The Poetic Spirituality of Bob Dylan

When pressed about his religious slash spiritual beliefs, Bob Dylan replied, “I have always thought there was a superior power; that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come; that no soul has died; every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames.” When asked if he belonged to a church or synagogue he replied, chuckling, “Uh, I belong to the Church of the Poison Mind.” When asked about a particularly obtuse line in one of his songs, he said that, for him, some of the lines of his songs “open a door into the unknown.”

Imagine pastors, sermons and liturgy opening doors into the unknown and unlocking mysteries in the company of strangers and wanderers who venture into churches seeking refuge from the company of small minds and even smaller hearts that they find at work, at play, and splattered like spiritual road kill on the internet highway.

Bob Dylan (formerly Bob Zimmerman) took his professional name from the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who once wrote,

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan was always a writer, a poet, a wordsmith who knew that poems and poetic lines were uttered long before writing was invented and that it was the rhythm, the pulse, the heartbeat of accompanying music that drove the meaning deep into the souls of listeners.

While the Beatles were writing lines like, “If I fell in love with you, and I promised to be true” Dylan was writing lines like, “Name me someone who’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him” and “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Beatles. My second book is dedicated to John Lennon and I own a piece of his art, the purchase of which was a great financial sacrifice for me. But when the Beatles heard Dylan, they realized that musicians of integrity could write songs of authenticity and not kowtow to the delusional wolves of commerce; and they need not contort themselves into cotton-ball-minded minstrels of mediocrity in order to get a gig or a record deal. Dylan changed the Beatles. And Dylan changed me.

After I first heard Dylan, when I was young, it was suddenly okay to simply be myself ~ as a person and as a writer ~ and not “twist and shout” myself into some version of me that might be more popular with the rest of humanity. My writing prospered when I stopped trying to jam my flowers into any vase that I was handed and that is an artistic lesson I learned from Bob Dylan.

Dylan was and is a soul seeker; a cultural vagabond; a spiritual tourist; and a spiritual tour guide at the same time ~ welcoming us onto a bus that has no designated destination other than, “Into the unknown.” And it is into the unknown that millions of us have traveled with Dylan as a flask of inspiration always within reach.

At my service of ordination into ministry at the age of 47; it was the music of Dylan that was played. At the baptism of my youngest grandchild, it was the music of Dylan (“Forever Young”) that was performed. It was “The Spirituality of Bob Dylan” that was the first segment of a live musical and narrative series, now in its fourth year, that tutored me in the belief that it is a song more so that a photo, sermon or speech by which I will be remembered. And so, if I ever some day get a chance and a good reason to plan my own funeral ~ it will be the music of Dylan that helps to guide me home.

Ah, sweet congratulations to Bob Dylan on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature (a prize for which he has been previously been nominated several times). I am pleased that he ~and I ~ got to experience it during our respective, but somehow intertwined lifetimes.

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