This is the third and final post in a challenge I had been given by a good friend in my local gathering of Jesus followers. The assignment was to list three personal “heroes.” For the sake of this exercise, the heroes had to be persons (dead or alive) I did not know personally and Jesus could not be listed among the three. In previous posts I named Winston Churchill and Miles Davis. As chance would have it, I have pictures of all three (among others) taped to my well-worn paperback Bible (see featured image).
I’ve been waiting on this last installment about Bob Dylan. I’m not sure why. I thought it a bit of synchronicity that last week Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I thought it apt that he should receive it for the body of his lyrical writing. It is his lyrics that have inspired me in life, in faith, and in my own creative journey. It is also classic Dylan that he has refused to acknowledge the honor. Both of these facts are part of the reason he’s one of my heroes. So the timing of this post now seems right.
I became a follower of Jesus in the spring of 1981. Within months of that life-changing decision I was in a record store and happened upon Bob Dylan’s album Slow Train Comin’. I still remember the moment. It was a record store on University Avenue in Des Moines near Drake University. I am the youngest of four siblings and my older brothers (seven years my senior) were audiophiles with an extensive collection of LPs. Following in their footsteps, I had cut my musical teeth early on rock classics and had a fairly diverse musical palette for my age. I knew Bob Dylan from Like a Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women. When I happened upon Slow Train Comin’ I was both surprised and intrigued by the reports I’d heard regarding Dylan’s own newly discovered faith. His lyrics and music resonated with my own spiritual journey.
I devoured the tracks on Slow Train Comin’ and then moved on to the heavy gospel of his next album, Saved followed by the very different musical and lyrical takes on Shot of Love and Infidels. There was something altogether different in Dylan’s music and lyrics compared to the other “Christian” music I was exposed to in those years. No offense intended to Christian artists of that day, but the music always repeated what was commercially popular at the moment and the lyrics were simple and cookie-cutter. Dylan on the other hand, was altogether different.
I found Dylan’s lyrics to have a depth and honesty that stood in stark contrast to other music I was listening to. His music wasn’t canned. It didn’t sound like everything else. It was brutal in its forthright transparency and I identified with the raw feelings of confession, faith, doubt, struggle, and determination that were being communicated. I was challenged by references I didn’t understand and metaphors that pushed the envelope of my knowledge.
My love and appreciation for Dylan’s lyrics led me to delve deeper into his past. I went back to the beginning and followed the path of his musical journey. I fell in love with his earlier music and gained an even deeper appreciation for the artistry of his lyrics.
As time went on it was fascinating for me to watch Dylan shun the Christian and religious labels to which the press, the Christian record industry, and others tried to pigeon-hole him. It was reported the he left the faith. He was branded a heretic by the religious press to whom he refused subservience. The mainstream press and music industry welcomed him back as a backslider who got the religious stuff out of his system.
I didn’t pay much attention to what the press said. I just kept listening to his music, to the lyrics that poured out of him, in which I found the honest musings of a fellow wayfarer trying to figure things out. In his lyrics I continued to find faith, doubt, honesty, struggle, love, and pain that mirrored my own experience. All of it was communicated in words and metaphors that never ceased to challenge and inspire me.
So, why do I consider Bob Dylan a personal hero?
First, he seems always to avoid being labeled or confined by others’ expectations. The institutional church and evangelical Christians are subtly and successfully manipulative in pressuring followers into a prescribed box of what they deem acceptable. I watched as Dylan simply refused the label, and refused to be placed inside someone else’s box. Not just in his so-called “religious” years but throughout his entire life. He’s not done the same thing to the literati elite on the Nobel committee. God has given me a very individualist spirit and Dylan’s example gave me an example to follow, a freedom to be the person and the artist God created me to be, even if it doesn’t meet others expectations of what I should do or be. I’m okay being me even if it does not fit neatly in the box prescribed by my family, friends or some other constituency.
Second, Dylan’s lyrical artistry wanders all over the map. You name it and he references it. He’s an explorer in the expansive sense. He references the religious, historic, artistic, scientific, personal, and literary. He draws on life in its abundant diversity in all of his artistic expression. As someone with a sometimes embarrassing repository of trivial knowledge (Wendy to me: How can you possibly know that?! Answer: I don’t know how I know it. I just do.) I love that Dylan makes art out of the arcane. He pulls together seemingly disparate references and expresses something meaningful, powerful and creative out of them. I get that. I creatively want to be like that.
Finally, and much like Miles Davis (and Picasso and Van Gogh and Woody Allen), Bob Dylan has ceaselessly pushed into new things lyrically and artistically. He’s a creative wellspring. He doesn’t rest. He doesn’t stop exploring and expressing. It just keeps pouring out of him. I love that he is a visual artist as well as a musical artist. He’s never been afraid to explore a different medium. Some of his albums feel entirely experimental. He explores the old and the new. He plays. Dylan inspires me to never be afraid to try new things, push into new areas, embrace and experiment with what was, what is, and fearlessly forge ahead.
My family has been having a lot of conversations over the past few years about the nine Enneagram personality types and how each of our “types” affect our lives and relationships. I happen to be a Type 4: The Individualist, and when I look through the institute’s list of examples of Type 4s, would you know it, but two of my three “heroes” from this project are there.