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On Saturday, September 27, 1997, during the Twenty-third Eucharistic Congress and as part of pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Bologna, there took place an outdoor event attended by some 300,000 people, featuring musical performances by Bob Dylan, in addition to certain Italian pop-musicians. As recounted in his recent book of memoirs, John Paul II, My Beloved Predecessor , then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had serious misgivings about having the pope literally and figuratively share a platform with these popular musicians, and with Bob Dylan in particular. As quoted in the U.K.’s Telegraph , in one of many stories which appeared following the Italian publication of these memoirs, Benedict remembers:

The pope appeared tired, exhausted. At that very moment the stars arrived, Bob Dylan and others whose names I do not remember. They had a completely different message from the one which the pope had. There was reason to be skeptical I was, and in some ways I still am over whether it was really right to allow this type of ‘prophet’ to appear.

The headline writers seemed to relish seizing on this story and coming up with zingers along the lines of “pope calls Bob Dylan a False Prophet.” Almost at the same time, Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caratitus hit the wires, and many outlets saw an opportunity to combine the pope’s recommendation of Gregorian chant to accompany the liturgy with his observations regarding that event in Bologna in 1997, as in “ Latin to Replace Dylan ,” etc., etc.

It would be altogether coherent, of course, to believe that the sacred nature of that which takes place during the Mass deserves and even demands music appropriately time tested and solemn, while at the same time recognizing the differing tastes of the masses when it comes to popular music in their daily lives. And no doubt Pope Benedict does not anticipate a day when FM radio will be “all Gregorian, all the time.” Popular entertainment has always been with us in one form or another, and it will persist. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s fears regarding John Paul’s appearance with Bob Dylan seem to have been inspired by his sense of the incongruity of the combination, and his perception that Dylan and the others “had a completely different message from the one which the pope had.”

It would be interesting to know what message Pope Benedict thinks Bob Dylan’s songs espouse. He has no particular obligation to be familiar with Dylan’s work, of course. However, by using the word prophet in a dismissive way regarding Dylan, Benedict seems to be responding to a label that the media have foisted upon the songwriter down through the decades, as in “Dylan, the prophet of the counterculture.” However, Dylan himself has consistently rejected such characterizations and, indeed, rejected the notion that his work is about sending messages at all. This has not stopped writers and editors from reaching for these old clichés anew whenever there is a call to devote some ink to Dylan’s latest doings. Once placed in the media’s pigeonhole, it seems all but impossible to escape it. (It occurs to me that is not completely dissimilar to the way in which a certain cardinal was once designated as “God’s Rottweiler,” and how, even now, the media automatically gravitate toward any story that would seem to assist in portraying this individual as an intolerant enforcer.)

In any case, Pope John Paul II clearly did not see the situation on the stage in Bologna in the same way as did Ratzinger. It seems to me that, in particular, what he saw instead was an opportunity to assert confidently the answer of “Christ” in response to questions posed by the songs of Bob Dylan.

During the event, he delivered an address to the young people of Bologna , in the course of which he used Bob Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a reference point.

A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life “is blowing in the wind”. It is true! But not in the wind which blows everything away in empty whirls, but the wind which is the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says: “come!” (cf. Jn 3:8; Rv 22:17).

You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? I answer you: one! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said: “I am the way” (Jn 14:6). He is the road of truth, the way of life.

Although Bob Dylan is known to speak some Italian, I have no knowledge as to whether he heard and understood the pope’s remarks with regard to his song. Nevertheless, he took to the stage immediately following the pope’s final appearance of the day with his own kind of benediction: the song “Forever Young,” with its poignantly simple opening line, “May God bless and keep you always.”

It does seem to me that John Paul’s confidence in his assertion of “Christ” as the answer to those questions he heard blowing in the wind was not by any means misplaced, and that, in doing this, whether by knowledge and design, or by a simple twist of fate, he actually put his finger on what could be said to be a key role of Bob Dylan’s songs in our culture (counter or otherwise).

Dylan’s songs, and in particular his greatest songs, have often derived a great deal of their power by posing questions that compel and fascinate the mind of the listener. While most of our popular culture (from TV commercials on down to the latest pop song) tells you what you should want, what you should need, whom you ought to envy, or whom you ought to blame, Bob Dylan’s songs tend to shift the spotlight in a quite different direction. Leaving aside his three albums of gospel-oriented compositions which, by their nature are indisputably about providing an answer Dylan has made a career of writing songs that bring the listener face to face with questions and mysteries as timeless as they are also, sooner or later, urgent. Sometimes the questions are direct, as in “Blowin’ in the Wind”; more often they are implicit, wrapped in paradox or gilded in humor.

The same year in which the Rolling Stones sang “she’s under my thumb” and “I want it painted black” (not the thumb, mind you), Bob Dylan sang, in “Visions of Johanna,” “Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.” Implicit is surely the question: What is eternity?

The same year in which Lulu sang “To Sir With Love,” Bob Dylan sang “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” “whose visions in the final end / Must shatter like the glass / I pity the poor immigrant / When his gladness comes to pass.” Implicit is the question What value is there in that which will only shatter in the “final end”?

The same year in which Madonna sang of being “like a virgin, touched for the very first time,” Dylan sang, in “Something’s Burning, Baby,” “You can’t live by bread alone, you won’t be satisfied / You can’t roll away the stone if your hands are tied.” Implicit is the question What is it that has your hands tied? The scriptural references are conspicuous here, and, while not always so obvious, they relentlessly populate Dylan’s oeuvre .

In a world of popular music that often seems dominated by nihilism and its close relations, Dylan’s work can be seen as sneakily inserting important question marks and surprising diversions toward Biblical truths. Both through the power of the songs and even through the false characterizations of his supposed role as an “anti-war singer” or a “counterculture spokesman,” Dylan tends to attract those listeners who are eagerly looking for answers but perhaps having difficulty coming up with the right questions. Dylan’s songs, without attempting anything deliberately pedagogical, nevertheless tend to circle around some very good questions indeed. Without any doubt, many skip right past them; for others, however, the questions insinuate themselves and eventually demand the kinds of answers that will stand up to the highest scrutiny of all.

In a recent documentary, Bob Dylan’s record producer from the 1960s, Bob Johnston, said of the singer and his work: “I believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I don’t think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God, instead of touching him on the shoulder, kicked him in the [backside].”

Even a lot of those who prefer their rock ‘n’ roll nihilism straight up, and who would likely run screaming from anything that they suspect might be edifying, will readily state that there are few if any performers who have ever made better barn-burning, roof-raising, evil (in a good sense) rock ‘n’ roll than Bob Dylan at his best. If God did pick someone to set among the wolves and confound the dark powers in their very lair, so to speak, it seems He chose well with this Jewish kid from Minnesota. (And none of this is to say that everything Dylan has ever done is without flaw, or that certain other popular musicians haven’t contributed an enormous amount of genuinely uplifting and healing music.)

No doubt pope John Paul II’s words, from that same day in Bologna in 1997, can summarize things most effectively:

Finally, I must tell you that during this vigil I have thought of all the riches that exist in the world, especially those in man: the voices, the insights, the answers, the sensitivity and many, many other talents. We must be deeply grateful for all these talents. And this gratitude means precisely the Eucharist. By giving thanks for the good things of this world, by giving thanks for all these riches, by giving thanks for all these talents, we make ourselves better able to multiply all these talents, just like the good servant in the Gospel. Good night. Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sean Curnyn is writing a book on political and moral themes in the work of Bob Dylan. He also maintains a website: www.rightwing bob .

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