Because I am in the process of producing a manuscript about the use of the Old Testament in popular music, Michael J. Gilmour’s Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan & Scripture caught my eye when I saw it in a publisher’s display at a recent professional conference.
Gilmour’s focus is different from my own in two ways. First, of course, he is focused on one particular artist and the discussion of others, such as Bono, Joan Baez and Pete Townshend is only peripheral.
Second, Gilmour extends his discussion of Dylan’s songs to biblical themes and the vaguest of possible allusions, while I am limiting my work to more specific references to biblical texts. Still, Gilmour offers an instructive and entertaining analysis of the places where the Dylan corpus comes into contact with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
In Chapter 1, “Bob Dylan and the Bible: Introductory Matters,” Gilmour provides a brief introduction to Dylan and his music. Numerous biographies of Dylan are available, which approach his life and career from various perspectives, so Gilmour does not attempt to reproduce these. The volume contains an excellent bibliography and notes that point to more extensive references.
The latter half of Chapter 1 addresses the methodological complexities of intertextuality. There has been much debate about this method of approaching literature. Gilmour adopts Julia Kristeva’s understanding of intertextuality, which does not limit itself to direct use of one text in another. Rather, the Bible and Dylan’s music overlap, the latter so infused with the former that the relationship is sometimes indistinguishable, thus the title of the book.
Two other issues are briefly clarified in the first chapter. First, Dylan appears to have used primarily, but not exclusively, the King James Version of the Bible. Second, this book intends to discuss the written texts of Dylan’s songs, which Gilmour acknowledges are something different from the actual performances of the songs.
Chapter 2 is called “Is Bob Dylan Among the Prophets?” This chapter is not about Dylan’s use of texts from the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, it is a portrayal of Dylan himself as a prophet, which draws connections between him and other prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Jesus.
In this chapter, Gilmour recognizes the power of using biblical images in songwriting. By making reference to a familiar story, the songwriter “can thus invoke a much larger narrative in just a few words,” he says.
The Bible is a large and natural reservoir of such familiar stories. Among the examples in this discussion is Dylan’s use of the Binding of Isaac story of Genesis 22 in his masterpiece “Highway 61 Revisited.”
This chapter contains lengthier discussions of “Wedding Song” and “Shelter from the Storm.” These lead to a fascinating exploration of Dylan’s ambiguous portrayal of himself in songs like “Jokerman.”
Dylan presents himself as both Christ-like prophet and as infidel, in Gilmour’s words, “Christ or Antichrist.” There is a clear warning about the dangers of a self-proclaimed prophet that balances a sense of prophetic calling.
Most of Chapter 3, “We Heard the Sermon on the Mount,” explores the connections between Dylan’s 1985 album Empire Burlesque and Matthew 5-7. Gilmour argues that Matthew 6:19-24 forms a backdrop for much of the album. Throughout many of the songs the idea of choosing between two loves, two masters, or two ways of life is prominent.
The opening song of the album, “Tight the Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love),” receives much attention. In this song, the speaker is struggling to choose between two women. Gilmour remains focused primarily on connections to the Sermon on the Mount and, perhaps unfortunately, does not look to the Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly figures of Proverbs 8-9 as background to this song about making a choice.
The album, like the Sermon on the Mount, is largely about identity, according to Gilmour. The speakers and characters in songs like “Up to Me” struggle to avoid the false identity of the hypocrites like those found throughout Matthew 6.
Chapter 4, “World Gone Wrong: Bob Dylan’s Apocalyptic Vision,” provides a brief but very helpful discussion of the role of apocalyptic worldviews and their accompanying literature. According to Gilmour, apocalyptic literature “offered an alternative worldview for communities that had no reason to expect their earthly, this-worldly circumstances to improve.”
Dylan addresses the problem of injustice in a similar fashion, and Gilmour organizes appropriate songs around the concepts of villains, victims and the coming of a new world in which justice will be possible.
The fifth chapter, “A Prophet Like Moses: Redemption in ‘Love and Theft’,” addresses the relationship between Dylan’s 2001 album and biblical texts of deliverance, especially those related to the exodus story.
The speculative nature of this relationship leads into the concluding chapter, which raises important questions about authorial intent, ambiguity and the role of the reader/listener in the determination of meaning.
Dylan typically refuses to say much about his music. Gilmour perceives this reticence as a sign of Dylan’s trust in his audience to understand his art.
Bob Dylan stands in a great line of modern, singing prophets, a line that includes Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant, Bono and Ani DiFranco.
All of these artists use the Bible seriously as a reservoir of images and illusions, and they address the big social issues of our time in a more profound manner than the bulk of the more self-consciously religious music that has been produced in the same era.
For this reason, along with their enormous talent, they demand more of the church’s attention. Hopefully, Gilmour’s book will help raise this kind of awareness.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.