Theodicy and Bob Dylan

Most people who know me well know that I’m a life long fan of Bob Dylan. I may have even mentioned it here once or twice. A friend recently pointed out an interesting piece about, as she said “Dylan and God”, that I might enjoy. I found it interesting, food for thought, and as you might expect, grist for this blog mill.

You can read it at the link above, but essentially it is a long apology by a writer, who is in the process of writing a book about Dylan for a Jewish scholarly series, who felt he hurt the feeling of an elderly rabbinical scholar who attended a lecture he gave that ended up chastising the Jews for continuing to believe, after the Holocaust, in a Jewish God who looks out for and protects the Jews. Somehow he used something written by Dylan as a jumping off point for his lecture, but ultimately, that’s all it was – a spark for his answer to the ultimate question of theodicy. He was completely blown away by a two line, eight word section of Dylan’s strange 60s novel Tarantula, to wit:

hitler did not change history.
hitler WAS history … “

You’ll need to read the piece, because I’m not going to explain here how that affected his thinking, or ultimately his lecture, or why he felt he needed to apologize to the old Jew. I want to talk about two other things – Bob Dylan and Theodicy.

First, Dylan. Dylan is a genius, but not someone who I would go to for theological or historical advice. He is an artistic genius, having a command of the English language, and an ability to put concepts and emotions and feelings into words that rival, in my humble opinion, that of Shakespeare. He’s called the Bard of Our Times for a reason. And to boot, he’s able to put those words to music. Memorable, sing-along, music that gets better with repeated listening, not boring or outdated. Of course, like all art, that’s a subjective opinion, but it’s one held by many. And I, for one, would much rather hear him sing his own songs than anyone else. Your mileage may vary.

But I don’t admire him for his theological or historical acumen. This is a man who, like his song, has traveled personal theological paths seemingly blown by the wind. Raised a Jew, (real name, Robert Zimmerman) he didn’t emphasize his spiritual beliefs until the late 70s when he became (to my horror) an evangelical “born again” Christian. He’s since given that up, returning to his Jewish roots, especially in family matters, but outwardly is areligious. Music is his religion.

The problem with putting stock in Dylan’s words is not so much that they seem enlightened, but that he has such a large body of work that, like Christians’ reliance on the Bible, one can find support for almost anything one wants to believe somewhere in something he wrote over the past 50 years. He has always disclaimed any notion of being a prophet or a “spokesman for his generation”, and for good reasons. I think he has no problem allowing people to read his work and use them to come to their own conclusions, as any artist would, but to impose on him some intent that those words are the gospel truth, he would dismiss as total and absolute nonsense.

Rosenbaum, in his essay, says:

Whoa. Those eight words: “… hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history”! Where did that come from? In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler (Random House, 1998), not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. An indictment, implicitly, of God as well.

That seems a bit hyperbolic to me. When I read those words, I thought “well, d’uh”. Of course, no one changes history.  That would assume that history has already occurred and one could go back in time and change it, a temporal impossibility. Every person of historical prominence is only a part of history. They create history, but once created, history just is what it is, immutable and unchangeable (except to the extent that historians interpret and reinterpret it, so that we have a fluid understanding of it).  Give Dylan credit for stating the obvious, not for any earth shaking insight.

Now, the second topic – theodicy. Rosenbaum defines it, but I’ll repeat it for the reader.

…it is rather a subdiscipline of theology that deals exclusively with the question of evil and God: How can a God who is worshiped as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving deity who is able to intervene in history be reconciled with the vast amounts of murderous suffering and evil that God permits to prevail on this earth?

It’s the Question of Evil, and why it exists in a world created and governed by an omnipotent, beneficent god. As Epicurus stated centuries ago:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Rosenbaum looks at theodicy, and frankly questions the existence of god himself, (god is a “a nebbish”—a hapless and useless fiction) because the Holocaust seems to represent the epitome of the Epicurean paradox. And any Jewish scholar who continues to believe that the Jewish God continues to protect the Jews as the chosen people after Hitler, is simply rationalizing their beliefs because they

… wanted [their] God, [they] wanted the consolation of a God, [they] needed to pray to him, and I had said doing so was robbing the graves of the dead.

