Is Bob Dylan’s “False Prophet” About Jesus?

 

false prophet

False Prophet

WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN
1.
Another day without end – another ship going out
Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt
I know how it happened – I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
2.
Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too

3.
I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go

4.
I’m first among equals – second to none
I’m last of the best – you can bury the rest
Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold
Put ’em six feet under and then pray for their souls

5.
What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see
Just a cool breeze encircling me
Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side

6.
You don’t know me darlin’ – you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no False Prophet – I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

7.
I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail
I sing songs of love – I sing songs of betrayal
Don’t care what I drink – don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

8.
Put out your hand – there’s nothin’ to hold
Open your mouth – I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor Devil – look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

9.
Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna’ marry you to a ball and chain

10.
You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile – somethings got to give
I ain’t no false prophet – I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Copyright

© 2020 by Special Rider Music

 

 

 

 

Is Bob Dylan’s amazing song “False Prophet” about Jesus? More accurately, is the person speaking in the song meant to be Jesus? I think that we can count out the possibility that the song portrays Bob Dylan himself singing, unless we attribute to him a vast amount of megalomania expressed in lines like:

I’m first among equals – second to none

I’m the last of the best – you can bury the rest

Also, some of the statements of the singer seem quite impossible to attribute to Bob Dylan, amazing as he is. For he sings,

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head;

I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail . . .

I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet . . .

. . . I forgot when I died.

Moreover, the main line, “I ain’t no false prophet” may well be a claim that the singer is a true prophet, which then makes sense of the rest of the song. Of course Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet, although the New Testament portrays him prophesying things like the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies before the present generation of Israel was passed away. (See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:20-31.)

This represents part of a negative case that the song is not meant to portray Dylan’s own “voice.”  But the stronger case is the positive one – the lyrics that together paint a portrait of some mysterious person or the persona thereof who “ain’t no false prophet.” I think that the overall portrait only makes sense if this person is Jesus, but particularly Jesus in a Christian trinitarian sense wherein Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit together are somehow (and confusedly so) one God. This means that the “making sense” may not necessarily be fully comprehensible as we will see.

The best way to try to demonstrate my thesis is to consider each of the ten stanzas in order and make some observations and propose various possibilities of meanings. I will call the persona “the Prophet” to keep things simple, but we will see that he is much more than that, and most probably divinity such as is “part” of the Triune God known in Christianity. (Of course that is the understanding of God that Dylan has specifically related himself to in times past and also related to others in his songs.)

In the first stanza the Prophet begins with “another day without end” – a reference to God’s point of view wherein “a day is as a thousand years?” (See 2 Peter 3:8) The “ship going out” perhaps signaling a feeling of homelessness – “Like a Rolling Stone.” The words  “Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt” seem to establish a “status quo” for the present nature of life. But the Prophet again seems to exist differently in relation to time than any ordinary human being, saying, “I know how it happened – I saw it begin.” Did the Prophet see creation itself, or the “fall of man” into sin? The closing line of this stanza is perhaps the most interesting and difficult to interpret of all:

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.

Because of the development in the second stanza, it seems that this opening to and coming in of the world are positive occurrences. This statement then provides the ultimate context which is the relation of the Prophet, perhaps now also claiming to be the creator (John 1:1-3), to the world. The French philosopher activist, and Christian mystic Simone Weil proposed that when God first created something other than God’s self, that God was voluntarily performing an act of renunciation of God’s self. And in the giving of free will to human agents, God was also granting them independence and also creating the possibilities (and therefore “risk”) of relationship. What Dylan recognizes is the effect this has on God whose love was thereby “opened” to the world. The world coming in shows that God’s love did not diminish even when the world went astray. (This has huge applications to Christian life and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “this worldliness.”

