Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I've been working a lot on Acts 2 lately for a presentation I will be making in May. Acts 2 is familiar territory for a member of Churches of Christ, especially verse 38, "Repent and be baptized..." and some other stuff. What we typically skim over to get to verse 38 is the apocalyptic/eschatological language.

For instance, Peter's sermon begins with a long quotation from the book of Joel. Great stuff there, particularly the stuff about the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, and men and women, young and old prophesying. What we typically skim over is the "blood, fire, and smokey mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day." Joel is not a sunshine prophet. The new beginning comes out of the ruins of an old world. It is no wonder in this regard that the Spirit's coming in Acts 2 is in the "rush of a violent wind." Hope cannot be built on the foundation of the way things already are. A new day requires a leveling of the old. It requires crisis, risk, the end of an old order so that the new one might emerge.

Much has been made of the various phases of Dylan's career. There was the early, folk/social protest phase. There was his Christian phase. And now whatever name you give to his most recent cd's. But there is one thing that holds all these phases together for me. It's Dylan's view of hope. Or, maybe better put, his apocalyptic view of the world. For Dylan, the old world is always at the brink of collapse for the sake of an emerging new possibility. And his primary source for this imagery is Scripture.

It's very prominent in the early stuff. In songs like All Along the Watchtower, biblical images are mined to describe the crisis of the old world and the possibility of the new. The Times They are a Changin' could have come straight out of Luke-Acts.

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 fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Or notice the old/new in The Groom's Still Waitin'.

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage,
Curtain risin' on a new age,
See the groom still waitin' at the altar.

From the Christian era, there is much to choose from along these lines. It is little wonder that Dylan found Christian community with a Vineyard community given their eschatology. He found a world ready made for his version of hope.

Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams,
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams,
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world's on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.

This apocalyptic language is also present in his later music. One of my favorite Dylan songs is Summer Days which I'm convinced carries echoes from the book of Jeremiah. The song describes an age of opulence that cannot possibly be sustained. Their singing songs to the king as if summer will last forever. But this is a world coming to an end. The end/beginning is also found in songs like the Levee's Gonna Break and Thunder on the Mountain.

Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon
There's a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

Dylan's songs, regardless of the vintage, are full of smoke, thunder, fire, and rising water. The world as it is currently ordered cannot last and its destruction leaves open the possibility for something truly new. The real value of language like this is that it refuses the status quo. It imagines that something new can truly come into human experience, something that reverses the tables or threatens the current arrangements of power for the sake of those who suffer now. This language, in Scripture, is not used to foster resignation, waiting around for heaven. But it is designed to encourage hopeful engagement with the world for the sake of the new and emerging day of salvation.

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