God echt bestaat, hij onaangenaam verrast zou zijn. Deze houding van de buurman is helemaal niet vreemd, van nature zijn we allemaal zo.
God had vanwege onze vijandschap vanaf het allereerste begin het project ‘mens’ kunnen opgeven en de mens kunnen wegvagen. Dat zou volkomen rechtvaardig geweest zijn. De mens was gewaarschuwd: “wanneer je daarvan eet, zul je onherroepelijk sterven” (Gen. 2:17). Maar toch gaf God de mens niet op. Hij ging in en door Zijn geliefde Zoon zelf sterven aan het kruis. De Zoon van God – zelf God- werd mens en stierf in onze plaats en verzoende God en mens. En Hij deed dat- zegt Rom. 5:10- “toen wij nog vijanden waren”. En nu krijgt iedereen die in de Zoon van God gelooft het eeuwige leven weer terug. Geheel gratis. Als dat geen liefde is, dan weet ik het niet meer. Hiermee hebben we ook meteen gezegd dat echte liefde de bereidheid in zich heeft om alles op te offeren om de ander te kunnen redden. Dat heeft God gedaan. Gods liefde is onvoorwaardelijk zeiden we. Gods liefde laat de hoogst mogelijke graaf van opofferingsgezindheid zien. Maar er is nog een ander aspect en dat is dat liefde een keuze is. Daarover in een volgend artikel.
God is liefde (1)
Onlangs had ik een gesprek met mijn buurman over het geloof in God. Wat mijn buurman zei kwam ongeveer hier op neer: “In jouw geloof blijft God altijd de baas. Hij staat altijd boven jou en jij moet hem gehoorzamen. Als je God, je Vader, niet gehoorzaamt krijg je met zijn toorn te maken. Gelukkig ben ik zelf anders. Ik ben juist blij als mijn kinderen boven mij staan. Ik er blij mee als ze meer bereiken en het veel beter doen dan ik zelf ooit heb kunnen doen. Daar beleef ik juist veel plezier aan”. Op het eerste gezicht lijkt dit een plausibel verhaal. Toch klopt er iets niet.
Want als je accepteert dat jouw kinderen boven jou staan, dan verleen je ze ook gezag om over jou de baas te spelen. Wat gebeurt er dan als die kinderen misbruik van dat gezag gaan maken? Als jij alles wat ze bereikt hebben, gefaciliteerd en betaald hebt, als je alles voor hen gegeven hebt om hen een goed leven te geven en toch spugen ze je in het gelaat, als ze geen enkel respect voor jou tonen, je naam belasteren en jou alleen als melkkoe willen gebruiken voor het financieren van hun eigen verslavingen wat gebeurt er dan? Dan zal er denk ik toch een moment komen waarop jij zegt: “Ik ben je Vader, dit kan je niet maken!. Dit is harteloos en liefdeloos, ik voel me verschrikkelijk misbruikt!”.
Laat nu dat laatste precies zijn wat wij als mensen God hebben aangedaan. En wat heeft God toen gedaan? Heeft Hij gezegd: “met jou wil ik niets meer te maken hebben?”. Daar had Hij het volste recht toe. Maar Hij heeft het niet gedaan. Hij bleef de mens lief hebben en opzoeken, ondanks zijn diep gekrenkte liefde. Hij ging zelf de schuld vereffenen die de mens gemaakt heeft. Zijn Zoon offerde zichzelf vrijwillig op om de schuld van de hele mensheid te betalen aan het kruis. Meer dan jezelf kan je nooit geven. Dat deed God. En daarvoor verdient Hij alle mogelijke respect. Gelukkig staat Hij boven mij. Want als “de Liefde” boven je staat – en God is liefde – dan weet je dat je altijd bij Hem geborgen bent. Het is een grote eer en genade om Hem te mogen gehoorzamen.
Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 2.
Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed
This verse very much breathes the atmosphere of imprisonment. Imprisonment and hard labour because of some irreversible act of felony committed in the past. It is the same atmosphere which we already found in the chorus “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. This chorus seems to echo an old blues song from Alan Lomax recorded in the Parchman Farm Prison in 1947-1948. There seems to be a CD from these sessions called 'Prison Blues Of The South.' In the liner notes of the accompanying booklet, you read the words 'Only thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long' . Apparently, this is what the prisoners in the Mississippi Parchman Farm prison used to sing during hard labour. On that occasion Lomax also recorded a prison song called “Rosie” which is featured in this verse. Alan Lomax said that: "These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River … They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.". On the one hand, when you consider the harsh circumstances the prisoners were in and the lawlessness in the Mississippi Parchman Farm Prison camp, one is easily inclined to say that in this prison camp: “the devil’s in the alley”. The devil is always nearby in these prison labour camps; it looks as if the devil has it all his way, having no other purpose in the end but to chain these prisoners for ever and bereave them of all hope. On the other hand,- as so often in Dylan’s oeuvre - the words “the devil’s in the alley” may also have an apocalyptic sub-meaning. If so, it reminds us of a Dylan line which would later show up in his song “Thunder on the Mountains”. It says: “There is a ruckus in the alley and the sun (or Son) will be here soon”. This ruckus – in the alley - is at its most intense when the Latter Day is about to break through and the sudden arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds will make an end to this ruckus (Rev. 1:7).
When it says: “mule’s in the stall”, one should not forget that not only stubbornness is usually associated with mules, but also hardworking. “Mule’s – kicking – in the stall” not only has a rural connotation but also a connotation of those hard labouring prisoners in this Mississippi Parchman Farm prison, who during hard labour, just to distract their minds, chant those prison songs which Alan Lomax recorded.
When the poet goes on to say: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all” these words may again have a double meaning. First, it may apply to those inmates in the Parchman Farm Prison. When you have been an inmate in this prison – or any other prison for that matter - for a long time and you see the same inmates over and over again, during a long period of time, there are few new things you can tell one another; you have heard all the personal stories and you may conclude: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all”. Secondly, when you stick by an apocalyptic interpretation the words “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all” have some sort of destiny and acquiescence in them. Destiny and resignation in the sense that there is no clever human thesis available in this world which could change the course of things and prevent doomsday from coming. The words also show weariness, just like it is said in the book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun and things go as they have been predetermined.
Some have argued that “Rosie” the words “I was thinking about the things that Rosie said, I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed” refers to the ideal woman in the same as e.g. in France Marianne is a symbol for the Republic. If that were correct “Rosie” would be a symbol of love and not an actual woman. However, we feel it is more likely that “Rosie” is a reflection on the prison song “Rosie” which -as said above- Lomax recorded in the Mississippi Parchman Farm Prison in 1947-1948. The lyrics of “Rosie” go like : “Be my woman gal, I'll be your man. Every day’s Sunday dollar in your hand, In your hand lordy, in your hand. Everyday ‘s Sunday dollar in your hand. Stick to the promise girl that You made me. Won't got married til' uh I go free I go free lordy, I go free, won't got married til' uh I go free”. These words fit like a glove within the atmosphere of this verse which speaks of imprisonment. Even under the harsh circumstance of hard labour the longing and hope for a better future keeps these inmates going. Dreams about a promise a girl once made to them remain: “I was thinking about the things that Rosie said” and also hope for a happy matrimony in the future: “I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed”, no matter how hopeless and idle these dreams usually prove to be.
Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too
This verse expatiates on the previous verse and also deals with the mental state of a prisoner. The thought seems not far away that, because we all sinned, we are all in a way prisoners. To live a life of sin and crime creates isolation -literally and figuratively - and is a lifestyle one should try to avoid, just like Dylan wrote in his song “Working Man Blues #2”: “I don't want to be forced Into a life of continual crime”. “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees, feeling like a stranger nobody sees” expresses isolation and loneliness. Locked up in a prison camp, often bereft of all your next of kin, you feel quite alone. Walking amidst the dead leaves, falling from the trees, intensifies the feeling that your situation is hopeless and that you might as well be dead just like those leaves. Nobody cares for you and nobody looks after you, you have nobody left on this planet who is interested in you and cares what will happen to you, nobody knows you and nobody will miss you, you are “feeling like a stranger nobody sees”. In a prison camp there is plenty of time to think about the past. “So many things that we never will undo” means that you can’t turn back the clock, you can’t unring the bell, the sins you have done and the crimes you have committed are irreversible and they keep on haunting you. Often at this point of contemplation regret and remorse come stepping in: “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. “Love is all there is” Dylan once wrote in his song “I threw it all away” and love is all that really matters but at the same time love and passion are so delicate and vulnerable, that once there is a falling out, there is guilt and regret on both sides: “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. A falling out may easily lead to a “crime ‘passionel’ and you may end up in prison and – just like the Prodigal son once did in Luke 15:17- you may “come to yourself” and say “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”.
Verse 7 and second bridge.
Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t
I need something strong to distract my mind
I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind
Just like in the first bridge, there is this ascending bass line in this verse which – as said above - very much increases the tension and the drama in the song and takes the song to a higher and more spiritual level. These words in this verse go beyond the words spoken by a prisoner in a prison camp in Mississippi. It is as if the camera zooms out from the prisoner in the Mississippi prison camp and now focusses on what goes on at a higher, ethereal, level. This higher level has to do with something we would like to call eternal separation. It seems that Dylan is grasped by this idea of eternal separation and it is a phenomenon we quite often see in Dylan’s works. By eternal separation, we mean eternal and absolute separation between good and evil; separation and distance between those who chose to be redeemed and those who chose to reject redemption. A separation which has its beginning on this earth and will be carried on eternally into a future world, a world – as Dylan puts it –“you can’t see”. This idea is worked out in two parables from Jesus which shimmer through in this verse. “Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t” reminds us of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).The first parable tells us that a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. What you expected the least happened: an outlawed and despicable Samaritan and an unknown innkeeper took care of the man and they offered him their hand by dressing up the man’s wounds and paying for his lodgings in the inn. However, those people who were expected to come to the rescue of the man, the priest and the Levite, passed by and left the man to die. “Some people who will offer you’re their hand” are the Good Samaritan and the innkeeper, “some who won’t” are the priest and the Levite. This attitude, an unwillingness to offer your hand, may have some nasty consequences, we see this alluded to when it says: ”Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t” . We see that in the second parable, called the parable of “the five wise and the five foolish maidens” which we find in Mat. 25:1-13. The five foolish maidens negligently took not enough oil with them to keep their lamps burning and to welcome the arrival of the bridegroom. When these maidens subsequently went out to buy some additional oil, the bridegroom had arrived in the meantime, but then the five foolish maidens were too late for the wedding and the door to the wedding feast was shut. When these maidens said to the Lord- the bridegroom-: “Lord, Lord, open to us” (Mat. 25:11), the Lord refused the five foolish maidens entry to the wedding feast and said: “Truly I say to you, I do not know you”(Mat. 25:12).We find the same picture of a closed door and a householder who refuses entry for those knocking at the door, saying that he does not know them in Luke 13:25-27. It is as if the Lord Jesus now says to the maidens: “Of course, it is not that I do not know who you are because even last night we ate and we drank in the street (Luke 13:26), therefore “Last night I knew you” but tonight, now that the wedding feast has begun and the door is closed, I do not know where you come from, (Luke 13:27) I only know people in a special way, I only know those people who have rejoiced in my arrival and have taken precautions, these people I welcome to my wedding but you, you disrespected me, you were negligent, therefore I do not know you any more, therefore to you I say: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”. This whole concept of eternal separation which is expressed here has such an overwhelming impact on the mind of the poet and fills him with so much awe and fear for this long and narrow way (Luke 13:24)that he feels he needs help from above and cries out: “I need something strong to distract my mind”. “To distract” may mean here that he wants draw attention away from what he is doing and focus on what is of the utmost importance to hang on. To do that he “needs something strong”. One is easily inclined to assume that “something strong” means some drug or substance but that is not self-evident. We rather feel that by “something strong” help from above is meant, a strong and helping hand, as Dylan wrote elsewhere: “Nothing can heal me now, but your touch”. Spiritually he does not want to belong to the five foolish maidens of Mat. 25 to whom is said: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”. Remember that this song was originally composed for the album “Time out of Mind”, on which the theme of eternal separation is also very much present, especially in a song like “Trying to get to Heaven”. The chorus of this song is equally based on the parable of the five wise and foolish maidens when it says: “I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door”. The “closed door” is the same door which the five foolish maidens found closed (Mat 25:10). The poet does not want to be refused entry into heaven and wants to stay focussed, and therefore he not only “needs something strong to distract his mind” but he also needs to keep his eyes fixed upon the promised land: “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind”. Of course it is possible to interpret “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” -as many have done on the internet -as simply directed to some woman he frantically loves or fancies but we have to bear in mind that there are always these deeper spiritual layers in Dylan’s work. In fact, the difference between a romantic “down to earth” interpretation of “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” and a more spiritual interpretation of these words, is based upon the fact whether you feel that Dylan was serious or not, when, in his 2003 CBS interview, he said that it all “ goes back to the destiny thing”. “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” has to do with concentration. The poet does not want to be like Desolation Row’s Ophelia, who, although she had “her eyes fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow” it was of no avail to her. Here we see the same tenacity and perseverance as in Acts 3:4, when Peter and John directed their gaze at the lame man and said “Look at us” which led to the healing of the lame man. Only those survived the lethal bite of the serpent who had their eyes fixed upon the bronze serpent which Moses set on a pole (Numbers 21:9). Only if the poet sticks to his destiny and keeps his eyes fixed upon the promised land, only a concentration even “till his eyes go blind”, will enable him to pass the Narrow Way that ultimately leads to the promised land.
Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
When it says“ Well, I got here following the southern star” it seems obvious that this Southern star is not followed with the same evil intentions king Herod once had in Mat. 2, when he tried to follow another star “the same one them three men followed from the East” ( see Dylan’s “Man of Peace”). Herod followed the star in order to track down the whereabouts of the new born child Jesus with the only purpose of killing the child (Mat.2:16).
The words“ Well, I got here following the southern star” seem much more reassuring. The poet is still on his way in southern direction, just as he wrote in “Trying to get to Heaven”: “I’m going down the river, down to New Orleans”. He follows the southern star which he can see in the sky going down the Mississippi river, till he finally reaches New Orleans in Louisiana. ”Following the southern star” also indicates that he has a mission to fulfil. This mission is to cross that river and “to be where you are”.
The words “to be where you are” represent the equivalent of what Dylan once said in his 2004 CBS interview. Dylan said he made a bargain with “destiny” and when asked: “What was your bargain?”, he said ”to get where I am”. “To be where you are” is the equivalent of “to get where I am”. Again it is possible to simply interpret “to be where you are” as addressed to some woman but – as so often in Dylan’s work- there may be a deeper layer. Therefore, when it says “to be where you are”, we cannot help thinking of the people of Israel miraculously crossing the river Jordan (Joshua 3) and entering the Promised Land, the land of God, the land where God wants them to be and the land where God is near (Joshua 3:7). Although the words ”to be where you are” fulfil a passionate longing to be near God in that Promised Land, there is at the same time also something preliminary in these words; he has not reached his final destination yet, the poet is still on his way, he is “trying to get to heaven”. As long as he is on his way, there still is this tragic and dark shadow of sin expressed in the chorus: “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. For more details on the analysis of the chorus we refer to part one of this series. Please feel free to comment on this article. To do so please press the button 'reacties' below.
Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 1.
