The Bishop and the Poet: Robert Barron and Bob Dylan

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On May 24, 2018, Bob Dylan turns 77 years old, and he’s lost none of the respect, admiration or importance he gained since releasing his debut album in 1962. At that time, Bishop Robert Barron was two years old. I don’t know if the two have ever met, but Dylan has had a huge effect on the media evangelist and now-auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Barron has referenced Dylan in videos and articles, and even said that his discussion of the singer’s work drew the attention of a YouTube-surfing atheist who eventually found his way back to the Faith.

Born into a Jewish family in Minnesota, Dylan appeared to make a public conversion to evangelical Christianity in the late ’70s, with the release of his Christian-themed 19th album, “Slow Train Coming.”

The emphasis on Christian-themed lyrics waned in the mid-’80s, leading to speculation that Dylan had abandoned his newfound Christianity in favor of a return to Jewish practice. Since Dylan is famously private, opinions on his religiosity are largely speculation.

From a 2017 piece at Crux:

Scott M. Marshall, in his new book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life(BP Books, 2017), casts doubt on this hypothesis. Based on scores of interviews he conducted with many people who have been close to Dylan over the years, evaluations of public comments made by the singer since the late 1970s, and the songs penned and performed since his conversion, Marshall claims that it is wrong to confidently conclude that Dylan ever abandoned his Christian faith.

(Interestingly, he also claims that it is just as wrong to confidently conclude that Dylan ever abandoned his Jewish roots).

Part of Marshall’s thesis is that the Dylan who emerges from his 1983 Lubavitch studies, and subsequently releases Infidels, is not a restored Jew who has rejected Christ, but rather, a Hebrew Christian who has a better and deeper sense of his Judaism and the way it shapes his understanding of the biblical narrative and his relationship with God.

Because Dylan is a man who fiercely guards his privacy, nobody, not even Marshall, knows for sure.

In another Crux piece from about the same time, editor and  longtime Vaticanista John L. Allen Jr. offers a Barron quote from To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, his interview/biography of the bishop. Barron says:

Do you remember at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when Springsteen inducts Bob Dylan and says the snare drum that opens up “Like a Rolling Stone” is like kicking open the door to your mind, and this whole world opens up?

This is cliché to say, but the Old Testament prophet is the right rubric for Bob Dylan. He’s Biblical. He’s a lot of things, of course, but above all, from beginning to end, he’s Biblical. He’s the one, perhaps more than anyone else in pop music, who brings the Biblical worldview into our time.

Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie, Elvis and others influenced him, but it’s the Biblical take which drives his interest in sin, judgment, eternal life and God.

One of his later songs, called “I’m trying to get to Heaven before they close the door,”has stayed with me. Often when I’m in prayer in my chapel, I’ll look up at the tabernacle and say, “I’m just trying to get to Heaven before they close the door.” When it gets down to it, that’s all I want. I’m just trying to get to Heaven before they close the door.

And, on video, from 2008, when he was merely Chicago’s Father Barron:

Click here for a 2016 Word on Fire podcast, in which Barron discusses the following Dylan-related topics:

  • 0:17  – Bishop Barron at the Bob Dylan concert last weekend
  • 2:40 – Can Bob Dylan serve as a gateway to God?
  • 4:45 – Who is Bob Dylan?
  • 8:32 – Why Bob Dylan is best read as a spiritual poet
  • 10:11 – Bob Dylan’s religious views
  • 12:17 – Biblical elements of Blowin’ in the Wind
  • 15:39 – Bishop Barron on Like a Rolling Stone
  • 21:41 – Bob Dylan and the Resurrection
  • 22:10 – All Along the Watchtower and the Book of Isaiah
  • 26:41 – Finding Jesus in Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love
  • 28:43 – Question from listener: How can we evangelize in a secular workspace?

Let’s finish off with the man himself, starting with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” performed live on TV in 1963:

And, “All Along the Watchtower,” live in Woodstock in 1994 …

Lastly, from 1979, the song called by Rolling Stone the “most religious” on “Slow Train Coming” — “When He Returns” (audio only):

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right
When He returns
Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through
He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice? How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?
Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns 

Image: Courtesy Word on Fire

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