The “Bob,” the Byrds, and Our “Back Pages” - A Lenten Anthem?

I’ve been intrigued of late by the reflection entwined in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “My Back Pages.” Prophet of protest for my generation, the “Bob” marked our national transition to or trauma of what many call postmodernism. It was a time of political sloganeering and intellectual certainty of all sides of what appeared to all as the unraveling of America. Dylan was the poster boy on the left for all this. 

Yet, in “My Back Pages,” the “Bob” takes a self-reflective look at what was happening around him and in some measure through him.  The title “My Back Pages” signals the mood.  The great front-and-center balladeer puts himself on the “back page” where he believes he belongs because, as the song’s refrain has it, he was “older then, but I’m younger than that now.”

The Byrd’s cover of “My Back Pages” is the version of the song most of us know, and, incidentally, was that group’s last hit. Here are its lyrics.

Crimson flames tied through my years
Rollin' high and mighty trapped
Countless violent flaming roads
Using ideas as my map
"We'll meet on edges soon," said I
Proud 'neath heated brow

Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now

Half wracked prejudice leaped forth
"Rip down all hate," I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic flanks of musketeers
Foundation deep, somehow

Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
Sisters fled by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow

Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now

Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now

My guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow

Ahh, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now

With piercing lyrics Dylan sheds, at least for a moment, the prophetic mantle bestowed on him in the 1960’s. He confesses/celebrates his growing “younger” and styles that growth as a retreat from the combativeness fired by certainty and the arrogance of possessing “the” truth.  

This Lent 2014 our times are not all that different, are they? Culture warriors left and right hurl flaming shibboleths at one another. On their issues, at least, things are black and white. We don’t worry that in our arrogance and certainty we become mirror-images of those we so resolutely oppose either. Committed to and guided by our ideas and abstract threats, we too are drawn into protecting “good and bad” at the expense of others and relationships.

Perhaps this Lent we also need to grow younger. These weary old spasms of political point and counter-point, devoid by now of creativity and relevance, lock us into death-dealing patterns whose only point seems to grab enough power to enforce our visions on those who disagree. This is as true in the church as it is in the world. 

We’re too old, and our hope lies in growing young again - willing to explore, reach out, rethink, live with ambiguity, find our good in people and relationships, our unity and assurance in Jesus alone, and our hope in God’s infinite capacity and willingness to do a “new thing” that renders all the “old” null and void (Is.65).

Sounds a bit like “new birth” doesn’t it (Jn.3)? Or “new creation” (2 Cor.5)? Or Jesus’ call to be childlike (Mk.10)?

Maybe, this Lent, we ought to make “My Back Pages” our anthem, prayer, and practice. At Easter, then, when Jesus commissions us to go and tell the world the good news, we will do it with a little more humility, more about God’s faithfulness than our certainty, and more about Jesus and less about us (Jn.3:30)!  Maybe we'll be a little younger then than the days before!


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