Dylan composed this masterpiece during the 1997 recording sessions for the album “Time out of Mind”. Dylan decided not to include this brilliant song on “Time out of mind” and obviously he had his reasons for this decision. However, little must he have realized at the time that it was destiny that caused this song to end up on the 2001 album “Love and Theft”. “Destiny” is a word often used by Dylan in his book “Chronicles”- Volume 1. When asked in his famous 2004 60 minutes CBS television interview why his still out there on stage after so many years he replies: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. When asked whom he made that bargain with he replies: “With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”. The fact is that the album “Love and Theft” was released on September the 11th 2001, the day when those two planes crashed into two twin towers and the world stood still in shock and agony. “Mississippi” exactly put into words what happened on that dreadful day to all those unfortunate who were trapped in these towers: “We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape, trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away, and “Sky full of fire, pain pouring down”. It was as if destiny- the powers from above- had instructed Dylan to hold this prophetic song in his portfolio for more than 4 years and not release it until September the 11th 2001. So when I listened for the first time to this song on September the 11th 2001, the lyrics hit me like a thunderbolt and I was deeply touched and every word of it rang true. But not only that: musically the song has an ascending bass line which very much adds to the tension and drama of the song. All of this was reason enough to make this song one of my favourite Dylan tunes. The are many layers in the song and this makes it not an easy task to analyse the song. There is an outtake of the song which at some points has different lyrics but we will focus on the lyrics of the official release. As said it was not only ‘destiny’’ that caused this song to be released on nine-eleven 2001 but apart from that there is also – as will outline below- a lot of ‘destiny’ in the lyrics of the song itself.
The song comprises 12 verses arranged in three sets of four verses and each of those three sets ends with a conclusion, the chorus of the song: "Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. The chorus has no doubt the key to come to some sort of understanding of the meaning of the song and we will discuss the chorus in depth after the fourth verse but let’s here suffice it to say that in his 2001 Rolling Stone interview Dylan said that “Mississippi” has “knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism”. Indeed there is majesty and heroism in the lyrics of this song but we will see that this majesty and heroism shows itself not so much in- what we would usually expect- in glamour and courage but in all vulnerability and ostensible weakness and fragility which the poet expresses in this song, just like the apostle Paul once said: “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). We are going to find out in the analysis of this song that it is drenched in the imagery of the Biblical wisdom literature such as the Book of Job, the Psalms and the book of Ecclesiastes but also on the Pentateuch. So let’s see how we can piece all these things together and in a verse by verse analysis.
Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape
First of all, when it says: “Every step of the way we walk the line” this line bears the marks of the main theme of the album “Time out of Mind” for which this song was originally composed. The main theme of “Time out of Mind” is “movement”. Movement in whatever direction so it is no surprise to begin the song with “Every step of the way”. This verse – and also other verses in this song for that matter - expresses ‘destiny’ but destiny not seen from a divine stance but destiny seen in a way as we- mortal beings- often experience destiny. We invariably experience destiny in a negative way, as some sort of fatality from which there is no escape. But we must not forget that this is not how God sees destiny. From a divine stance it is better to use the word ‘providence’. The word ‘providence’ has a positive meaning, it means that God protects, guides, and takes care of every step in our life in order to take us safely home, reassuring us so that we conclude: ”Every step of the way we walk the line”. This notion resembles what Paul says in Rom. 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good”. But this seems by no means the feeling the poet intends to express in this verse. In this verse ”Every step of the way we walk the line” seems much more a statement of desperate resignation, everything has been predetermined and things go as they go. There is certainly a strong feeling of destiny here but at the same time there is this idea that there is nothing one can do against the destructing powers of destiny, there simply seems no escape from it. According to the English dictionary -the Wiktionary- one of the meanings of “To walk the line” is “To behave in an authorized or socially accepted manner, especially as prescribed by law or morality”. Some on the internet have argued that “Mississippi” is a socio- political song, depicting the status of American politics and social order. If this were right “To walk the line” would mean for citizens to act and behave exactly in accordance with whatever the ruling order prescribes you to do. Maybe these commentators were inclined to think into this direction because of what Dylan said in his 2001 Rolling Stone interview about “Mississippi”. Dylan, criticizing the attitude of Daniel Lanois towards the song, then said “that the song has more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors, and just couldn't be thought of as some kind of ideological voodoo thing”. We all know that -especially in interviews- Dylan is fond of expressing himself cryptically, making it not easy to understand what exactly he may have had in mind, but our take on it is that Dylan intended to say that just like the foundation of the American nation is solidly and legally laid down in the official laws and documents, “Mississippi” likewise has a strong foundation, based on the hard facts laid down in the Scriptures rather than on some vague etherical voodoo ideology full of superstition. We conclude that when it says ”Every step of the way we walk the line” the poet may intend to say that every step we make in life is predetermined by the powers from above, by God. In this process it looks as if human responsibility is wiped out and that the human existence is nothing more than wind, like “The wind that blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course” ( Ecclesiastes 1:6 NIV).This sense of vanity is certainly how the human existence sometimes feels but it does not necessarily mean that in reality this is the case.
When the poet goes on to say that “Your days are numbered” this does not exactly express the same idea as in Dylan’s song “Every Grain of Sand” where it says: “then onward in my journey I come to understand that every hair is numbered”. This line echoes Mat. 10:30. But the statement from Jesus in Mat. 10:30 that “all the hairs of your head are numbered” is meant reassuringly, to take away fear. But here the words “Your days are numbered” have a much more ominous character. Here, when it says: “Your days are numbered” it reminds us of “the moving finger that is moving on” (Narrow Way) and also of “The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it say” (“Thunder on the Mountains”). Here it is what the moving finger wrote on the plaster of the wall of king Belshazzar’s palace (Daniel 5:5): “This is what these words mean: [Mene] means 'numbered'--God has numbered the days of your (Belshazzar’s) reign and has brought it to an end” (Daniel 5:26).Belshazzar had “lifted up himself against the Lord of heaven” (Daniel 5:23) and therefore God made an end to his rule. The days of all evil doers are numbered and will come to a predetermined end, but not only for them but the days of all mortal human beings are numbered, that is why the poet includes himself and says “so are mine”. This is the first moment in the song where the lyrics as Dylan puts it“ convey majesty and heroism”. When you are a celebrity the threat of “the disease of conceit” the thought that you are “too good to die” looms large in the background and it takes heroism for the poet to acknowledge that. It may have been the reason why he added: “so are mine”.
“Time is piling up” sees time go by not in a linear, everlasting, sequence of events but time seen in a sort of vertical way, as an edifice which is gradually erected. “Time is piling up” shows much more a feeling that time is limited, the end of time is near and there a sense of urgency. In Dylan’s sugar and candy’s “Handy Dandy” we see the opposite phenomenon. Handy Dandy is a typical end time personification, a person who “got all the time in the world”. Here “time” builds up ominously and it all seems so useless, “we struggle and we scrape”, that is all we can do. Life is hard, time is nearly up and we have to fight to get to the end of it all. There is just no let-up: “We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape”. This notion comes close to what is says in the Book of Ecclesiastes Chapter 9:12(NLT): “People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy”.
City’s just a jungle; more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working’ in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down
It is said that the first cities were formed after the so-called Neolithic Revolution (10000 BC) which brought agriculture and made denser human populations possible. We have found that the events the narrator pictures in this and the following verse (including the chorus)very much resemble the history of Lot -Abraham’s nephew – written down in the book of Genesis. Let us follow this lead and see if there is a match and decide for yourself if this idea makes sense.
When it says: “City’s just a jungle” the poet may have had the city of Sodom in mind where Lot once dwelled (Gen 19:1-3).Now Genesis13:13 and 18:20 says that Sodom was a very wicked town indeed. The “City’s just a jungle” means that the law of the jungle ruled in the city of Sodom. The fittest literally played dirty tricks on you in that city and the narrator may allude to this when he says: “more games to play”. This appears specifically when two angels visit Sodom (Gen. 19:1). These two visiting angels where sexually harassed by a violent mob (Gen 19:4-14) and had Lot, his family and the two angels, trapped in their house, and although Lot tried to escape from this jam by offering his two daughters (Gen. 19:8)to protect his two visitors, there was no escape, that is why the narrator says: “Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away” and if the two angels had not intervened by blinding the mob so that they could not find the door of the house (Gen.18:11), Lot and his family and the two visitors surely would have been sexually assaulted and abused and subsequently killed by the hostile and furious mob.
