140 Dylan, Colson, Graham

In unique ways Bob Dylan, Chuck Colson, and Billy Graham have left formative impressions on post-WWII America.  During my 17 years as Chaplain at PLNU, I often quoted lyrics from Bob Dylan’s songs.  Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, c. 2002), by Scott Marshall, illustrates why I did so.   For Dylan has not only been one of the major forces in popular music for 40 years, he has also illustrated a persistent hunger for God, evident in the biblical themes that resound in his songs.  Marshall makes little effort to probe Dylan’s lyrics, relying instead on published interviews and books to illustrate his concerns.  He wisely acknowledges the difficulty of determining exactly where the singer stands, noting his Dylanesque disclaimer, “Well, you never  know.”  He’s sung folk, rock, country, and Christian music.  Neither Jews nor Christians nor agnostics know exactly what to make of him.  In fact: “Bob Dylan refused to be categorized–or, perhaps better, simply cannot be categorized” (p. xiv).  He’s “always simply been his own man.  More accurately, Bob Dylan has always been God’s own man, long before he knew it” (p. xiv).

For a few years (ca. 1980) he openly espoused Christianity, releasing three distinctively “Christian” albums.   Then he seemed to move in different directions, and many folks assumed he’d abandoned his faith in Christ.  But he still includes some of his Christian songs in his concerts, and (in 1997) when he received an award at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts he led a standing ovation in response to Shirley Caesar’s rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” probably his most famous Christian tune.  “If Caesar had not been permitted to perform that night, Dylan would have been a no show” (p. 3).

Dylan’s interest in Gospel music began when he listened, late at night, to music broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana.  Jewish by birth, he has always read the Bible, and his music has consistently reflected its influence.  He told a Rolling Stone reporter that he was a “literal believer” in the Bible, holding both the Old and New Testaments to be inspired of God (p. 74).  The lyrics of his 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited–one of his greatest–were described by one journalist “as a translation of the Bible in street terms” (p. 8).  In his notes to Biograph, a magnificent multi-record collection of his music, he said he “‘wanted to expose people to [gospel music] because [he] loved it and it’s the real roots of all modern music, but nobody cared'” (p. 89).

Dylan’s religious quest became quite public when, in 1979, he embraced the Christian faith.  Influenced by “born again” musicians, like T-Bone Burnett and Jerry Scheff, he was “‘willing to listen about Jesus'” (p. 27).  A Vineyard Church pastor, Larry Myers, visited him and remembered that no one tried to pressure him, but “‘God spoke through His Word, the Bible, to a man who had been seeking for many years.  Sometime in the next few days, privately and on his own, Bob accepted Christ and believed that Jesus Christ is indeed the Messiah'” (p. 28).  As he explained, in 1980, “‘Jesus put his hand on me.  It was a physical thing . . . I felt my whole body tremble.  The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up'” (p. 143).  To another journalist he said, “Let’s just say I had a knee-buckling experience'” (p. 143).

Subsequently Dylan involved himself in serious Bible studies and even attended some classes.  He recorded Slow Train Coming, with its explicitly Christian lyrics, including “Gotta Serve Somebody.”  He began singing his new faith in concerts–and quickly encountered mounting hostility.  While many of his fans  adjusted to the ever-questing pilgrim, others protested.  Secular critics, particularly, panned his performances.  Ever willing to be controversial, however, Dylan was undeterred, producing, Michael Long said, “some of the greatest songwriting and recording of his career'” (p. 59).  He released Saved and Shot of Love, with their fervently evangelical message, greatly distressing Columbia Records, which had long profited from his productions.  He also spoke his mind, condemning homosexuality for example, eliciting predictable venom from the Hollywood and media elite, who were “downright ruthless in their coverage of the ‘new Dylan'” (p. 53).  In a radio interview, Dylan was asked if Jesus is the answer to the world’s needs.  “‘Yeah, I would say that,’ Dylan replied.  ‘What we’re talking about is the nature of God . . . in order to go to God, you have to go through Jesus'” (p. 56).

