Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

My friend, Lyndon, gave me a documentary done on Dylan in the 80's for my birthday a few weeks ago. I watched it yesterday. Pretty interesting stuff, notably because it features Dylan's so-called "Christian" years. There are a lot of really interesting aspects to this time period. Two stand out. I'll focus on one today.

The three Dylan albums dealing with explicitly Christian themes were different from his former albums in one very significant way. Previous albums depended on poetic allusion or metaphorical images. There's nothing hidden in these albums. The language is very direct. "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."

This directness had at least two effects (my analysis). First, it came off as preachy, or as one Dylan expert interviewed suggested, didactic. It's not that Dylan's world was less black and white than his previous albums. Dylan has always painted the world in fairly stark terms, with good guys and bad guys. As I have noted elsewhere, what ties Dylan's body of work together from beginning to end is an apocalyptic perspective. The world is always teetering on the edge of destruction, and there are always culprits who bear the judgement for this set of circumstances. (One interviewee in the documentary also noted this continuity).

But in his previous work, listeners participated in Dylan's world indirectly through a poetic sensibility. The Christian trilogy created a different relationship with listeners. Dylan was less the poet and more the instructor. As didact, Dylan stands squarely on the side of his lyrics over/against the listener. And his listeners were highly offended. There was only way to be on Dylan's side in this music--agree with him, or go to hell.

This is the advantage of forms of speech like narrative, poetry, metaphor. They can create common space through a playful openness. What they lack in directness, they make up for in their ability to say things that bring singer and audience together in the openness of a new world. They are more hospitable. Notice here that Infidels, Dylan's next album after the "Christian" trilogy is still full of gospel themes and images, but is seen by his fans as a step back toward the classic Dylan. As one commentator put it, his art caught up with his themes. And it brought his audience back.

I've been teasing out the implications of this in my head, specifically regarding Christian speech. This should teach us something about speaking of God. Unless God can be captured in language and precise categories, these "open," more hospitable figures may be more amenable to the tasks of theology, and by extension, truth.

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