"Rainy Day Dylan": Bob Dylan, the Creation Mandate, and the Great Commission by Rev. C. R. Biggs
I am often asked excellent questions by the folks in my congregation and I have the opportunity to write them answers at length. Recently, I was asked a question specifically about the arts and music and how as Christians we should pursue them and understand them in light of Christ. Too many times as Christians, we seem to either abuse or misuse the arts, or we withdraw altogether in an evangelical ghetto, and I donâ€™t believe either is the correct answer to this problem.
We should do all things as Christians under the Lordship of Christ, seeking to honor and glorify God in all things, including art, music, film, or whatever creative endeavor we pursue!
But how do we do this appreciating and obeying Godâ€™s command in the Creation Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28) to have dominion with all creatures made in his image, and fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) as particularly redeemed creatures who are called to be separate from the world and not love the world? Difficult tension, huh?! Many Christians seem to either dive in deep into the culture with enthusiasm and without much thought, not knowing how truly to be separate from the world, or they withdraw from the culture altogether, seeking a â€œsafe and warmâ€ haven in a Christian ghetto. I donâ€™t believe either is the correct answer to the tension. I believe we appreciate the tension, seeking wisdom from God, and fulfill both the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission in Christ!
I wanted to write at length on this because I have been thinking this through to the best of my ability for the last few years. As a pastor, I get the question more often, and so I wanted to begin to try and get at an answer, or attempt an answer to the questions of how to understand the arts and music as Christians from a biblical perspective. Some may be satisfied by my answers and find them helpful; I hope so! For others, it may raise more questions than it answers because this is part of the age-old struggle in Christian theology to understand the relationship between common and special grace, general and special revelation. As I try to remind those who ask me questions, I have some of the answers, but not all of the answers!
This is my answer at this time in my understanding and thinking using Bob Dylan as a guide! Since this began as an answer to two specific questions, I will include those questions before I offer my answer. Read the two questions I was asked before you read my answers!
Again I got in a conversation with my friend about some other issues and I would like to get your input on a couple of points.
First of all we were discussing music. They were arguing on the side that music was created for God's praise and God's praise only; therefore, any music besides 'Christian' music is wrong. They were even saying rock music, even if it's Christian, is mixing the world and religion. I've always believed that music, like all art, is a gift that should be used to the best of your ability and, in doing so, will in turn glorify God. I know you are quite knowledgeable in the field of music, so I wanted your respected opinion on that.
Another, deeper topic we discussed and, once again, differed on, was whether or not someone can 'fall out' from God and lose their salvation. I've always believed that once saved, always saved, because if you can lose your salvation, could you not also regain it in the same way? Yet, there are people who seem to 'fall away' or 'fall out' from Christianity and it's hard to imagine that they were ever saved. If they were saved and they are just distant from Christ, does that mean you never really know if you're saved? I believe that once saved you will always be saved and that you know for sure that you are saved, but I have no references.
I think we can answer both questions by using Bob Dylan as our guide.
What do I mean by this?
Well, Bob Dylan is a great musician. He is made in God's image (Gen. 1:26-28), yet tainted by sin (Gen. 3). Because he is made in God's image, he can make good music by virtue of the "Creation Mandate" (Gen. 1:26-28), or the command to have dominion over the creation (this includes animals, art, music, film, etc). Dylan can praise God even though he doesnâ€™t fully realize he is doing so because he is making music and using his gifts that God has given to him, like the songbird that sings sweetly does not do it with an eye toward praising God, but she is!! Dylan sang in 1972:
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can't use it anymore.
It's gettin' dark, too dark for me to see
I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Bob Dylan (as well as all great musicians) struggles to answer three BIG questions in all of his music (as all good musicians and artists attempt to answer), and these three BIG questions are: 1) Who am I?; 2) Where am I?; and 3) Who are YOU (speaking to God). Because we are taught of creation and that God is Creator of all in the Bible, all good art, music, or human endeavor is seeking to answer these questions (not necessarily consciously). So, Bob Dylan makes good music when he is asking the right questions, even if he is not necessarily answering the questions correctly (we will discuss this one in a moment).
