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In the News.

Each teacher lesson includes two Bible study lessons that discuss a current news event that is making headlines. We provide a quick summary of the news item, as you can see below, in the In the News section of the lesson.

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Applying the News Story

This section takes the news story that was just discussed and applies it to our lives in the Christian faith, by making Scriptural connections where appropriate.

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The Big Questions

Each lesson provides 3-6 critical questions (The Big Questions) sparked by the topic that can be used as a framework for your class discussion.

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Confronting the News with Scripture & Hope

Scripture verses that help your adult Sunday school students see how the news item fits into a biblical context.

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Discussion Questions

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The student lesson includes the same questions (The Big Questions) and Scripture verses for additional background and provides your students the opportunity to prepare for the discussion prior to the class.


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Recent Surveys Reveal Shifting Worldviews About God and Religion
The Wired Word for the Week of June 6, 2021

In the News

The United States is undergoing a "seismic worldview shift driven by younger Americans," according to the American Worldview Inventory 2021 (AWVI 2021), conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. 

The annual survey assesses the worldviews of four generations: Millennials (born 1984-2002), Gen Xers (born 1965-1983), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), and Builders (born 1927-1945).

An earlier report from AWVI 2021 reported that all four generations (or 88% of all Americans, across the generations) are inclined to syncretism, selecting their individual beliefs and values from a philosophical buffet of possible choices to create often incoherent mash-ups upon which to build their lifestyles and behavior. 

But according to sociologist Dr. George Barna, Director of Research at the center, "the Millennial generation in particular, seems committed to living without God, without the Bible, and without Christian churches as foundations in either their personal life or within American society." Nearly half of millennials say they "Don't know, care or believe that God exists."

They are much less likely than previous generations to believe that:

  • God is the all-knowing, all-powerful, just creator and sustainer of the universe.
  • God is involved in people's lives.
  • all people are designed to know, love and serve God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul.
  • human beings were created in God's image but are fallen creatures in need of redemption by Jesus Christ.
  • Satan is a real, influential being.

Only 16% of Millennials and 26% of Gen Xers, compared to 41% of Baby Boomers and 39% of Builders believe that they will go to heaven when they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

Millennials are more open than are previous generations to karma, guidance through horoscopes, the possibility of reincarnation and evolution. They are also more likely than older generations to find premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, lying, cheating on taxes, defrauding lenders, seeking revenge against people who have wronged them and speeding morally acceptable.

Millennials were also much less likely than people from older generations to:

  • embrace the Bible as their primary source of moral guidance.
  • seek to follow God's will.
  • ask for God's forgiveness for their sins.
  • be deeply committed to practicing their faith.
  • identify as a Christian.
  • praise and worship God weekly.
  • hold to the Golden Rule by treating others as they would like to be treated.

The demographic cohort born after the Millennials, called Gen Zers, is moving ever closer to moral relativism as the "majority opinion," with 65% of the generation holding to the belief that many religions can lead to eternal life, according to a Barna Group study from last summer.

In addition, three out of four Gen Zers "strongly or somewhat agree" that what is "morally right and wrong changes over time, based on society." Only one in 10 "actually think that objective truth and morality really exist and don't change depending upon people's desires or feelings or society over time, but [that] there is an ultimate reference point, there is an ultimate anchor to moral and spiritual reality," said Jonathan Morrow, director of cultural engagement and student discipleship at Impact 360 Institute, which partnered with the Barna Group study.

Morrow said Gen Z needs to cultivate the skills to move beyond personal feelings, preferences and experiences to discover what is "ultimate. Just because I believe or feel a certain way, it doesn't mean reality is that way."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Cultural Research Center. Arizona Christian University
43% of Millennials 'Don't Know, Don't Care, Don't Believe' God Exists: Study. Christian Post
What Is a Worldview? Ligonier
Differences in Worldviews: Which Do You Choose? Connections Online
Op-Ed: Why America's Record Godlessness Is Good News for the Nation. Los Angeles Times

Applying the News Story

"It is hard to imagine a louder, clearer and more direct challenge to the future of the Christian faith in the United States," George Barna warned. "If Christian churches, pastors, schools and individuals believe that a biblical Christian faith is important -- not just for themselves but also for our nation and the world beyond it -- time is running out to aggressively and strategically act on that belief."

