God’s Problem with Bob Dylan (and with Us)

Late last year, author Ron Rosenbum gave a lecture at Stanford University titled “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.”

More recently, he wrote an article in The Chronicle Review titled “The Naked Truth,” reexamining what he said during that lecture. It had to do with the problem of how we can believe in an all-powerful God who is totally good when there is so much evil in the world. (In philosophical circles the consideration of this problem is known as “theodicy.”) Rosenbaum was in particular looking at how the problem seemed to be considered by Dylan in his work, and the lynchpin of this lecture was apparently a few lines that he had recently found in Bob Dylan’s 1960’s book of poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing called “Tarantula.” Specifically:

“hitler did not change
history. hitler WAS history”

(Found at the bottom of page 23 of my own paperback edition from St. Martin’s Griffin.) (UPDATE: See all twenty lines of the poem at this link.)

I don’t want to linger too long on the Bob Dylan element, because there are (believe it or not) questions that seem more important to me here, but I have a few thoughts. Ron Rosenbaum sums up his reaction to encountering the lines this way:

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.

Well, I think Rosenbaum had an experience that maybe all Dylan fans have, usually when listening to his music, when we hear something that pierces right into an area of great relevance to us. It seems uncanny that he’s thinking just like us. (And it is uncanny, don’t get me wrong.) As someone who spent ten years writing a 500 page book on Hitler, and is currently writing a book on Bob Dylan, Rosenbaum was struck as if by a lightning bolt by the confluence of these two great subjects. Here was Dylan making a piercing observation about Hitler, albeit only eight words in a jumbled collection of sometimes incomprehensible “poetry” (which for the record and arguably to my shame I’ve read more than once in my life and re-consulted on numerous occasions). But Rosenbaum’s take on it as “an indictment of humanity” and “implicitly, of God as well” is his own. I take it as a simple statement of fact rather than an indictment, and one that in theory could be made by an atheist as easily as by a devout believer in God, albeit with different import. Obviously, given that it’s just eight words, and given the context in this book “Tarantula,” one’s first instinct is to avoid attaching too much weight to it at all, but at a minimum it surely is a comment on human nature, and one that is not inconsistent with the view of human nature that permeates Dylan’s body of work: People are capable of anything. Corruption is a constant. Hitler, in that sense, was only an especially gigantic personification of the presence of evil in history and the capacity for evil in human nature.

But this is the question I want to focus on: Is this statement in fact “an indictment” of God? To Ron Rosenbaum, it is, because an all-powerful and totally-good God should not have created humans capable of such evil. To quote another segment of his essay:

Was it not in His power to create a being incapable of choosing mass murder so often? A human nature that didn’t include childhood cancers, say, and the genesis of holocausts? Are we not allowed to question His creation in the smoking ruins of the death camps? Or, to alter the tone of the much-ridiculed notion: Is this—this! this hell on earth—the best of all possible worlds an all-powerful God could have created?

This style of argument over whether we can believe in an omnipotent and loving God given the reality of evil in the world has been going on a long time, of-course. And it will echo down the corridors of history for the rest of the time allotted to history. But, in my view, it arrives nowhere. It ultimately becomes, I think, a game of ghoulish numbers, attempting to delineate a certain quantity or frequency of evil acts and events that are permissible while still accepting the possibility of the existence of that all-powerful and loving God. The Holocaust, in Rosenbaum’s argument, is the great tipping point that cannot be excused. God should have intervened and stopped it from happening. One might wonder how Rosenbaum or anyone can know that God did not assert His power in actually stopping it from being even worse, but this would presumably not be an acceptable response to those making this argument. In their view, what did happen was evil on a scale that cannot be reconciled with an all-powerful and loving God. And, given what did happen, there could hardly be anything more understandable than that.

However, it is to momentarily escape this argument of numbers and degree of evil which (for me) leads nowhere that I turned the question around in the title of this piece. The concern of Ron Rosenbaum and so many others is of our problem with God, but perhaps a more fruitful angle to consider at least for a while is that of God’s problem with us. Rosenbaum asks the question, “Was it not in His power to create a being incapable of choosing mass murder so often?” The answer to this is plainly “Yes, it was in His power to do that.” In fact, He created many such beings (if you believe that He indeed created Creation). They would be known as animal beings. (There’s actually a small and cute animal being lying nearby me as I write this.) Animals will clearly fight and will hunt and kill prey, but none are known which plot and commit mass murder like we do. Quite simply, it doesn’t enter their minds. Their minds are not open and unrestricted to be able to drift in that direction. Humans have free will, and are clearly distinguished in all of their relatively bizarre behavior by this fact. Rosenbaum’s question implies that God somehow had the choice of creating this creature called man with a free will which at the same time did not include the possibility of plotting and committing mass murder. Isn’t that a fairly obvious oxymoron? A restricted free will? If God’s unique gift to man was existence with free will, it left open the possibility that man would use it to freely do both the good that God would like and the evil that man might freely conceive. How does God eliminate man’s potential for evil without also eliminating his freedom and his potential for freely-chosen good? It is, well, a good question.

