“Bob Dylan, Jesus, and misunderstanding”
John 6, Exodus 16
Isaac S. Villegas
Aug 5, 2012
Sometimes, when I’m reading the Gospel stories about Jesus, I feel like I’m in the strange world of one of Bob Dylan’s songs, like “Talkin’ World War III Blues from his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or stuck in the middle of one of his interviews, like the one from 1966, when he was 24 years old, a few months before the release of his album, Blonde on Blonde.
The interviewer was just trying to understand what Bob Dylan was about. He was especially interested in Dylan’s shift away from folk music. His questions were straightforward, but Dylan wouldn’t give the interviewer what he wanted. Here’s a great example.
The interviewer asks, “What made you decide to go the rock-‘n’-roll route?” This is how Dylan responds: “I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a “before” in a Charles Atlas “before and after” ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs… The next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?”
The interviewer, a bit confused, asks: “And that’s how you became a rock-‘n’-roll singer?” “No,” Dylan says, “that’s how I got tuberculosis.”
There is confusion here, willful confusion, playful, but also a very serious attempt to refuse to give an answer that would fit within the rules of the questioner, a response that would fit within the world as it is, words that would affirm what is already here.
Instead, Dylan tries to lead the interviewer into a strange world, full of twists and turns, following the logic of dreams and visions, answers that are faithful to a different world. With his strange answers, full of confusion and misunderstanding, Dylan ends up calling the questioner into question.
This is the style, the style of communication, of give and take, that I hear in the Gospels, in moments like the one we heard from John, in the confusion and misunderstanding that Jesus creates with his strange responses to straightforward questions.
These people are fans of Jesus. They seek him out, sailing around the sea of Galilee, trying to find the man who fed them miraculously, thousands of people with some bread and fish. When they see him, the people ask him about logistics: when did you get here? Jesus ignores the question, and instead tells them to eat the food of eternal life.
At the end of our passage, the people are excited by Jesus’ talk about the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life, and exclaim: “Lord, give us this bread always!” They are earnest people, searching, willing to be led by this man, this strange rabbi, even though Jesus keeps on ditching them, and saying confusing things when the crowds find him again.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever trusts in me will never be thirsty.” You can almost see the people furrow their brows, and tilt their heads, looking at this man, flesh and blood like them; they squint their eyes and try to imagine Jesus as a loaf of bread, as food to eat.
At the end of Jesus’ strange statements, his talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, many people leave: as it says in verse 66, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They couldn’t follow a man who said such odd things, a rabbi who seemed to be speaking a different language — using familiar words, but in baffling ways, with unusual meanings, language that seemed of another world.
There’s a way of talking about our faith that makes it sound like Jesus is the answer man, speaking clear answers into our lives. So, according to this way of thinking, life is confusing, God is confusing, especially the God described in the Old Testament — but good thing we have stories about Jesus, because with him everything becomes clear, faithfulness is straightforward, the way of discipleship is obvious to anyone with the ability to read or listen to the Gospel stories.
The problem is, the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is like Bob Dylan, never giving us exactly what we want, always answering in a way that makes us wonder about the questions we have been asking — or, even more, Jesus confronts us with our wants, he lays bare our desires. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs,” Jesus says to the crowds, “but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
What’s so bad about that? Hungry people need to eat. If you were poor and hungry, and a man comes around who can feed you, of course you would follow him.
But Jesus wants more; he wants to be around people who really want to be around him, to walk with him not just for the bread, but people who want a new way of life. Jesus wants people who will trust him with their lives, to be with him even when it looks like the world is about to crash down on them, to be by his side even when his enemies are going to crucify him. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he says. He doesn’t want it to be simply about the bread. He wants faithful friends, companions until the end. Jesus is asking, Will you be with me, even if the bread runs out, even when it looks like we are headed for the cross, the end of the world as we know it?
I think part of what it means to read these stories about Jesus is to go on reading and rereading, despite all the misunderstandings, the confusions about what Jesus is saying to the people and what he is saying about God. The story of Jesus is not a straightforward story. Every scene offers another twist and turn, and sometimes it feels like Jesus is trying to be confusing, maybe even playful.
Most of the time I’m sure we are confused about God, about what God is doing in our lives and in the world — or, I should say, we’re bewildered by what God is not doing, we don’t understand why our lives continue to be plagued with the effects of sin.
I have no doubt that we are always getting God wrong, but the question Jesus asks us is this: Will we stick around, despite the misperceptions, the misunderstandings, despite the confusion?
There’s a passage from Philip Roth’s novel, American Pastoral, where the narrator lays bare our tendency to misunderstand people, no matter how hard we try.
“You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again… The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s about getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again…Maybe the best thing would be to forget about being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.”
I think that’s what the Christian life is all about: following Jesus in twists and turns, and, despite the confusion, to keep on trying to understand what God is up to in the world. All the while, Jesus is there, always asking the same question: Will we go along for the ride? Will we stick with it, will we stick with him?
I find comfort in the story we heard from Exodus, the story of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites seem to misunderstand God. They are confused about why they are starving in the wilderness. So they complain to Moses and to God. The grumbling doesn’t make God regret rescuing the people from slavery. God has chosen this people, and God won’t abandon them. Despite bad communication and misperception, God gives the people what they need: “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites,” it says, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.”
The good news is that God hears us, even when we get God wrong and say stupid things; and that God calls us, again and again, to draw near: “Draw near to the Lord, for God has heard your complaining.”
 I cut out a few sentences. For the full interview, see “Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan,” February 1966: http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/66-jan.htm
 Philip Roth, American Pastoral (New York: Vintage, 1997), 35; quoted in Peter Dula, “Beautiful Enemies: Cavell, Companionship and Christian Theology” (PhD dissertation, Duke University, 2004), 39.