Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Bob Didn't Call It a Snake

Today is Bob Dylan's 70th Birthday. Love him or hate him (and most people seem to fall into one of those camps), as an artist and a contributor to the American music scene of the last century, he cannot be ignored. Bob Dylan is something of a spiritual enigma. There was that period (which was somewhat brief in retrospect) in which Dylan professed faith in Christ and wrote some brilliant songs that have seldom been surpassed in their biblical content and gospel clarity. John Piper wrote earlier today about Dylan's song "Saved", saying that he still prays for Dylan to fully embrace the truths that he once wrote and sang about in that song. I would echo that prayer, as it seems that today Dylan takes a much more eclectic spiritual posture. Still, there have been few singer/songwriters in American music who have written more poignantly about the spiritual quest of human beings and whose music is more thoroughly saturated with biblical themes and vocabulary.

Dylan's 1979 album Slow Train Coming was the first one produced following his "conversion" to Christianity in 1978. One popular song on that album was "Man Gave Names to All the Animals." I recently heard a cover of this song on a children's music album, but there was one major alteration in this version from the original. In the remake that I heard, the song ends with the words, "He saw an animal as smooth as glass / Slithering his way through the grass / He saw him disappear by a tree near a lake / Ah I think I'll call him a snake." Thus, the cover version concludes the bit about the snake in the same way that all the preceding verses conclude. But in the original song, Dylan did not sing, "Ah I think I'll call him a snake." Was this a quirky, artistic way of leaving a song "unfinished," or was there something intentional being expressed by omitting this expected phrase?

In an excellent contribution to the volume Bob Dylan and Philosophy (edited by Peter Vernezze and Carl Porter), Ruvik Danieli and Anat Biletzki give attention to this song and its idiosyncratic ending. They state in their opening paragraph that to mistake this song for a "rock-era variation on Old MacDonald Had a Farm," is to "miss this metaphysical poet at his most profound." One easily recognizes in listening to the song that the informing Scripture is Genesis 2:19-20, and that the naming of the animals in both the biblical account and the Dylan song is an exercise in dominion, in fulfillment of Genesis 1:28. The authors say, "Within the Jewish and Christian exegetical tradition, giving a name always and invariably signifies the dominion of the name-giver over the thing or person named. To give a name implies lordship."

Danieli and Biletzki state that the most common interpretation of Dylan's omission of the naming here perceives that here, Adam abandoned his dominion in the created order, and rather than exercising lordship over the serpent in the garden, man surrendered his dominion to the serpent as he surrendered to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. While they acknowledge that this "is a depressing conclusion and a melancholy message," they recognize that it is "a legitimate interpretation nonetheless." However, they suggest that such a message is incongruous with the album as a whole and with Dylan's personal circumstances when the song was written. Drawing heavily from an essay written by Walter Benjamin, the writers seem convinced that what Dylan is attempting to do here is to take the listener back to the moment of temptation. "Where man ceases to be the namer, says Benjamin, is exactly that moment when the snake puts forward its temptation and man takes it; in the song, however, man cannot name the snake--he does not take the lure, does not abandon perfect knowledge for the knowledge of good and evil. he may have ceased naming, but only in order to avoid becoming a questioner, to potentially become a namer again, to reunite the name he gives with the creative word of God in the divine actuality of creation." In a sense, this interpretation of the song equates to a reimagining of the fall-story, with Adam choosing not to fall, and to let the snake move on and disappear rather than falling for his seductive temptations.

It seems that either of these are potentially legitimate interpretations of the song, and the final point of the message is not altogether different on either view. "One thing he clearly seems to be saying is that man needs to resist the snake's enticement and avoid the knowledge of good and evil." So, whether the song laments man's failure, or if it transports us back to the pre-fall moments of time and allows us to imagine, "What if ...," we come away from this masterful song realizing that we are fallen creatures, ruined by sin because of Adam's bad choice in the face of the serpent's temptation. And the only remedy for this, now that it has happened, is  Jesus Christ. By His death, He absorbed the judgment for all human sin; by His resurrection and ascension, He has reclaimed the throne of dominion which he shares with those who belong to Him. And He will establish His perfect Kingdom where there will be no temptation, no sin, no suffering, forever. Those who belong to Him by faith will reign with Him in that perfect dominion. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Appreciation for the Art of a Pagan

Question: Is it OK for a Christian to appreciate or even enjoy the art of an unbeliever?

The question arises because on this day (May 11), thirty years ago (1981), Bob Marley died of cancer. Bob Marley openly used and encouraged the use of marijuana. He fathered multiple children with several women. He was a Rastafarian, and by that I mean that he was religiously committed to the Rastafarian worldview and belief system, not just that he had dreadlocks and smoked pot. (For more detailed info on the Rastafarian religion, click here). He was quoted in his biography as saying, "I would say to the people, Be still, and know that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the Almighty. Now, the Bible seh so, Babylon newspaper seh so, and I and I the children seh so. Yunno? So I don't see how much more reveal our people want. Wha' dem want? a white God, well God come black. True true." (quoted here). One might go so far as to say that he did more to popularize the Rastafari movement than any other person in the movement's history. 

