Bob Dylan protests in China, in his own way
The drama that unfolded in Beijing began when police evicted an unregistered “house church” from its usual meeting place.
The police arrived again when this same flock tried to gather in a public place last Sunday. A church member who escaped told the Associated Press that about 200 were arrested.
This kind of persecution is old news for those concerned about the 60 million or so Christians in China’s “underground” churches. The crackdowns have become so common that they rarely inspire protests from human rights activists.
Bob Dylan, however, is another matter. His first-ever concert in China opened with an edgy gospel rocker that slipped past the Ministry of Culture officials who allegedly screened the April 6 set list to make sure it was safe.
“Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. ... Gonna put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools,” sang Bob Dylan, performing a classic from the “Slow Train Coming” album that opened his “born again” era.
So who might the “fools” be in this context?
Seconds later, Dylan veered into alternative lyrics for “Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’,” written for a duet with gospel star Mavis Staples. These lyrics added a clear reference to “end times” doctrines and the second coming of Jesus -- subjects Chinese authorities have tried to curb in sermons, music and religious education.
“Jesus is calling,” he sang. “He’s coming back to gather his jewels ... Well, we live by the golden rule, whoever’s got the gold rules.”
Many critics noted that the set list omitted Dylan’s most famous anthems of political protest, such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “ and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The Washington Post coverage claimed that the set was “devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.”
Then again, maybe the mainstream writers who voiced similar sentiments about this historic concert in the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing were only listening for messages about politics, as opposed to messages about religious freedom.
Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are “tone deaf” to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.
For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this “tone deaf” syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear. They decided that Dylan had copped out, since he didn’t sing the songs that they knew and respected.
In a column called “Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind,” Maureen Dowd of The New York Times proclaimed -- with a bitter snap -- that Dylan “may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out.”
His sins, she added, were even “worse than Beyonce, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.”
This was a rather typical comment in this mini-firestorm.
It’s hard to believe that scribes who were familiar with the wide spectrum of the Dylan canon could miss the point of that opening number, said Jeffrey Gaskill, who produced “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” the 2003 album that included the Dylan-Staples duet.
“It is absolutely safe to assume that he’s going to make a statement with his first song in a concert as symbolic as that one,” said Gaskill. “That’s Dylan history, right there. That’s what he is going to do.”
Truth is, Dylan’s music has always contained a stream of religious images, he added. This was true long before he began mixing his Jewish beliefs with an apocalyptic brand of Christianity -- influences that continue to shape his music to this day.
This faith-driven worldview, added Gaskill, is “the most important aspect of his career -- hands down. It has lasted longer than his so-called political protest period, an era in which his work already contained religious themes.
“Some people simply refuse to come to terms with this side of Bob Dylan. They just can’t handle it.”
(Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)