Is Bob Dylan a Christian Conservative?

NUVO | June 5, 2007
Right off, I should say I disagree with much of what Stephen Webb writes in his new book, Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved ($16.95, Continuum). And I absolutely dispute his main contention -- that Bob Dylan is and always has been a Christian conservative.

I think Dylan is probably left of center politically -- songs like "Masters of War," "With God on Their Side," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and many others certainly speak to me from the left.

Really, though, I don't know what Dylan's politics or religious beliefs are, and I truly don't care. I've been a Dylan fan since 1974 because he uses words better than any other songwriter.

But Webb, a Wabash College professor of religion and philosophy, posits some interesting ideas in his book, and clearly he's given this subject a lot of thought. People like that are always worth talking to. So we talked. And here's what he had to say.

Q: You write that Dylan can be acclaimed as one of the greatest American theologians of the latter half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Isn't that a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of someone who's essentially an entertainer?

A: That's probably true. On the other hand, theology these days is hardly taken very seriously, so being a public theologian is not exactly an onerous or much talked-about task. But I do think that is a good way to describe him. People nowadays turn to music for moral argument as well as entertainment. That might be giving rock 'n' roll too much credit, but we don’t get public moral argument in many aspects in our modern culture. You certainly get it in politics, but by theological or moral argument, I meant something different from typical political debate. And I do think Dylan, because he brought sophisticated lyrics and the air of a provocateur to rock 'n' roll, that he has been the source of discussions about the eternal truths.

Q: What led you to conclude that Dylan is conservative?

A: I'm not sure there was a defining moment. I had a predeliction for being suspicious of the way modern academics tend to reduce American culture to progressive liberals verses reactionary conservatives. Conservatives, then, are given the role of putting the brakes on social change. But conservatism, especially as it applies to post-World War II America, are given no credit for critical thinking. Liberals propose and conservatives de-pose, I suppose you could say. I always thought that was wrong.

There's a kind of prejudice, that if someone's on the cutting edge of art or music, then they must be progressive. But I always had a sense that Dylan was someone who rejuvenated rock 'n' roll by returning it to its roots. He was someone deeply indebted to roots music in America. So artistically, you could say he's always been a conservative -- just as I think all great poets and musicians are conservative. Artistic revolution, in my understanding of it, always comes from a rereading of the past rather than something glibly innovated in the present.

When I started reading about Dylan in the 60s, it just seemed obvious to me how out of synch he was with his time. The reason most people think of him as a liberal is that the great majority of the scholarship about Dylan is dominated by people who grew up with him in the 60s who turned to higher education with hopes of changing the world and saw Dylan as a source of inspiration for those hopes.

And yet, Dylan never affirmed those hopes and he always resisted them and occasionally he cried out against them. So I think it took someone who wasn't rooted in that trajectory to see that Dylan was never really a part of that generation. He grew up in the 40s and 50s in a small town in Minnesota. He was immersed in the Bible and Appalachian music and the traditional values of church music and small-town America. He was never really a part of East Coast political liberalism and always felt out of touch with that kind of liberalism.

He’s a conservative in the sense that he’s a conserver of the part. He does not believe that human nature is malleable. He has no hope for any kind of social utopianism. And I think all the great poets are like that.

Q: How much do you think people see in Dylan’s lyrics what they want to see?

A: That's certainly a fair point. Like any great poet, Dylan is not trying to give us simple answers to complex questions. He's not trying to put some political slogan to musical form. And in fact, for a period of his life, he was influenced by the Beat Poets and by French poetry and all sorts of things that led him to develop a style of writing that was highly elusive, indirect, coy and cagey. So there's no easy way to read most of his lyrics.

But I think that's one of the reasons why he is so interesting, especially in terms of what he was doing in the 60s, when there was so much pressure to develop theme music, to say something about politics, to be relevant. I think Dylan has always strived to be irrelevant in a way. Look at what he did in the 60s, going to Nashville and making some very mellow, very country-style albums, and what he did in the 70s, making some Christian albums. He brought an end to the folk revival by turning electric. He's always tried to work against popular expectations. The main popular expectation for him in the 60s was for him to be a man of the left, and I think it's very telling that he never criticized the Vietnam War, for example.

From the very beginning, he had a supernatural message -- this interest in heaven, in the last judgment, this fascination with Jesus. These are all perennial themes of his music. There are many of his songs that are opaque in terms of meaning. But there are themes in his career, and I think those themes are consistent and clear, even though he plays around with those themes.

Q: One of the most interesting points in the book is your comparison of Dylan's version of "Blowin' in the Wind" and Peter, Paul & Mary's rendition.

A: I've always been fascinated that some people don't like Bob Dylan's voice. To me, his voice is so textured, so three-dimensional. It seems obvious to me that he has a voice that is always under control. He's always using it in intentional ways to produce various effects. Yet there are many people who see his voice as a nuisance, as something to be overcome in terms of appreciating his music. Many people like some of his lyrics, but not his voice.