Then, after publically espousing his faith in Jesus, Dylan seemed to abandon it.  His new tunes moved in different directions.  Some critics suggested he’d returned to Judaism, others declared he’d lost his religious interests.  Dylan’s explanation is simple:  “‘I’ve made my statement, and I don’t think I could make it any better than in some of those songs.  Once I’ve said what I need to say in a song, that’s it.  I don’t want to repeat myself'” (p. 56).  He clearly, in the mid-80s, explored Judaism with new intensity.  An Orthodox Jewish community used one of his songs in a charity telethon conveniently, though they omitted one of the verses that explicitly acknowledged Jesus.  Indeed “how a Jewish person can believe in Jesus and still be Jewish–is perhaps the one that ultimately gets to the heart of Dylan’s spiritual journey” (p. 110).  In Marshall’s judgment, however, this fits in with his “completed Jew” belief in Jesus as Messiah.  Those who have interviewed him, and musicians who work with him, describe him as still a believer.  Backup singers who have recently (2001)  performed with him say “they prayed with Dylan before each show.  These were Christian prayers'” (p. 70).

As Marshall explores the past 20 years of Dylan’s life, he finds much evidence of his continued Christian commitment.  His songs, for example, often deal with biblical themes of sin and salvation, the need for repentance and righteousness.  In a 1986 tour of Australia, he closed each concert with “In the Garden,” one of his most moving Gospel songs.  Explaining the song, he said:  “‘This last song now is all about my hero.  Everybody’s got a hero.  Where I come from, there’s a lot of heroes.  Plenty of them.  John Wayne, Clark Gable, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen.  They’re all heroes to some people.  Anyway, I don’t care nothing about those people [as heroes].  I have my own hero.  I’m going to sing about Him right now'” (p. 86).  In Jerusalem, facing a Jewish audience, he sang “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train.”

Albums like Oh Mercy, recorded in 1989, though not explicitly Christian, certainly have biblical messages.   “Shooting Star,” the song which rather sums up the album’s message, declares that it’s the “‘last time you might hear the Sermon on the Mount'” (p. 97).  In Marshall’s opinion, Oh Mercy “was practically a companion piece to the album of a decade earlier, . . . Slow Train Coming” (p. 98).  At his concerts during the ’90s he routinely included songs from his “Christian albums.”   For example, in 1991, he sang “Gotta Serve Somebody” some 80 times, “I Believe in You” 29 times, and “In the Garden” 10 times (p. 107).  In 1997 he performed, as requested by Pope John Paul II (who later spoke), at a concert in Bologna, attended by several hundred thousand people, singing, among others, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  He opened a 1999 concert in Pensacola with an old Christian hymn, “Rock of Ages,” and a few weeks later sang Fanny Crosby’s “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” in Buffalo, doing the same a few days later in Amherst, Mass.  Later that year, touring with Paul Simon, he sang “Hallelujah, I”m Ready to Go,” a song “which became something of a staple during the tour, [that] included these lyrics: ‘Sinner don’t wait / Before it’s too late / He’s a wonderful Savior to know / I fell on my knees / He answered my pleas / Hallelujah, I’m ready to go'” (p. 142).

In 2001, as Dylan turned 60, he “agreed to participate on a track for the forthcoming tribute album, Pressing On:  The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.  Considering that the project only featured songs from Slow Train Coming and Saved, his participation would have seemed odd if he no longer believed in Jesus as the Messiah” (p. 156).  In his 2002 concerts he included “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go” and “I am the Man, Thomas,” a “song about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection” (pp. 170-171).  Still more: “when Dylan included ‘Solid Rock’ in the first set list of his European spring tour of 2002” (p. 172), a song he’d not sung since 1981, he astounded many of his fans because it is one of his most clearly Christian compositions.  To Marshall, in words summing up this fine treatise, “These are not the words and sentiments of a man who has forsaken belief in Jesus” (p. 172).

For Dylan fans such as myself, this book provides a handy guide to Dylan’s spiritual journey.  Drawing upon published interviews, some of them in obscure periodicals, Restless Pilgrim brings us up to date on one of the nation’s most enigmatic, but engrossing, songwriters.

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In Charles Colson: A Story of Power, Corruption, and Redemption (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, c. 2003), John Perry focuses on the crucial years when Colson served in the White House, followed by his spiritual transformation in the wake of Watergate, emphasizing the difference Christ made in the life of President Nixon’s “hatchet man.”  Though many of the details will be familiar to anyone who read Colson’s best-selling Born Again, Perry brings to the story information gleaned from Patty Colson and other sources as well as providing an outsider’s perspective of the man.  Though not an “authorized” biography, it benefitted from interviews with Colson carries his informal approval. 