And now it is as if Lot retrospectively says: “I was raised in the country, I been working in the town, I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down". Lot -Abraham’s nephew Gen. 11:27- was indeed “raised in the country” when his grandfather Terah left Ur and took Abram and Lot with him and went into the land of Canaan to settle in the neighbourhood of Haran (Gen. 11:31). Later on Abram and Lot left the Haran region to roam about the countryside of Canaan (Gen 12:5) However, the two shepherds Abram and Lot separated and Lot thought he outsmarted Abram by choosing the fertile Jordan valley as his habitat (Gen.13:10) and finally ended up living in the town of Sodom (Gen 19:3) in which he got nearly killed. So when it says: “I been working in the town” Lot refers to the town of Sodom where he settled down and arranged his business. But as appears from Gen. 19:9 Lot was not a welcome guest at all in Sodom and regarded as a nuisance and the Sodomites said to Lot: “this fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them”. It is the reason why it is as if Lot in retrospection says: “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down”. “to set one’s suitcase down” is a metaphor for “ever since I settled down” in this case for Lot in Sodom. From the moment Lot arrived in Sodom, Lot knew he was in trouble. The reason for this is that Lot’s lifestyle did not match the lifestyle of the Sodomites at all, to say the least of it. Although Lot made a poor decision to go and live in such a wicked town as Sodom, 2 Peter 2:7,8 nevertheless says that “God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him ,Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day”. Therefore, for the poet to have Lot say in retrospection: “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down” is an accurate metaphor to describe what happened to Lot the moment he settled down in Sodom.
Verse 3 and first bridge
Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around
Usually the bridge in a song is used to pause and to reflect on earlier parts of the song and to lead the listener to the climax – usually the chorus – of the song. However, in this bridge – and the following two bridges - there is also this ascending bass line which very much increases the tension and the drama in the song and serves at the same time as an indication that the following words are of the utmost importance and should not be ignored. If we follow our line of thinking in this verse, it may be again Lot who reflects here on what happened to him and what he learned from the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, “Got nothing' for you, I had nothing before, don’t even have anything for myself anymore” may also – and maybe at the same time – a generic statement about the human condition. But let’s first find out how it may apply to Lot and see for yourself if it makes sense.
To escape the “sky full of fire” and “pain pouring down” – pain in the form of brimstone pouring down on Sodom (Gen. 19:24)-, Lot, in order to to save his life, had to leave Sodom in a hurry and fled to the town of Zoar (Gen 19:22). But Lot was afraid to live in Zoar, therefore Lot left Zoar and with his two daughters dwelt in a cave in the hills surrounding the Sodom valley (Gen 19:30). The fire and brimstone pouring down from the sky not only destroyed the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah but also the whole valley surrounding these towns (Gen.19:25) Like Abraham Lot had great possessions – flocks and herds and tents (Gen 13:6)- but lost all his possessions when fire and brimstone came from the sky and destroyed everything he owned. Therefore, “got nothing for you” literally became the naked truth when only Lot’s soul and the soul of his two daughters were saved but the rest of his family and all of his material belongings were destroyed. This was not the first time that Lot lost all of his possessions. ”I had nothing before” may refer to Genesis 14. In Gen. 14 we read that Lot and his family were captured and kidnapped by king Ched-or-laomer and his companions and they stole all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions and also everything Lot owned. (Gen.14: 11,12). That is why Lot exclaims: ”I had nothing before” .
Abraham however, came to Lot’s rescue and liberated Lot and returned his family and all of his possessions (Gen 14:16). But the worst of it all was when it was as if Lot exclaimed: “don’t even have anything for myself anymore”. Bereft of everything Lot once owned and left behind with only his two daughters, they had to take refuge in a cave in the desolate hills surrounding the Sodom valley (Gen.19:30). While living in solitude in this cave, the worst thing that happened to Lot was that he had no prospect of having any posterity which in that culture was the worst thing that could happen to a man, that is why it is as if Lot cries out in despair: my life is finished and I “don’t even have anything for myself anymore”.
But as said this verse may also be a general statement about the human condition. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may only be a minor prelude to the great apocalypse that is to come on the Latter Day. The apocalypse has always been a main theme in Dylan’s work. Dylan was to the point when in his song “God Knows” he warned: “God knows there’s gonna be no more water, but fire next time”. Water destroyed the world in the days of Noah (Genesis 7). Next time it would be fire. Fire and pain pouring down on Sodom and Gomorrah as a prelude to the fire coming down on the Latter Day as prophesied by 2 Peter 3:10. When the apocalyptic fire comes down from the sky, there is no help you can offer to other people and other people cannot help you. On the Latter Day it will be like Dylan said in his apocalyptic song: “Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood”): “You're gonna have to find yourself another best friend, somehow”. But is clear: another friend will not be available at that Day. On that Day you will be thrown on your own resources. Therefore, on that dreadful Day, when the: “Sky is full of fire, and “pain is pouring down” you cannot help anybody – not even your next of kin- to escape doomsday: In desperation you exclaim to your next of kin: “Got nothing for you” to save you.
Since man fell into sin, the condition of man is such that one can also say: “I had nothing before” and “Don’t even have anything for myself anymore”. On that Day man is entirely delivered to the mercy of the Lord. No human offering, concept or thesis will save you on that dreadful Day and the poet is fully aware of this when he says that there is: “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around”. In verse 5 the poet is going to say: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all”. Basically that line expresses the same thing as “there is nothing you can sell me”. It is as if the poet says “I will not buy what you say because it brings no solution to the crisis we are in, in fact no human being is capable to come up with any solution to avoid apocalyptic destruction, it is going to happen anyway and soon you gonna find out, ”I’ll see you around” means that I will see you again soon and then you will acknowledge that I was right”.
Verse 4 and chorus.
All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
When it says “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” these words may be autobiographically interpreted and quite rightly so. Dylan wrote about “his powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” in his song “In the Summertime”:“ I’m still carrying the gift you gave, it’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved, It’ll be with me unto the grave, and then unto eternity”. His huge poetical “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” must be seen as a special gift from God to be used within the framework of “destiny”, the “destiny thing” he elaborated on in his 2004 CBS 60 minutes interview. In this interview Dylan also said that the early songs he wrote (like “It’s all right Ma”) where almost magically written, admitting at the same time that nowadays (2004) he cannot write songs like that anymore but added: “I can do other things now”. One of the “other things” he certainly can do is write a brilliant song like “Mississippi” in which all his “powers of expression” and “thoughts so sublime” shine brilliantly. But no matter how graceful this special gift the poet has received may be, the poet wants to make it very clear that this gift pales into insignificance beside the One who gave this gift to him. The poet’s sublime words and thoughts come, as Dylan also said in his 2004 CBS interview, ”right out of that wellspring of creativity”. If this creative process, these words and thoughts, -his “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime”- are already so beautiful, how beautiful and beyond words must not be the Creator of all of this, the One who made this creative process possible, which cannot be anybody else but God? In other words, no matter how great his “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” are ,these powers and thoughts will never be able to describe God’s greatness and sublimity adequately. Words and thoughts, no matter how powerful and sublime, will always fall short and “could never do you justice in reason or rhyme”. Within the context it seems obvious that this “you” is God. Human thought, reason and human rhyme can never do justice to God, and is unable to penetrate the depts of God’s wisdom, power and compassion A few examples from the Scriptures to back up this thought:
Job 37:23,24 (KJV): “Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in power, and in judgment, and in plenty of justice: he will not afflict. Men do therefore fear him: he respecteth not any that are wise of heart".
Ecclesiastes 8:17 (NLT): “I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim”.
Romans 11:33-36 (KJV): “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen”.
