Bob Dylan and the Theological Imagination

New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world. On 7th Avenue I passed the building where Walt Whitman had lived and worked. I paused momentarily imagining him printing away and singing the true song of his soul. I had stood outside of Poe’s house on 3rd Street, too, and had done the same thing, staring mournfully up at the windows. The city was like some uncarved block without any name or shape and it showed no favouritism. Everything was always new, always changing. It was never the same old crowd upon the streets. ‒ Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Photo: Alberto Cabello

Bob Dylan succeeds where so many of us fail. We also walk familiar city streets but rarely see and feel so much. Michelangelo imagined magnificent sculptures locked inside stone, and similarly Dylan suspects hidden mysteries, “like some uncarved block,” in the banalities of that urban landscape.
We meet two very different kinds of people in this brief excerpt from his 2004 memoir. There are those swept up in those ever-shifting sidewalk mobs. If it’s never the same old crowd, they’re clearly on the move, stopping for nothing. They contrast with the poets Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, and with the author himself. Dylan, after all, “paused momentarily” on 7th Street. He “stood outside” 3rd. And for what? To imagine. To listen for those great American poets, singing the songs of their souls. That’s what poets do. They stop, look, and wonder, whereas the rest of us hurry along, unaware of nearby treasures hidden in uncarved blocks.
Dylan knows others who pause and look. In the near context, he mentions Woody Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Johnny Cash, among others. Thank God for such artists. They see things the rest of us miss. They sing true songs of the soul, whereas busy pedestrians walk past much, seeing little beauty in the day-to-day and hearing little else than traffic noise and the hubbub of the city. Occasionally we catch bits of their visionary songs. Fragments of a tune rising above the din. Maybe it’s why we tend to attach value to particular artists in the first place. Maybe it’s why ragged clowns like us follow them. It’s a shadow you’re seeing ‒ we say to Whitman or Cash or Mitchell or Dylan ‒ that we’re chasing.
What has any of this to do with the theological imagination? Dylan, after all, is a song and dance man, not a religious thinker. And what is more, he’s famously uneasy with exaggerated assessments of his music. No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe. “I know I ain’t no prophet / An’ I ain’t no prophet’s son” he sings in “Long Time Gone.”
That’s all true but I still associate Dylan’s art with religious contemplation. But what I find in his music is not theological content so much as ways of pausing, looking, and imagining. To listen to Highway 61 Revisited or Tempest is to step out of the passing crowd for the five or 10 minutes of a song’s duration. It is to stand beside him as he looks up at the apartment windows imagining worlds behind.
I don’t see Whitman or Poe or anything half so “mysterious” as what he describes. That is why being with such an artist matters. We need someone to look through the surface of things if we’re to contemplate wonders locked in stone, worlds behind the world. And so it is we occasionally hear a something in the arts we scarcely have words to describe. I want to say “Visions of Johanna” or 100 other Dylan songs are prophetic, but I don’t know why. It’s not about entertainment, or at least not just about entertainment. Instead it’s about an awakened imagination. It’s a whiff of enchantment in an otherwise un-enchanted world. It’s a looking at, but also a looking through.

Michael Gilmour teaches New Testament and English literature at Providence University College. His recent work on Bob Dylan includes an entry on the singer in “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts” (2015).

Dylan is the most important theologian in my life, oddly enough, not because he teaches me doctrine but because he tunes the radio, turning the dial so static gives way to a clearer signal. He creates spaces for mysteries; he gives permission to look past the obvious. An awakened imagination makes the contemplation of spiritual matters possible. Art ‒ for me, at least ‒ was and is a necessary first step. His is a world of ghosts, with Poe and Whitman at their writing desks, pens in hand. His is a world with treasures everywhere we look, just waiting for the artist to carve them out of stone.
To my mind, there is no openness to religious mysteries without “Visions of Johanna” or “Red River Shore” or “Scarlett Town.” Everyone’s playlist is a bit different, of course. The crowds at Pentecost heard the apostles speaking their own language. So too are our engagements with the arts.

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