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Change Don't Come Easy

Dylan Photo

Controversial Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky is said to have championed the idea that art is not a mirror with which to reflect society, but a “hammer with which to shape it.” Artists are often catalysts for social change born of unrest and suffering, and the history of the world would be incomplete without a recounting of their contributions—whether the artist intended change or not.

In contemporary American life, Bob Dylan’s name is nearly synonymous with a chronicle of social unrest through popular music. Inspired by folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Robert Johnson, Dylan—born Robert Allen Zimmerman—is an American singer-songwriter, poet, and painter who has been influential in American popular culture for an astonishing five decades. Much of his most piercing work dates from the 1960s, during which time many of his songs became anthems for the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements. Those songs include “The Times They Are a-Changin’” which warned mothers and fathers not to criticize “what you can’t understand,” and informed them that their sons and daughters were already “beyond your command.” Forty years later, in 2000, Dylan wrote the award-winning song “Things Have Changed” for the movie Wonder Boys, reflecting the frame of mind of its world-weary protagonist, Professor Grady Tripp. In the song, Dylan voices the mind of a person “just passing through,” who confesses that “I used to care, but things have changed.”

Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, says, “The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception” of a broken society. He suggests that the prophet who is charged with this task—willingly or no—must do three things: offer symbols adequate to confront denial; express fears that have been so long-denied that they are no longer recognized; and to speak “neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.” Often it’s artists who are burdened with the expression of groanings “too deep for words” where the Spirit intercedes. That “in-spiration” makes it possible for the ineffable to be told by a storyteller, for the impossible holiness of God to be captured in bronze by a sculptor, and even for “joy unspeakable” to be sung by a Jewish boy from Duluth, Minnesota.