It is said that the chorus “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” echoes an old blues song which Alan Lomax recorded in the Mississippi Parchman Farm prison in 1947- 1948. The prisoners used to sing 'Only thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long'. No doubt that in the chorus of the song we may find an important clue to grasp the comprehensive meaning of the song. Some have argued on the internet that the song – and especially the chorus- is about the death of Dylan’s friend Jeff Buckley. On may 29th 1997 Jeff Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbour, which is a slack water channel of the Mississippi river, and was drowned. The interpretation is that Buckley made a fatal mistake and if he had not been in Mississippi on that particular date, he would have stayed alive but Buckley “stayed in Mississippi a day too long” and lost his life.
Others argue that he song may have something to do with the story of the great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which caused death and widespread destruction throughout the lower Mississippi Valley. If at the time in 1927, one was not evacuated in time from the Mississippi Valley, and became trapped in the rising waters, one could say of oneself that the “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.
However, as far as Dylan is concerned, things are never what they seem.Therefore,we feel that we should not focus too much on what the use of the word “Mississippi” may mean in this chorus. ”Mississippi” should not be taken too literal but may be just a metaphor to lead you to deeper waters. This seems a common phenomenon in Dylan’s work, e.g. “Roll on John” looks like as if it is about John Lennon, but closer examination will learn you that the focus point is actually somebody else, another “John” namely John the Apostle of light.(For more details on this, see my analysis of this song elsewhere on this website).
We feel that the main thought expressed here is: if you stay somewhere too long, the consequences will be devastating. When you stand at the cross- roads, when fire and pain is about to pour down from the sky, you have to make a choice: either flee while you still can or otherwise you will have to brace yourself for elimination. When it says “Only one thing I did wrong” it seems obvious that the “thing” done “wrong” is a life changing event. When this thing was done wrong life will never be the same again. The classic example of this idea is, when the devil in the shape of a serpent approached Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3), Eve did not flee from him as she should have, but stayed on, making it possible for the serpent to seduce her. She stayed on for too long a time and man fell into sin. And indeed, If there is one event in history which changed everything and of which one truly may say that this is “the only thing (man) did wrong” it is this catastrophic decision in the garden of Eden. However, if you resist the devil, the opposite will happen and the devil will flee from you (James 4:7). Joseph in Gen. 39 did the right thing and fled. When Joseph was seduced by Potiphar’s wife (Gen.39:7-23) Joseph did not stay on but fled, leaving his garment in her hand and got out of the house (Gen. 39:12). When the “Sky was full of fire and pain pouring down” on Sodom (Gen. 19:24), Lot reluctantly fled from Sodom and was saved but Lot’s wife spiritually stayed on in Sodom, looked back and turned into a salt pillar (Gen. 19:26).In a way one could say that in her mind Lot’s wife “stayed in Mississippi(Sodom) a day too long”. Jesus prophesizing the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70: “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak (Mat. 24:16-18 NIV). In other words: don’t stay a day too long, otherwise you will be eliminated. These are indeed knifelike lyrics, just as Dylan said.
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Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf.
This Dylan song has the magnitude and power of an anthem. For reasons we will explain later in this article, it is important to pinpoint the exact time of its recording. This song was recorded on October 23rd and 24th 1963. The session of the 24th produced the version that became the title song of Dylan's third album with the same name. This song was written and recorded in the wake of the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ which took place on August 28th 1963, so less than two months after this famous event.
To get down to business at once, there is a lot of paradox in this song. The greatest paradox of the song is that we receive the prophecy “The Times They Are A-Changin” but without any preaching. There is no indication in the song whatsoever what these new times will bring us in comparison with the old order. We are simply told that that the times will change and that we have to accommodate to and accept the new order or else we will drown and perish. But we are not told what this new order comprises, nor are we told what is wrong with the present order or ‘old’ order and what we are expected to do, to establish a new and better order, except to get out of the way. One may ask the question what the sense is of protesting anything when there is nothing one can do to prevent the coming of this new age. Over and over the song says that change is inevitable and there is nothing one can do to stop it.
To unwrap this, we first we have to take note of the fact that this song is written in the stylings of the late Biblical prophets. Prophets like Isaiah and also the Biblical prophet John the Baptist. We hear John the Baptist say in Mat. 3: 2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Jesus confirms John’s prophecy in Mark 1: 15: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel”. It is as if we hear both John the Baptist and Jesus say: “The Times They Are A-Changin”. But there is one major discrepancy between the words of John the Baptist on the one hand and the speaker in our song on the other hand. John the Baptist tells exactly what people are expected to do to escape from the axe which – as he says - has already been laid to the root of the trees and which is ready to cut down any tree that does not bear good fruit and to throw it into the fire (Luke 3:9) .The multitude asks John: “What then shall we do?”(Luke 3:10). John says: “He who has two coats let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise”. John – in the tradition of the later prophets of the Old Testament – in order to get ready for the times that are a-changing - calls for social justice and ethical integrity when he addresses the multitude, tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3: 10-13).But none of such preaching comes from the prophet in our song when he prophesizes that “The Times They Are A-Changin”. There is only the prophecy that times will change but there is no preaching at all.
The same paradox you may read in the Scriptures is also present in this song. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is an operation that is entirely conducted by Powers from above and there is nothing and nobody in this universe that can stop it. Yet those who try to stop it are held responsible for their obstruction. Providence and predestination do not wipe out human responsibility. We see this same paradox in this song.
Change may be inevitable, but that does not mean that all change is good. Goodness and inevitability are however not mutually exclusive. One can have change that is both inevitable and good. The German philosopher G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) believed that change and progress are inherently entwined and that history is moving upwards simply by moving forward. But you cannot find this Hegelian idea in the literal lyrics of “The Times They Are A-Changin”. On the face of it, again when you look at the literal words - and not to the context in which this song was written- the song seems more inspired by the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who was more concerned by what is true than with what ought to be true. Such a worldview exhorts us to gauge which way the wind is blowing and act accordingly, in the same sense as Dylan wrote in his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” or in his song “Floater”: ’They say times are hard, if you don’t believe it, you can just follow your nose”. Truth in this song is that change is coming but the song does not express what ought to be the truth.
There is no specific moral ground in Dylan’ speaker, at least so it seems. Without any contradiction the lyrics of “The Times They Are A- Changin” may function as a banner not only for peaceful anti-war protesters but also for blood thirsty revolutionaries and for Nazi dead squads. So Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and ISIS may all take the words of this song in their mouth and say “The Times They Are A-Changin” without any contradiction. At one time also Dylan himself used these words as a banner for his theological stance. In a stage rap during a concert in the fall of 1979 Dylan said: “I told you "The Times They Are A-Changing'" and they did. I said the answer was "Blowing in the Wind" and it was. I'm telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation”.
One could argue with good reasons that, once you tear the song out of its original context, the song is more descriptive than prescriptive. The song would be prescriptive if the speaker would say to you that the upcoming change is good. And because it is good, the speaker would exactly tell you what you are required to do to embrace this change. That might be his intention of the speaker but it is not what he says. In fact the song is more descriptive: change is happening and that is an irreversible fact, whether you like it or not.
Again, on the face of it, the prophet in this song looks like an amoral, neutral commentator of a wrestling match between two amoral fist fighters. One of these two fighters will eventually win and destroy his opponent and the song exhorts us to join the side of the winner, whoever it might be.
Any social progress or higher transcendent values are not apparent in the lyrics and must therefore be read into the text. We think that Dylan invites you to read these values into the text. It seems unlikely that it was Dylan’s intention that, as far as change is concerned, we should act like some moral chameleon, and adjust our sails in accordance with the prevailing winds, no matter how amoral or wicked these winds may be.
So then, if these higher moral and transcendent values have to be read into the text, then the context in which this song was written becomes very important. We should calibrate our ears to the original milieu in which this song was written to find out what sort of change Dylan is implicitly alluding to. To find out we have to go back to the sixties. You will have a hard time finding any decade in American history which is more culturally charged than the sixties. In that decade there was the rise of the civil rights movement, the counter culture movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, an emerging environmental awareness, the struggle against poverty, the start of the space race to the moon, the upcoming the gay rights movement and an outburst of feminism.