Who am I? Every human being made in God's image wants to know who they are as a creature of the Living God. This is what Genesis 1-2 teaches us. The "Creation Mandate" of man's having dominion includes in it our pursuing of art, music, whatever, and particularly trying to answer the question "Who am I?" Now there are lots of answers to this (read unbelieving philosophers), but to struggle with the question is a good start and a reflection of being made in God's image. The â€œCreation Mandateâ€ is given to all human beings, and it says:
Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.â€
Understanding The Creation, or Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:26-8)â€”God told Adam and Eve that a product of being created in the image of God, they were to fill the earth and rule over it (I owe the following summary to discussions with, and reading my friend Rev. Scott Simmonsâ€™ work on this)
What are the implications of being created in Godâ€™s image?
All human beings are called by God to be His vice-regents (princes of God) in the world, and we represent our God (either well or poorly) by the way we live in the world God has given us.
As a result of the Fall (Gen. 3), none of us represent God in a way that glorifies Him. Instead, we seek to glorify ourselves.
Yet every human being, Christian or non-Christian, is created by God and thus deserves to be treated with dignity (James 3:5-11).
In spite of the corruption of our whole nature due to sin, even unbelievers can teach us truth. All truth is Godâ€™s truth; there is no truth outside of Godâ€™s revelation. When unbelievers speak truly, they do so because of Godâ€™s general revelation.
There is much we can learn from unbelievers; we should not despise the truth wherever it is found; if we do, we actually dishonor the Spirit of God (John Calvin).
The Cultural Mandate exhorts us to act in creation and to live in culture. It causes us to live in culture in such a way that our culture might be more â€œhumanâ€ in the way that God called us to live in His image.
Yet an appreciation for the cultural mandate should teach us that the arts exist as a result of the fact that we are humans created in Godâ€™s image.
Â· God worked on creation as a sculptor sculpts a statue. He is the primary Artist. All our â€œcreativeâ€ work is derivative from the Creator Himself.
Â· Art is a product of being human and ought to be appreciated simply for what it is, not just for how it can be utilized for our own ends.
Â· â€œAll truth is Godâ€™s truth.â€- Abraham Kuyper
Now what are the three BIG questions all men ask by virtue of being created in Godâ€™s image?
The BIG Questions of All Made in Godâ€™s Image
Where am I? This is a question of not only location, but one of purpose. â€œWhy am I here?â€ might be a better question, but again a question that all made in God's image wrestle with. What was my beginning and end, and why have I been given these gifts (in some ways all mankind asks with the Psalmist: â€œWhat is man that you are mindful of him,â€ but again not necessarily consciously).
Who are YOU? This is the question all men ask about God, the one who is "out there", in control. Even though they as creatures made in our God's image know there is a God, because of the fall of man into sin, and the loss of communion with God, they still ask the question in art, films, music, or whatever. The answer to this important question is often (*usually*) wrong, but it is a start, and a COMMON POINT, or STARTING POINT that we have will all made in God's image. If we understand these three BIG questions, then we will always have â€œPOINT OF CONTACTâ€ or â€œSTARTING POINTâ€ in our discussions with all of those who are not Christians (and unfortunately some Christians do not know or think about these three big questions with regard to a point of contact with unbelievers who are nevertheless made in Godâ€™s image, see James 3:6ff).
Now as we think about this, we think of how Bob Dylan might try to honestly wrestle with these real questions. We know that he does wrestle with them making good music, in order to understand himself, his world, and his maker. The fact that all men ask these questions in their art or their music reveals the fact that our God, the Biblical exists. If the Trinitarian God of Scripture, the Lord and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ did not exist, then mankind would not be asking these questions; there would be no reason to ask them without the God who has created all.
Yet even though Dylan and other musicians ask the right questions, according to Romans 1, they often get the answers all wrong, or they suppress the truth and desire God to answer them on their own terms. Romans 1 says:
Romans 1:19-25: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
What can be known of God is plain, because God has shown or revealed it to all musicians, but they suppress the truth, and exchange the truth for a lie. However, music, art, and other pursuits do not necessarily first have to be Christian- -they are first what we do as creatures of God, made in his image, though suffering with the image of God marred, or tainted. Dylan says in â€œO Sisterâ€ from 1966:
Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth,
To love and follow his direction?
We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved.
In one way, you could say that all music and art is pursued as creatures, believing creatures as well as unbelieving creatures, and the way we ultimately judge the music or arts to be good and pleasant to our souls is because the right questions are being asked to which we are all called as human beings, even though not all the artists come to the right answers, even suppressing the truth to understand life on their own terms. In other words, there is a struggle to understand who they are, where they are, and who God is, and in this struggle hopefully truthful answers are found to their questions.