For many Christians it would seem obvious that there is nothing particularly commendable about the artist, therefore, the art itself should be panned. For many years, I would have agreed. I was once of a mindset that Christians should only listen to "Christian" music. But I have changed my tune about that subject. And I am comfortable admitting that I enjoy the music of Bob Marley, and many others who would personally acknowledge that they are not followers of Jesus. 

It seems that many Christians like to pick and choose on the appreciation of art and artistry. For instance, I have known many well-intentioned Christians who scorn "secular rock music," but who enjoy "secular country music." It seems that their is not a religious conviction but a stylistic preference. Further, I found that I, like many other Christians, can enjoy going to a ballgame and appreciate the talents of an athlete who may be an atheist or a Buddhist, and who is hounded by unending moral scandals. That doesn't matter, we reason, for what we appreciate about the individual is their ability to perform on the field. We do the same thing when we enter an art museum. We are caught up in the enjoyment of a painting or a sculpture, while giving no thought to the religious commitments of the artist. We can even appreciate and enjoy the decisions made by unbelieving politicians, shop in stores owned by unbelievers, eat in restaurants that are owned and staffed by unbelievers, and watch movies that are not made by Christians, do not feature Christian actors, and do not proclaim a particularly Christian message. But when it comes to music, often Christians are quick to draw more narrow lines and build bigger walls. And this, I propose, is somewhat hypocritical. 

Perhaps this is because, for many decades, Christians have managed to develop a sterilized cottage industry of "our own music." However, as insiders to the Christian music business will often admit, not all of those who make "Christian" music actually practice what they "preach" in song. In fact, some songs which are billed as "Christian" have no biblical basis at all, and are no better in their message than the music of, say a Bob Marley. Additionally, as Christian musicians have come to be appreciated by a wider audience, we detect a growing trend of spiritual vagueness in popular Christian music. I call it the "God is my girlfriend" syndrome. What I mean by that is that if you did not know that the musician was Christian, or that the station you were listening to was a "Christian" station, you would not immediately be able to infer from the lyrics alone that the singer was singing about the Lord. He or she may well be singing about a lover. Of course, even Christian radio stations themselves have slouched toward this spiritual vagueness, billing themselves today more often as "family stations," or "positive and encouraging" stations, rather than "Christian stations." On the one hand, I can appreciate that they do not label everything they play as "Christian," but on the other hand, I can't help wondering if there is some sense of being "ashamed of the gospel" (Romans 1:16), or sleight of hand going on, as if they are trying to slip an unsuspecting audience a spiritual mickey. So, while one may say with good intentions that they prefer Christian music to secular music, it seems that it is growing more difficult to distinguish the two from each other. Christian music is becoming more vague, and "secular" music is often more blatantly spiritual in its themes. 

When we come to listen to Bob Marley, or any other "secular" musician, what we are presented with is the artwork of a human soul. And though humanity will ultimately be divided by the Creator and Judge into only two camps (the ones who believe in Jesus and the ones who reject Him), all humanity bears the image of its Maker, and that image is distorted and flawed in every human being. It is being perfected in those who follow Christ and who are indwelled by His Spirit, but it is present nonetheless in even the most pagan unregenerate artist. And the image of God breaks through in unmistakable ways as the artist grapples with the issues of real life. Every artist (indeed, every human) was made by God, in His image, and is trying to make sense of the world God made. Their artwork asks questions, and seeks answers in ways that are not so much Christian or pagan as it is human. 

Listening to the music of an unbeliever, beholding the visual arts of an unbeliever, watching the athletic prowess of an unbeliever, etc., reminds us of the universal human condition. We are all born asking the same questions of the world. And by God's grace, some of us find the answers to those questions in the Good News of a crucified Savior. Many have not yet found those answers. We who have do well to hear the questions they are asking, if for no other reason than to know how to better answer them. But moreover, we can appreciate their art when it is performed or portrayed well, and give thanks to the God who made the artist in His image. This same God blessed us with senses to behold beauty, and the beauty we find in the created order and in the art of His image bearers is like an appetizer that prepares us to find true beauty in Him alone. He is glorified by those who use the gifts and talents He has blessed them with, even when they do not intend to bring Him glory through their abilities. 

Of course, there are some artforms that Christians do well to avoid, especially those who lack discernment and who may be particularly vulnerable to the sensual appeal of those forms. Some art may well be "irredeemable" because it portrays a corrupted or perverted view of the Creator and His creation. Christians should be mindful to neither indulge or encourage others to indulge in that kind of art. Art that magnifies human sinfulness is not helpful. However, if one has ears to hear, one can hear even in the art of an unbelieving world a hunger to escape the depravity of a fallen world and to behold something greater than this world offers.