As said above this song was written in the wake of the famous ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’, which was held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The purpose of the march was to stand up for and claim civil and economic rights for African Americans. At the march, Martin Luther King Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in which he called for an end to racism. At the time Dylan was known to be a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and one can safely say that he wrote this song to support this movement. However, this song is not a protest song. Dylan has said himself that he didn't protest. He showed his support for various things but it was never his intention to protest anything.
No matter how amoral the lyrics of “The Times They Are A-Changin” may sound in itself when read out of the cultural context of the sixties, in certain circumstances the performance of the song may feel as an embarrassment, even in the sixties, not only for the audience but also for Dylan himself. This happened to Dylan when, less than a month after Dylan recorded the song, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November the 22nd 1963. The next night, Dylan opened his concert with "The Times They Are a-Changing'’; in an interview Dylan told biographer Anthony Scaduto, "I thought, 'Wow, how can I open with that song? I'll get rocks thrown at me.' But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn't understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn't understand anything. For me, it was just insane”. This statement shows that Dylan never meant this song to be a pass par tout, just to describe the inevitable but amoral process of change but that there are defined underlying moral and ethical values in this song which do fit in certain circumstances – the Civil Rights Movement with its ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’- but which in other circumstances – just after the assassination of J.F. Kennedy- do not fit in at all.
Let us now take a detailed look at the lyrics of this song in a verse by verse analysis.
Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
The opening line “Come gather ’round people” is typical language used by the Biblical prophets such as Joel and Isaiah (see e.g. Joel 3:11, Isaiah 60:4) and also used in the folk traditions of telling villagers to gather around to announce new – and in this case ominous - things that are about to happen. Dylan more or less has the same opening lines in his song “North Country Blues” where it says: “Come gather round friends”.
When it says “Admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone” the speaker immediately draws our attention to an apocalyptical image of an upcoming flood. Destructive floods are seen by some as an archetypal symbol of the cyclical nature of destruction and restoration, an amoral event, something that will happen over and over again in the history of mankind. The Biblical prophetical backdrop of a flood however, is that of divine judgement, like in the days of Noah’s great sin flood (Genesis 7). This flood is occasionally referred in the New Testament as a warning sign not to be caught off guard but to be vigilant and ready for the sudden arrival of change- the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds. (Mat. 24:37-39).Dylan repeatedly uses the apocalyptic image of floods in his works and this is clearly Biblically inspired. Songs like “Crash on the Levee”, “High Water” and “The Levee’s gonna break” are some good examples. Dylan seems to be well aware of the double function water has in this respect. It is a destructive power on the one hand and it has a cleansing function – of sin - on the other hand. Fire also has this double function. Fire may destroy and purify. No matter how important floods are in Dylan’s work, Dylan seems well aware of the fact that not water is the ultimate apocalyptic sign but fire. The fire on the Latter Day is a purifying fire. Dylan writes in “God Knows”: “God knows there’s gonna be no more water, but fire next time”.
One of the characteristics of a flood is its suddenness. When there is a big flood, the waters rise so quickly that you have little time to escape. However, it is remarkable that the poet does not instantly urge you to leave for higher and dryer grounds but instead asks you to “admit” that the waters around you have grown and to “accept” that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. In other words, there is no possibility to escape this flood of change. You have to accept the new reality and swim along with the tide and run along with the bulls in a direction which is already predestined. Resistance will kill you and resignation will save you, at least that is to say “If your time to you is worth savin’. You are part of a lost generation if you do no value your time and if you are not willing to read the writing on the wall. The speaker sees only one way out of this jam and says: “Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone” which again means that when the “wind of changes shift” you’d better adjust your sails to the wind and swim along with the tide or otherwise you will definitely drown and perish. The speaker sums all of this up in the refrain of the song: ’For the times they are a-changin’ . Dylan writes “A-changing” instead of simply “Changing” and in doing so he follows the traditional approach used in the 18th century English folk ballads. He may have done this to render the song an ancient cachet and maybe also for rhythmical reasons.
Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no telling’ who that it’s naming’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
There is an ironic undertone in this verse when writers and critics are addressed. When the speaker says: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen”, the press as a whole is targeted and the speaker expresses doubt whether the media will be able to read the writing on the wall. It is as if he says: ‘you so-called prophets, you who think that you’ve got it always right, most of the time your predictions are wrong, I give you one last chance not to miss this once only, life changing event, that is about to begin, therefore, “keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again”. When the speaker goes on to say: “And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no telling’ who that it’s naming’ it seems as if we are placed at the whims of an ordinary spinning wheel - like a roulette - which seems no less arbitrary than divine mandate. But the poet may have had something else in mind. As said, the song is written in the style of the Biblical prophets, in this case the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel chapter 10, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision and sees whirling, spinning wheels (verse 2 and onwards). A man clothed in linen is ordered to scatter destructive fire from among the whirling wheels over the city of Jerusalem. Later on in the sixties, Dylan would write a parody on this vision from Ezekiel in a song called “This wheel’s on Fire” in which he admonishes to take heed of the apocalyptic fire coming from those wheels: “Best notify my next of kin, this wheel shall explode”. But it is not only the destructive fire of these wheels that is highlighted in Ezekiel 10. Within the wheel (verse 10) there are four other wheels. The rims and the spokes of the wheels are round about full of eyes (verse 12). The wheels had the ability to move in any of the four directions without turning as they went (verse 11). In this respect the wheel denotes the all seeing eye of the Spirit of God moving in all directions through history to its final destination. The Spirit sees all and knows everything that will happen in the future. Therefore, when it says: “And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no telling’ who that it’s naming’ it may be this foretelling function of the wheel (the Spirit) that may be meant here. The outcome of this divinely inspired wheel is unknown to mortal souls and is usually against all odds. That is why it now says: “there’s no telling who that it’s naming”. You may think that the wheel of time and change may move into a certain direction when in fact it moves in quite an unexpected and opposite direction. An ostensibly hopeless quest may turn into a great victory in the end. That’s why the speaker concludes: ‘’For the loser now will be later to win”. This line comes close to a quote from Jesus in Mark 8:35: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it”. Those who are now beggars will soon become kings because “the times they are a-changing”.
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
On the face of it, this song can be a pass par tout in any political or social situation which calls for change. However, when it says “Come senators, congressmen please heed the call” the song is linked to the specific American political system where you have a congress and a senate and therefore senators and congressmen. For this reason, the original milieu in which the song was written becomes of some importance. Remember that this song was written in the wake of the famous ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’, which was held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. As said the purpose of the march was to stand up for and claim civil and economic rights for African Americans. It is therefore fair to assume that the members of American Senate and Congress are implicitly summoned here to give political support to this movement and “to heed the call” and not obstruct legislation that grants these civil and economic rights. The status quo in this verse is represented by a house standing the middle of a battlefield. The Senators and Congressmen are inside this house, change is knocking at their door and is on the doorstep of their house and wants to come in. The status quo often has a tendency to be on the safe side, whereas change is often chaotic, disruptive and uncertain. Politicians, representing the status quo, have a tendency to be on this safe side of things and are usually not inclined to take chances. The speaker has a premonition that Senators and Congressmen will oppose this new movement of change or at least delay it and he warns them to get of the way by saying: “Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall”. When the speaker goes on to say: “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled”, this may sound quite revolutionary, words which would not be unbecoming if they were used and practiced during the bloody French (1789-1799) and Russian revolution (1917). Therefore, although it is probably not the intention of the speaker, yet underneath these words there may be an implicit threat that the use of violence cannot be avoided for those who obstruct change. In the words “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled” there may be the Machiavellian connotation of the prince who must “ do whatever circumstances require”, as if it says: ‘ the end justifies the means and therefore, if you do not collaborate freely, we will have to resort to the use of force and in this process you may get hurt or even killed’. For this process of change is serious business and remember: “There’s a battle outside and it is raging, it’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls”. Although there is no direct hint in the lyrics that the battle outside the house is waged by freedom fighters and that those inside are corrupt bureaucrats, yet it seems clear that the speaker is on the side of those who are in battle outside this edifice. As said the song is written in the stylings of the Biblical prophets and here it is as if the prophet Ezekiel bursts upon the scene and says: “The sword is without, and the pestilence and the famine within: he that is in the field shall die with the sword; and he that is in the city, famine and pestilence shall devour him”. (Ezekiel 7:15 KJV).
