It must have been tough being an Old Testament prophet. How many people could you reach? As many as could hear your voice presuming you were skilled in public speaking? More if you were lucky enough to have a scribe? What is worse, the things you prophesied about would not occur for hundreds of years. What kind of credibility does that give you?
Not so in our time. With our modern media, a prophet’s message spreads like lightning. If the matters prophesied are accurate, they may come true before your very eyes, or at least in your lifetime.
Dylan’s Song is a Prophecy
Such is the case with Bob Dylan’s famous meditation “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” I am prompted to view the song as a prophecy by Bishop Robert Barron’s respect for Dylan’s work. The Bishop is one of those gifted teachers who can make you see new insight in the familiar by changing your frame of reference. And so, this column. My thesis is that the song is a prophecy for our time. While not divinely inspired, it presents a challenge of reform, signals dire consequences if we stay on our current path but also offers a way forward for Christians.
The song was written in 1963 as Dylan’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Dylan said that he wrote the song:
“…when I didn’t figure I’d have enough time left to die, didn’t know how many other songs I could write, during the Cuban thing. I wanted to get the most down that I knew about into one song, the most that I possibly could, and I wrote it like that. Every line is actually a complete song, could be used a whole song. It’s worth a song, every single line.”
The song is addressed to a “Blue-eyed son.” Each verse begins with a question: Where have you been my Blue-eyed son? What did see? What did you hear? Who did you meet? The responses to each question enumerate the harsh conditions of society at the beginning of the decade of the 1960s. Each verse ends with the prediction that, “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” if things do not change. What makes the song prophetic is the realization that the conditions the poet laments are still with us today, only worse.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
I have watched the video of Patti Smith performing the work at the Nobel Prize ceremony honoring Bob Dylan’s contributions to literature and I commend her performance to your attention. Ms. Smith has a rough voice but it is right for this song. At one point it looks like she flubbed the words and had to start again. The moment comes when she sings the line “I saw a new born babe with wild wolves all around it.” All I could think of were the child victims of the Syrian war: Alan Kurdi, the little three-year-old boy who washed up dead on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey being held in the arms of a soldier, and Omran Daqneesh the five-year old boy wounded in an attack on Aleppo, sitting in the back of an ambulance bleeding and in shock, not having yet learned that his brother was dead. I would bet that Ms. Smith was thinking similar thoughts at that point. She did not flub the words; she was overcome by emotion.
And the prophecies continue.
I saw a black branch with blood kept drippin’.
I heard ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken. (And this 50-plus years before Internet-enabled social media!)
We meet a young woman whose body is burning but in the next line, we meet a young girl who gives us a rainbow.
“I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing.” Yes, for all our affluence sometimes it seems we are a selfish, downright stingy people. Our economy fixes it so that even people who work multiple jobs cannot get enough to pay rent and buy food. And yet we begrudge them SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). I think America could use a tutorial on the corporal works of mercy.
I met one man who was wounded in love.
Met another man who was wounded with hatred.
This line has always grabbed me. Two sides of the same coin, but both wound. The thing is, you cannot help being wounded in love. Whether you are wounded with hatred is up to you.
As in 1963, so in 2017 and the way things are going, it feels like a hard rain is going to fall. Years ago Time Magazine listed the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. The editors included Dylan on the list and said this about him: “He knew what we all did. He just knew it sooner.”
Why Does Nothing Change Despite This Warning?
Legions of folkies sang Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall in the naïve belief that if they did it enough times things would change. Sadly, not so. Why has this happened?
Many cite the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But that was not only about sexual license. It really was a revolution against any authority that stood in the way of personal pleasure and autonomy. These authorities included parents (don’t trust anybody over 30), the law (ominously referred to in song and story as “The Man”) and the Church. Since that time, secular values have gradually grown to replace Christian values with ever increasing detriment to society.
