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Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.

At least, that's where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.

Something mysterious about Holly "filled me with conviction," said Dylan. "He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."

Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of "Cotton Fields" by folk legend Leadbelly. It was "like I'd been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me," said Dylan.

That story probably sounded "rather strange to lots of people," said Scott Marshall, author of the new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life."

"What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don't know the Bible, then who knows what they'll think that means? … Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That's just the way Dylan talks. That's who he is."

For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.

The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan's 1961-78 works, before the "born-again" years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.

Seeking the hipster antithesis

Christopher Kerzich is preparing to permanently embrace a truly retro, timeless look. The basics -- black jacket, black pants and black shirt -- will be stark and radical, providing a kind of "this is who I am" vibe. Black fedoras, scarves and long overcoats are optional. For accessories, he'll have a silver cross and a white collar.

In other words, Kerzich is a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, preparing for his 2014 ordination as Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Although this wardrobe will stand out in almost any crowd, the last thing Kerzich expects to be is "hip." If anything, he hopes people his age and younger will see him as the antithesis of hip, which he believes will help him relate to the masses of fashionable young people known as "hipsters."

"If you are going to try to reach out to hipsters, the main thing you have to be is authentic. You have to be real. You have to be rooted in your faith," said the 28-year-old seminarian, during a recent home visit. "The one thing you cannot try to be is hip. You can't try to be something you're not. That would be a fatal mistake."

Defining the term "hipster" is a task that has baffled researchers -- from advertising executives to the college administrators. Kerzich finds it interesting that whenever he types a word like "hipsterdom" into his computer, the software underlines the term with the red, squiggly line that suggests this is not a real word.

The problem is that the hipsters do exist and their culture is real and it's growing. If religious leaders want to understand what is happening, he said, they must realize that there is more to the hipster ethos than Rat Pack hats, '50s dresses, plaid blazers, skinny ties, skinny jeans, rumpled hair, flashy accessories and occasional flashes of androgyny.

In his book, "Hipster Christianity," the evangelical writer Brett McCracken noted: "The only real requisite to being a hipster is a commitment to total freedom from labels, norms and imposed constraints of any kind. And this attitude must be very public, which is why hipsters are fairly easy to spot. ... The hardest part of the whole endeavor is also the most crucial: they must look like they don't care how they look."

There is more to this stance than mere appearances, he stressed. While there is no hipster creed, there are common attitudes.

"Chief among them is the instinct to be better than anyone else," noted McCracken. "Hipsters view any sort of prescribed system or hierarchy as absurd. ... They project themselves as being totally independent of any controlling influence, and masters over their own life and meaning."

The result is a brand of fierce individualism "verging on or leading to apathy," said Kerzich. At the same time, however, many hipsters see themselves as true originals, seekers and deep thinkers who want to escape the shallow, mundane, ordinary world of mass culture. For some, the radical demands of an ancient faith may actually seem countercultural -- not boring.

Thus, in an online essay on evangelizing hipsters, he urged pastors and youth workers to start frequenting places that hipsters tend to congregate, such as coffee shops, pubs and bookstores. Yes, a minister wearing a clerical collar is sure to be greeted with skepticism in such a setting. However, before long some of the locals will start asking tough, honest questions -- if the minister is truly accessible.

Also, more religious leaders are going to have to dive into social media, said Kerzich. It is no longer optional for faith groups to have a presence on YouTube or for bishops and other leaders to dialogue with critics, seekers and the faithful through Twitter and Facebook.

Once again, being "hip" is not the goal. The goal is to be available.

"No one likes someone who tries to belong to a group unnaturally," wrote Kerzich. Those attempting to reach "hipsters do not need to act like a member of their subculture. This movement focuses on being 'original' and 'different.' Thus, one should communicate how the message of Christianity is different than the messages emanating from society.

"For priests and seminarians remember your ministry is different, so confidently accept this reality. … One key to evangelizing this group is to become accepted by them without trying to become one of them."

Glimpse of Bono as a young believer

One thing was clear, back in the winter of 1982. No one at the famous Record Service store near the University of Illinois campus could figure out the hot new Irish band that was about to hit town.

The guy behind the front desk cranked up the group's new single so that everyone could ponder the lyrics.

"I try to sing this song," sang the young singer called Bono Vox. "I, I try to stand up, but I can't find my feet. I, I try to speak up, but only in you I'm complete. Gloria, in te domine. Gloria, exultate. ... Oh Lord, loosen my lips."

That was Latin, but what did it mean? A Newman Center priest told me that the first phrase, perhaps a Mass fragment or drawn from chant, meant, "Glory in you, Lord." The next meant, "Exalt Him." Then again, it was hard to hear the second Latin phrase.