In the second stanza the Prophet introduces “Mary Lou” and “Miss Pearl” who seem to recall the relationships Jesus had with several Mary’s (his mother and Mary Magdalen) and their characters as being “Pearl” like. The rest of the stanza sings their praises and “fills in” important details of the ways “the world came in” so that these women are actually became “guides from the underworld” to Jesus just as humans in general were so for God from the beginning. The closing line of this stanza shows that some humans can “mean business” just as the Prophet does. In other words, some humans are “in sync” with God’s purposes – leading right to the next stanza.

The third stanza has the Prophet saying that he is the “enemy of treason” (revolt against God’s loving governance?) and of “strife” (bad love relationships between God & man and man & man?) He seems especially against “the unlived meaningless life” demonstrating that the Prophet is not arbitrarily against things, but against what is unprofitable for the loving human life God intended. The last line wondrously portrays the Prophet’s “heart” for the world either as himself “lonely” or seeking those “only the lonely” can go to.

I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know

I go where only the lonely can go

This is a far cry from Christopher Hitchens’ view of God as a totalitarian “Big Brother” who has 24/7 surveillance watching over all of his human creations to see if any are “out of line” and due for eternal punishment for not being perfect as God is.

The fourth stanza seems to wax more traditionally prophetic wherein this Prophet surpasses all other previous prophets (as was said in a historical sense of John the Baptist) and also in rendering a “judgment” of nakedness (a familiar image of Judgment for Dylan as in “It’s Alright, Ma – I’m only Bleeding”) and death for the materially rich (another image Dylan has used as in “Seven Curses” and even “The Times They Are A-Changin”). But Dylan has the Prophet nevertheless praying (or recommending others’ praying) “for their souls” so that the temporal “judgment” is a means to a better end for them.

The fifth stanza tantalizes with the Prophet, if one was to try to see him, as being beyond sight – with a cool breeze encircling him. Is this a reference to the prophet as the Holy Spirit, or at least in intimate relation with the Spirit? Is the next line, inviting the one addressed to “a walk in the garden,” meant to evoke Eden where “Adam and Eve” “heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Genesis 3:8) Note that the Hebrew word for “spirit” is also translated as “wind” and “breath.” Tying this stanza together as the Prophet is or exists in the Spirit’s “cool breeze.” The last line portrays the peace in Eden with God with the shade and fountain being other common biblical images of God’s kingdom peace.

The sixth stanza builds on the strange appearance (or non-appearance) of the Prophet as “ghostly.” Is this a way that Dylan says that Jesus, though presently unseen and only known through the Spirit, is nevertheless still a tangible incarnate human being existing beyond our present field of vision? But the Prophet is also just as tangible as any real flesh and blood prophet: not a false prophet; he “said what he said” just as he also “knows what he knows.” What is interesting here is that Dylan seems to be saying that the Prophet is engaging in prophetic speech and acts now, even if seemingly “invisible” to us at the present. Is Dylan insisting that Jesus is presently the Lord of all? Of course that’s the basic Christian confession and Dylan has never repudiated what he once said quite clearly in his “Born-again Christian” phase and has dropped many more subtle hints to that effect throughout his songs since that time. Fittingly so, the prophet proclaims,

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.

But what that “vengeance” means we have already seen to some extent and will see more of as not the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” but rather “sinners in the hands of a loving God.” The former is apt to view God’s angry vengeance as paramount; the latter more-so God’s loving grief. Of course there is undoubtedly a harmony (or maybe a hierarchy?) of God’s attributes that sometimes is misrepresented in theological formulations and common religiosity. I think vengeance is proper, but get the feeling from Dylan that for him it fits within an understanding of a pre-eminently loving God, more than in a pre-eminently just God.

