When Bob Met Woody

On the road to becoming Bob Dylan, Robert Allen Zimmerman had many heroes, but only one idol: Depression-era balladeer, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). He wanted to sound like Woody, look like Woody, and write like Woody. During his lifetime Guthrie penned 1,000 songs, and in 1943 published the first 20th-century road-trip-odyssey: Bound for Glory. Hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across the United States he carried a guitar inscribed with the words, ‘This machine kills Fascists.’ More than any thing else he saw in the world around him, Woody was fascinated by ‘human-being.’ It wasn’t the ‘freight-train’ that thrilled and scared him so much as the people he was crammed up together with inside the box-car. Were they ‘bound for glory,’ like those old gospel songs had taught him, or some place else?

…I sat down with my back against the wall looking all through the troubled, tangled, messed-up men. Travelling the hard way. Dressed the hard way. Hitting the long old lonesome go … Hotter than a depot stove. Madder than nine hundred dollars. Arguing worse than a tree full of crows. Messed up. Mixed-up, screwed-up people. A crazy boxcar on a wild track. Headed sixty miles an hour in a big cloud of poison dust due straight to nowhere. [1]

For the teenage Dylan the stories of these characters told the real truth about the world, and about him. He had to get to the source and meet the man who told them.

The 19-year-old Dylan tracked down his 48-year-old idol to his hospital bed as he lay slowly dying from the degenerative disease, Huntingdon’s Chorea. He would regularly visit Woody, lighting his cigarettes and playing his songs for him. But the better Dylan got to know him, the more clearly he could see that he was like everyone else; a frail and flawed human being. ‘Woody,’ he said, ‘was my first and last idol.’ Inspired by the French poet Rimbaud (1854-1891) who declared; ‘I is someone else,’ the young performer set out on a path of perpetual reinvention. He was becoming the elusive and evolving idol known as ‘the famous Bob Dylan.’ The title of the opening track on his most recent album sums up the last 60 years of his life: ‘I contain multitudes.’ [2]

Who am I?

Great writers articulate a universal human question: How can any one of us know who we are, or who we’re meant to be or become?

Great writers such as Guthrie and Dylan, articulate a universal human question: How can any one of us know who we are, or who we’re meant to be or become? And there is no shortage of advice from different quarters for us to follow: ‘Know yourself,’ ‘Find yourself’ ‘Free yourself’ ‘Love yourself’ ‘Deny yourself’ ‘Be yourself’ ‘(re)-Invent yourself’ ‘Create yourself. ’ ‘Express yourself ‘Adorn yourself.’ When it comes to your-self and my-self, it seems nothing is self-evident.

P T. Forsyth once wrote:

There is no history so hard to write as autobiography. Of course, there are things known to the writer that another could not know. But there are also confusions, obsessions, deflections, to which he or she is pre-eminently exposed. To know ourselves is the hardest of all knowledge. And often the more we know the more we are silent. [3]

 Trying to Remake Ourselves

The quest to know ourselves goes hand in hand with a more radical project to remake ourselves. The headlong rush to the tattoo parlour – a quick and achievable all-in declaration of personal identity – is but one expression of this. In the quest for self-creation, there are far more significant alterations of mind and body (with longer-term consequences) readily on offer.

But such radical attempts—whether achieved through surgery, politics, legislation, sociology or eugenics, always exact a toll. C.S. Lewis warned that:

We are making the magician’s bargain: to give up our soul, and get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.

It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will…if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be. [4]

To Lewis, humanity’s final conquest of itself could only lead to its abolition. Perhaps we can now see that coming, in the isolation and loneliness which runs through our super-connected virtual communities; as well as the deep ethical crises over bioethics and gender that wrack our society.

Losing God, Losing Ourselves

This suicidal human project is part of the continuing out-flow of our attempted deicide. Without the elevating concept of the divine image, we are lost; any sense of divine given-ness and telos is jettisoned. Without God as the guarantor of our worth, we inevitably measure ourselves against each other: In one moment we fill up with pride, in another we spiral into self-pity, shame and despair. We dishonour one another—further dishonouring God whose image is reflected in us (e.g. Genesis 9:6) [5]

Remembered by God

When we forget God we think wrongly about ourselves and lose our place in God’s story.

When we forget God we think wrongly about ourselves and lose our place in God’s story. That story begins in the Scriptures with God’s purpose in creating human life. Despite our best efforts to deface and deny our divine image, God persists in his commitment to, and care for, us. In Psalm 139 we are reminded what it means to be his honoured creatures; the extraordinary wonder of who we really are.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  (Ps 139:13-14)

Even in our fallenness, there is immense honour and goodness in being a human. God remains good to women and men made in his image. Even in the confusion of our impulses; the misfiring of our instincts; the dis-connect (and out-right conflict) we experience between mind and body; our loving Maker knows us completely:

You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand on me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty to attain.  (Ps 139:3-6)

 He knows how we are formed, He remembers that are we are but dust (Ps 103:14)

God made us in his image to live in love for Him and for one another. We belong to him—both as our Maker and our judge. He knows the state of our hearts, the true depths of our sin with all its destructive consequences for our lives and the lives of others around us. Our true dignity and worth is restored as we are humbled before him; trusting in God’s thoughts above our own; seeing ourselves as he sees us (cf. Ps 139:17-18). God calls us to turn from our sin back to him and to rest assuredly in his mercy and forgiveness (e.g. Ps 103:8-12, 17-18).

Jesus – The True Image

That mercy and forgiveness is revealed with the coming of Jesus. Jesus did not come into the world to announce the end of God’s plans for humanity but to make them come true—despite our sin. P.E. Hughes described it thus:

While the fall of man is man’s self-severance from both his origin and his destiny, his redemption in Christ effects the restoration of both his origin, and his destiny.’[6]

Jesus has shared his life with us, opening the way for us to be restored into his glorious image.

By becoming man, our Lord made a way to walk along side of us in our brokenness (e.g. Hebrews 2:18). More than that, he lived out the real and perfect human life of the True Image in obedience to his Father—becoming our perfect priest who offered himself up as the perfect sacrifice for our sin (Hebrews 2:5-18; 4:14-16). Jesus did not merely provide us with an example to follow so that we could make some adjustments and improvements to our lives. Rather, through his death and resurrection he condemned sin in sinful humanity, and gave us eternal life. He shared his life with us when he gave us his Spirit, opening the way for us to be restored into his glorious image (Romans 8:1-4, 9-11, 29-30). P.T. Forsyth described Jesus’ decisive achievement on our behalf in this way:

The real and inmost life of the human race is the tragic conflict of man’s egoism with God’s purpose of holy love … the crisis of that issue is the decisive Cross of Christ, decisive for all mankind and all eternity. The object of history…is the restoration by God of a communion with his holy self which was broken by our guilty sin, and the issue from that Communion of all the glorious image of God in man’s spiritual attainment. [7]

The Freedom and Glory of the Children of God

When we meet Jesus we meet the living God (e.g. Hebrews 1:1-4). At the same time we see our future. For the risen Lord Jesus is the last Adam. He is our life and our new beginning—‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.’ (Romans 5:17; 8:28-29 cf. 1Corinthians 15:20-25). Jesus Himself reassures us, that when He is revealed in glory, then all those who belong to Him through faith will also be revealed in glory with Him (e.g. John 14:1-4; 17:20-26). The true image of God in Christ will be formed in us (e.g. Colossians 3:1-4; 2Corinthians 3:18; 1John 3:2).

We did not make ourselves, and we cannot finally repair, re-boot, re-design or re-create ourselves. Self-construction in accordance with our own limited vision is doomed to failure. We were made by God for a greater destiny: to share in Christ’s glory and his rule in the world at his return (Romans 8:21).

…Manshape, that shone sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out…
Enough! The Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone a beacon, an eternal beam.
Flesh fade, and mortal trash fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am,
and this Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
—Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) from, ‘That nature is a Heraclitean Fire & on the Comfort of the Resurrection.’

[1] Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory, (London: Picador, 1974 (1943), 22.

[2] Bob Dylan, ‘I Contain Multitudes,’ from Rough and Rowdy Ways, (NY: CBS /Sony; 2020).

[3] P.T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority: In Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society, (Blackwood SA: New Creation Pub Inc., 2004 (1913), 200.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (London: OUP; 1943), 36.

[5] The humanist commentator and writer Marilynne Robinson has shown that it is no coincidence that the twentieth century philosophy and literature that announced ‘the death of God’ led directly to the push for the death of the image of God in humanity; and its replacement with the technological ‘super-man.’ E.g. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) explicitly described this move in Ecce Homo: How one becomes what one is, (1888, pub. 1908): ‘Let us look a century ahead…on two millennia of anti-nature and the violation of man [i.e. his summary of the ‘Christian-era,’ with man as imago-dei]…to the higher breeding of humanity [post-Christian era, 1900-], together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements…out of which the Dionysian condition must again proceed…when mankind has behind it the consciousness of the harshest but most necessary wars without suffering from it.’ Nietzsche’s writing became hugely influential on the intelligentsia, shaping the thought-world of the 20th Century, and was taken up by Nazi thinkers such as Konrad Lorenz, who argued for the elimination of ‘degenerative types,’ and the growth of a ‘Master Race.’ ‘The necessary wars,’ which Nietszche foretold came all too soon, as the bloody history of human degradation and suffering through war and the reigns of terror under atheistic regimes would reveal. See Robinson, ‘Darwinism,’ in The death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. (NY: Houghton Mifflin Co; 1998), 53ff. Cf. Alistair McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. 184f.

[6] P.E. Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ, (Leicester, England: IVP; 1989), 334.

[7] P.T. Forsyth, 202-203.