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. 

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