Given Barna's challenge, we would do well to ask whether or not the changing worldviews are cause for alarm and call for drastic action. If so, what kind of action on the part of individual Christians and the collective Church would be appropriate and effective? And how should such action be implemented? If not, how should individual Christians and the collective Church respond to the American Worldview Inventory 2021 and surveys like it?

The Big Questions

1. What happens to faith when we start with the assumption that:

  • there are no answers?
  • there are multiple answers, all equally valid?
  • there are multiple answers, none valid or satisfying?
  • there is only one answer that is valid and satisfying?
  • there is only one answer that is valid, but it is unsatisfying?

2. How free do you feel to question your church's teachings? Do you think questioning the tenets of your faith is good, or bad? Explain your answer.

3. Throughout church history, secular and religious authorities have not always favored or supported those who wished to follow the teachings of Christ. What lessons might we learn from Christ-followers who faced outright hostility and persecution in the past that might help us hold on to our faith in an era when a biblical framework of thinking is no longer the accepted, dominant worldview? 

4. What are the ramifications of changing views on religion for churches going forward? How do you feel about these developments? Do you feel fear, anxiety, hope, excitement, or something else? How does the gospel of Jesus the Christ address those feelings?

5. How can Christians confidently express certainty about the tenets of their faith without arrogance?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

1 Samuel 2:12-13, 17
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD or for the duties of the priests to the people. ... Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD; for they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt. (For context, read 2:12-17.)

Children do not necessarily adopt the faith of their parents, or, if they do, do not necessarily adhere to it as faithfully as did their parents. And the faithfulness of the parents is not necessarily a predictor of how faith-filled the next generation will be. 

We see many examples of this in the Bible. Consider Eli, the priest of God at Shiloh during the time of the judges. He, according to the biblical account, was a godly man, but his two sons, who also served in the priesthood, did not follow his example. Eli tried to get them to straighten up, but they refused his correction, and never did change their ways.

It must have been a comfort to Eli when Hannah brought her young son Samuel to serve as his assistant, for Samuel was faithful and obedient to God all his life.

Yet Samuel, who succeeded Eli in the priesthood and as a judge in Israel, also had sons who were a disappointment to their father. When they became judges over Israel, they "did not follow in [Samuel's] ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice." Their behavior led the Israelites to ask Samuel to anoint a king to govern them instead of his sons (1 Samuel 8:1-5).

Jesus told another story about a father and his two sons, both of whom fail to live up to expectations. The younger son values his inheritance and the pleasure he can gain from it more than he values his father (Luke 15:11-14). The elder son is full of anger, resentment and a sense of entitlement (Luke 15:25-30). It's hard to blame the father for the attitudes and actions of his sons.

Values, character, and even faith, we are told, start in the home, so if our kids' values, character or faith turn out differently from what we wanted for them, then who's to blame? Yet, while the kind of parenting children receive is an important factor in their development, it is not the whole story.

Questions: To what degree are parents responsible for the state of their children's religious commitment? What other factors influence a child's social, physical and spiritual development? How should parents hold themselves accountable to raise their children in the ways of the Lord? How can the church best assist parents as they seek to fulfill their child-rearing responsibilities?

Judges 2:10-12
Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. (For context, read 2:6-13.)

Before he died, Joshua called on the people of Israel to renew their commitment to the covenant with God, and they did. "The people worshiped the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel" (v. 7). But after Joshua and his generation died, the next generation broke covenant with the Lord, abandoning him and worshiping other gods. 

Generally speaking, Joshua's generation was faithful to God and generally speaking, the next generation was not. Nonetheless, there must have been a whole lot of Joshua's cohorts who felt guilty, wondering what they had done wrong in parenting their children that so many of them did not latch on to the faith they themselves taught and held dear.

We have every reason to believe that Joshua's generation practiced their faith in their homes and they took their children to worship in the tabernacle. So the new generation was not lacking in information about God or the covenant. Yet they did not "know the Lord" in the same way the previous generation had known him. Actually, the Hebrew verb translated "to know" is the same one that was used to denote sexual intimacy as in a marriage. That later generation, the verb is telling us, had no intimacy and personal knowledge of God, no closeness or loyalty as in a marriage.

Joshua's generation "had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel." They had been born in the wilderness, had seen the fiery cloud and pillar of God's leadership, had eaten the miraculously provided manna, had witnessed God's help in defeating the peoples who tried to stop them, had crossed the Jordan River on dry land as God rolled back the waters, had seen the walls of Jericho tumble before them and so on. The next generation had surely been told about those things, but there's a big difference between participating in the events and hearing about them secondhand. It's very hard to transmit enthusiasm and commitment by retelling alone.

We who profess the faith today, whether we are parents or not, should do all within our power to pass our Christianity on to the next generation. We should plant seeds of faith and nurture seedlings of faith along. Congregations must come alongside parents to support them in their marriages and parenting responsibilities. Churches can also seek ways to mentor and encourage young people in the community who may not have access to biblical teaching or positive role models. Yet, in the end, the next generation will ultimately make their own faith decisions. 

Questions: How would you characterize the roles of God, parents or caregivers, and children in the faith development of children? With regard to the faith development of children and youth, how might it help parents and other caregivers to remember what Jesus said in John 6:44 ("No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me")?

What advice would you give parents, teachers, children's workers, youth workers and other caregivers of younger people on how to provide guidance in the ways of God without attempting to control or coerce the younger set to adopt certain beliefs? 

Luke 18:7-8
[Jesus said,] And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (For context, read 18:1-8.)

Jesus told his disciples a parable about a widow who repeatedly sought justice from a judge who "neither feared God nor had respect for people" (vv. 2-3). Although he was not inclined to grant her request, he eventually relented just to get her off his back (vv. 4-5). Jesus told this parable to impress upon the disciples that they needed "to pray always and not to lose heart" (v. 1).

If even a corrupt government official can be persuaded to do the right thing, don't you think the God who created you and who loves you will respond favorably to your request for help? Jesus asked. But because justice on earth is often delayed and even denied (as was described in last week's lesson about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre), faith in an all-powerful, loving God can be hard to come by.

Questions: What experiences or situations (if any) make it harder for you to trust in God? How do you think Jesus was able to keep trusting God through all the abuse and injustice he suffered? What can we take away from his experience to strengthen us in our own faith journey?

2 Timothy 1:3, 5-7
I am grateful to God -- whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did -- when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. ... I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. (For context, read 1:3-14.)

Paul bore witness to the way faith had been passed down through three generations in one family, from Lois, to her daughter Eunice, and then to her grandson Timothy. 

Although Paul was not Timothy's natural father, he considered him his spiritual son, and when he could not be with him, he continued to support him through his constant prayers (v. 3). 

Paul also reminded Timothy that it was his responsibility to stoke the flame of the Spirit within him, to keep his passion for Christ alive (vv. 6-7). Parents, grandparents, mentors, friends and church leaders all may play a part in nurturing faith in the next generation, but ultimately each person and each generation must pick up the baton of faith ("Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me," v. 13) that is passed to them and carry it for their own leg of the race. 

So Paul could invite Timothy to join him in following after God, but it was Timothy's choice to accept Paul's invitation and the call of God (vv. 8-9) and to "[g]uard the good treasure entrusted to [him]" (v. 14). 

But Timothy did not have to maintain his faith in his own strength, since "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (v. 7), and he could rely on "the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" and "the help of the Holy Spirit living in us" (vv. 13-14). Those same gifts are available to us and to the generations that follow us.

Questions: How have people in previous generations passed the faith on to you? How have you attempted to pass the faith on to people in generations that follow?

How do you access and benefit from the gifts of which Paul writes to Timothy, to strengthen your faith?

For Further Discussion

1. Discuss this, from TWW team member Frank Ramirez: "Some of my pandemic reading last year was on the subject of Christian amulets. The church fathers are pretty much unanimous in condemning these, but the prevalence of amulets in the papyri (and the fact that the fathers had to speak against them) make it clear that Christian believers may have trusted in God, but when it came to having Psalm 91 or the Lord's Prayer or some pagan saying around their neck or wrist, most Christians may have treated these things like chicken soup: 'Couldn't hurt.'
              "In Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5205 I read about a person in the fourth or fifth century, probably a Christian, who bought a spell to curse the chariots of the Blue team," Ramirez continued. "Apparently this individual called upon the angels Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Bouel, as well as the Egyptian god Horus, the spirits of the dead, the God of gods, and some other spirits, just to be on the safe side.
              "Another writer discussing Egyptian Christianity made the point that we don't drop our old beliefs when we convert; we sort of integrate them together with our new beliefs. I don't necessarily see this amalgamation as a sign that Christianity is coming to an end. Since our Jewish cousins integrated into their monotheistic faith the story of the sons of God and the daughters of humans (Genesis 6:1-4), as well as all the other gods in the heavenly court in Psalm 82, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if future Christians integrate their culture into the faith."

2. Entrepreneur and best-selling author Donald Miller wrote in his semi-autobiographical book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality: "My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don't really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove he doesn't exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove he does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care."
              Consider this, also from Miller:
              "I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for 15 minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music.
              "Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.
              "I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened." 

3. "I have a lot of faith," wrote Anne Lamott, in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. "But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me -- that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."
              "I didn't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees," Lamott added.
              How important is certainty in your faith? How comfortable are you with mystery and mess in your spiritual life? 

4. In April, Christianity Today published a story of How Seven Soldiers Carried One Bible into 11 Combat Tours. Jesse Maple, who saw the book as a kind of good luck charm, received the Bible from his mother before deploying to Vietnam in 1967. By 2019, the Bible had passed through the hands of seven fighting men who took it with them into combat in five countries. The Bible provided strength, comfort and hope of divine protection to the men, whether or not they considered themselves religious.
              Maple's brother Bill saw the Bible as "a security blanket for a baby ... extra armor." Another soldier who carried the Bible into battle, Zac Miller, a Christian, said, "In very trying times, having that Bible with you gave you a little ease that you were not alone and being watched over."
              Eventually, the Bible became more to Maple than a rabbit's foot, talisman or amulet, when he looked beyond the cover of the Bible to find personal faith in God.
              What do you think makes the difference between treating the Bible or Christian symbols such as the cross as part of superstitious philosophy, as opposed to a deep-seated theological underpinning for life?

5. Respond to this, from popular but sometimes controversial pastor and author, Rob Bell: "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God."

6. Think about this: Jordan Sutton, author at Clearpath.life, wrote: "It is counterintuitive, but letting people ask heretical questions might be the best way to prevent heresy. ... [There is an] increasing mass of people who have questions, are damned for their questions and then leave the confines of church community in search for authentic relationships -- and in the process, lose most, if not all, the grounding of their faith."
              Sutton suggests: "When people ... teach things that go outside the boundaries of what is traditionally acceptable, ... it should be appropriate in the Christian faith that there is a healthy challenge of those ideas. But … we should also be willing to question and challenge the ideas that have become acceptable. We are responsible in our lives for entering an ongoing journey with God and truth in which we are willing to work out our salvation [Philippians 2:12-13]."
              Sutton asks: "What could church communities look like if they allowed questioning? What would discipleship look like with the awareness that where people are, isn’t where they will always be? Could relaxing our control actually increase our effectiveness for keeping people on the journey?"

Responding to the News

On the matter of how to strengthen faith from one generation to the next, check out this book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith, by TWW team member Bill Tammeus. 

Prayer

O God, keep us from throwing out the baby of authentic faith with the bathwater of legalistic, heartless religious rituals and platitudes. In a world of earthquakes and mudslides, crumbling infrastructure and fraying social ties, and authorities who fail us, we struggle to find solid ground upon which to stand and build our lives. Remind us who you are, our Creator and the Solid Rock of our salvation. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief! Amen.

Other News This Week

Fans Celebrate Bob Dylan's 80th Birthday, But Which Dylan?
The Wired Word for the Week of June 6, 2021

In the News

Oh, God said to Abraham "Kill me a son."
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on."
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you'd better run."
Well Abe says, "Where you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."
(From the title track of the album Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.)

When the world paused for a brief moment on May 24, 2021, to honor singer, songwriter, poet, visionary, voice of a generation, Christian, Jew, father, husband, standard bearer for Frank Sinatra standards, winner of the Grammy, Oscar, Golden Globe, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nobel Prize Laureate, band leader of the Never Ending Tour (temporarily derailed because of the pandemic) and, despite all that, something of an enigma, the question could be asked, "Just which Dylan are we honoring?"

For someone in the public spotlight for nearly 60 years, Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) is remarkably difficult to pin down, even though he has gone to great lengths to provide the documentation in the form of over 10,000 items contained in The Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, open to scholars in 2016 and set to open to the public in May of 2022.

One of Dylan's many biographers, Clinton Heylin, whose 1991 Behind the Shades (updated in 2001 and 2011), is considered as authoritative as any, realized that much of what he thought he knew, despite decades of painstaking research, was wrong, once he began delving into those Tulsa archives a few years ago. Referring to Dylan's "lifetime habit of obfuscation," he went back to the drawing board and started from scratch. His most recent book, The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941-1966, was just released, and at least one more volume is in the offing.

Nowhere is this more apparent -- and celebrated -- than in the acclaimed film I'm Not There, (2007), directed by Todd Haynes and "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan." Six actors, including one woman (Cate Blanchett), an 11-year-old African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin), along with Christian Bale, Heath Ledger (in his last film released during his lifetime), Richard Gere and Ben Winshaw play Dylan as folk singer, rambling kid, 60s self-destructive rock icon, born-again Christian, poet and Billy the Kid. Which one is the real Bob Dylan? 

The answer? Yes.

Dylan himself isn't very helpful. His first book, Tarantula, is filled with James-Joycean imagery but little biographical juice, while the details of his later Chronicles: Volume 1, an artistic success, has been challenged at some points. Martin Scorsese's 2019 documentary about the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue combines invaluable archival footage with outrageous fictions.

Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan was raised both there and in Hibbing, Minnesota. Yet the liner notes to Dylan's second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan nevertheless stated "During his first 19 years, he lived in Gallup, New Mexico; Cheyenne, South Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Philipsburg, Kansas; Hibbing, Minnesota (where he was graduated from high school); and Minneapolis (where he spent a restless six months at the University of Minnesota)." For Dylan, autobiography was something of a creative art.

I'm the enemy of treason -- the enemy of strife
I'm the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain't no false prophet -- I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go.
("False Prophet" from My Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)

As a restless teenager, Dylan started several bands with his high school classmates (their rendition of "Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Stay" led to the principal turning off the mic in anger), but he later reinvented himself as a folk singer, visiting a dying Woody Guthrie (at the time confined to a convalescent hospital with a degenerative disease). During that time, he produced songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall," "Masters of War," and "With God on our Side," that earned him the title he hated: "Voice of a Generation." 

He later recalled in his autobiography Chronicles: Volume 1 how painful it was to be introduced at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival by folk legend Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, who said, "And here he is ... take him, you know him, he is yours."

Rebelling, he reinvented himself again with what was first termed "folk rock" and later just plain old rock 'n' roll. Dylan's 1965 appearance at the Newport Folk Festival is legendary. Instead of performing acoustically, accompanied by his signature guitar and harmonica, Dylan took the stage backed by Paul Butterfield and the Butterfield Blues Band and performed new songs "Maggie's Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone." It is said that the peace-loving Pete Seeger had to be restrained from cutting the cables of the sound system with an ax.

The albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, which followed, are considered among the best albums ever produced. His 1966 tour through the United States, Europe and England culminated in combative confrontations between Dylan and his audiences. At one point, a fan cried out "Judas!" as he prepared to play "Like a Rolling Stone." Released as The Bootleg Series Volume 4 and as part of the 36 CD The 166 Live Recordings album, Dylan can be heard instructing The Band to "Play it [expletive] loud!"

After a near-fatal motorcycle crash temporarily brought a halt to his career, Dylan re-emerged with a totally different sound, once again baffling, enraging and delighting his fans. In response to the psychedelic albums of the late 1960s Dylan released John Wesley Harding, containing some of his most evocative, spiritual lyrics produced with only a few musicians and made in a couple of takes. 

The country music-inspired album Nashville Skyline followed. If Another Side of Bob Dylan angered fans, a New Morning would follow. If Dylan could release forgettable material like Under the Red Sky, Christmas in the Heart, or not one, not two, but three albums of Standards, largely Frank Sinatra songs, there would always be something like Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, Tempest, Together Through Life, and at the height of the pandemic, the astounding Rough and Rowdy Ways.

In 2016 Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature, much to the acclaim and disdain of the literary world. He did not give a speech at the time he received his Nobel Prize in a strictly private ceremony. However, he submitted a speech, the audiofile and transcript of which can be found on the Nobel Prize website. In it, he reflects on the old blues singers, on Dickens, Cervantes, Melville, Homer, Shakespeare, as well as on his own songs. 

After a somber reflection on how "the famed warrior Achilles ... traded a long life of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory" and then told Odysseus what a mistake that was, Dylan said, from the perspective of one who has lived a long life contented in what he has been doing -- writing, singing and touring: "That's what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. ... And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, 'Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.'"

More on this story can be found at these links:

Bob Dylan Biographer Clinton Heylin: Interview on New Book. Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan's "Rough and Rowdy Ways" Hits Hard. The New Yorker
Newport Folk Marks 50th Anniversary of Dylan Going Electric. The San Diego Union-Tribune
Bob Dylan At 80: Still Telling Tales About Divine Judgment in a Broken, Fallen World. Religion Unplugged
Official Bob Dylan Site

Applying the News Story

So what's the takeaway for The Wired Word community? While it might be fun just to share a Bob Fest (as Neal Young referred to the gathering of stars who came together to pay tribute to Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his first album by singing their favorite Dylan songs), one of our takeaways from Dylan's biography, or lack of it, is the competing versions and visions of who he is. We too have our inconsistencies, our reinventions of ourselves, the various "periods" of our lives (e.g., rebellious kid, smarty-pants young adult, chastened grownup, wiser seer, and so on) when we think and behave differently from how we do at other times. It may be difficult for some who know us to definitively describe who we are.

Though Dylan first burst upon the public consciousness as a folk singer crafted in the image of Woody Guthrie, calling attention to society's ills and lamenting both war and racist hatred (think of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "The Ballad of Emmett Till" and "Who Killed Davey Moore?"), he consistently resisted those who tried to force him to become a musical messiah who would lead folkies to an earthly paradise. Instead, he insisted that he was just a musician who just wanted to make music. 

Now let's make it clear we're not making any comparison between him and Jesus. Still, Jesus is presented to us in the New Testament through the lenses of the four Gospels as well as the viewpoints of the authors of the various letters and apocalypses, and it can feel like we're meeting more than one Jesus (In fact, Bible scholars sometimes talk about "Mark's Jesus" or "Luke's Jesus," etc.). More to the point, there were those in his own time who tried to project their understanding of messiahship on him. 

On top of that are the lenses we use. Or maybe we should use the term "mirrors.'' Depending on which verses we use to hopscotch about our own biography of Jesus, he can come off looking like a 21st-century capitalist, a militarist, a pacifist, a champion of the social order or of the rights of women and minorities. And since we're talking about songs and songwriters, our hymns can tell quite a bit about Jesus -- the one we believe in and the one we craft. 

The Big Questions

1. Taking it in turns, let each group member state who Jesus is in one sentence. Now, without finding fault with another's sentence, what is not said about Jesus in these simplified confessions?

2. Reflect on your identity over the course of your life. What did you intend to become? How have things turned out? How is your faith woven through or separated from your life? Are you basically the same person, in your opinion, or do you feel like you've reinvented yourself more than once in your life? How was God involved in all this?

3. Have other people had expectations about who you were and what you were to become? Did you go along with those expectations or push against barriers? How much of who you are, in positive and/or negative ways, has been influenced by others?

4. Are you familiar with Bob Dylan's music? Describe why you are or are not a fan. Discuss, if you choose, favorite songs, and in what contexts you have heard them. Does any of them speak to you personally and/or spiritually?

5. How important is biography when it comes to singers, songwriters, actors, writers and others whose work you enjoy? Do you need to know more about the person than he or she chooses to reveal? If there is a change in that person's status, does that affect how much you appreciate their work?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Luke 12:13-14
Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" (For context, read 12:13-21.)

 It was not always necessary to go to court to settle disputes in antiquity. Combatants might stop someone of stature and ask them to adjudicate a problem. This incident is set against the backdrop of a series of parables, wisdom sayings and other teachings by Jesus, and this "someone," impressed by the Lord, assumed he could get Jesus to settle a question of inheritance, probably involving a breach in the standard divisions between younger and older siblings. Just as Dylan resisted becoming "the voice of his generation," Jesus makes it clear (in a collegial way, addressing him as "friend") that this is not part of his mission.

Questions: How do you feel when someone quotes scripture to slap down something that is important to you? How do you feel when you ask for help and someone makes it clear it's not their problem? When have you responded to someone's legitimate concerns in the same way? Do you assume Jesus pretty much agrees with you most of the time? 

Luke 23:39-41
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying "... we indeed have been condemned justly, … but this man has done nothing wrong." (For context, read Luke 23:32-43,)

Matthew 27:44
The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. (For context, read 27:38-44.)

Mark 15:32
Those who were crucified with him also taunted him (for context, read 15:25-32.)

Samuel Beckett (someone else who resisted being the voice of his generation), in his play "Waiting for Godot," has a character complain "... how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved? ... Of the other three, two don't mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him." 

One of the complaints about Bob Dylan by those who expected him to be something of a savior was that he wasn't consistent. Of course, regardless of our feelings about the matter, the Gospels aren't always consistent either, as seen in this matter of the thieves. 

Of course, we've all felt humiliated, persecuted and scorned at some time, something captured in this Dylan song:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes.
I bargained for salvation and they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
("Shelter from the Storm," from Blood on the Tracks, 1974)

With regard to contradictions, Walt Whitman once said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." By the way, "I Contain Multitudes" is the title of a blues number on Dylan's most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Questions: Some respond to scriptures that seem to contradict each other by attempting to reconcile them. Others accept them as they are received and respond to each in different contexts of their lives. Is it possible for scripture to contradict? Do we need contradictions in order to encompass the variety of our experiences? How is the perfection of God expressed in imperfection? In our imperfection?

Matthew 11:7-10
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken in the wind?... Someone dressed in soft robes… A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you ..." (For context, read 11:7-15.)

