Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Bob Dylan Introduction

Yesterday was Bob Dylan's 69th birthday, so I'm in the mood to try to put down in words why I love his music so much. I've often struggled with how to introduce people to his music, because in some ways he's very much an acquired taste, so this will be my attempt to convince you of his glory.

First, which Dylan to introduce? One of the reasons he is so great and so legendary and so enduring is that he is always shapeshifting. He started out covering folk songs and writing protest songs, then quickly was branded a sell-out as he moved into poppier and lighter stuff and then on to out and out rock & roll--and that's only his first four years! He's done psychedelic, Christian, jazzy, bluesy, country, boogie-woogie, modern, and even crappy music in the years since. I love how many styles he explores and makes his own. I've concentrated mostly on his 60's music here, since that is his best, in my opinion, and like I said can already give you a good sampling of his stuff.

Rather than go on talking about him or his lengthy career, I'll introduce him by sharing a few of his songs that I've been loving recently. If you'd like to listen along, here's the Grooveshark widget that will let you!

Chimes of Freedom
 - One of Dylan's less overt protest songs. A memory of watching a downpour from shelter is turned into a vision of the "countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse" where lightning--the chimes of freedom--drowns out the chimes of wedding bells. This song is for everyone who has ever felt compassion for "the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute" or wished there were bells "Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked / Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake." Bob Dylan (and God!) remembers them, and both want us to do the same.

Most of the Time - The perfect evocation of a relationship that ended a long time ago but that still brings a smile to your face (and a twinge to your heart) every now and then, that you've gotten over except when that one thing reminds you of her, that was so good and so close. It's powerful and pathetic. My favorite verse:
Most of the time
My head is on straight
Most of the time
I’m strong enough not to hate
I don’t build up illusion ’til it makes me sick
I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time
For more songs along these lines, check out most of his album "Blood on the Tracks." For an amazing nostalgic look back at strong but equally lost platonic relationships, listen to "Bob Dylan's Dream."

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall - An apocalyptic masterpiece with imagery that blows my mind every time. Traveling through a ruined world and describing it in a way that's a cross between Isaiah, Eliot, and Ginsberg. Prophecy of and memorial to the tragedies of the 20th century and humanity in every time. The format of speaking to his "blue-eyed son" reminds me of God's statement that the earth will be smitten with a curse if the hearts of the fathers aren't turned to the children and vice versa. The last verse, laying out his plan to fight back against the despair in some way, to be a witness and a voice to the injustices despite the fact that he knows he'll just sink into the sea, is real to me.

The Gates of Eden - This song just brings so many thoughts to my head every time I listen to it, and they're never the same twice. This time, my thoughts are that it is an indictment of everything, of every plan to recreate the paradise we've allegedly lost, of demagogues who promise prosperity, of greed, of phony philosophies, of our high opinions of ourselves. Listen on to the next song on this album, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," for an equally incriminating sequel.

Every Grain of Sand - Bob Dylan described this song as a revelation, and I have to agree. This song represents the atonement--and faith in an all-powerful Savior--so well for me. Sin is real and choking, storms rage, innocent faces are ground down, temptation's angry and personalized flame never goes out, but through it all there's an undertone of salvation. At the worst moments something divine springs up within, a spark of love and redemption, an invincible testimony of an eternal perspective. God sees and knows and brings us back.

Desolation Row - No one can begin to explain this song adequately. Epic is a good word to start with (it is over 11 minutes long, after all). It sprawls across literary and cultural icons of the last few thousand years (into which Dylan--oh so humbly!--inserts himself in the last verse), tying them all together into an enigmatic narrative set in and near desolation row. The words stay with me; just recently I heard a virtuoso violinist performing a modern composition in the Kennedy Center playing an electric violin, and I couldn't help but think of Einstein thanks to this unforgettable song. You can think of this song as describing hell (or maybe something more akin to the Elysian Fields) or an elaborate critique of modern culture (the "agents and superhuman crew" have been interpreted as J. Edgar Hoover's overzealous and paranoid FBI agency) or another apocalyptic addition to the Dylan canon. I think of it as one of the best poems I've ever heard sung. And oh man, the harmonica! How can you not love it?

