Robert Hudson, The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966

Hudson, Robert. The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 249 pp. Hb; $23.99.   Link to Eerdmans

In his foreword to this new book, David Dalton confesses that his first impression of a book on Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan was “just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical.” Pairing two polar opposites sometimes generates intriguing discussion, but are Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan “opposites”? They seem like they inhabit different universes. On the surface, writing a book on the two seems so strange and to subtitle the book “the Perilous Summer of 1966” seems oddly specific.

Thomas Merton and Bob DylanThere will be some readers who love Thomas Merton but have no idea what to think of Bob Dylan and his nasal tones. There will be other readers who are intimately familiar with Bob Dylan’s career but will need to spend some time on Wikipedia to figure out who in the world Thomas Merton was. Both have a fiercely loyal fandom, both have generated significant secondary literature studying every word they have written from every conceivable angle.

I will admit, I am solidly on the side of the Bob Dylan fanatics. I remember hearing Dylan when I was a child and being captivated with his lyrics and strange mystery tramp image. I remember a fifth grade teacher having the class sing Blowin’ in the Wind, “How many times must the cannonball fly?” One of the first records I bought as a teenager was the live album Hard Rain, and like most people my age his Blood on the Tracks was a favorite. Dylan’s spiritual awaking in the late 1970s paralleled my own. As an adult I have seen Dylan in concert twenty-five times, purchased all his albums in several different formats and tracked down elusive bootlegs and “field recordings.” I have been asked to lecture in a popular music class on the impact of Bob Dylan on American culture.

But Thomas Merton was a mystery to me before reading Hudson’s book. I had a vague idea he was an important writer in Catholic circles, but I had never read anything by him, nor would I be likely to given my Protestant commitments. When I first saw the promotional material for this book, my only thought was “he was a monk, right”? He was, but he was so much more. Beyond his voluminous spiritual writings, Merton was a poet, he wrote on social issues including atomic weapons and the Vietnam War, he was interested in Buddhist monasticism and building bridges between Catholicism and eastern religions. And in 1965, he discovered Bob Dylan’s music and he was immediately hooked. In fact, Dylan influenced Merton to write Cables to the Ace, a collection of poetry which might perplex a Merton fan, but would be quite familiar to Dylan fans in 1965.

Merton and Dylan never met, although Merton reached out to him several times. Even so, Hudson tracks Merton’s fascination with Dylan during a period in Merton’s life which included his retreat to a hermitage but also his well-known affair. At the same time, Dylan was imploding after becoming the new “voice of a generation” in the early sixties. Dylan “went electric” in 1965 and embarked on a world tour which tested his limits. After a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan too retreated to a farm in Woodstock to raise his kids and contemplate his life and fame.

Both Merton and Dylan struggled to live out a contemplative life. Although Merton thought he was called to live as a hermit, Hudson narrates Merton’s struggle to be separate from the world, including an affair with the much younger Margie Smith. Merton also met Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1966, Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl visited Merton and encouraged him to teach at Sandperl’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Dylan’s time on his farm in Woodstock was also a struggle since his longtime manager pushed for new material. Dylan wrote dozens of songs and collaborated with The Band in a series of recording sessions. The result was the first real bootleg album, the Great White Wonder, prompting the release of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the Band’s Music from the Big Pink. Hardly a contemplative life on the farm!

So there are some parallels, and Hudson masterfully narrates the last years of Merton’s life, including his obsession with Bob Dylan. Merton was no desert monk, he had a record player in his hermitage and he played three Bob Dylan albums (Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde). Like many people who have encountered Dylan’s music and lyrics, the words resonated with Merton where he was at the time and shaped some of his poetry as well as opening up his thinking to new ways to communicate.

Hudson’s book is a good introduction to Merton for non-Merton readers, and might encourage a few non-Dylan fans to pick up some of Dylan’s early recordings. Although the book seems like an odd mash-up of unrelated characters, Hudson’s narrative invites the reader into the word of the mid-1960s as Merton deals with his own passions through the lens of Bob Dylan.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?

homer missionaryPaul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?

The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?

Homer College DegreeA second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.

While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well).  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.

Bob Dylan GospelDoes this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.

If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.

Bob Dylan and My Spiritual Life

Most people who know me are well aware that Bob Dylan has been the background soundtrack of my life since my early teens.  Blood on the Tracks and Street Legal were the first albums I remember, although it was Slow Train Coming which really influenced me.  I was raised in a Christian home and went to a Christian high school, but I never was attracted to the Christian Music which was coming out at that time.  To be honest, it was really bad. With the exception of Larry Norman and the very young Randy Stonehill and Phil Keaggy, there was not much to draw my attention.  Then came Slow Train.  I got a copy on 8-track tape and wore it out.  (Alright, wearing out an 8-track is not that big of a deal, but I did listen to it over and over!).  Dylan followed that up with Saved, some of the most honest gospel music every written.  There was no doubt in my mind that Bob Dylan was (as is) a brother in Christ. But then came Shot of Love and Infidels, albums which made people doubt he was “really saved.”  What kind of a  Christian writes songs about Lenny Bruce?  What could “Dark Eyes”mean?

I have seen video concerts from the Gospel years in which Dylan tells the crowd that the end times are coming and even asks for prayer requests.  He refused to play the old songs, considering them the Devil’s music.  His 1981 shows integrated more of his “hits” but still included healthy doses of Gospel songs.  But like most good things, Evangelical Christians failed to understand Dylan’s conversion and subsequent lack of Christian commitment.  What did they expect, Bob Dylan covering Sandi Patti songs?  (He actually did cover a Dallas Holm song, but that was an exception!)  Dylan has always been his own man, and he would not be co-opted by anyone (he does not work on Maggie’s Farm, ever).  I am not sure Evangelicals were well-equipped mentally to deal with what it means for a secular Jewish Rock Star to convert to Christianity.  So much was going on in his life, spiritually and emotionally, that it is remarkable he was able to emerge from those years and produce some of the best music of his career.

But for me, Dylan remained a spiritual beacon light.  While not overtly Christian (like Saved), his lyrics continued to be spiritually motivated.  Every “Grain of Sand” is one of his best songs, and probably his best “spiritual” song.  “The Groom’s Still Waiting” has an apocalyptic worldview worthy of Revelation.  He has never really stopped playing songs from the Gospel Years in concert, opening his controversial China concerts with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a highlight from Slow Train.  As I get older with Bob, I hear much more Christianity and Judaism in his lyrics than ever before, and I amazed at how much I missed when I was younger.  Maybe I am hearing him through my Christian lens, but with only a few exceptions, his resonate with the important questions of life and my ear hears echoes of eternity in them.

So here’s a happy birthday wish to Bob Dylan, may you continue to walk the paths of victory.

John Piper has Crossed the Line

I could take it when he went postal on N. T. Wright, I can roll with the punches when he attacked Rob Bell.  But now John Piper has re-written lyrics to a Bob Dylan song.  There is something just sort of wrong about that.  Although I do appreciate the fact that he quotes Paul, Jesus, and Bob in that order. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge Dylan fan, often describing myself as Bobsessive.  So this “remix” comes as a shock to the system.

Piper writes:

You may be emergent now and worship on a rug,
You may think that doctrine is a bourgeois drug,
You may call yourself Reformed, with a torn pair of jeans,
You may specialize in church for cool libertines.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . . .

Words fail me… I Guess it could be worse.  Piper could have remixed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35:  “Everyone Must Get Reformed!”