In discussing his predecessor John the Baptist, whose appearance was startling and unexpected, Jesus reflects on what people might have expected in a messenger from God. Jesus himself was an unexpected messenger, and people complained that his disciples, instead of fasting like John, ate and drank joyfully. 

Questions: When it comes to a savior, what do you expect to see? How is Jesus different from those expectations? When it comes to fellow Christians, what do you expect? What do you find in others? In yourself? What makes you qualified to be a messenger for God? Have there been messengers God sent to you that you did not hear at the time because they did not meet your expectations?

Mark 8:27-29
Jesus ... asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist, and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." (For context, read 8:27-38.)

This scripture represents a turning point in Mark's gospel. Prior to this, Jesus insists that those who are healed tell no one about their experience. Some would say this "messianic secret" (as Bible scholars sometimes call it) was necessary because prior to this point, Jesus resists being known as teacher, healer and wonder-worker. 

After Peter's correct answer Jesus reveals that being Messiah includes the Cross. After this revelation about the Cross, Jesus no longer requires anyone to keep his identity secret. However, this disclosure about the Cross displeases Peter, who scolds Jesus and receives a scolding in return. 

For some people, Jesus functions as a personal "Yes man," who applauds their prosperity and places no cross in their paths. We as individuals may have found that who we are doesn't meet the expectations of others, nor do they meet ours.

Questions: Have you ever spoken with someone who proclaimed a Jesus you did not recognize? What caused that reaction in you? Have you ever talked about Jesus with someone and realized you two were not talking about the same person? With regard to ourselves as people, how much should we expect to meet the expectations of others? How much of who we are should we feel free to determine by ourselves? Who do people say that you are? Do you agree?

For Further Discussion

1. Redefining ourselves does not necessarily involve lying. Over time we may have changed churches, goals, families, careers, locations and in other ways defined ourselves by different measures. In what ways have you reinvented yourself over the course of your lifetime? Who do people say that you are? What have you heard, including positive things, which you yourself don't recognize about yourself? Who does God say that you are?

2. From the beginning Dylan wove biblical images throughout his work. The song "Gotta Serve Somebody" from the album Slow Train Coming (1979) has been recorded by several gospel artists and is a favorite from Dylan's born-again period.

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Listen to that song here,  and then discuss if you believe that your choices are simple and binary. 

3. Listen to Dylan's "I Believe in You" (from Slow Train Coming), especially this verse:

They show me to the door
They say don't come back no more
'Cause I don't be like they'd like me to
And I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don't feel alone
'Cause I believe in you.

While the boos Dylan endured during 1966 when his rock 'n' roll concerts displeased folk purists are legendary, just as painful were the boos that his Christian songs elicited during his born-again days. Discuss to what extent you have found there is a cost to Christian discipleship. Have you experienced God's presence during tough times as a Christian? 

4. Read Terry Mattingly's article about Bob Dylan from the Jesuit publication, America. Mattingly talks about Dylan's consistent use of scripture as well as ethics and morality throughout his work. Is your faith expressed in your life and your words, if not always with explicitly Christian buzzwords? Have you found that some question your faith because of the way you express it.

Responding to the News

Those who are not familiar with Dylan's work and find his voice off-putting, might want to listen to any of the large number of Dylan cover albums, including Judy Collins Sings Dylan Just Like A Woman, Dylanesque by Bryan Ferry, the newly released Blonde on the Tracks by Emma Swift, and the 76-track anthology Chimes of Freedom: Celebrating Fifty Years of Amnesty International.

If you've had a Christian conversion experience, consider how and in what ways that was a remaking of who you are. Talk about who was the Remaker and what has been the lasting impact of the remaking. Consider whether your answer to that question might be the basis of your testimony about your life in Christ.

Prayer

Pray the following prayer together or go to Pete Seeger - "Forever Young" and listen and sing along.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young.

("Forever Young," from the album Planet Waves, 1974)

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