Bob Dylan has released a Christmas CD this year, entitled "Christmas In The Heart."
Don't worry, I don't expect you to run out and buy it! (I don't even have it yet...Kathy did promise to get it for me for Christmas...) Dylan's voice is Dylan's voice, and some people just can't get past that - or maybe won't take the time to listen seriously to his lyrics to hear from a man who is still one of the most engaging prophetic artists of our time.
So I know - I know - there just aren't many (if any?) serious Dylan fans among those who normally read this blog! By a "serious" Dylan fan, I mean someone who can name a song title or album title that Dylan has released in the last 25 years, which would be sometime since 1984...bet'cha can't do it!
Some of Dylan's fans of his older music might wonder why he would release a Christmas album, and reviewers who have heard it are all over the place in their reviews. I've heard clips of a couple songs on the internet, and read some of the reviews.
Indeed, the questions could run along this line of thinking: "Why would Dylan release a Christmas album? After all, isn't he Jewish? I thought he got over that Christian phase of his a long time ago?"
But as I continue to listen to Dylan's music (and I have most of his albums of new material released in the past 30 years), I hear him expressing - in his own apocalyptic, mysterious and enigmatic way - a searching faith that struggles to embrace his Jewish roots with a Messianic Christian worldview...and I find Dylan's "wrestling in song" more compelling than most of the contemporary Christian music that is being created and released today (which may say more about my limited awareness of contemporary Christian music over the past few years than it does about contemporary artists and their music).
We'll come back to Dylan's new Christmas album in a moment...
This year marks the 20th anniversary of - in my humble opinion - one of the best albums of Dylan's entire career, the 1989 release, Oh Mercy.
Oh Mercy was released ten years after Dylan's breakout "Christian" album, Slow Train Coming, yet it contains songs that ought to be as compelling for people of faith as the songs on that 1979 artistic masterpiece.
(ASIDE: It should be noted that Slow Train Coming was praised - sometimes years later - by many critics, even some who didn't resonate with Dylan's overt Christian lyrics on the album. And many songs from this phase of Dylan's career have been recorded by some of today's best known gospel artists - Shirley Ceasar, Dottie Peoples, Aaron Neville, Helen Baylor, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples - on the 2003 album entitled Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. This is a poweful, moving album of black gospel music! It's a testament to just how good these Dylan songs are - how well they hold up over time, and how well they translate when interpreted by other artists.)
Song titles from Oh Mercy include, "Everything is Broken," "Ring Them Bells," "Political World," "What Good Am I?" and "Disease of Conceit."
"Everything Is Broken" is an honest, painful look at the brokenness of our world - not just broken stuff, but broken relationships, broken systems, and the likelihood that nothing "under the sun" is going to change that.
"Ring Them Bells" is one of the most moving songs on the album; it is both hymn and anthem with it's words and deliberately slow but intentional forward cadence...it requires you to take it seriously. Here are a couple verses that illustrate Dylan's worldview, a worldview which includes more than what the eye can see:
Ring them bells St. Peter
Where the four winds blow,
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know.
Oh it's rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow.
Ring them bells Sweet Martha,
For the poor man's son,
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep.
(Copyright ©1989 Special Rider Music)
There's more, but these two verses give a glimpse into Dylan's head for those willing to consider what he's saying. The last four lines quoted above are interesting...who is "the shepherd"? What does Dylan mean by "lost sheep"? These are powerful biblical images used especially by the Old Testament prophets, but also by Jesus. While it is dangerous to read meanings into lyrics (I'm tempted to view "the shepherd" as the Church today, failing to be faithful in addressing the brokenness of our culture, and therefore leaving many sheep lost), these lyrics say quite a bit themselves about what Dylan thinks of the current condition of the church, the world, and our culture.
"What Good Am I?" is a powerful examination of a life, an examination the subject fails:
What good am I if I'm like all the rest,
If I just turned away, when I see how you're dressed,
If I shut myself off so I can't hear you cry,
What good am I?
What good am I if I know and don't do,
If I see and don't say, if I look right through you,
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin' sky,
What good am I?
What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep,
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don't try,
What good am I?
What good am I then to others and me
If I've had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been.
What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die,
What good am I?
(Copyright ©1989 Special Rider Music)
Dylan seems to be relentlessly on tour these days, and continues to perform songs from throughout his 40-plus year career. The set list is constantly changing, to include new music from his latest releases, but he also delights fans with his old hits, and leaves some of them perplexed by his occasional inclusion of his "Christian" songs. For example, at concerts in 2008, Dylan added the song "I Believe In You" from 1979's Slow Train Coming to his set. He sang,
Don’t let me drift too far,
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed.
And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you.
(Copyright ©1979 Special Rider Music)
So...why has Dylan released a Christmas album? And a Christmas album chock full of traditional Christmas favorites...AND...Christian Christmas carols (I know, "Christian Christmas" is redundant) that proclaim the birth of the Savior of the world?
Well, we should just let Dylan's music speak for him (as I said above, it's dangerous to read into things, much as we're all tempted). He chose "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" to close out the album. It's one of the cuts I've heard (isn't the internet wonderful?!). Clocking in at just over two minutes, with only two of the carol's verses, here are the words from the last song on Dylan's Christmas album, sung slowly, thoughtfully, and even reverently by Dylan and his backup singers:
Oh little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie,
above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shine, in everlasting light,
the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of all his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
So while there's seasonal fun and frivolity in the songs of this album ("Here Comes Santa Claus," The Christmas Blues" and "Christmas Island"), there is also an abiding and longing faith expressed in Dylan's interpretation of the church's traditional Christmas carols and hymns. Dylan sings the closing "Amen," which means, "truly" or "it is true," leaving us to ponder the meaning of this over our eggnog or hot chocolate.
I'll leave it to you to make up your own mind. As I continue to listen to Dylan's music (and, in my opinion, much of his best music has been written in the past 20 years, as Dylan gets older and wiser), I still hear a passionate prophetic voice whose message will resonate long after the man himself has left this all behind.
*It should be mentioned here that all of Dylan's profits from the album Christmas In The Heart are being donated to various charities in the United States and other countries to feed the hungry.