Many years ago I attended a retreat and received a handout containing excerpts from a study prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It contrasts the prevalent American secular values of the day with those held by Catholics. The following tables tell the story. (Neither the Retreat Master nor USCCB could provide a citation to the actual study. My apologies.)
|Private; this world; the self.||Relationship; community; transcendence of spirit.|
|Fear of death or loss of power as life-losing. No afterlife.||Acceptance of death and self-surrender as life-giving. Resurrection. Absorb conflict and injury to reconcile.|
|Give to get. A transaction is basic to human relations. My worth is in having something valuable to give others.||Relationship is mutual and therefore is an exchange. Emphasis on pouring out and giving to build up the life of the other.|
|My security and happiness.||Other people’s sense of worth and freedom.|
|Power, popularity, respect equal self-worth. People come to me.||Service and facilitating others offers true meaning. I go to others. My worth comes from God’s love for me and Christ’s death. Influence or “being valuable” is irrelevant.|
|Desire measures and signs. The law. Consumption as a sign of success and self-expression.||Spirit. Trust in Love of God and community. Sensitivity, creativity, and ability to give life. A simplicity of life so as to give to others.|
|Toughness. Cool. Self-sufficient.||Meekness. Vulnerability. Dependent on some things and therefore humble.|
|Material security through possessions and power = freedom. Concentration.||Poverty of spirit. Community support and faith in Providence. After reasonable needs are met—then distribution to the needy.|
|I can have what I can get and I deserve it.||My purpose in life is to give life to others.|
|Efficiency and technology. People receive insofar as they produce.||Human needs and rights of all people to basic needs, regardless of their productivity or efficiency.|
|Power. Be Number One. Coercion for self-protection.||Powerlessness. Service. Vulnerability, refusal to coerce.|
|Self-defense to the point of killing.||Refusal to take life, even at the cost of your own.|
|Ownership. Property expresses the self. Property rights modified in society’s interest.||Sharing. Possession is stewardship for God and others. Common good primary—property secondary.|
|Profit-motive. Growth. Gain as a goal of an investment of goods or self. Self-interest.||Exchange. Equity. Willingness to lose for the sake of other. Other’s interest equal to or greater than my own.|
|Competition. The best get the proceeds.||Cooperation—sharing to make sure all have minimum needs met because all are of God.|
|Predictability. Control.||Risk. Trust in God and fellow humans.|
These are difficult sayings. I don’t think this analysis was designed to make us feel good. Fifty years of steady, creeping erosion of some pretty good guidance on how to live, and we find Dylan’s prophecy coming true in our own time. No wonder Christians feel surrounded, overwhelmed and somehow unable to stem the tide of aggressive secularism.
Is the Benedict Option an Option?
A current book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, posits that, in the face of these challenges, Christians should exercise a “strategic withdrawal from public life” and learn to live as “one subculture among many in the United States.” Dreher clearly agrees with the Catholic Bishops’ analysis and feels that the aforementioned sexual revolution has “deposed and enfeebled Christianity.” So, withdraw into our own enclaves, build each other up in the faith and, eventually, we shall overcome.
As appealing is it sounds, I don’t think this is a solution. Christ calls us to be the leaven in this world. Like it or not, we have to share the planet with people with whom we disagree and who are increasingly hostile toward us. Recall the parable of the good seed and the weeds: A land owner has planted a good seed but an enemy has sown weeds among it. When the workers ask if they should tear up the weeds, the owner tells them “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow until the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers, ‘First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’ (Matthew: 13:29-30). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reminds us that our Father in heaven “…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew: 5:45)
Prophet, Do Not Be Silent; Do Not Be Intimidated
The point is, much as we dislike it, we have to live and get along with our secular brethren. We must get used to being surrounded by a culture that is aggressively at odds with our values. Nonetheless, we must be willing to defend those values when challenged, always courteously but firmly. And so we return to Dylan’s song/poem.
The question that introduces the final verse of Hard Rain is “What’ll you do now, my Blue-eyed son?” In this question and its response, we recognize Christ’s call to us. We are to go out before the rain starts falling and walk into the depths of the worst of the worst.
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color where none is the number.
And we are to…
…tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
That it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
Study, Review, Re-Catechize, Respond
You might be familiar with the field of Christian Apologetics, the discipline of theology that seeks to explain and defend our faith. Some of the well-known apologists of our day are Bishop Barron, Peter Kreeft, and William Lane Craig. Now we do not have to devote our lives to scholarship so as to defend our values as these men have. But we certainly can do enough study of the faith to be able to respond effectively when our beliefs are attacked. Especially when the attackers come at us with baseless arguments rooted in ignorance and contempt. Uncomfortable as it might be, we must know our song well before we start singing. Difficult? Undoubtedly. But as Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his broadcasts, “Well, that’s the way it is”. Yep.