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
Also in this verse, when mothers and fathers are addressed, the figure of speech again very much resembles the Biblical prophets. When these prophets prophesize about ‘the times a-changing’ which will be caused by the upcoming appearance of the Kingdom of God on earth, the incarnation of God in the flesh, the prophet Malachi, like the speaker in this verse, talks about mothers and fathers and their children by saying: “and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:6 KJV).In this quotation we see that Malachi threatens the world with a ‘curse’ and Dylan also speaks of a curse when in the final verse it says: “the curse it is cast”. Whereas Malachi admonishes both parents and children to turn their hearts to each other, in this verse only mothers and fathers are summoned to pay attention and to stop criticizing their children. Although this is not expressed literally in the lyrics and must therefore be read between the lines, it is the status quo here, the status quo represented by the older generation, which opposes the new social movement of change initiated by the younger generation. Certainly at the beginning of the sixties, when society was much more hierarchically organized than nowadays, words like “don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly aging” were seen by many – law abiding people - as breaking parental control and authority and violating the 5th Commandment which commands you to honor your father and mother. However, if change is not only inevitable but also good, all authority, both parents and children have to bow their knees in obedience to this new order (Phil 2:9). What is ‘good’ is a matter of debate however. The speaker in this song seems convinced that this new road is not only inevitable but also good and also seems to believe that there is an absolute distance between (the) right and (the) wrong (way). You are either with it or against. You are invited to accommodate and if you can’t, you are politely urged: “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand”. If you don’t support the younger generation initiating change and if “you can’t lend your hand”, the least you could do as parents is to make room “to get out of the way”, because one thing is sure: “your old road is rapidly aging”, a new era is coming “For the times they are a-changin’ .
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changing
This final verse once again sums it all up. There is no turning back now: “The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast”. When the Biblical prophet Malachi says: “and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:6 KJV) it looks like that the threat “to smite the earth with a curse” is conditional. But that is only partly the case. Even if mothers and fathers and their children are unwilling to listen to the prophet, the prophesied world changing events will take place anyway. This is even more the case so here in this final verse. It is not said: “the line will be drawn and the curse will be cast unless”….. but the “the line is drawn and the curse it is cast”, therefore this statement has more of a proclamation than of a theat. The least you can say of a “curse” is that it is often cast by those who have or claim to have divine powers. The lyrics do not explicitly say that this curse comes from above, therefore this likely notion, that in fact this curse comes from God, has to be read into the text of the lyrics. When it says: “The slow one now will later be fast” this may reflect Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (KJV). Dylan echoes this notion in his song “I and I”: ”Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race”. It is as if the poet wants to say: ‘the process of change that is now underway will take place against all odds. Things are not what they seem. The process of change may now seem to come very slowly into effect, but this slow tempo will be rewarded later”. “As the present now will later be past” may call for patience and endurance. The present labors of birth of this new order will soon be forgotten and past, once the new era of change is born. The words “As the present now will later be past” may also be an attempt to tone down high pitched expectations. If that is what is intended, then this also reflects the book of Ecclesiastes when it says: “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). All labors of birth, brining forth this new era, will soon be over because : “The order is rapidly fading”. Though not expressed, it is clear that it is the “old” order, whatever this old order may be, which is “rapidly fading”. The words “And the first one now will later be last” is reminiscent of a quote from Jesus in Mark 10: 31, where Jesus says: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last first” (KJV). Within the context of this quote Jesus intends to say that those - like Peter and the other apostles -who gave up everything in life to follow Jesus will be rewarded later and those who have everything now – the glory and adoration of people like the Pharisees- will be dismissed when the Kingdom comes when the times are a-changing. However, here in the song Dylan only quotes the first part of this saying from Jesus: “And the first one now will later be last”. At the time when he wrote this song in 1963,within the social and political context at that time and which we outlined above, it may mean that those who are now in power, the government, those who are in society’s driving seat, will lose their power and significance and will ‘’later be last” once the new political order of social justice has been established, just because ‘’the times they are a-changing”.
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Dylan’s “Trouble No More” and Greil Marcus’s view on “Slow Train” – by Kees de Graaf.
Having read most of the press reviews of Bob Dylan’s “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 / 1979-1981”, we may safely conclude that this release was received with much eulogy by the vast majority of critics in the musical world, not only – and not surprisingly - by believers but also by non-believers and atheists. That was quite a different story when Dylan released his first album in the period “Trouble No More” covers: “Slow Train Coming” in 1979. Although musically “Slow Train Coming” received quite a lot of appraisal at the time, from a lyrical point of view however, most of the critics -and fans as well - were shocked and horrified by what they heard and were completely taken aback. At the time, those critics and fans had to deal not only with his conversion to Christianity but also with the fact that this conversion – in their opinion - showed itself in an uncompromising and relentless way in the lyrics of this new album.
Now more than 38 years later in 2017, it looks as if things have changed. Why is that? First of course, there is the wear and tear of time. As time goes by controversies tend to lose their sharp edges and people are more and more inclined to see and understand in a more objective way what really happened in a certain situation at a certain time. Listening to and watching “Trouble No More”, what do most people now hear and see what they did not – and some of them maybe were not willing to - hear and see at the time in 1979-1981?. What they now see and hear is first of all the craftmanship of Dylan and his band and the back-up singers. This was really a good and tight band. It rocked and it had soul!. The second thing might be Dylan’s commitment and sincerity. Listening to and watching “Trouble No More” you can feel and sense that Dylan had gone through a life changing experience and felt a sincere vocation to share this experience with his audience and the rest of the world. There is no guile in these performances. The third thing is that people now begin to realize that a firm conviction such as the Christian faith is capable of producing some of the finest art, also in the case of Bob Dylan. Take e.g. Johan Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1785) masterpiece the St. Matthew Passion. No matter how confrontational the Christian lyrics of this masterpiece may be at some points, there is no one in our times who is offended by these lyrics. We accept these lyrics as they are and both believers and non-believers equally enjoy this music, in spite of the fact that it must be assumed that Bach’s wellspring of creativity was fed by his Christian faith.
Now to Greil Marcus. Marcus published a book in 2011 called “Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010”. In this book Marcus comments on “Slow Train Coming”. Marcus writes on Page 95: “What we’re faced with here is really very ugly” and “The songs on Slow Train are monolithic, Jesus is the answer, and if you don’t believe it, you’re fucked”. On page 96: “Dylan’s songs have nothing of the sanctified quest in them: they’re arrogant, intolerant. Much of the writing is insultingly shoddy – some of the songs are no more than glorified lists”. These are pretty harsh words from Marcus. It even gets worse when Marcus goes on to say on page 96: “In “Do right to me Baby”, the devastating entreaties of Mat. 5:44 are corrupted: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” turns into you- scratch-my – back- I’ll-scratch -yours. Dylan is promoting a very modern kind of gospel: safe, self-satisfied and utilitarian. There is no sense of his own sin on Slow Train, no humility, and less God than Dylan’ own choice that’s celebrated”. When we read this we wonder: has Greil Marcus done his homework?. Because when we take a close look at the lyrics of “Do Right to Me Baby (Do unto others)” we see that this song is a parody on Matthew 7: 12 where Jesus says “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets”. Dylan writes in “Do Right to Me Baby”: “But if you do right to me, baby, I’ll do right to you, too. Ya got to do unto others, like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you”. This parody exactly reflects what Jesus intended to say in Mat.7:12. Dylan himself indirectly returned to this subject in his in 2003 rewritten version of another Slow Train track: “Gonna change my way of thinking” where he writes “we‘re living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold rules”. The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity basically says that ‘one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’. We find this Golden Rule in the modern concept of human rights and in a wide range of world cultures and in all the major world religions. Therefore, within the context of this song and in “Do Right to Me Baby” Dylan no doubt refers to the Christian Golden Rule of Mat. 7:12: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets”.