So Rosenbaum apologizes because it hurts the old man’s feelings? What blatherskite! He alludes to various apologetics that lets God off the hook, from “the Holocaust was designed to hasten the formation of the State of Israel” to “God was in every death camp, in ‘every act of goodness and self-sacrifice the camp inmates showed one another'”, thereby removing the humanity in those acts of goodness, replacing them with god and, metaphorically “robbing the graves of the dead” of their acts of humanity.

Why not simply apply Occam’s Razor to the issue of theodicy? Why not pick the simplest, most parsimonious explanation that relies on the least complex set of facts? And what is that explanation for why the Holocaust happened and God ignored his chosen people? Why, in fact, did God allow six million of them to die, while even more died in the war surrounding the Holocaust?

It’s quite simple. There was no god to ignore them. Isn’t that the answer to the Holocaust, and the best choice of the Epicurean Paradox? Doesn’t that make the simplest, cleanest sense of a horrible occurrence? It doesn’t explain Hitler, it doesn’t explain any particular individual act of evil, but it does explain why God stood by and did nothing – because God. Doesn’t. Exist. At least not the god that the major Abrahamic religions subscribe to.

Rosenbaum feels bad suggesting that this might be true.

Hitler is dead, and I had nonetheless hurt the feelings of an undoubtedly good man to make a point about Hitler, God, and Bob Dylan.

Well, too bad. We should allow people to cling to delusions because it allows them to feel better? Rosenbaum was entitled to come to his own conclusions on his own observation of the same set of facts available to the old Jewish rabbi. He was asked to share them. If he upsets people, well, is what he said more upsetting than what the families of the Holocaust victims, or the victims themselves, experienced with their deaths, deaths which were engendered in part in the same religious milieu that the rabbi sought for spiritual comfort? And don’t forget that Hitler was a Catholic, and believed in the same god that the victims of his anti-Semitic, genocidal actions believed in.

No, he should not apologize for speaking what he believes is the truth. Feelings can be mended. Lives can not be brought back from death. Belief in foolish religious nonsense has almost always resulted in more of the latter than the former. His instincts were correct.

Call foolishness where you see it and let the chips fall where they may.


We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

Visions of Johanna – Bob Dylan

17 thoughts on “Theodicy and Bob Dylan

  1. I don’t think he was apologizing for the truth. He was apologizing for the anger in his truth. “A desire to hurt” – and I think that’s an important distinction. “I feel remorse for my zeal to make the truth hurt.” That’s a wonderful sentiment. (I think)

    • Welcome to my lair, Carleen!

      If he’s saying “I apologize for hurting your feelings, but your feelings are irrational” that’s OK with me. But it’s not really much of an apology, then, is it? Taketh with one hand, etc. ..

      But if he intentionally went there to hurt, and inflict intentional pain on the guy, and feels bad for it, well, yea, then I agree with you. But I don’t think that’s what he did,. His zeal was in making his point, not in intentionally hurting the guy. The truth hurts sometimes, and people need to get over that.

    • Yes… I was about to point that out.
      Rosenbaum said so explicitly seemingly coming to an understanding of the difference in stating and even defending ones beliefs and bludgeoning others for not having what you consider to be the “TRUTH”

  2. First, what the fuck does it matter what an artist may or may not think or believe?

    Second, why would you need to apologize for pointing out how a certain belief is stupid to someone holding that belief? I don’t understand that. If it’s not stupid, prove me wrong or else shut the fuck up.

  3. I love reading stuff (emphasis on stuff) right after listening to George Carlin’s book Last Words…I hear everything in his voice which is perfect for “prove me wrong or else shut the fuck up.” But I’ll repeat…he’s not apologizing for pointing out that a certain belief is stupid. He’s apologizing for anger. And I appreciate that. You say his zeal was not in intentionally hurting the guy – but he’s saying the exact opposite. That it was. He’s admitting to that.

    • You say his zeal was not in intentionally hurting the guy – but he’s saying the exact opposite. That it was. He’s admitting to that.

