Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For better or worse

‘And don’t criticize what you can’t understand,’ a famous quote from one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’, is usually quoted completely out of context. The line occurs in this stanza,

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

Whoa, Nellie! That’s a heavy lyric, but no more heavy than the rest of the song. I’ve been singing it all my adult life, almost from the day I heard it, to this very day. I ‘agree’ with pretty much everything it says, and most of what it stands for. But it’s the spirit of the song that resonates most with me, as do most of Dylan’s other ‘protest’ songs. Essentially, he is a spirit struggling against enormous odds in a sinful world, and though a self-acknowledged sinner himself, that doesn’t change the fact that evolution is going on, and we’re all hanging on the best we can, for dear life.

Regarding the stanza quoted, I was the son once, then the father of four sons. I was ‘lucky’ enough to have parents who knew when to keep their mouths shut, and when to speak, and as a father I tried to imitate them. The wisdom that comes to us as we age if we don’t resist it still tells me this song is on the right track, but it has reinterpreted many parts of it along the way, and I shouldn’t wonder if it keeps it up till the end of time. Like the Bible which inspired many of his songs, Dylan’s prophetic lyrics grow as we grow. As for criticism, I like to stay away from it when I can, but sometimes it’s too compelling.

There is a certain British ‘court fool’ who is a well-known spokesman for enlightened atheism, among other things, and does he ever have a mouth on him! When I listen in on his six-minute rants, it’s usually his criticisms of Islam and what effect it’s having on the West that I’m after. He dares to say such outrageous things that it is a wonder that he hasn’t been assassinated by them. I suppose they’re leaving him alone because he is such a visible fool, obviously insane (from their point of view), and attacking their invincible, holy religion by exposing the truth about it, not in it, and killing him would be to ‘fight fire with fire.’ If they killed him, it would be as much as if to let him have the last word, ‘I told you so.’

Well, yesterday, and for the first time, I listened to a few of his rants against Christianity. I knew they were there, but I simply wasn’t interested. After all, what can one atheist say, even cleverly, that hasn’t been said before, so boringly? I anticipated, though, by the measure of his wit, that whatever he would say would probably be unexpectedly novel. I was both right and wrong. Some of the things he said were unexpectedly novel for an atheist. He says he accepts Jesus, but not what Christianity (which he repeatedly, lumping it together with Islam, calls fascist) believes about him. Of course he can’t, because as an atheist, Jesus cannot be God for him. I can respect that. Most of the non-Christian world, and even much of the unchurched Christian world, holds the same opinion. The facts about Christ will never change that, because unless you really are seeking the truth (and will stop at nothing to find it) you will reject even what is in plain sight, right in front of you, if it doesn’t match up to your iron-clad prejudices. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Jews.

His assault on the doctrine of the Trinity came off as boyishly ignorant, making me think immediately of the line from Dylan’s song with which I started this rant of my own. Where his criticisms (actually his attacks) on the Islamic movement (I can’t classify it as a religion, because it’s a totalitarian experience) come across as calculatedly and incautiously valid, revealing a learned and logical mind, practically all the snubs and insults he threw at the Church were predictably pedestrian, revealing a not-very-serious or cerebral investigatory technique. It almost seems as if for him, Christianity is just not worth tearing apart and trampling, since it’s making a good job of doing that to itself already. A former Roman Catholic, our court fool’s rants against Christianity are really nothing more than a porous resentment of his failed childhood faith, unstudious, and catering to the hordes of other disappointed people from that church.

In short (and I’m sorry to have made ‘long’ of it), listening to his rants, I was unshaken, unshocked, and remain unshackled from my own churchly resentments. His accusations that the Church exists solely to control people and milk them for time and assets fell on (my) deaf ears. He’s talking about the element in the Church that I call ‘the Nicolaitans.’ I don’t agree with most of what he says about them, for example, that they ‘made up’ the ‘illogical’ doctrine of the Trinity. I do, however, agree with him on many of his criticisms of the way the Church in general substitutes mere belief for the actual following of (or discipleship to) Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer said it better, and is also more reliable, since he didn’t excuse himself from that responsibility (to follow Christ) as our court fool has.

‘And don’t criticize what you can’t understand,’ finally, applies to me as well as to the other fool I’ve been writing about. I admit not that I can’t understand him, just that I don’t. To say ‘cannot’ implies that something is impossible. I’m not sure that even Dylan meant exactly what his song seems to say at this point. In context, I think that parents of teenagers could understand them if they wanted to, not that understanding them is intrinsically impossible. I’d also say the same about this critic when he rants against Christianity. He’s had a taste of it. It didn’t please him. Maybe something about it was inconvenient. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, intrinsically impossible for him to understand what (authentic, not popular) Christianity believes. He could, if he would, given time and an open mind. Oddly, the very closed-mindedness he blames Christianity for seems inexcusably imprinted on him as well.

Criticism is something I’ve written about before. It isn’t ever going to go away, not in me, not in you, certainly not in the court fool I’ve been celebrating—it’s his daily bread. If we don’t criticize what we can’t understand, perhaps at least we can criticize what we do understand. Perhaps, we should. This is what ‘free speech’ is all about. It’s one of the inalienable human rights given to us by our Creator, you know, the one the fool says doesn’t exist, and he’s thankful for it, I’m sure, though to whom, I really can’t say. And it is free speech that will, in the end, tear down every false thing in the universe, at least in the human one. And so, though I don’t always agree with him, the court fool is worth hearing, for better or for worse.


Sasha said...

Is that you in the first photo? :)

And young Dylan's photo is so good! never seen it before.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Does it look like me? No, of course not. That is Pat Condell, the court fool I am talking about in this post!