Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

For the second Sunday of Advent, the lectionary calls for a reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Here Matthew designates John the Baptist as "a voice" foretold by the prophet Isaiah, "calling out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord.'" If I were to make a musical out of Advent, I think my pick for the role of John would be Bob Dylan.

Dylan has in recent years been cast as many things, from the unseen prophet of the Cylon apocalypse in Battlestar Galactica, to the minstrel accompanying Victoria's Secret models as they prance around in their underwear. This year an album was released that imagines Dylan's music as the score of the African American experience in the United States. And yet as well-executed as those castings have been, I think John the Baptist is much less of a leap.

Picture a wild-haired, wild-eyed man on the edge of a river, who despite his utter lack of self-regard (and even self-care) and profoundly counter-cultural appearance and demeanor, can't help but attract a diverse crowd. Picture them looking warily at one another until a gravely, nasaly voice penetrates the ambient noise and lays into one and all with this prophecy:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.

For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

There's a little of nothing and a lot of something in the phrase "the times, they are a-changin'"--enough, I suppose, to unsettle those of us who need unsettling; enough to encourage those of us who need encouraging. But you can't just say it, because change that merits this kind of anthem doesn't just happen. You can't point to seasons changing or micro- or macro-evolution and get off on a technicality. This isn't a song of chronos, in which every tick of the second hand is, for the record, a change. This is a song of kairos, a ripeness of moment in which change is as profound as it is necessary--a curse to some, perhaps, but an overdue blessing to the minds of many.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

This is what I imagine John the Baptist singing about, out there in the wilderness. This is what straightening paths for the Lord sounds like. The changes John baptized people into got him killed--got Jesus killed, even--and yet the changes themselves vindicated the suffering of those who suffered then, just as they vindicate the suffering of those who suffer now. To the intransigent on the shores of his river John the Baptist pleaded "start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone!" But to those whose suffering had reached its fullness of time, I picture John anticipating the words of Julian of Norwich, whispering into the ears of the poor and suffering as he dipped them into the water:

All will be well,
And all will be well,
And every manner of thing will be well . . .
For the times, they are a-changin'.

No comments: