A couple of months ago I was presented with the golden opportunity to go and see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson for free. The former is a favorite artist of mine and the latter one whose music I thoroughly enjoy. Many know Bob Dylan’s story as a counter-cultural icon in the 1960s who was born again in the late-70s, made do as somewhat of an Evangelical superstar (like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Kirk Cameron, and others) and who I’ve been told converted to Roman Catholicism in the last couple of decades or so.
The irony of the show was rather palpable. The Rothbury Folk Festival is a potpourri of music listeners. There were baby boomer yuppies with their luxury vehicles and gray or graying hair, young college students passing the summertime away on their parents’ dime, genuine hippies of various ages who hadn’t showered since they’d been sober, and of course a couple of bankers from Western Michigan who got RIGHT through the security checkpoint when they laughed at eachother for having duplicate first aid kits. Dylan came on stage with his band wearing his signature hat, (whether you like his music or not, you gotta admit the dude has classy hats!) and his band uniforms more reminiscent of the symphony than of Woodstock.
As I looked around during the pleasingly loud remix (I thought the man must be a genious for creating such pleasing remixes of his hits, but my friend Derrick pointed out that you’d have to if you were singing the same 10 songs for 40 + yrs) of Like a Rolling Stone it hit me. The song may have been written for a lover who’d spurned him,
“Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe”
but as I gazed through the cloud of smoke at those who were rockin’ right along side of me I realized that the song reflects an ironic twist in the “lifestyle choices” of my cohorts, personified by the song writer himself. He may have simply been chiding his astranged bedfellow and reminding her of impending lonliness when he asked
“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”
but he and his revolutionary cohorts have now lived through the ramifications of their project.
Back in the ’60s the cultural revolution that took place sought to cast aside old forms and mores and create a new society in which one could do whatever one wanted to do when he or she wanted to do it. Jazz and improvisational music were musical heralds of the shift that was to take place, and folk has roots in those forms. What came forth was reflected in churches too, where old forms like Psalters, confessions of faith, the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism were set aside for more immediate and individualistic means of “spiritual fulfillment”. Grace and the means thereof, would have to take a back seat to felt needs, just as sobriety of mind, neatness of appearance, and generally scentless hygiene was tossed out the window outside (and sometimes inside) the visible church.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s the baby boomers sought a more laid-back, “user friendly” spiritual experience that was more in line with the forms of the culture of the kingdom of men rather than those handed down through the Scriptures and maintained by the kingdom of God. Sacrafice of reverence was seen as necessary for outreach and evangelism, and anything that had the faintest whif of the old, stodgy ways of musty-smelling books were placed out of center focus at events like funerals, where such dead things belong. Worship in movie theaters and such took hold because that was where those outside the visible church were comfortable, and you certainly can’t expect someone to come back if they’re uncomforable.
Fast forward to today. Bob Dylan’s band is wearing matching suits that one could reasonably characterize as uniforms… what more obvious sign of “backsliding” from the “do it your way gospel” could one imagine? Could it be that he found what it is like to be to be a rolling stone and has now found a comfortable home in and among those forms he and his generation once disavowed? The Emergent Church now toils in the liturgical forms of Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Could it be that it those influenced by the Evangelicalism of the baby boomers have found the rolling stone lifestyle to be as unpleasing as Bob Dylan did?
“You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal.”
Of course uniformed band members and a painter’s pallet of liturgical colors do not an appreciation for traditional forms make. Fact is, the new Evangelicalism that is ‘Emerging’ copes with the felt needs of its adherents every bit as well as Church Growth did for its predecessor. The lonliness of rolling along on your own and without a home can be placated by contextless forms thought to have mystical ties to the past, but the experience held therein continues to serve nothing but felt needs. Precise doctrinal context such as that found in creeds and confessions of faith, and a congregation in which these are taught and understood by the leadership are what give the gift of authentic community to the lost sinner or wandering pilgram. Consistent lines drawn between the big questions of life, what God has to say about them and His means established specifically to answer them from His word give life to dead sinners (I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the ressurection of the body, and the life everlasting).
Does Dylan recognize the ironic circle his life seems to have taken from an icon of orderless chaos and individualistic narcissism? I tend to believe that he is cognizant of the answer to the questions,
“How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”
the despair once having been his own. Much of his later music embraces far too much of what he’d all too quickly tossed aside in youth for him not to. Thunder on the Mountain demonstrates it well:
“Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing
Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church, said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows”
But where is the Church’s consciousness when it comest to what has been lost? It has become apparent to me throughout my journeys these last few years that it is in the homes of confession-loving federal heads. I’m deeply encouraged by a trend in my congregation (Christ Church, PCA of GR, MI) toward an appreciation of the great truths of the Reformed faith. My hope is that I may one day be able to engage people, speak authentically of the deep and abiding covenental community that God is building in His Church not simply through my mouth but through the lives of my children.
“Beyond the horizon, ‘neath crimson skies
In the soft light of morning I’ll follow you with my eyes
Through countries and kingdoms and temples of stone
Beyond the horizon right down to the bone
It’s the right time of the season
Somebody there always cared
There’s always a reason
Why someone’s life has been spared”
How do I get from there to here? Well, Brokejaw’s Last Great Generation catechized the baby boomers in nationalistic duty-keeping more than covenant keeping. To help the Church we love to return to her first love we must pass along more than a passion for the confessions. We must communicate to our children the grandness of the history of redemption, of Church history and of the pitfalls of generational blindspots. The baby boomers have demonstrated theirs and we know Gens X & Y have their own, as will our children and theirs. And so I press on toward the Heavenly City, leading the “little congregation” the Lord has blessed me with by all the means of God’s appointment. Nothing more, nothing less, and pray that by God’s witness of His faithfulness the authenticity of Zion will shine before those who have drifted so far for so long.
Good to be back… pass the toilet paper!