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I don’t qualify to be a Swiftie — although if I were to find out how many times I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore during the pandemic, I’m sure I’d be both shocked and embarrassed. I’d always considered her “not for me,” probably beneath me. I’d like to say she “grew up,” but that sounds like the problem was hers.

But this isn’t about Taylor Swift. I don’t really know enough about her to write anything.

One thing I have to say for the Swifties, their incredibly intricate analyses of her lyrics makes me think biblical interpretation isn’t as absurd, painstaking or verbose as it sometimes seems. If anything, I wonder if biblical interpretation would do well to learn from the Swifties and borrow terminology like Easter-eggs and decoding, rather than insisting on esoterica like pericope, einmalig, and chiastic.

Bob

And this brings me to Bob Dylan, whose lyrics have been analyzed and re-analyzed by just about everyone, and with whom I am more familiar than Taylor Swift. When compared to biblical interpreters, Dylan interpreters range from devotees of The Golfer’s Study Bible to those who can read Akkadian. I’m somewhere in the middle.

I am going to try to talk about one of Dylan’s songs in a way that will matter to the non-Dylan-o-phile. In other words, please keep reading, even if you think Dylan is a craggy old man whose voice you always found annoying.

The song is “Shooting Star.” Not too long ago, someone asked me my favorite unheralded, non-monumental Dylan song. Surprisingly, I blurted out “Shooting Star.” And as I thought about why, it’s less about Bob and more about my own story. Maybe yours too.

You might care, but you really don’t have to, that “Shooting Star” is the final song on Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy. That’s 32 years ago! It might be interesting to know that Oh Mercy was one of Bob’s countless comebacks, a critical success, after a string of underperforming albums. It probably wouldn’t hurt to know that O Mercy is not considered one of his Christian albums. It’s eight to ten years after Bob’s born-again phase. Still, more than a few listeners have detected unfinished business with faith and Christianity in it. (I’ll put the full lyrics and a link to the music at the bottom.)

My unsubstantiated theory is that “Shooting Star” is written to the mystery woman who played a role in Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. (There are all sorts of guesses about who this might be — a background singer? Dylan’s second wife?) “Shooting Star” is a bookend with his 1979 song, “Covenant Woman,” which was a tribute to this mystery woman — “Way up yonder, great will be her reward…I’ve just got to thank you once again for making your prayers known to heaven for me.” “Shooting Star” closes and relinquishes what “Covenant Woman” began and extolled. One critic said it felt like a letter written but never sent.

Shooting Star Evangelicals

Some of our friendly semi-trolls here on The Twelve tell us that if they’re ever looking for a fresh dose of evangelical-bashing, they can count on us to provide it. You’re welcome! Looking at “Shooting Star” might help us (or at least me) understand where that energy comes from.

A shooting star inspires the song. Stunning, beautiful, and bright; fast-moving, attention-grabbing, but short-lived.

I would venture that a good portion of you fine readers could use similar adjectives to describe a time, a place, a segment of your faith journey. And for more than a few of you, that experience involved evangelical Christians.

In my case, it would be my college years at a squeaky-clean evangelical school. So fun. So bright. Full of energy and possibility. Yet not to be. It often felt like my gears just never fully meshed with the evangelical world. Decades have only increased the disconnect. COVID’s current vaccination-fascination prompts me to observe that thanks to my evangelical alma mater, I was vaccinated so I never caught the disease.

Just as Dylan looks back to wonder about his Covenant Woman, I wonder wistfully about some specific friends from the past, but also the larger collective of evangelicals. Undoubtedly, there are people from your faith journey, possibly some who influenced you greatly, now far in your rearview mirror, you still wonder about on occasion.

You were tryin’ to break into another world, a world I never knew. I always kinda wondered if you ever made it through,” asks Dylan. In other words, “Did you make it?”
I would ask things like
+ How did that work out for you, over the long term?
+ Could you maintain your passion? Did you keep smiling?
+ Did you exhibit enough…striving…anguish…devotion…guilt…repentance?
+ Were you satisfied with the answers you received?
+ Did you get close to sanctification? Did you really think that was achievable?

“The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent force their way in,” so says Jesus. “You were trying to break into another world,” so says Bob. Breaking in. A desire to please God so easily slips into fury and mayhem.

Shooting Star and Us

Then the focus flips to the other party — me/you?/Bob.

When Dylan asks “did I miss the mark?” he’s displaying his own biblical savvy. Certainly this is an allusion to hamartano — Greek for “to miss the mark,” to sin. How did I fail? What did I do wrong? Dancing? Drinking? Divorce? Not ____ing enough? Or _____ing too much?

Did I overstep the line that only you could see? I wouldn’t say the word “inerrant”? I didn’t pray “The Sinner’s Prayer” or walk “The Roman Road?” My prayers weren’t peppered with “just” enough? I didn’t like CCM? Somehow I let you down. Unknowingly I signaled that I was not fully of you. “Guess it’s too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say.

Time

Few artists have understood time — and the clash between the present and the future, reality and hope, the now and the Kingdom Come — as Bob Dylan. (See “The Times They are A-Changin’” or “The Hour When the Ship Comes In.”) During his born-again period he reportedly was greatly influenced by Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic The Late Great Planet Earth.

Bob summons up images of urgency: a bell, the last firetruck from hell, the last account, the last time you’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed there is something of the Gospel here, what I call the eschatological energy that crackles through the stories of Jesus. But salesmen’s hokum and evangelical hype — This could be your last chance. Do it today! Don’t delay! Cast your lot with us. Where will you be when Jesus returns? If you died tonight, would you go to heaven? Come from the balconies, the buses will wait! — are easily passed-off as genuine Gospel urgency.

Here, me, and maybe you, and Bob, side with the day-to-day over the now-or-never crossroads. Tomorrow will come. “Seen a shooting star tonight, slip away. Tomorrow will be another day.” Time rolls on. Life moves on. Faith is a marathon not a sprint. As someone said, “We can’t stand on tippy-toes of expectancy forever.” Certainties mellow. Fervor fades. Things slip away.

A letter written but never sent.
Perplexed but not blaming.
Disappointed but not resentful.
Letting go but not shoving away.
Weary but not hostile.
Wistful but not gloomy.
And this from one known for his blistering scorn.

Can I (or you?) be as merciful and gracious as Bob?
Maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

*****

I can’t find an online version of “Shooting Star” as it appeared on Oh Mercy, but here is a live version.


Shooting Star

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you
You were trying to break into another world
A world I never knew
I always kind of wondered
If you ever made it through
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you

  • Diana Walker says:

    We know someone who has gone to over 40 Bob Dylan concerts. We always thought he was a bit “off” for this.
    Maybe we were the ones who are “off”.
    Thanks for your insights.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Steve, I and my now gone to glory husband were big Dylan fans. I love Oh Mercy and would say that is a Christian album with many themes that are Biblical. Listen to Disease of Conceit. What Good Am I?, Man in a Long Black Coat, and Everything is Broken. Dylan is probably still a Christian but not in the outspoken way he was with several of his albums. It is in the themes that he chooses. His Rough and Rowdy Ways has that too. Reformed people should buy this because we live by it.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Steve–Twice I was privileged to see Bob Dylan in concert. First time was in 1965, when I was still in high school. Still have ticket stub: 3rd row, $4.50. Second time was in Kalamazoo in early 90’s. Not familiar with Shooting Star, but I’ll give a listen. Thanks for stirring up good memories.

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