Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

So, what to do about those pesky "Christian" albums that Dylan produced in the 80's. Most assessments of Dylan pan these years as a low point in his career. While his soul might have been saved, he was lost musically. He sold out, became preachy, turned his back on his previous work and his audience. You get the picture.

But I've read in the past few weeks a few reassessments of these years from Dylan devotees who had once been in that group that held that the Christian years were the low point for Dylan. Truth is, these reappraisals go, when taken now in relation to the overall body of his work, the Christian albums aren't really that much of an anomaly. In fact, some of his most interesting songs, musically speaking, are on these albums. And no one denies that Dylan is vitally engaged with the music in these works. If he's lost, no one told Dylan. And his concerts, these writers admit, were nothing if not passionate. From that standpoint, this may have actually been Dylan at his best.

So, as a theologian, it might seem that my take on this might be "told you so." I am glad if the knee-jerk because-its-Christian-it-must-be-artistically-inferior days might be waning. But that's less because I'm a theologian and more because everyone's work should be taken on its merits, Christian or not. Truthfully, as a theologian these are not his most interesting albums to me. I'm not sure what Dylan's personal beliefs are these days, but his current work is still shot through with biblical allusions and theological themes that are more interesting to me than his particular brand of theology in the "Christian" albums.

But what does interest me in this reappraisal is the issue of passion. In fact, its this characterization that makes me want to listen more deeply to these albums. I am convinced that the best art is done from the inside out, that passion communicates, that passion embodied conveys authenticity. And that passion comes and goes, or at least those times when everything is shot through with it.

I think this is true for artists, but also for being Christian. I don't think its unusual for there to be seasons when we're set on fire, completely sold-out, animated by some source of passion beyond ourselves. These are days to cherish. But I don't think it unusual for that to be only for a time. When your hair is burning, its tempting to think this is the way things should always be and that this is how everyone should be. This is understandable, and maybe we need people who are on fire to believe that so that we can remember what that's like too even if it feels a little condescending. But I think that these days mostly live on through something that burns on a little lower flame, one that doesn't flame out.

I think Dylan's recent stuff is his best, most interesting. And I don't think we get these last few cd's apart from his "Christian" period. So, here's to passion and its lingering genius.

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