To relate it briefly to the biblical narrative: God created the incredible Universe and the Earth, and the plants and the animals. Then He created Adam and Eve to enjoy it and care for it, and He gave them free will. With it, they then chose to disobey Him, and were expelled from the garden God had set them in. Set loose on the Earth, human beings went on to get up to all kinds of evil acts, just like today. People chose not to worship God, but gods of their own invention, creation instead of the Creator, and themselves. Corruption and acts of wickedness and cruelty were everywhere. But God was not indifferent to the evil. He did have a tipping point. Whether one takes the story of Noah as literal history or as an inspired and piercing divine truth, the story tells that God could not in fact abide the evil that He saw people do. He decided that His creation was a mistake. Man’s free will had led to intolerable pain and suffering. He decided to wipe mankind out, and everything else that lived. That is, He decided to do it, but then He found Himself allowing one little exception. Noah, after all, was one good man who “walked with God.” He should be allowed to live, and if he would live that meant his family must live too, and that meant also allowing such animals and food as they would need to start life anew after the flood. It was one little exception, for Noah, that in effect negated the whole purpose of the act of flooding the Earth. To allow the good to stand meant continuing to allow the possibility and presence of evil, as much as God could not abide it. That, you might say, was—and is—God’s problem with us. (The whole thing doesn’t end there in stalemate, necessarily, but going further is beyond the scope of the small thing I’m attempting to say here.)

The Holocaust was a uniquely focused act of terrible evil that is rightly held up and remembered for the lessons it is still teaching us (and which we are all the time forgetting again). There is so much to ponder in it, and with people still alive today who survived it, and those who lost loved ones, the pain associated with it demands reverence. But, again, looking at God’s problem with us might invite an added perspective even on this. If you were God, you would see not only the murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the 1940s, but also the daily acts of intense evil throughout human history, every tortured and murdered child, every crushed skull, every crying and bereft woman, every despairing and suffering man—the ongoing holocaust of ordinary history and life. Each act of evil against a helpless victim is unacceptable. What should God do? Take away man’s free will, and turn him into just another animal? Take away his capacity to freely choose good, by removing his ability to choose evil? Wipe out the whole of humanity? But what about Noah, who hasn’t done anything wrong?

Greater minds than mine have written on how Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews was a deliberate attack on God. By eliminating God’s people Hitler would put away the notion of the biblical God, proving God’s promises empty. And although many who called themselves Christian to their eternal shame cooperated with Hitler, he had no use for Christianity in the future of the Third Reich. It represented weakness. Eliminating the Jews would also disprove the Christian God. Why count on a God who abandoned his first covenants to keep any later ones? With God disproven, the only god remaining would be the victorious Aryan race themselves. The fittest would survive, would triumph, and that would be the beginning and the end of truth forever.

The plan did not succeed. Along with the six million murdered Jews, some sixty million others died in the worldwide war which Hitler’s acts initiated. Certainly, the war as a whole wasn’t fought for the cause of saving the Jews, but nevertheless countless people committed countless acts of goodness and self-sacrifice to defeat the unspeakable evil that was the Nazi movement. If you believe it is God from whom all good things flow, then maybe you don’t have to look so very far to see God’s role in defeating the particular evil of Nazism in those days. God gave people the free will to choose good, and belief in the power and worthiness of good inspires people to sometimes make the choice to do good. God works his aims through human beings, and not only through pillars of fire. (Though even a pillar of fire, as we know, is not enough to finally convince everyone that God is truly God. See Exodus, chapter thirty-two.)

Intellectual arguments do not make believers of atheists, I think, and nor even should they. Even apparently-miraculous events do not make believers of atheists. Belief in God is something I think someone must in the first instance feel, and then possibly struggle to explain and rationalize, first to oneself before even attempting it to others. Or maybe it merely stays unexplained, which might be fine too. There are those who are blessed by never having to wonder. It’s not my intent to argue anyone into believing, but merely to offer a different perspective on this question of who might have more justification in having a problem with who in this whole equation.

“Hitler did not change history. Hitler WAS history.” Hitler and every person who chooses evil over good, and death over life, poses a problem for God, if He exists and if He is all-powerful and all-good. But if He is those things, then He doesn’t miss any of the suffering, does not forget any evil which is not repented of, and definitely never forgets any act of good. It is written over and over again in many different ways, as in Psalm 94 to which the Bible literally just fell open as I looked for some verse to quote:

He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
He who teaches man knowledge—the LORD—knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath.

Man’s thoughts are a breath, and his very life is a breath, the merest of moments. Only God can possibly remember it and give man some justification to wish to do some good that can thus be treasured eternally, rather than to do evil which provides its own instant reward. Bob Dylan also wrote the following lines, about 15 years after he wrote “Tarantula,” and it’s a song he sings in concert to this day:

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand