Vatican Paper: The Bible Rocks

Scripture scholars: Dylan and the Boss.
Scripture scholars: Dylan and the Boss. (photo: Reuters)

If there’s a rock and roll heaven, it’s probably got a very active Scripture study group.

Last week, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published an article noting that the Bible has inspired many of the greatest American singers, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen.

“Mediated by the great heritage of Afro-American gospel, in which Christianity has poured figural, lexical and symbolic riches, American songs have drawn many lyrics from the Bible, in some cases taking literal quotations,” writes the article’s author, Luca Miele. “So if there is a pre-text that runs through the entire world of American songwriting, the popular author is the Bible. The Bible has provided images, symbols, an entire language ... to some of the most important American voices.”

The Oct. 22 article cites as prime examples Dylan’s folk anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which recalled the image of a dove from Genesis, and Woody Guthrie’s song “Jesus,” which Miele says “draws on the Gospels with great philological attention” and includes a “personal Messiah” who “incarnates the struggle for justice.”

Bruce Springsteen’s songs, meanwhile, are “full of symbols, motifs and biblical quotations, in particular in what he sings about salvation and redemption of anxiety.” His song “The Rising” about 9/11 is “increasingly religious” in language, says Miele, who notes the song is about a fireman running up one of the doomed Twin Towers in response to what Miele describes as the “cross of his call.”

Other songs with Biblical allusions cited by the L’Osservatore Romano article include Johnny Cash’s “The Fourth Man in the Fire,” in which he interprets a passage from the book of Daniel; Pete Seeger’s song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which is a rewrite of a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes; Tom Waits’s tune “Dirt in the Ground,” in which Waits refers to Ezekiel and to the story of Cain and Abel; and Steve Earle’s “Ashes to Ashes,” whose lyrics are influenced by the books of Genesis and Isaiah.

But Miele argues that it’s Dylan who, more than any of the others, relied on Biblical sources to revolutionize the language of rock music while extending the limits of poetry and music.

Miele quotes Alessandro Carrera on the matter: “It is not enough to say that Dylan reads the Bible, quotes from the Bible, is inspired by the Bible. Dylan literally goes right through the Bible, he drowns in the Bible and the Bible rises to the surface.”

—Edward Pentin