The seventh stanza opens with the Prophet’s search for the holy grail – an interesting turn of phrase if this is the search of Jesus for what would be a holy grail to him – perhaps the relationship with humans God’s love longingly desires and seeks. To that end he sings songs of love and betrayal, of course Jesus having known those intimately in his earthly life. (Note the hierarchy of love, and then betrayal in that lyric.) To that end he didn’t care about purity laws regarding food and drink, nor the purity of those he sat at table with which brought him into considerable trouble with “society”. And to that end, in the Prophets search for the his holy grail he summarizes his sacrifice:

I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

It is also important to remember that “mountain” is a common biblical image of human government and that Jesus spoke of a mountain that needed to be overcome in his very day and instructed his followers to pray for that result. (See Mark 11:23)

We can also note that in the artistic image of the “False Prophet” the shadow image is of a hanging dead man – the only change is from the crucifixion tree to the lynching tree – a theme also used by Dylan and also by theologians such as James Cone who see victims of unjust societies participating in the cross of Christ. It is also appropriate that this song “False Prophet” shows how Christ has generally appeared to many or most, perhaps being evil or bringing death, with only the shadow revealing the truth that Christ’s own sacrificial death as a scapegoat overcame evil and death. It seems that the illustration of “False Prophet” may plainly be showing, through h shadow, that the song is about Jesus.

The eighth stanza has the Prophet addressing the wayward desires of we “poor devils”  and what God “gives” to us when we insist on such “rewards” – all the while the aforementioned “mountain” of man being overshadowed as shown in the video:

The City of God is there on the hill

The ninth stanza opens with the Prophet calling his addressee “stranger” when before he had said “darlin.'” Perhaps this is a different subject being addressed, perhaps even the devil himself – “you rule the land but so do I” showing the conflict and also that the Prophet (Jesus) is the one who really rules now. He calls the stranger “you lusty old mule” and characterizes him with “a poisoned brain.” Therefore he will be married to a “ball and chain.” Perhaps a reference to Revelation 20:1-2 where the devil is bound with a chain for “a thousand years.”

The tenth and final stanza has the Prophet again addressing a “darlin'” and saying that with his kind of life (of love) that when she smiles in response to his smile – “something’s got to give. Because the Prophet is not only “no false prophet” but also “nobody’s bride.” This is probably not meant to demean marriage, but rather to say that in the marital imagery common to the Bible, God is never the bride and humans are always the bride – and sometimes that to the wrong groom, for there is only one rightful bridegroom. As Dylan sang quite some time ago “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Possibly Dylan is  using that imagery here with Jesus still waiting for his wayward bride that he created and opened his heart to, from the beginning. The closing line of the song is quite interesting:

Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Of course none of us remembers being born but from the mouth of this Prophet that seems to take on added significance, perhaps alluding to something like what theologians call the eternal generation of the Son in the triune relationship of Father/Son/Spirit. The Prophet forgetting when he died could signify that God’s forgetfulness is perhaps a truly perfect forgetting, as God says that our sins he will remember no more. Perhaps the historic death of Christ who was the eternal Word was life itself  is now forgotten, just as mortality itself is according to scripture to be swallowed up by life and immortality.  (See John 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:50-56)

At any rate, this Prophet is quite the person, as we have hopefully seen. I recommend, having some of these associations in mind, which I think may well be allusions intended by Dylan, re-watching the video and letting the rich imagery and allusions lead to an encounter with the Prophet, who it seems is much more than a mere prophet.

It seems to me that this is one of the most powerful song Dylan has ever written. And certainly in regard to what I think he considers his biblical calling, he has perhaps crafted this song in which, rather than singing about or alluding to Jesus, he provides a mediation of Christ in the very song. And that, as far as I understand, is the prophetic vocation. Perhaps by not himself claiming to be the Prophet of this song, Dylan has nevertheless fulfilled the role of a prophet. And if so, we need to be open to this encounter to the one who “opened my heart to the world and the world came in.” But we come in as individuals, to whom the prophet says “Hello . . . my fleet footed guides to the underworld” and not, “Hello stranger – hello and goodbye.”

Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide

We can sit in the shade of the fountain side

Thanks for reading.

Bryan Christman @ Manifest Propensity, 2020.

