Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saving Grace--song by Bob Dylan

On Sundays when I was a kid, I'd listen to the gospel programs on television not because I was interested but just because they'd be the only thing on in the late afternoon until Buck Owens appeared after dinner. If I had read everything I had to read and the weather was horrible outside, this was the only distraction available from the rumbling in my stomach.

I never understood the preaching, nor saw the appeal in it, but the music was easier to fathom but only to a point. The men and women who sang with glowing faces and bright eyes weren't singing about falling in love but about spiritual things that escaped me. Why were they so happy and what does God have to do with anything?

After awhile, the seemingly bright and cheerful gospel songs performed by perfect looking people in dreamily decorated sound stages from the 1960's annoyed me than drew me in. Anything with that twang, even Buck Owens, was more than I could handle. The sentiment and the staging became fake to me, and the impression turned me off cold towards gospel music. However, some of the '70's contemporary songs I learned in catechism actually began to mean something as I learned the simple lyrics along with the simple melodies. No twang. A few came from musicals like Godspeed and Jesus Christ Superstar. Cool.

And then the 80's came along with Christian rock and pop styles. By then, I became a believer and was listening to Micheal W. Smith and Amy Grant in my Walkman. Things had sure changed. Meanwhile, I was learning old fashioned hymns from church and from fellowships--nothing Grant or Smith did could match up with them. Eventually, I memorized a lot of them, preferring to sing hymns than listen on my Walkman. I used them in my quiet times and internalized the truths within them about God and His character. Honestly, I can't remember much from the contemporary Christian pop or rock music really making that deep of an impression on me. There wasn't much to think about, except for a few exceptions.

I remember friends getting me to listen to Bob Dylan's gospel music. It was new and old at the same time, I was thinking as the borrowed tapes copied from albums played over my headphones. Dylan was different but I couldn't figure out how. He almost reminded me of the old gospel programs on television in the 60's, mixed with the intelligence of the Psalms of the Bible and the depth of the hymns. As quickly as I was introduced to his music, it quickly disappeared. I couldn't find it in the record store nor the Christian bookstore. It seemed as though no one--secular or inspired--liked him at all.

As Christian music sought to merge with mainstream culture, Dylan made a huge departure from pop and rock. The content and the style of his spiritual music is distinctively gospel. He made Christian music that was timeless, and from what I saw, believable. He did not, like some singers of the genre, back away from clear proclaimations about Jesus and salvation. And he got me thinking about who I was serving, how Jesus' return and judgement was like a slow train coming, how all the animals were named, and what I could do for Him.

None of these songs were thrown together, using Jesus as an afterthought. The songs are masterpieces in their own right, crafted so that word and music blended together as one, like mercy kissing truth, with the weight of poetic artistry. A lot of love for this genre made it possible, and I believe, much love for God as well.

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