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.

 

 

 

“No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire and the human desire for some other “place”

In “No Cars Go” Win Butler & Arcade Fire express a desire for a place where “no cars go.” The song doesn’t say why such a place is desired. Maybe it is a self-evident truth for our time. What does seem evident is that the desire touches upon “spiritual” or “summum bonum” issues. In a few previous posts I have presented other thoughts related to the automobile and such issues based on some things the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor has written. Ralph Wood relates how O’Connor explored the issue through her character Hazel Motes:

(Hazel Motes’s) broken-down car serves as the single sacrament of his nihilistic religion, the true viaticum for escaping everything that would lay claim on him. O’Connor was an early discerner, together with Walker Percy, that the automobile, even more than the movies and television, is the great American Dream Machine. It fulfills our fantasies of individualist autonomy, enabling us to strike out for the proverbial territories whenever the limits of social existence press in upon us. As Motes’s only sacred space, the car serves as both pulpit and residence, enabling him to incarnate his message in a life of perpetual isolation and vagabondage. (Comment on the novel “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph C. Wood, p. 169 )

essex

Hazel Motes preaching from his pulpit

Flannery O’Connor wrote of the car as the vehicle that seemingly enables self-justification for nihilistic consumerist escape from our modern materialistic world, but which falls short of the desired escape.

Fittingly, Arcade Fire sing of the car, along with other vehicles of transportation, as only capable of movement within this world of seeming nihilism. The world does not seem to contain any place beyond our limited modes of transportation and their nihilistic presence. Their reference to “spaceships” seems to expand the realm of possible nihilism, just as the Soviet cosmonauts in the sixties reported that they did not “find God” in outer space.

So it seems that Arcade Fire sings of a “place” beyond the normal realm. Are they speaking of “heaven?” They sing of knowing about this place.

“…where we know”.

Is this “spiritual” knowledge?

A place we know of in which no cars go! They seem to be bearers of good news! But, they don’t say how they know, or where exactly this place is?

“…don’t know where we’re going”

Interestingly, they don’t know where it is, but they seem to know when it is, or perhaps when it occurs. It occurs in the time

“….between the click of the light and the start of the dream”?

What does their “answer” mean? Is it merely the time of deep sleep, before dreaming, when there seems to be nothing? In the final analysis, are they still subject to nihilism?

Or is this space in time of waking, yet in the dark, when making love can seem to exclude all other reality? Bruce Cockburn sang of this space in time in his song “The Coldest Night of the Year.”

When two lovers really love there’s nothing there
But this suddenly compact universe
Skin and breath and hair

I don’t believe that “making love” or human relationships are a small thing, but are they the answer to nihilism? Many seem to live as such, as expressed in “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway:

You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

So does Arcade Fire believe there is a real place that “No Cars Go?” It is hard to say anything definitive, based on this song alone. But can their longing for such a place mean anything in itself? Theologians like C.S. Lewis thought so, and developed an apologetical “argument from desire” for theism as opposed to nihilism.

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; book 3, chapter 10.)

Hemingway also wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “all thinking men are atheists.” But Pascal the religious thinker thought otherwise.

I conclude this song merely by noting that this early Arcade Fire song is a good one, and perhaps it is even somewhat Pascalian. Could the “click of the light” indicate the limitation of human reason, while the “start of the dream” indicates openness to the “reasons of the heart” that Pascal discovered? The more I think about the lyrics, with the call in the song to “little babies, women and children, old folks,” I am led to think that the interpretations explored above fall short of the sheer drive of the song toward an exodus type movement to another type of place. The use of “dream” may throw us off as indicating unreality, but even the Biblical prophets spoke of the coming of God’s new kingdom in relation to visions of young men and dreams of old men.

Joel 2:28-29
New International Version (NIV)
The Day of the Lord

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

(See Acts 2:16-18)

Perhaps “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” does not refer to the time in which this other place occurs, but to the revelational method by which one knows about the place, i.e. the Pascalian method of knowledge.

Below is a video someone put together for Bruce Cockburn’s song referenced above. By the way, Bruce Cockburn believes in the reasons of the heart and the movement of the Holy Spirit, and does not make relationships his religion.

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.

 

Bob Dylan’s “Shooting Star” and the “Sermon on the Mount”

Oh Mercy

The closing song of Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” album, “Shooting Star”, was musically and lyrically more like the early Dylan than the rest of the album. As with most Dylan, it is more evocative than explicit. I would like to explore just a few of these evocations and the sole explicit reference that seems to thereby be accentuated.

I think that Dylan is saying that we are all in some sense “shooting stars.” We are both glorious and temporal. I think of one of the final scenes in “Blade Runner” when the human creator tells a “replicant” he created that he was a “Shooting Star” Continue reading

Dylan’s question to the counterculturists: “What Was It You Wanted?”

Oh Mercy

Perhaps the song from 1989’s “Oh Mercy” called “What Was It You Wanted?” voiced a question from Dylan to those in the sixties who essentially wanted him to be their prophet. Writing of this time Dylan said Continue reading