I think "Blowin' in the Wind" is a good example of how that works out. Dylan's voice asks you to listen carefully. It's trying to teach you how to listen. It's not giving you anything smooth. It's rough, but rough in a poetic way, and people who listen a lot tend to fall pretty deep for him. He's not someone you can listen to in a half-hearted way.

Peter, Paul & Mary turned "Blowin' in the Wind" into a mega-hit but totally took the three-dimensionality out of it. They smoothed it out. They made it more melodic, more congenial, more hopeful. They made it sound like it was a song about answers rather than a song about questions. And Dylan's songs usually question you. They lay down a challenge or question without giving any easy answers. I guess it's understandable or even predictable that most people who listen to music lightly want easy, quick answers.

I talk in the book about the different strategies Dylan uses with his voice. In fact, I think that's probably the most original thing about my book. So many people talk about Dylan's voice, but they do it in very quick ways or very vague ways. Or they just say it's divine or it's screechy and whiny. But I really try to look at the influence of James Dean on Dylan's voice, his use of mumbling, his use of distortion, the comical aspects of his voice and the rustic, country sounds as well, and the variety.

He could croon like Bing Crosby when he wanted to. When he recorded Nashville Skyline, he could sound pleasing to the ear in a superficial way. When he did "Lay Lady Lay," he could sound like a baritone. He could sound a little like Roy Orbison. But he didn't choose to do that all the time. In fact, most of the time he's doing things with his voice, which is why I think he's so interesting to listen to. He elongates his vowels, he sharpens his voice, he uses his whole body to sing. I think this is conscious and intentional, and I think the results are usually pretty fascinating. There's nothing in his singing that is intentional and spontaneous. His voice is his art, and he's in command of his vocal effects.

Q: Let's talk about "With God On Their Side." My interpretation has always been that Dylan is saying we've used having God on our side to excuse hate and killing that we have carried out. I interpret the line about whether Judas Iscariot has God on his side as Dylan's way of comparing us with Judas. Your interpretation is different.

A: Keep in mind, the song actually begins with an acknowledgement of his roots, of being from the Midwest. "The country I come from is called the Midwest." Then it goes on to talk about all the damage that I suppose America has done -- the Spanish-American war, the war against native Americans and all that.

But I do think the key stanza is the one you focus on:

In many a dark hour

I've been thinking about this

That Jesus Christ

Was betrayed with a kiss ...

Which, by the way, shows you how immersed in the Bible and in Christian imagery he was.

But he doesn't put necessarily America in the role of Judas. Because he says, you'll have to decide whether Judas had God on his side. To me, the thematic of this song is that we don't know whose side God was on. It's easy to say God was on the side of the Indians; look at what America did to the Indians. Yes, God is on the side of the victims. But it's always a political judgment to say whose side God is on, and it's always easy for someone of strong opinions to say whose side God is on. So what's crucial to me about this song is, he’s not making fun of the association of religion with patriotism and he's not taking a position on it, either. He's not saying that America has done all these bad things. It's not an anti-American song. He's saying, "I don't know. You don't know."

It's easy to see why it would appeal to the anti-war left in America, because political conservatives, Christian conservatives do claim God on their side. But I don't think Bob Dylan is siding with the anti-American, anti-war left. He's interrogating them. He's asking them whose side God is on. At least that's how I see it.

Q: But isn't Dylan saying, "If God's on our side, he'll stop the next war?" Isn't that what Dylan wants?

A: Yeah, that last stanza is tough. He's confused, he's weary, he's not full of vindictive, self-justifying, self-rationalizing anger. He's certainly not being polemical in that last stanza. He's not saying "all you Christian conservatives, all you warmongers go to hell." He's not saying "give peace a chance." He's saying, after this litany about Russians and Germans ... he's playing around with what God's on your side means, rather than giving us some simple moral maxim.

If this had been a song from the political left, he would be making fun of the idea that God would stop the next war. He would be chastising all the political innocents, all the reactionaries in America who think God's going to stop the next war.

Q: Ultimately, why does it matter what Dylan believes?

A: Because music has supplanted literature and theology as the primary carrier of moral meaning in America. I think more people listen to music and listen to it more intensely than they read novels or pay attention to sermons on Sunday morning -- and certainly more than they read books about theology or theological works.

Plus, I just wanted to pay homage to Dylan. I do think he is that great. I think one way to lift up any artist is to take them as seriously as they ask to be taken and pay them the compliment of going as deep into their work as you can. I don't think Dylan needs my help or will benefit directly from this book, but as someone who takes Dylan seriously, this is my way of expressing gratitude for all that he's given to me in my life and all he's meant to me.


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