 

 

 

“People… are the main spring” by King Crimson: Peer Pressure and the “Inner Ring” of C. S. Lewis

innerring

♠♣♥♦

In this song by one of the oldest, longest lived prog-rock groups, King Crimson, sings

people are the main spring
turning the world around
people, they’re the main spring
spinning this world upside down

I have used this song as a theme for this post, not only because I wanted to put a great song by them on my blog (check it out! – I wish the video quality was better but the sound is good) but because they point to the simple fact that in an important sense people are the “main spring.” I like the fact that they do not see this as a good thing, since “people” turn the world “around,” meaning, “upside down.” This post will therefore explore two aspects of this proposal, first, how people through a type of desire are the mainspring, and second, that this desire is not a good thing.

C. S. Lewis had a similar proposal, which very specifically states why this proposal is so. In his oration called “The Inner Ring” he sets forth examples of with one drawn from Victorian “society.”

Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.

As you see, Lewis thought that there were many “inner rings.” For the purpose of this post, I will focus upon what I feel is the largest “inner ring” of humankind, and will apply some of his words to the idea of such a ring. For Lewis, the dynamic of human desire to belong to “inner rings” “may be dangerous,” although the phenomena of “inner rings” was “unavoidable” and “morally neutral.” “King Crimson” is itself an example of an “inner ring” as was “The Inklings” of which C. S. Lewis was himself a member.

So in this post I will concentrate on the “dangerous” desire to “belong” to an inner ring that therefore becomes an evil. But I also note that (I think) Lewis believed the degree of self-consciousness regarding this inordinate desire may vary greatly, from a nearly unconsciousness longing to that of acutely conscious obsession.

The largest ring that I propose to be that of humankind is the inner ring of “worldly acceptance.” In the old terms of Christendom, which Lewis mentions at the beginning of his oration. this was the first of the dangerous trinity called “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” In modern jargon “the world” is probably best known as “peer pressure.”

At this point I would like to raise an observation that we stubbornly individualistic humans are ironically, under peer pressure, nearly perfect conformists. I think this is illustrated by a statement of Lewis on the failure of our “skepticism.”

We are always prevented from accepting total skepticism because it can be formulated only by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment-just as the man who warns the newcomer “Don’t trust anyone in this office” always expects you to trust him at that moment.” (Christian Reflections, “DeFutilitate”, 1967, para. 10)

It seems that the well-nigh universal “skepticism” that we wear to prevent us “being taken in” by other people, such as smooth talking politicians, salesmen, or religious fanatics, is gladly hung outside the door for the sake of our admittance to “the inner ring” of worldly acceptance. This transaction is effected by the unspoken but understood rules for “membership.” Lewis said,

When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.”

So this largest “inner ring” of humanity, is merely membership with the “sensible” folk that think they have not been “taken in” by those defined by its peer group as “insensible.” But the newly admitted, have actually been “taken in” by the “inner ring.” Lewis shows how this deep desire for membership works, in a strong illustration demonstrating the trumping power of the “inner ring” over other normally powerful human desires.

I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number of people who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

The “dangerous desire” for the “inner ring” is perhaps the threshold at which the fall of Adam is re-enacted as we mature into the caucus of sensible society. Annie Dillard, in her first book, narrates how this desire is also driven by an inner insecurity of unknowing (bewilderment) that is evaded by adopting through “untaught pride” the stance of the human collective “squatter” status, and thus also “al the sensible people in this place.” For Dillard joining this “inner ring” occurs at a very early age.

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly been set down, if we can’t learn why. (Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Bantam Books Inc: 1974, p. 12)

In this regard Lewis narrates our longing at adolescence that is another such fall by saying,

To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them.

But to enter thus, is a tragedy, as Dillard notes, and as Lewis concludes, saying

But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction.

If the reader is familiar with C. S. Lewis, she will know that “quite another direction” is the way of following Christ. In the Gospel of John we read of a narration of the conflagration that occurred when Jesus confronted the keepers of an “inner ring” called “the synagogue.”

42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

The synagogue, with its gates kept by the Pharisees, had become “the inner ring” to which membership to, through the peer pressure of worldly acceptance of “glory that comes from man” was more loved by many than the “glory that comes from God.” It is uber-ironic that God’s Israel, as a nation, ultimately subverted Jerusalem itself into an “inner ring” by (they thought) permanently excommunicating Jesus “outside” their inner ring. The book of Hebrews shows how God made the shameful public execution of Jesus the means by which he made those excommunicated from the world’s inner ring holy, while also setting forth the example they follow “outside the camp” (or “city” or “inner ring”).

12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:12-14; ESV)

In “The Last Battle,” the last volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Lewis has a scene in which the dwarves have become self imprisoned in their own delusional “inner ring” because they were “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out” by Aslan himself. Their fearful skepticism fear at “being taken in” resulted in their conformity to a collective “inner ring” of blindness to the only one that could give them true freedom from being taken in by the peer pressure of worldly acceptance. The ancient wisdom in the book of Proverbs summed it up as the perennial way of  Adam the individual and Adam the collective:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (14:12)

The King Crimson song proposed that with “People” as the “mainspring” of life the world is turned upside down. C. S. Lewis proposed that this is because the “mainspring” is the “dangerous desire” for membership in “the inner ring.” Can we believe that Jesus of Nazareth showed another way “in” to an inner ring that is not based in the worldly acceptance of peer pressure? An inner ring that at the gate accepts all and excludes none but those that exclude themselves through their trust in the glory of man’s “inner ring?”

Perhaps we can believe if we consider the nature of “the glory” of man’s lesser “inner rings” that Lewis mentioned such as those at which smoking, drinking and promiscuous sex were the initiatory rites, we may see in every case some monotonous conformity as the entrance fee and permanent boundary marker of man’s “inner rings.” Lewis said

That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

Now I admit that if we look in many places at the church today in America, we may unfortunately find monotonous alikeness rather than fantastical variety. The church is also always in danger of falling, as did Israel of old, into its own “inner ring” rather than Christ’s inner ring in which he alone is the head. This has become a slight digression, but for clarification I’ll mention that Paul told the Church in Rome to be careful in attitude toward “national” Israel that had fallen, lest she fall to the same temptation that as we saw was a type of “unbelief” that was formed by pride in “inner ring” status.

19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (Romans 11:19-23 ESV)

To return from  this digression, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from lewis that demonstrates that the Church, though always falling short of a pure participation in the inner ring of Christ, is meant nonetheless to be thus participating. Lewis says

It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectivists to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor. A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets our face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies. As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.

Note once again the book of Hebrews’ exhortation to join Christ “outside” man’s “inner ring,” leaving the “camp” that is not “lasting,” and seeking the city “that is to come.”

12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

It is a city inhabited by individuals, its gates are open to all to come as they are, being sanctified not by admission to the “peer group,” but by the blood of the one that gave his life to save them.

Thanks for reading, and as always I’d like to know what you think!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. 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.

 

“Aspirations for Leviathan” – Thomas Hobbes, Gentle Giant, and Jacques Ellul

hobbes

I admit that this is an odd post  – consisting mainly of three excerpts from the minds of men: 1) an excerpt from “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes that expresses the nature of his idea of a commonwealth of men materialized in a social contract under a supreme ruler; 2) a song called “Aspirations” by the early 70’s English progressive rock band Gentle Giant that poignantly expresses the desires for peace that compel men to conceive of, and covenant for, such societal schemes; 3) An excerpt from “The Betrayal of the West” by Jacques Ellul that effectively demonstrates that the pattern of aspiration/degradation has plagued every social construct and aspiration of mankind in the West. Lest we drown in despair, I conclude the post with some thoughts from elsewhere… Continue reading