I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It may come as a surprise, but even during superbowl week, other stuff happened, too. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories you might have missed:

Charters and choice: Yohuru Williams argues it’s not a choice at all, at The Progressive.

State of Trump’s Union analysis:

The mess in DC schools:

No surprise: gifted programs skewed, at Fordham Institute.Bart reading bible

How charter schools resegregate in Charlotte, from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Trump-fueled goons and white supremacist flyers on Texas campuses, at Texas Observer.

Was Bob Dylan best when he was a fundamentalist? A review at American Conservative.

Students and faculty protest Steve Bannon appearance at UChicago, at Why Evolution Is True.

Sex abuse and evangelical religion: Larry Nassar victim Rachel Denhollander talks about “institutional protectionism,” at CT.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Bob Dylan Bible Apocalypse

From the fantastic website Letters of Note ILYBYGTH recently dug up a missive by Bob Dylan dating from his Fundamentalist Phase.

In this April, 1980 letter, Dylan thanks his friend for a new Bible.  It’s not clear from the letter what edition the gift Bible was, but Dylan said the new edition helped him understand the King James Version.

Dylan wrote from Toronto.  His audiences, he said, heard the call of “the Spirit of the Lord,” but they were more interested in lining up to see Apocalypse Now than to be “baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost.”

It’s news to me, but apparently any self-respecting Bob Dylan fan has long pondered the meaning of Dylan’s “Jesus Years.”  It seems between 1979 and roughly 1983, Dylan embraced evangelical Christianity and cranked out a few missionary albums, starting with “Slow Train Coming.”

The story goes something like this: in a drug-fueled crisis, with critics viciously panning his recent creative output, Dylan embraced the Word.  The meaning and sincerity of this period in Dylan’s life has been the subject of long debate among Dylan fans and other interested parties.  Some Jewish commentators have lamented Dylan’s apostasy.  Evangelicals have celebrated his recognition of their worldview.  But did he really mean it?  Some commentators conclude that Dylan blundered around his evangelical Christian faith just as he blundered through worlds of drugs and sex.  Others insist that Dylan later repudiated his Bible years as merely an unfortunate drug-fueled mistake.  Still others contend that Dylan represents the true power and healing grace of Biblical Christianity. 

A choppy documentary film about the “Jesus Years” seems only to have deepened the mystery and controversy.

Whatever fans and critics may conclude about the longevity of Dylan’s fundamentalism, this Toronto letter, at least, shows that for some stretch of time, Dylan talked the talk of evangelical Christianity.  His hopes for the Toronto crowds sound similar to those of any other fundamentalist preacher.

For ILYBYGTH readers, the meanings of Dylan’s fundamentalist years have different implications.  From one perspective, we can read Dylan’s conversion as an insight into the meanings of fundamentalist America.  When Dylan reached a late-1970s low, one of the preachers who understood his dark night of the soul, apparently, was Bill Dwyer of the evangelical Vineyard Fellowship.  At least according to documentary director Joel Gilbert, this Biblical outreach organization had become popular among the Southern California music scene, and Dylan fell into its outreach arm and embraced its apocalyptic message.

In this interpretation, the story demonstrates the often-surprising cultural power of fundamentalism.  Even in the midst of the famously Satanic rock-and-roll lifestyle, fundamentalism becomes a powerful cultural force.  Dylan and his associates were drawn to the inestimable power of Jesus’ saving grace.  It offered them a compelling personal, social, and cosmological message that made sense to them.  Fundamentalism, in this understanding, can hold its own among those most deeply immersed in the intensely hedonistic world of American celebrity.

Seen from another perspective, however, Dylan’s embrace of fundamentalist America can appear as nothing more than one drastic lifestyle choice at America’s all-you-can-take cultural buffet.  That is, Dylan clung briefly to fundamentalist Christianity just as he clung briefly to heroin, then later clung to fundamentalist Judaism.  Dylan chose Biblical Christianity, but other American celebrities fled from the intense despair of celebrity into the spiritual arms of yoga, veganism, Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy, or other anti-celebrity spiritual shelters.  In this reading, fundamentalist America is simply the rock to which a despairing Dylan clung.  It is not the bedrock of all American virtue, but rather just another option in an ultimately meaningless cultural panoply.  Dylan’s brief embrace of fundamentalist America only demonstrates, in this reading, the ways fundamentalism has lost its status as The One Truth.  Fundamentalism, in this reading, has become just another menu option for the spiritual thrill-seeker.

Whatever else it may mean, Dylan’s story can tell us something about the appeal of fundamentalist America to those outside its boundaries.  Whatever Dylan may have been experiencing as a crisis of the soul, when he reached out for the opposite, he found Bible-based evangelical Christianity.  To him­—and to generations of his fans and devotees—this kind of apocalyptic, Bible-based, aggressively proselytizing fundamentalist Christianity represented the opposite of everything he had stood for.  When his secular, hedonistic lifestyle led Dylan to an unsupportable personal crisis, he embraced fundamentalism as its shining opposite.