So when Marcus says:“ In Do right to me Baby”, the devastating entreaties of Mat. 5:44 are corrupted. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” turns into you- scratch-my – back- I’ll-scratch -yours”, Marcus is fully mistaken. Dylan does not deal with the subject of how one should treat one’s enemies in “Do right to me Baby” but deals with the Golden Rule taught by Jesus. How you should treat your enemies and the Golden Rule of ethic reciprocity are two different subjects.
Marcus goes on to say: “There is no sense of his own sin on Slow Train, no humility, and less God than Dylan’ own choice that’s celebrated” and further on: “What Dylan does not understand are the hard spiritual facts that have always formed the bedrock of traditional American faith. What he does not understand is that by accepting Christ, one does not achieve grace, but accepts a terrible , lifelong struggle to be worthy of grace, a struggle to live in a way that contradicts one’s natural impulses, one’s innately depraved soul. Sin does not vanish, it remains constant, but now one cannot hide from it, and one must accept the suffering recognition brings”.
First of all, this statement from Marcus is wrong from a Biblical point of view. The Bible teaches that the love of God through Jesus Christ is unconditional. One needs not to be “worthy of grace” to be accepted by God as Marcus writes. Those who believe in Christ and accept Him receive unconditional grace(John 1:12, Roman 3:24).It is true, a lifelong struggle against sin remains. Is Dylan really not aware of this lifelong struggle against sin as Marcus seems to suggest? Look at what he writes in “Solid Rock” : “It’s the ways of the flesh to war against the spirit, twenty four hours a day you can feel it you can hear it, using all devices under the sun, and He never give up till the battle ‘s lost or won” What Marcus seems not to understand is that a convert passes through various successive phases of inner renewal. The first phase is the acceptance of the newly found faith and the confrontation with the ‘old’ way of thinking and living: “Make myself a different set of rules” in “Gonna change my way of thinking”. This first phase is marked by a high degree of apologetics. Confrontation with the outside world cannot be avoided and if it appears that you are serious, you may expect that the outside world will be critical of the steps you have taken and questions you: “They ask me how I feel, and if my love is real” (I Believe in You). You meet with a lot of hostility from the press and your fans who cannot get their neck around what they regard as a sudden and incomprehensible turnaround. We feel therefore that the album “Slow Train Coming” is marked by these apologetics. Here we find Dylan defencing his newly found expression of faith. The price he paid for it was high and that was not at all an easy affair, like Marcus suggests, when Marcus writes that: “One never claims, as Dylan does throughout Slow Train, that redemption is a simple affair.
When Marcus says: “Dylan is promoting a very modern kind of gospel: safe, self-satisfied and utilitarian. There is no sense of his own sin on Slow Train, no humility, and less God than Dylan’ own choice that’s celebrated” he does not do justice to Dylan and to the songs on Slow Train. It is true, the certainty of his religious conviction shines through on Slow Train. The conviction that there is only one road to salvation. And it would seem that the expression of this certainty is the main source of all the repugnance like that of Marcus’s. For Marcus the expression of this religious certainty is synonymous to following a map. This appears when Marcus writes: “American piety is a deep mine, and in the past, without following any maps Dylan has gone into it and returned with real treasures: John Wesley Harding is the best example, but there are many others”. But who is without any maps in life? Atheism, Liberalism, Nihilism, all sorts of ism’s, they all have maps. Christianity is also one of them. All these maps are capable of producing great art. But not for Marcus. It seems that for Marcus all maps are allowed and may produce great art, but apparently not the map Dylan follows in Slow Train, this map is abhorrent, condemned, and cannot produce great art in the eyes of Marcus. In other words: only if you follow my map you can make great art.
Apart from this, when you study the lyrics of Slow Train carefully you will find a lot of vulnerability, compassion, pain and fear which has nothing to do with self-satisfaction and lack of his own sin: “What you have given me today is worth more than I could pay” is that self-satisfaction? When Dylan addresses himself in “When He returns” and says: “Can I cast aside, all this loyalty and pride?” is that not an expression of his own sin and an expression of the mother of all sin: pride?.
Moreover, Marcus completely ignores the successor of Slow Train, the album “Saved”. One may say that “Saved” represents a second phase a convert is going through. The first phase “Slow Train” was marked by the doctrinal fixation of the faith and the apologetics as a result of that. The second phase “Saved” is marked by joy and gratitude for salvation. There are plenty of examples, we give a few: “Saved”: “I’m so glad, so glad, I want to thank you Lord”. In “What can I do for You”: “You have given everything to me, You have given all there is to give”. By the way, how can Marcus say that that there is no sense of his own sin: “If you find it in your heart, can I be forgiven?” (“Saving Grace”).
The third phase a convert is going through is marked by the integration of one’s specific secular skills of song writing. By ‘secular’ skills we do not intend to suggest that there is a contrast between ‘secular’ skills of writing and ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ skills of writing. There is no antithesis between nature and grace. The message in this third phase is therefore basically still the same but to understand the message fellow believers will have to read between the lines. This style of communication is more or less comparable with Jesus’ style of preaching and communication by means of parables. People no longer wanted to listen to the overt and outspoken message of the coming Kingdom of Heaven (Mat. 13:10-15) so Jesus started to preach in parables. The message is no longer outspoken but hidden in a parable. To understand the message you have to make an effort which was only given to his (real) disciples (Mat 13:11). Something comparable happened to Dylan’s song writing. The message of “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” was unequivocal and outspoken. At the time this was necessary for phase one and two of his conversion. In “Shot of Love” however, we see a transition to the third phase a convert is going through. Some of the songs like e.g. “Property of Jesus” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” still belong to phase one or two but songs like “Heart of Mine” or “Lenny Bruce” and even more so “Every Grain of Sand” belong to the third phase of his conversion. To understand the lyrics of songs like that, you have to make an effort and read the message between the lines, in the same way as the disciples had to do when Jesus told them parables. This third phase makes his song writing acceptable to believers and(again) non-believers, the lyrics are open for debate and contemplation and can be interpreted in multiple ways, but that does not mean that these lyrics are without a message and make sense no more. The basic message is still the same but the packing is different. Now in 2018 we are more or less still in this third phase, albeit the learning process still goes on. Layer is built upon layer, “Love and Theft” is quite different from “Infidels” and “Tempest” is quite different from “Oh Mercy”. We cannot go into details here but lyrics like in “Pay In Blood” simply had to be made.
This also implies that things cannot and will not be duplicated or repeated. “Slow Train Coming”, “Saved” and “Shot of Love” were unique and once-only. Dylan has never repeated a creative phase in his career and also never denounced a creative phase in his oeuvre. ”I did all I could , I did it right there and then (1979-1981?) I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again” Dylan stresses in “Thunder of the Mountains”.
We guess that as much as Dylan despised to be pinned down as a ‘protest’ singer or ‘voice of a generation’ he may also despise his 1979-1981 phase to be pinned down as ‘a Christian’ or ‘born-again’ phase, as some bygone whim which actually does not belong to the true Dylan, a stance which is adopted and advocated by the overwhelming majority of his critics and followers. In our opinion his oeuvre forms a unity, an edifice in which layer is built upon layer. You cannot break lose a layer of bricks – like his so-called ‘Christian phase’ or any other phase for that matter- without the whole building collapsing. Sometimes we have to take Dylan interviews with a little pinch of salt but we feel that Dylan was serious when, in his Sixty Minutes interview in 2004, he said: “it goes back to the destiny thing. I made a bargain with it, you know, a long time ago. And I'm holding up my end”. In this ‘destiny thing’ there is right time and place for everything. We strongly believe that the release of “Trouble No More” has everything to do with this ‘destiny thing’. With the release of “Trouble No More” Dylan made a statement. He made this statement at the right time. It is part of the bargain he made.
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