Born in 1931 to hard-working parents in Boston, Charles Colson excelled academically and was accepted by both Brown and Harvard universities.  Harvard’s elitist snobbery alienated him, however, and he attended Brown on a ROTC scholarship.  Fulfilling his ROTC commitment, he joined the Marine Corps and proved himself to be an able officer.  After two years of active duty, he joined the reserves, found a job with the Navy Department in Washington, D.D., and entered law school at George Washington University, taking evening classes.  He would graduate in 1959 and be admitted to the bar later that year.  The next year he was offered a job in Senator Leverett Saltonstall’s office, making him “the youngest senior congressional staff member on Capital Hill” (p. 24).  He orchestrated the Massachusetts’ senator’s successful re-election campaign in 1960 and was touted as one of the ten Outstanding Young Men of 1960 by Boston’s Camber of Commerce.  The next year Colson opened a law office as a trade representative of the New England Council in Washington and quickly succeeded in attracting clients and wielding influence in the nation’s capital.

Impressed with Richard Nixon, Colson supported his 1968 election campaign and was asked to join his administration as a special counsel.  Though it meant considerable financial sacrifice, Colson readily accepted the invitation and quickly became a trusted insider, though he often clashed with others in the Nixon White House.  He particularly delighted the President by getting things done, even when it meant cutting various bureaucratic corners.  “By the summer of 1970 Nixon was regularly giving Colson direct assignments, bypassing White House protocol and, in particular, cutting Bob Haldeman out of the loop” (p. 61).  Nixon once boasted, to some guests, “Colson–he’ll do anything!” (p. 103).

As the election of 1972 approached, Colson supervised various endeavors to assure Nixon’s re-election.  Some of this involved trying to get him portrayed as positively in the press.  Dealing with the growing dissent concerning the Vietnam War also called for considerable attention.  When Daniel Ellsberg clandestinely  orchestrated the release of the “Pentagon Papers”–a major setback for Nixon and a blow to Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic work with the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris–Colson was ordered to expose Ellsberg.  Complying, he leaked a damaging FBI file on Ellsberg to a reporter, one step in discrediting him.  Colson also secured the cash which enabled Howard Hunt and associates to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, hunting damaging details, though he knew nothing about the burglary itself.  The more famous burglary, at the Watergate Hotel, was also done without Colson’s knowledge.  Though critics sought to implicate him, the famous “tapes” and other documents demonstrate his innocence.

Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 was followed, within a month, by Colson’s resignation from his administration.  Haldeman and Erlichman, apparently, desired to minimize his influence, and Colson was disinterested in anything less than a major position, so he left the White House, still deeply committed to the President.  Quickly reestablishing his law practice, he assumed the next few years would be devoted to acquiring wealth and solidifying his position within Washington’s beltway.  Quickly, however, the Watergate scandal swept him into a cauldron of controversy.  Informally he offered advice to Nixon and his inner circle, urging them to simply tell the truth.  Publically he defended the President and denied any personal awareness of (much less involvement in) the Watergate burglary.  Nevertheless he had to deal with accusations in the press–some the result of John Dean’s duplicity and mendacity.  (Dean sought to save his own skin by incriminating others, however innocent!)  As the Nixon presidency collapsed, Colson was sucked into the chaos.

In the midst of it all, he met Tom Phillips, president of the Raytheon Company, who briefly testified to “the most marvelous experience of my whole life,” coming to faith in Jesus Christ (p. 140).  He further encouraged Colson to chat with him about it later.  Burdened by all the pressures of Watergate, Colson decided to visit Phillips at his home on August 12, 1973.  One of the most successful men in America, Phillips  had increasingly found life meaningless, and out of curiosity went to a Billy Graham Crusade in New York.  There he responded to the message and accepted Jesus as Savior.  Having told his story, Phillips then gave Colson a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and urged him to consider its claims.  Following the conversation, Colson drove a short distance, parked, and broke into tears.  Sobbing, he prayed, “God, I don’t know how to find You, but I’m going to try.  I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to You.  Take me!” (p. 146).    He’d turned life’s most important corner.

