Don’t think twice, he’s alright

The excerpt below is from an article written by BustedHalo editor-in-chief, Bill McGarvey for the March 17 edition of The Tablet a venerable London-based magazine of “progressive, but responsible Catholic thinking.”

“Judas!” the voice cried out from somewhere in the darkened seating area of Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It was 17 May, 1966, and on stage, Bob Dylan was coming to the end of another concert on a turbulent tour. Audiences that had hailed him as a genius just a year earlier now chastised him for daring to go “electric” with a full band, and for moving beyond the topical protest songs that had made him the great young hope of the folk scene. It had been this way throughout most of the tour with catcalls and boos from fans who couldn’t understand his new direction.

Being the “voice of a generation” can’t be an easy job. It is a position that the troubadour of modern culture – born Robert Zimmerman to a middle-class Jewish family from Hibbing, Minnesota – won very early on in his career and one he has always rejected. But I suspect it is this same antiquated notion of Bob Dylan that Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he recently revealed that he had opposed plans for Dylan to perform at a 1997 concert for Pope John Paul II. “There was reason to be sceptical,” Benedict says in his new book John Paul II, My Beloved Predecessor, “to doubt if it was really right to let these types of prophets intervene.”

For Catholics like me – and, trust me, there are millions of us – who have been profoundly moved, nourished and simply entertained by Dylan’s music and countless other elements of pop culture, the pope’s comments felt like a betrayal of sorts as well. Fortunately, the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s arguments did not win the day back in 1997 and Dylan appeared as scheduled. Of course John Paul II used the event to his advantage (as he so often did), engaging people by preaching about the movement of the Holy Spirit using Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as his metaphor.

It is a strange feeling today to be part of a faith community whose leadership does not seem to value the cultural sensibilities of a considerable portion of its flock. For a Pope who has such a deep devotion to the works of such a classical giant as Mozart to have so little appreciation for one of the most important figures in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music is troubling and points to a lack of understanding of the scores of spiritual seekers – of which Dylan is a charter member – whose faith journeys might be somewhat messy. Benedict’s apparent suspicion of popular culture is a sad reminder that the Church sometimes has a tin ear with regard to the endless ways that the Holy Spirit continually operates within culture to help us recognise the sacred in the most unexpected places.

In the mid 1980s, on the first day of my second-year English Literature class, the beret-wearing, pipe-smoking eccentric teacher at my relatively conservative Jesuit high school came into our classroom and, without a word, walked up to the blackboard and wrote: “When you ain’t got nothin’/ You got nothin’ to lose.” In the bottom right-hand corner of the board he wrote the author’s name, Bob Dylan. With a piece of chalk, my pudgy, 5ft 4in English teacher changed my life. In a room filled with other young men like me, who were being groomed to become successful Catholic doctors, lawyers and businessmen, Dylan’s words felt dangerous and radical.

But more importantly his words seemed utterly true. When I finally heard the song “Like a Rolling Stone”, I was captivated by the powerful honesty of the singer’s voice.

Other artists who I became passionate about seemed, like Dylan, to be pilgrims completely alive to the world. In my mind, this was true discipleship. At a time in my life when my capacity to feel far outstripped my abilities to understand and articulate, the music not only spoke to me; in a way it spoke for me.

It spoke of hope: “Oh the fishes will laugh/ As they swim out of the path/ And the seagulls they’ll be smiling./ And the rocks on the sand/ Will proudly stand,/ The hour that the ship comes in” (“When the Ship Comes In”). It talked of love: “Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm,/ When the rivers freeze and summer ends,/ Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm,/ To keep her from the howlin’ winds” (“Girl From the North Country”).

In retrospect, although I was raised a Catholic, I now realise that my first religious experience came through music. I had no illusions that any of the artists who moved me were “prophets”, much less gods. I did however have a sense that through them I was able to catch some refracted ray of truth – something universal that can be hinted at only in great works of art.

Fortunately for many of us whose faith journeys don’t follow a script, Pope Benedict’s new book doesn’t carry the same weight as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which so wisely and eloquently stated in its preface: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age … these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

If ever there was an artist who spoke to the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of the men of this age—an artist whose heart has echoed deeply with all that is genuinely human—Bob Dylan would be it.

Still, trying to convince skeptics of that seems like an impossible task, so I’m tempted to respond as Dylan did more than 40 years ago to the anonymous voice in Manchester who accused him of being a Judas. Dylan simply walked up to the microphone and replied “I don’t believe you!”