      OK, I get that.

      In a place for truth-telling—the academy—I feel remorse for my zeal to make the truth hurt.

      I just don’t think he should do that. Doing so falls into a trap in religious arguments (which is exactly what he was making in his lecture) where instead of pointing out fallacious arguments, or lack of evidence (because they can never really do that while supporting their faith-based beliefs) theists fall back on the claim that we are being mean to them, by our tone, or our stridency, or the harshness of our language (we use “fuck” a lot, and they don’t like that). In short, we don’t “respect” their silly beliefs.

      And Rosenbaum fell for that rejoinder hook, line and sinker. And I don’t think he should have. He made some good points in his lecture about the idiocy of theodicy (oooh, I like that), all fairly valid in my opinion, though I think his analogizing from Dylan, while it exposes some good art and music to people who would not otherwise be exposed to it, was a bit far-fetched.

  4. As an atheist and a Jew, I’ve always had a problem with the idea of God protecting the Jews in any way from anything or anyone. I don’t believe God exists, but if I did, I would look at it like this. Jews are God’s Chosen People, or so we like to believe. However, that doesn’t mean we derive any benefits from the arrangement. Instead, God uses his Chosen People as a mirror for others to look at. You are how you treat the Jews in your midst. The Holocaust was not some random event in human history. Nearly 2000 years of Christian thought and action culminated in mid-20th century genocide. The word “pogrom” wasn’t invented for the nazis, after all.

    As an atheist, however, I discount the whole God angle, of course, but that doesn’t eliminate Christian thought and action.

    • I’ve often thought that a large chunk of some of the worlds major problems would go away if the Jewish people would just concede that no one chose them for anything. I don’t voice that very often, lest I be accused of antisemitism. 🙂

      • Unfortunately, that’s an infectious disease that’s spread to the other world religions: Christianity and Islam. Even if the world’s population of 15 million Jews were to agree to that, you’ve got 4 billion Christians and Muslims running with the idea. Good luck convincing them.

  5. One or the other of them, preferably both, should realize that there is no right to not be offended and there is no right to not have your feelings hurt. And there is certainly no requirement to apologize to the offended or the hurt because you state your opinion or your truth or a truth. Too bad that wasn’t written into the American Constitution – it would save a lot of grief and a lot of litigation.

  6. I like Rosenbaum’s piece, and your post raises some questions that may not have easy answers. I think in most situations,intending to hurt people with “the truth” is probably wrong. But, sometimes there’s no way to avoid statimg “the truth” in ways that won’t hurt someone. And sometimes one feels compelled to state “the truth” regardless of the consequences. Sometimes, no matter how carefully one tries to couch one’s ideas, someone will be hurt by them. One has to weigh whether, in a particular situation, the more important thing at stake is “the truth” or a listener’s feellings, or a relationship, etc. I don’t think the solution is the same in all situations. As for Rosenbaum’s situation, I think he should cut himself a little more slack. Some settings are inherently more confrontational than others and one has to grow a thick skin to navigate through them, seomthing that’s equally true for speakers/listeners and writers/readers.

    • Well, yeah. He’s giving a public lecture on a preannounced topic, most likely. He’s not providing private medical advice about someone’s cancer prognosis. He really shouldn’t have to be concerned about the sensibilities of the audience. If they don’t want to be challenged in their beliefs, they should’t attend the lecture.

  7. The problem is people take things too personally. If you can look at the grief someone causes you as not an attack on you but a shortcoming of theirs, THEN you’re on a better path. Forgiveness is the wrong word, and that video equivocates between what I just said above, which is acknowledging that something isn’t necessarily a personal attack, and actual forgiveness which is pardoning or excusing the bad action(s). That latter bit is crappy advice because it’s laden with the potential for empowering such bad actions to continue.

    Then of course you add the religious element and you’re really fucked. If your actions hurt someone, you can’t ask a god to be forgiven. Even if that god were real, it’s the person you hurt who you need to make amends with. That’s taking responsibility for your actions, a concept that gets twisted a lot in religion.

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