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The Times They Are A-Changing

It is one of those hackneyed Christian questions, carrying just enough subtle guilt to fulfill most Christians’ need to feel shamed and inadequate, as well as keeping Christian counselors busy into the foreseeable future.

How many people have you led to the Lord?

Never mind the unhealthily individualistic notion of salvation. Never mind making notches in our belt, like a gunslinger of the old west. Never mind the short shrift given to the Holy Spirit in the birthing of faith. It is one of those questions that fill many Christians with that delicious sense of fear and failure they so crave and have come to expect from the church.

When I hear that question, however, I confidently say to myself, “At least one! Bob Dylan.”

Of course I’ve heard about the role of the Vineyard fellowship, and the influence one of his background vocalists had on Dylan’s very public embrace of Christianity in the late 1970’s. I’ve read all sorts of conjecture about his ongoing pilgrimage and religious convictions.  I’m always trying to sift his newer lyrics for some clue about the state of his soul. But being Reformed, I can confidently rely on “once saved…”

While I am grateful for my liberal arts college experience on many counts, introducing me to Bob Dylan ranks right up there. Back in the day, more than a few times I prayed “Lord, if you would convert Bob Dylan—there wouldn’t be a cooler Christian out there.” Apparently, the Lord took my prayers to heart (although up to this point I have never publicly sought any credit.) Within a couple of years, Bobby was singing songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You.” And somewhat less importantly, I had a notch in my belt and could never be bamboozled by those “Has anyone ever come to Jesus because of you?” interrogations.

Last week, Bob Dylan, now 71 years old, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House. As I scrolled through the comments on Bob’s Facebook page, most were “Congrats!” and “Well-deserved!” But a few came at Dylan head on, excoriating him as a sell-out for entering the White House, for shaking the blood-soaked hand of an American president. For some, it seems you can’t be both a prophet and Medal of Freedom awardee.

It brought to my mind a little dust-up, a tempest-in-a-teacup really, when Jim Wallis and Wes Granberg-Michaelson participated in an interfaith prayer service on Inauguration Day for President Obama. As I recall, some of the critics disapproved of the interfaith aspect of the event. But I, among others, pointed out the irony that these one-time young radicals and anti-war activists were now choosing to wade deeply into the goo of American civil religion. I can imagine them as twenty-somethings interrupting President Nixon’s inaugural prayer service by reciting Isaiah 2 or the beatitudes, perhaps shouting the names of those killed in Vietnam that day. It is harder to imagine a twenty-something Dylan being invited to LBJ’s White House, but if he had been, no doubt he would have made some sort of mischievous mockery of the event.

So even as a die-hard Dylan-lover, part of me agrees with those who want to shred his certificate of authenticity, revoke his prophet’s credentials, simply for going to the White House—even if, thankfully, Obama isn’t Nixon or LBJ. In the end, the glacier-like grind of state and culture flattens out everything. MLK becomes a nice dreamer who gave us a day off for January shopping.  Dylan becomes a harmless entertainer whose prophecies-of-old are reduced to muzak-of-today. It probably isn’t irrelevant, however, that Dylan never anointed himself as prophet or purist. The heavy and unrealistic mantles placed on him over the years, have mainly been put there by others.

Somewhere deep in my fifty-something soul there remains a little part that reveres the non-compromiser, the unyielding prophet, the edge that doesn’t grow dull through the years. I think for example of Wendell Berry, who doesn’t own a computer, withdrew his personal papers from the University of Kentucky archives because of the university’s undue coziness with the coal industry, and declines invitations for speaking engagements far from his home due to the large carbon footprint such travel produces. Or Stanley Hauerwas, who when named America’s “Best Theologian” by Time Magazine reportedly replied, “‘Best’ is not really a Christian category.” Would I like Bob more if he had not shown up for the ceremony and instead issued some rapturously cryptic statement about freedom not being found in medals or the White House?

But the mature me, the me who has to lead, reach across divides, build trust, appreciate complexity and all that sort of stuff is perfectly fine, actually rather thrilled at Bob’s award. Age has something to do with it. But it isn’t just getting old. For me, being responsible to and for a group of people—a congregation in my case—helped me see compromise not as an enemy or a cop-out. Nothing like giving some authority to an anti-authoritarian to make them gain some new perspective. Community and consensus-building involve give and take, cooperation, and concessions. That’s okay. Seventy-one year old Bob Dylan need not be constrained by 25 year old Dylan. I hope that little chunk of radicalism in me doesn’t fade completely over time.  But when Bob Dylan is honored in the White House and I, his erstwhile converter, feel good about it, it just shows that the times really are a-changing.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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