The priest apologized and said he wasn't used to parsing rock lyrics.

Yes, the band 30 years ago was U2 and its mysterious second album was called "October." Both were surrounded by clouds of rumors, which I explored in a News-Gazette column on Feb. 19, 1982. What I needed to do was meet the band before its Feb. 23 concert in Champaign-Urbana.

Luckily, the 20-year-old Bono was willing to discuss "Gloria" and "October." Describing that interview, the reference book "U2: A Diary" notes: "Although the band have gone out of their way to avoid talking about their faith up to this point, they speak candidly now."

That column ran on March 5 and it apparently was the first mainstream news piece in which Bono and company discussed their faith. I immediately pitched the story to Rolling Stone, where editors decided that U2 wasn't all that important or that it was bizarre for a guy like Bono to talk about God -- or both.

All of that changed, quickly.

Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. For example, he stressed that U2 had no interest in being stereotyped as a "Christian band" or in allowing "Christian" to become a sad marketing term for its work.

"The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us.

"Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."

Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.

The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."

At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people -- artists in particular -- attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded.

"Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. ... Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down," he told me.

"I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don't think that you can sort of smile and say, 'Well, I know. We're the jolly human race, you know. We're all very nice, REALLY.' I mean, we're not, are we?"

Faith, doubt and Nickel Creek

NASHVILLE -- The crowd was dancing as soon as the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek went on stage, with hot-shot mandolinist Chris Thile careening around like a possessed marionette.

The opening number "When in Rome" was an edgy tale about lost souls trapped in a cold world where the doctors can't heal, people burn books for heat and no one answers distress signals. By the time Thile reached the apocalyptic last verse, he was raising questions about life, death and life after death.

"Where can a dead man go? The question with an answer only dead men know," he sang, briefly frozen in a stark white spotlight. "But I'm going to bet they never really feel at home, if they spent a lifetime learning how to live in Rome."

The crowd rocked on. There were tattooed youngsters in the aisles, dancing next to hip home-schooling parents with their children. There were bluegrass purists offering whoops of praise, sitting near some NASCAR fans wearing Birkenstock scandals.

The Nickel Creek crew -- guitarist Sean Watkins and his sister Sara on fiddle, along with Thile -- are hard to label and so are their fans. One reason for that is the band's Grammy Award-winning fusion of bluegrass roots with rock attitude. Nickel Creek often veers from Bill Monroe traditionalism to MTV Nirvana without blinking, with stops in John Coltrane and Beach Boy territory along the way.

But there was another reason the crowd in War Memorial Auditorium was unusually diverse. Nickel Creek offers a unique mix of old faith and modern doubts.

The trio has been together 16 years, beginning as children in devout Christian homes in San Diego. Early on, they recorded a gospel-bluegrass album called "Here to There" before heading into the mainstream with the help of superstar Alison Krauss.

It's crucial that bluegrass is one form of music in which artists are allowed to sing about Sunday morning as well as Saturday night. Thus, the members of Nickel Creek have been candid about their beliefs, while staying light years away from the prison called "Contemporary Christian Music."

Faith isn't an artistic curse if it stays honest, said Sean Watkins, who has written most of the trio's songs that wrestle with religious issues. It's interesting that old hymns are often more candid and searching than today's gospel pop songs.

"I'm so sick of sugar-coated songs from the Christian perspective," he said, in his online journal. "One of the most comforting and inspiring lines to me is from the last chorus of 'Come Thou Fount' where it says, 'Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.' Not many un-watered-down songs make it through the filter of the Christian music industry mafia these days."

But honesty is a two-edged sword.

That's why Thile -- at the ripe old age of 24 -- was standing in a harsh spotlight singing songs about death, despair and divorce. One of his new songs is called "Doubting Thomas" and includes these poignant lines: "Can I be used to help others find truth, when I'm scared I'll find proof that it's a lie? ... I'm a doubting Thomas. I'll take your promise, though I know nothing's safe. Oh me of little faith."

Thile said he hopes to live his life as if death is not the end, struggling to "keep one foot in this world while sticking one foot out of it, just to get ready." At the same time, it's hard to avoid the kind of burned-out, shopping-mall confusion that leads so many young people to feel alone and disconnected, even while they crave relationships that will last.

Thus, this Nickel Creek concert closed with the trio sharing one microphone, gently singing this lullaby: "Why should the fire die? My mom and dad kept theirs alive."

"We are tempted to distance ourselves from the things that are truly powerful and beautiful in life," said Thile. "Faith is certainly one of those things. Faith is huge, and so are friendships and our family relationships. ...

"Anything that is truly worthwhile is both powerful and dangerous at the same time. Anything that is truly beautiful and lovely can also turn twisted and ugly. But we can't hide from all of that. That's what is real."