Sunday, November 07, 2010

Bob Dylan, John Paul II, and Ecclesiastes

We're studying Ecclesiastes in our undergraduate Wisdom and Psalms course right now, and I am fascinated by the similarity of many of the "Preacher's" (aka Qoheleth's) assertions to those found in popular culture.

Cultural icon Bob Dylan wrote a famous song, "Blowin' in the Wind":

"How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man,
How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand,
How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind."

And so it goes. I don't remember Bob Dylan personally, but the song is played on radio, it's been transmuted to various Muzak versions, and has appeared frequently in movies, e.g in a pivotal scene in "Forrest Gump."

Dylan's poem/song is really a cry about the injustice of the world, especially the injustice of death:

"How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?"

This is likewise the issue that occupies the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. People say that it is the “vanity” or “meaninglessness” of life that bothers the preacher, but if you study the book carefully, it turns out that it’s really Death that is the “kicker,” the central issue that makes life so “vain”:

“8:1 Everything before [mankind] is vanity, since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. ... 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all...”

The word for “vanity” in Hebrew is “hebel,” which can also mean “breath, vapor, breeze.”

So the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Bob Dylan have a very similar outlook on life. “Breath of Breath, all is Breath” and “The answer is blowing in the wind” mean just about the same thing.

Now I want to relate one of the most iconic events in the papacy of the late John Paul the Great.

Back in 1997, the Pope went to speak to a youth rally in Bologna, and some creative liturgist had the idea to invite Bob Dylan to “open” for him.

(Yes, that’s just what the Catholic youth of Italy need: aging American hippies to catechize them. Whatever.)

Be that as it may, Bob Dylan was invited and came out to sing, and of course, what is he going to sing except his signature song: Blowin’ in the Wind.

The Pope, unnoticed by everyone else, was backstage and listening intently to what Dylan was singing. When he finally came out to speak to the youth, he took advantage of the situation:

"A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life "is blowing in the wind". It is true! But not in the wind which blows everything away in empty whirls, but the wind which is the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says: "come!" (cf. Jn 3:8; Rv 22:17).

You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? I answer you: one! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said: "I am the way" (Jn 14:6). He is the road of truth, the way of life."

The Preacher and Bob Dylan are both representatives of the contemplative thinker who cannot make sense of the world by reason alone. All turns out to be wind. But the Pope echoes the answer of the New Testament to the cry of thinkers ancient and modern: there is a Wind, and there is a Way, that really are an answer!

(Click on the title of this post for a longer article about the Pope and Dylan at the Bologna 1997 event.)


Teresa said...

This is a very interesting post.

You could be blown away in the wind, without a chance of survival and success, without a prayer, if you do not follow the way of Christ.

Mark W. said...

Thank you. This gives me more vocabulary to resist the temptation to despair that all is vanity. One thing only. Keep hope alive.

Micah said...

Vanity of vanities! It should be the name of a Christian furniture store.

One of my favorite books. Interesting how far the conclusion of Scripture is on this point from the conclusion of existential nihilism.


ian said...

Much has been written about this song about social justice, but there is one point which has not been recognised in a Christian context. In one verse Dylan sings "How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea". This is a clear allusion to Rev. 16:20 "and the mountains were not found", words which led to a tradition in Christian literature in which the equalisation of hills and valleys is a metaphor for justice (see Bond, Mountain, Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, 1992). A good example appeared in Spenser's The Fairie Queene (1596); another appeared, curiously, in the libretto of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (see Thomson, The Magic Flute Libretto, p147, 2014).