Some honorable mentions: Visions of Johanna, Ring them Bells, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower, My Back Pages, Tombstone Blues, and dozens of others. But this has gone on long enough already, hasn't it?

The point is, Bob Dylan belongs among the most fun and engaging musicians and artists of all time. And now you know him! Happy birthday, Bob!

[picture courtesy of the awesome blog The Impossible Cool--check out their Malcolm X from a few days ago too!]

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How much do we know about Heavenly Mother?

I've often heard it said that one of the reasons we don't talk much about Heavenly Mother is because very little has been revealed about Her. My thesis is that, while that may be true, we know almost as much about Her as we know about Heavenly Father.

Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. In fact, virtually every single instance of God or the LORD speaking in scripture is believed to be Christ. Even times when context seems to imply that it is the Father (Moses 1, for example), it is generally accepted that Jesus is speaking on behalf of the Father via 'divine investiture of authority.' So pretty much the only times we have God the Father speaking--Christ's baptism, the first vision, etc.--is to briefly bear record of or introduce the Son. We know very little about God the Father from His own words.

What we do know about Heavenly Father is that He had a plan for all of us to come down here and live and grow and be saved by Christ and one day return to live with Him. His attributes include perfect love, omniscience, omnipotence, justice, mercy, power, and wisdom, among many other things. He is the father of our spirits. He has a body of flesh and bone. Joseph Smith taught that He is an exalted man, and that we can become like Him. Beyond that, what do we know about Him? I don't think there's much. (Not that I'm complaining--I'm sure if we needed to know much more about Him, He would make sure we found out.)

So what do we know about Heavenly Mother? She is the Mother of our spirits and Heavenly Father's wife. She has a body of flesh and bone. Prophets have also taught that she has a perfect love for us and is also merciful, just, and concerned with our well-being. We can return to live with Her, because she lives with the Father. We can become like Her. And if Heavenly Father is an exalted man, it seems that Heavenly Mother would have to be an exalted woman. Sounds pretty similar to what we know about Heavenly Father to me.

Further, the Proclamation on the family teaches the ideal that husband and wife should work together as equal partners, and our most famous reference to Heavenly Mother--Eliza R. Snow's 'O My Father'--speaks of completing what They have sent us to do and returning to heaven with Their 'mutual approbation.' These teachings seem to make clear that Heavenly Mother was involved to some degree in teaching and guiding us and possibly formulating the plan of salvation, and that She will accept us home just as joyfully and intimately as Heavenly Father will.

So it seems to me that we know basically just as much about Heavenly Mother as we do about Heavenly Father. I grant that it's not much, but it is powerful and edifying and reassuring knowledge nonetheless. [Let me know if I'm totally overlooking some area that we know a ton about Heavenly Father in, but next to nothing about Heavenly Mother.]

So if that's all true, why don't we talk about Heavenly Mother more often? My guess is that it's a mixture of culture (we've always talked about Heavenly Father more and the status quo is hard to change) and a desire to be respectful of Her. While I want nothing more than the utmost respect to be shown towards my Mother in Heaven, I also don't think that ignoring Her is respectful. A good analogy I've heard is that of the temple. We hold the covenants and rituals performed in the temple very sacred and holy, so we don't discuss them in detail outside the temple. But we talk about the temple a lot in generalities and as a goal for children to work towards and we bear our testimonies of the temple's power. Could we do the same with Heavenly Mother? We don't have to speculate about Her or parade Her around or pray to Her, but can't we be better at acknowledging Her huge importance in our pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal lives? Can we bear testimony more often of the love we feel from our Heavenly Parents? Can we speak in our lessons of both Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father sending us to earth?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Survey Results

For those who took or at least read the survey question from my last post, here are the results. I got 20 responses: 13 respondents (65%) understood the passage to be saying option #2, that the story was trying to make a categorical judgment about people who choose not to marry in the temple; 7 respondents (35%) chose #1, that it was a judgment limited to that specific case and not meant to be taken as a general rule.

This story is apparently ambiguous enough that people take very different things away from it (which actually reminds me of a post I did on the subjectivity of art). Be mindful of that if you use the anecdote in lessons, and maybe you'd do better to just pick a story that has a clearer message and is less likely to be understood in such divergent ways.