As you probably know by now, Bob Dylan is our newly inaugurated Nobel Laureate. Here at Boston University, we find ourselves extremely lucky to have a world-renowned Bob Dylan scholar on faculty here, Sir Christopher Ricks. On Thursday night, Ricks gave his final lecture of the year for the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. This lecture was mainly focused around the theme of Christianity in Bob Dylan’s music.
Dylan was born Jewish, but later in life converted to Christianity. From then on, Christian themes and Christian symbols became a large part of his songwriting. And for some Bob Dylan fans, his born-again Christianity was seen as a kind of a betrayal, evoking antagonism among his more liberally radical fans. The Berkeley Barb, a student paper at the time, published a sly dig at Dylan by playing on his lyrics to “Ballad of A Thin Man,” writing, “Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jew?”
Ricks himself confessed from the very start of his talk to be a “lifelong atheist.” But for Ricks, the fact that his religious views are so different from Dylan is what draws him to the Christian elements of his music. “It’s particularly dangerous,” Ricks stated, “if we suppose the only function of [art] is to confirm us in our belief.” For Ricks, looking at Dylan’s Christian songs seriously is a matter of looking at art’s intention seriously. This became evident when Ricks began to speak of Dylan’s song, “What Can I Do For You?” Ricks commented on the song that when he first heard it he was “moved to tears by it, greatly to my surprise.” Ricks talked about how he found the song “quite extraordinary” in “its impetuosity that plays the words against the other rhythms … there’s a very beautiful wish in the song to always arrive earlier than is proper.”
For Ricks, what makes “What Can I Do For You?” such a moving song is how it plays with language. It addresses the question of how can one address God in speech. The listener is fundamentally incapable of saying he with a capital H when talking or singing. In fact, the center of the song is a question: “what can I do for You.” Dylan seems to directly addressing the limits of language when it comes to worship. For Ricks, “when art is deeply successful, it engages with the limits of art,” and the fact that the song “ends with the harmonica is to end it with an instrument incompatible with singing.” This solidifies this idea of there being “nothing more to say” at the end of it. For Ricks, the exploration of language’s failure to really grasp God and what we owe God is representative of the idea of needing to give God “everything and nothing” and only being able to do “everything and nothing” for Him.
For Ricks, the beauty of Dylan’s Christian music is how it copes with what Ricks called the “agonizing pincer jaws of heaven,” that is, how religion is something that requires all you can give it and simultaneously nothing of what you can give. That conflict is what lurks beneath the surface of all of his music. So when at the end of the talk Ricks played The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” its slow and smooth melody punctuated with humming and easy “ooohs,” it seemed sacrilegious. Or as Ricks said, “I think it should have a notice on it that says it will damage your spiritual health.”