Subsequently, Colson carefully read Mere Christianity and found it intellectually persuasive.  He returned to Washington and found a growing circle of Christian friends (unanticipated folks like senators Mark Hatfield and Howard Hughes) who confirmed and encouraged his new-found faith.  Along with his faith, however, he faced a growing conviction that he’d wronged Daniel Ellsberg by seeking to discredit him.  To be a Christian, he sensed, meant doing what’s right without regard for the consequences.  Thus, though he was innocent of many accusations, he voluntarily confessed to slandering Ellsberg.

The judge, inexplicably, decided to make an example of Colson and sentenced him to prison.  It was devastating, but it also opened up an entirely new world for him.  While in prison he developed a compassion for inmates and later established Prison Fellowship to minster to them.  This increasingly led him to speak not only in prisons but in other venues.  He wrote the best-seller, Born Again, and quickly became one of the most prominent Christians in the country.

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For several years I’ve intended to read Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1997), but was put off by its length–750 pages!  Recently tackling the tome, however, proved to be most rewarding.  There is no doubt that Billy Graham is one of the greatest Christians the Church as produced in two millennia.  Though such calculations are difficult to tabulate, he’s no doubt preached the Gospel to more people than any other evangelist.  He’s also met–and witnessed to–many of the most notable people of his generation, served as a trusted counselor for eight (no doubt nine now, since he’s certainly close to the Bush clan) American presidents, and (most importantly) distinguished himself with personal integrity and graciousness.

Graham tells us about his early years, working on his father’s farm in North Carolina, his “180-Degree Turn” in response to a Mordecai Ham revival message, his call and preparation to preach, culminating at Wheaton College, where he met his wife, Ruth, and several friends who would become an important part of his growing ministry.  Opportunities to preach in the Chicago area led to an association with Youth for Christ, as well as an invitation to become President of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis.  These positions opened doors for him to preach across the nation, holding “campaigns” in various places.  Early on it was markedly evident that Billy Graham had the gift of evangelism, as numbers of hearers routinely responded to his simple Gospel messages.

In 1949 a major turning point occurred in Los Angeles, where he preached for eight weeks, attracting significant numbers of people and gaining national attention as a result of William Randolph Hearst’s instructions to “puff Graham” in his newspapers.  Prominent entertainers, such as Stuart Hamblen, were converted, enhancing Graham’s image.  Featured in Time Magazine and other publications, he became (almost overnight) the spokesman for a resurgent revivalism in America, a movement that would soon be identified as “evangelicalism.”  This led, during the next five decades, to an endless number of “crusades” throughout the world, detailed in this autobiography, impacting millions of people.  He’s preached in Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, baseball and soccer stadia, open fields and primitive huts.  Graham also began to utilize other outlets to spread the Good News–films, radio, TV, conferences, training centers.  Christianity Today, for example, came into existence solely because of his vision and commitment to provide the reading public with a thoroughly Evangelical journal.

Especially interesting, to me at least, are Graham’s chapters on the presidents he’s known.  Early on met Harry Truman, but alienated the president through immature aggressiveness.  Having learned his lesson, he developed cordial, and often deeply warm relationships with every subsequent president.  Though he may have (privately) differed with them politically, he related to them as a friend and spiritual advisor.  He admires and commends, perhaps a bit naively, each of them.  One certainly finds in Graham a helpful correction to some of the critical views of Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, Clinton, all of whom he liked and trusted. Importantly, we find many of these men sincerely hungry for spiritual counsel and assurance.  One cannot but be grateful that there was a man named Billy Graham who could speak, with authority, about God to the leaders of the nation.

Graham also met the world’s most eminent leaders, ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Jawaharlal Nehru to Mikhail Gorbachev to John Paul II.  In one way or another, he seems to have encountered most of the most important people of his era.  And he unfailingly sought to talk personally with them about Jesus Christ.  Whether addressing thousands of people in a mass meeting, or speaking privately and confidentially within the corridors of the Kremlin, Billy Graham has sought to be an evangelist.  One reads this book with growing amazement at the sheer scope of his influence around the world!

Graham also tells us much about his family, his many friends, his personal perspectives.  Whatever he discusses, one senses that Billy Graham is an honest, authentic man, fully devoted to God, and ever aware of his own limitations.  There’s a winsome humility–never false or overly self-critical–that explains much of his success.  Just As I Am is not only a great invitation hymn (routinely used in the Graham crusades) but an apt title for his life.  Well worth the reading!

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