Was Bob Dylan’s song “Sweetheart Like You” a sexist song? Or was it actually an allegory about adultery, blasphemy, and theodicy? Is an “allegorical” explanation any less sexist?
Here are a few definitions:
Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.
Both definitions are from google.
The suspected lyric:
You know, a woman like you should be at home
That’s where you belong
Taking care of somebody nice
Who don’t know how to do you wrong
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?
(from Bob Dylan.com)
The alleged sexism is due to the very traditional and stereotypical view of women. Certainly Dylan uses this picture, but is he intending it to be taken literally? I have offered an interpretation that many others have also proposed, that the woman that is the subject of the song is meant to allegorically portray the Church. I will not reproduce that interpretation, but it can be viewed here now or after reading this.
Also, the picture of a “traditional family” in the song accurately portrays Dylan’s subject, which is the Church leaving her proper “home” with God, being tempted by her “romantic involvement” with the political world. Dylan saw this as happening in the American Evangelical Church in the early 80’s when he wrote the song.
There are several interesting things that come to light regarding the Church in this allegorical narrative.
First, the woman belongs “at home.” This means that the Church of God has a home in God, and is most at home, when she remains faithful to that relationship. The history of the Church at large contains episodes when the Church has not done so, but has become compromised in some way through improper relationships with the world. These episodes are generally due to the Church becoming conformed to the passions, powers or idolatries of mankind. The Letter of James had this concern and says,
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4, English Standard Version)
Second, her main “task” is “taking care of somebody nice.” This may seem backwards, since we usually only think of the reverse action, namely God taking care of the Church. But the Church has a responsibility to care for God’s name inasmuch as she represents and protects His reputation before the world. The Church’s concern and prayer should be “hallowed be thy name.” This was also the responsibility of Israel under the old covenant. Paul wrote this in the letter to the Church in Rome:
22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:22-24)
Third, God “…don’t know how to do you wrong.” In this verse there is a remarkable turn from the woman’s failings that can result in adultery and blasphemy, to the love of God. The lyric “somebody nice…who don’t know how to do you wrong” means that God never, ever, does her wrong. Paul also wrote,
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose…
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28, 35-39)
This is the theodicy of God in relation to the Church. Everything that happens to her ultimately “works together for good” for her, and no potential occurrence can separate her from “the love of God in Christ.” It is remarkable in this song about the Church being in the place of temptation or actual failings of personal adultery and causing blasphemy, that God is still portrayed only as loving. Of course this is the burden of God that is much of the entire story of the whole Bible. God’s burden is also what is not understood by Richard Dawkins and others who falsely and in my opinion dishonestly paint God as arbitrarily jealous and vindictive and worse. (If they would even approach the Bible as they would any other literary work, they would at least get the story line. Since they apparently cannot accurately discuss the story line I must conclude they are either literary philistines or intentionally misrepresenting it.)
There is much more that could be said, namely in regard to the fact that the love of God for the Church and Israel is a complicated and potentially confusing story. I say this because one could get a false impression from “Dylan’s theodicy” that God merely overlooks the grave failures of the Church. Actually, he does not merely wink at the sin of the Church. There is also the sad reality that Paul recognized, namely that “… not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6) This can also be applied to the Church, but again, it’s complicated.
Based on the hypothesis of the woman being the Church, it appears that Bob Dylan may be cleared of the charges of sexism. Of course this alternatively raises the charge that his woman as the adulterous, blasphemy inducing Church, could also be sexist. I would answer that Dylan is merely following the Bible’s own metaphorical usages, and these metaphors coincide with human life as it exists.
Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” also provides a powerful theodicy which justifies all God’s acts relating to the Church not merely in the face of external evil, but in the face of her own evils.
To the reader:
I try to keep these posts as short as possible, while knowing that their content has probably provoked some thoughts, questions, implications, or critiques. Therefore, any of these from the reader are greatly appreciated in order to “fill out” these posts. Many thanks in advance!
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So, what say ye…?
Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.