That brings us to the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20).
ESV Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.â€
Notice that Jesus says all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesusâ€™ authority is universal over the whole world, not merely over the Church and over Christians (although his authority is specifically seen there in the keys to the Kingdom given to his Church). Jesusâ€™ authority over heaven and earth means that Jesus is Lord of all art and music, or more precisely, Jesus is Lord over all beauty, truth, and goodness; these three are revelatory of Christâ€™s glory here in this world. Wherever we find truth for instance, it is Godâ€™s truth, and it is truth that reveals the truth of God in Jesus Christ; it reveals Jesusâ€™ authority.
Secondly, Jesus teaches us that the Great Commission is part of teaching the whole world of his Lordship and making disciples, teaching them all that he has commanded us to do as his servants. The Great Commission specifically answers the three BIG questions above in Christ, the Creation Mandate is now able to be fully fulfilled by the Spirit in Christ, and we have a more fuller understand of our relationship to unbelievers as we reach out to them with the answers to their good questions.
What are the summary implications of the Great Commission?
The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20)â€”Our Lord gave us a charge at the end of his earthly ministry to make disciples of all nations.
Israel was called by God to be separate from the world, yet not simply for the purpose of being separate (artistically or musically); She was to be a light to the nations.
The church is also called out of the world into citizenship in heaven, yet not simply to be separate; we are called out so that we can preach the gospel to the nations.
The Great Commission exhorts us to be distinct as we live in the world and seek the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. Culture is transformed as Christians obey the great commission to bring the gospel of the kingdom to all the nations of the earth.
Now that we have explored briefly Bob Dylan and the creation mandate, we shall now look at the "Great Commission". Without being too simplistic, the Great Commission, or the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the redemption that God gives to us in Jesus, is the Ultimate Answer to the BIG three questions by all those made in God's image, including Bob Dylan. But we must start to judge art and music on its own terms. That is, does the art and music wrestle with the right questions as honestly as possible, seeking answers â€“even if they stumble and get those answers wrong, and even if they suppress the truth and want Godâ€™s answers on their terms - -is it good art and music?
The ANSWER to the BIG Questions Asked by Mankind
Christians have the privilege of answering the questions of those made in God's image that are asking the correct questions about life and God, but cannot seem to find the answers. That is why the gospel changes us by Christ's Spirit and gives us eyes to see the world as a theater of God's glory, understanding the answers to 1) Who Am I?; 2) Where Am I?; and 3) Who are YOU?
For instance, the gospel answers the first question by giving these answers: 1) You are an image-bearer of the only and true God who exists, who created you for his own glory, and in whom you find peace through Jesus Christ alone. 2) You are in God's world and you are a steward of all the gifts that God has given to you and you are to use these gifts for the glory of your Creator and Redeemer. And 3) I am the Living and True God who reveals myself in creation, and ultimately and salvifically in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son who gave himself to redeem all those who believe.
To criticize Bob Dylan's music because he is not a Christian is to get the proverbial cart before the horse. Or to put it another way, it is expecting rain and sunshine for the Christian in this world, while thinking that God will not give nice things to others made in his image. This is what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:44-5:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
We should appreciate all art and music, particularly Bob Dylan's music by virtue of his being an image-bearer of God, asking the right questions about life, yet not fully finding the right answers. As Matthew 5:45 teaches us God has caused his image to be revealed in the evil and the good, and sends his gifts on the just and the unjust. We are to then bring to Bob and to all other non-Christians the answer to their questions through the gospel or the Great Commission.
The Great Commission is fulfilling the creation mandate given by our Creator because of Jesus and His Spirit giving us the grace to do so fully with an eye to bringing glory to God our Creator and Redeemer. However, we judge the music or art not by the Great Commission FIRST, but by the Creation Mandate of all men who are image-bearers called to serve God and have dominion over the earth. Now no man can fully do this without Christ, but this doesn't mean that the only good music or art is "Christian" music or art- -whatever that means.
I sometimes say that as an artist or musician I want to make good art and music to the glory of God- -and I just happen to be a Christian. I am not a "Christian" artist or "Christian" musician, but I am an artist or musician that happens to be a Christian. There is a difference of emphasis here and I think it should be appreciated. As Christians, we are called to beauty, truth and goodness, not "Christian" beauty, "Christian" truth, and "Christian" goodness. What does that mean? Well, this is a provocative way of reminding us all that there is only one Creator, the Lord and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Faith, Hope, and Love; and Beauty, Truth, and Goodness
Therefore, by virtue of the creation we judge categories of beauty, truth, and goodness. These three: beauty, truth, and goodness is a triad that reveals the character and glory of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching us faith, hope, and love. We understand these three more fully in Christ because of the Great Commission and learning from His Word, but all those who are made in God's image who have been gifted by their Creator to be artists or musicians can display beauty, truth, and goodness, even though they will not do this with full purpose, all questions answered, and primarily for the glory of God (although it will glorify God if it is beautiful, true, and good wherever we find it in art and music).
Another way of saying this is that all beauty, truth, and goodness are God's beauty, truth, and goodness. These ultimately belong to God our Creator, and when we see glimpses of God's beauty, truth and goodness in others made in God's image, even if they have not found the answers to their questions through the Great Commission, it is still God's beauty, truth, and goodness that we see, hear, and recognize and we give glory to God! Amen.
The second question you asked also has to do with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan professed Christ in the late 1970s (early 1980s) and wrote a few albums about his faith in Jesus Christ toward the end of that decade and the beginning of the next. Both fans and critics thought Bob's music had gone down in musical quality after his profession of Christ; somehow he was preaching, but he had lost the Dylanesque touch. Christians reached out to him, encouraged him to preach the "Great Commission" (I am using this as a summary of the gospel), yet he was called to make good music ("Creation Mandate"). This frustrated Dylan, and it was not until the 1990s that Dylan began making great music again.
Dylan was pushed in the 1960s to be a voice of his generation, even though he was a poet who wanted simply to make known his heart through his music; he did not want to be a voice of his generation and have to deal with such enormous pressure. He wanted to wrestle with and ask the BIG questions we looked at above. In the 1970s, Christian Evangelicals place unnecessary pressure on Dylan to be the "Christian voice" of the generation. Yet God had called Dylan to make good music, to be a musician, who happened to be a Christian. He was not necessarily called to be a preacher, but one who could wrestle with the BIG questions musically, artistically, seeking beauty, truth, and goodness.
An Apology to Bob Dylan
Dylan became disgruntled with this kind of Christianity. He doesn't openly speak of his faith anymore, but I think Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians (like myself) owe Dylan an apology. First of all, we should apologize to Bob Dylan for trying to promote him to a position of influence merely because of his fame rather than teaching him to understand his calling and gifts in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Secondly, we should apologize to Dylan for making him think that he could not make music, but rather had to make specifically "Christian" music. We owe him an apology because we did not rightly teach him the difference and distinction between the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission, and how both of these should go together.
We confuse the fact that all men are image-bearers with the fact that they are not redeemed (dichotomy of unbelievers and believers) in our evangelism or attempt at fulfilling the Great Commission as well. How many times have you seen someone (including yourself perhaps before a Christian) who evangelized you just because they wanted you to â€œget savedâ€? What I mean is that we are called to love our neighbor and this means genuinely to learn how to love them. It does not mean that we are to evangelize our neighbor in a utilitarian or pragmatic way, as if we cannot appreciate their dignity of being made in Godâ€™s image, seeking to know them just as a human being, even if they have not been redeemed yet.
Being zealous for the Great Commission is admirable and honorable, but we must be zealous to fulfill the Creation Mandate by respecting other image-bearers and their art, music, etc. because they are made in Godâ€™s image and have dignity. When they are asking the BIG questions in their art or music, there is an opportunity for us to discuss with them the right answers to the BIG questions. But in order to do so, we have to get close enough to make friends with them and respect them as Jesus did in having fellowship with those who were called â€œsinnersâ€ by those in his own culture. As Christians, we need to truly understand what it means to be a neighbor to others who are unbelievers. We can learn beauty, truth, and goodness from them, and we can appreciate beauty, truth, and goodness with them! And so, the Church also needs to apologize to unbelievers for making them feel like a product or goal of our evangelism, where they are lessened to a utilitarian project of the Christianâ€™s making, rather than a true friend we have come to know who we love and desire to share the truth of the Great Commission with!
We specifically also owe Dylan an apology for not discipling him, rooting him in the Great Commission (that is "all that I have taught or commanded you" as Jesus said), and expecting him to be a "powerful Christian" because he was a powerful musician. Some say today that Dylan has fallen from grace, fallen away from Christ altogether. I don't think this is necessarily so. Perhaps Dylan would still say to us (from his song â€œStuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Bluesâ€, 1966):
Now the preacher looked so baffled
When I asked him why he dressed
With twenty pounds of headlines
Stapled to his chest
But he cursed me when I proved it to him.
Then I whispered. "Not even you can hide.
You see, you're just like me.
I hope you're satisfied."
Now What About Dylan â€œFalling Awayâ€?
The Bible teaches us in John 10 that no one the Father has called, and has been united to Jesus Christ can fall away. There may be times when those who professed Christ were only professing Christians and not real Christians, but no Christian who has been united to Jesus can fall away. Consider two New Testament passages:
John 10:27-30: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.
NO ONE is able to snatch Christ's sheep away from him- - including Dylan! Yet Jesus teaches that there are some who merely profess, but do not know the Lord Christ. Is that Dylan? I donâ€™t know- -only God knows; I hope not!
Matthew 7:21-23: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
Yet there are some who profess Christ, who do not really know Christ! Is this Dylan? I am not sure, only time will tell. The Bible teaches us, and this means Dylan too, that we can be sure of our calling and election. The Apostle Peter commands us to make our calling and election sure and he would not have commanded this in Christ if Christians were unable to do it (2 Peter 1:10). Perhaps if we repent as Christians, and go to Dylan and tell him that we are sorry for having a Evangelical ghetto kind-of-mentality with regard to his music, misunderstanding, or confusing the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission, that Christ would have mercy on Dylan.
Where is Dylan right now in his faith and growth in Christ? Only God knows, but his life is an example of how Evangelical Christians make serious mistakes confessing that only Christians musicians or artists can produce beauty, truth, and goodness. Again, beauty, truth, and goodness are God's beauty, truth, and goodness no matter where we find it- -believer or unbeliever.
Now say a believer who is a Christian wants to preach the Great Commission, but hasn't understood themselves as one made in God's image. They might miss an opportunity to have a point of contact with all human beings made in God's image, particularly those asking good questions about beauty, truth and goodness in the arts and in music. Right?! They might think of themselves higher than they ought and miss Jesus' commission to make disciples, and to do all things for the glory of God.
What is â€œChristianâ€ Art and â€œChristianâ€ Music Anyway?
How are Christians to do all things for the glory of God by living merely in a Christian ghetto filled with only "Christian" art, or "Christian" music", or "Christian" film? How are Christians to find points of contact and help those who are lost find the answers they are seeking as image-bearers? What is "Christian" art anyway? Is it art with a Bible verse on it? Is it little figurines that look sweet and cute that have a Bible verse on them? What is "Christian" music? Music that only preaches the gospel is that "Christian" music? What is a "Christian" film? Is it a film with Christians, living Christian lives?
God has placed us in creation to witness to the truth of God's reality! He has given us gifts to use within the Church and the whole creation to honor him. But much of what we learn in the arts and music come through studying the Masters who were not always believers. What made the GREAT Masters was that they wrestled with asking and seeking answers to the right questions- -the BIG ones. They did not always find full beauty, truth, or goodness, but where they did find beauty, truth and goodness they revealed God our Creator, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ- -even if that was not their intention, because all beauty, truth, and goodness is God's beauty, truth, and goodness.
So, Dylan is the answer to both of your questions. Dylan is a great musician. Period. He reveals his true humanity and the creativity of His Creator in his music- -and he does this well and in a way a Christian can learn from him. Only God knows whether Dylan is one of his own, but if he is NO one will be able to snatch him out of the Father's hand. And "NO ONE" does not mean perhaps someone, or maybe himself, or perhaps the devil himself- -it means "NO ONE".
Dylan wrote in the 1970s:
Well, it's that old sign on the cross,
Well, it's that old key to the kingdom,
Well, it's that old sign on the cross
Like you used to be.
But, when I hold my head so high
As I see my ol' friends go by,
And it's still that sign on the cross
That worries me.
Great questions my brother! Keep 'em coming and listen to Dylan's great album 'Blonde on Blonde' as my treat and notice the beauty, truth, and goodness you find, then give glory to God for a musician you can learn from as a Christian.
I realize this is only the beginning of a discussion, but I submit it to those interested with hopes of learning more about this important topic!