I’ve only heard Bob Dylan live on stage once. It was back in 1982 when he played in the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia – home to the 76ers basketball team. It was a memorable evening, not least because it was during his Christian phase and he was not only playing great music, but also making some interesting comments on stage.
One of the songs included in his set that night was You’ve gotta Serve Somebody – the song from the album Slow Train Coming for which he had picked up a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1979. Its lyrics are striking because they basically run through every permutation of what a person might be in life, but with the refrain,
No matter who you are and no matter what you do, Dylan says, you are serving somebody and that ‘somebody’ boils down to one of two options: either the devil or God.
Interestingly, the master of the protest song was not being original in this lyric – nor was he pretending to be. He may have phrased it with a twist to the wording and set in a provocative context, but he was actually reaching for an idea that is as old as the Bible and older again.
It is the fact that as human beings we are neither self-existent nor self-sufficient. More than that, there is something deeply embedded in the human psyche that makes us live for someone or something else in order to find our meaning and fulfilment in life. On the surface of things that can be anything from living for pleasure to living for work, living for family or living for self-gratification; but Dylan (and the Bible) want to make us realise that there is a layer to this that goes deeper again.
St. Paul speaks about it in his letter to the Romans where he talks about human beings – in response to the devil’s tempting power – having exchanged truth for a lie. He puts it this way:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is for ever praised. Amen. (Romans 1.18-25)
The point Paul is making in this was that in order to understand what is wrong with us we must understand what lies beneath the surface in our lives. When we do that we see who or what we’re really living for. Paul goes on in the rest of Romans to show on that we were made by God and designed to live for him and only in so doing can we discover what humanity was meant to be like. But more than that, he spells out the good news of the gospel which speaks of Jesus Christ as the Saviour God sent to restore our humanity by bringing us back into a genuine relationship with the God from whom we are estranged.
Bob Dylan, despite all the twists and turns of his life, has been well described as ‘the voice of every generation’. He has posed hard questions and given some interesting answers. And the lyrics of this song are among the most perceptive of them all. The question for him and for everyone is, ‘…but whom?’