04 December 2017

In the Time of My Confession: Penn Jillette and Gospel Bob

Penn Jillette is one of those very rare modern men who can actually think. By that I mean that he can formulate sentences, think logically, listen to answers, make well-reasoned responses that are appropriate to the questions, and perhaps actually be persuaded by argument.  He is still rarer in that he is a thinking atheist who can respect the Christian as he is. He gives credit to the Christian for his own beliefs, and takes his arguments seriously. An atheist, or a leftist like Camille Paglia, who can do this is so refreshing in this time of the big lie that he seems like Aristotle.

I posted this before, but here is what I mean about his intellectual honesty and good will:

But what does that have to do with Bob Dylan, you ask? Plenty. I was blessed enough to be gifted with Bob Dylan's new Bootleg Series Vol. 13, which focuses on Bob's overtly-Christian, "Gospel" period from 1979-81. And in addition to the incredible music, the collection includes a book of photographs from the period-- and an essay by Penn Jillette.

Here are just brief excerpts from what he has to say about Bob and his music:

Here starts my search: Over thirty-five years have passed and I've been asked to write my thoughts on Dylan's gospel period from my point of view. While I was waiting to hear this Bootleg Series, I did a little homework. I took Time Out of Mind off my turntable and finally listened to Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love carefully. Gonna change my way of thinking.

Now Dylan's gospel records are good. I know the records haven't changed over these years, so it's me. I come to Dylan for passion, and profundity. I come to Dylan for truth. I come to Dylan to question what I'm feeling. I come to Dylan to understand what I'm feeling. I come to Dylan to change what I'm feeling. I come to Dylan to knock me out of the trivial. To make life seem more important than TV, movies, Facebook and Twitter. I come to Dylan to make life more important than just today, and these records deliver everything I want. At the time these recordings came out, I asked myself, "What's wrong with Dylan?" Now listening to these recordings full of heart, and truth, and passion, naked power, the question suddenly becomes "What was wrong with me?"


Here starts my revelation: When these recordings of live versions, outtakes, and rehearsals from the gospel period arrived, I experienced the burning bush. I was on the road to Damascus. These records changed me. I'm not Christian but I've changed. I've been listening to these records all day, every day and my life and life in general seem more important. Dylan never deals with the trivial, and these records frighten me with the awful truth of how sweet life can be. Bob has said that the purpose of art is to inspire. I am inspired. I want to be a better person and think more about things that matter. I have the spirit.


I must face some of my own hypocrisy. I never sequestered Bach's Saint Matthew's Passion on my shelf in shrink wrap. I listen to all the Bach sacred music without the chip on my shoulder that I had for Bob. I feel the music, the inspiration and the passion directly. Bach's faith doesn't get in the way. The faith is a big part of what I love about it. I don't pretend to understand what inspired Bach and it doesn't matter to my heart. I love the music. Was that okay with me because Johann's long dead and I don't understand German? I don't know. I love Ray Charles singing "Amazing Grace." Why was that always okay with me? Why did it take so much longer for me to hear Dylan's gospel? I'm afraid there aren't any good reasons and there may be some bad ones.


I must be careful that my new tolerance doesn't fall into disrespect. Listening to these records I mustn't pretend that Bob could be singing about any old thing. I can't pretend that we can replace the word "Jesus" with "Chuck Berry" and the songs would mean the same thing. They would not mean the same thing. I mustn't patronize a Nobel Laureate with some sort of ugly work-around of "God to him is what art is to me." All of that wouild be an insult to Dylan and I would never do that. So, as I listen to these gospel songs, I try to take his faith and passion seriously and honestly and feel it as best I can from his point of view. I need to let his preaching the word of [G]od speak to me of the human condition, uplift me, inspire me, and not in any way cheapen the depth of his belief.

And not just for these gospel records. Common wisdom is that Dylan went back to being a secular song writer after this period, but that's a lie. The truth is Bob Dylan never was and never will be a secular song writer: "God said to Abraham kill me a son"-- is not "Fly Robin Fly". "I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord." "I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God." And "Narrow Way" is more about Jesus's "narrow gate" than an answer song to Sir Mix-a-Lot.


The epiphany: There are atheists in foxholes and there are atheists singing along with "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody." I'm listening now.


Fr. Andrew said...

Marvelous- thank you!

Michael Ortiz said...

My brother and I reverted back to the Church in 1982 thanks to the Benedictines and "Slow Train Coming."

Thank you for a great post.