Merton and Dylan: A Review of The Monk’s Record Player

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“You may think, as I did at first, that pairing a Utopian hermit monk and a demon-haunted rock star is just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical,” said David Dalton in his foreword to Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player:  Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.  That drew me in.  Then Dalton said Merton and Dylan were “Siamese Twins joined at the hippocampus”(ix-x) and asked, “why wouldn’t two people as inventive, desperate, supernaturally talented, and aghast at the temper of the times have a lot in common?”(x)   Ok, so I was highly curious, but the clincher was this:  “Both were willful sinners, antiheroes of mysterious virtue and reluctant saints involved in issues of street-legal theology, Symbolist poetry, radical politics, morbid psychology, women (why leave them out?), the imminent spiritual crisis, and Doom—eschatology, to use theological terminology”(xii).

For serious seekers of increased understanding of either Merton or Dylan, Hudson’s book may not satisfy, but for readers who want an engaging look at possible parallels between two seemingly very different influencers of American culture and politics, it could be a good fit.   One was Trappist monk living as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky who nonetheless wrote books that attracted the attention of both official Roman Catholic censors and the spiritual seekers the world over. The other is a Jewish singer/songwriter who “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a performance that’s been the subject of much debate in American music history, and who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hudson begins his introduction with a quote from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen . . . .”) and notes, “In the 1960s, these two were among the most outspoken writers and critics to prophesy with their pens, and they did indeed change the times they lived in” (1).

Although Hudson calls his book a “selective biography” and a “parallel biography” (7), its focus is much more on how Merton understood his own crisis in the summer of 1966 through the soundtrack of Dylan’s music. The monk, having fallen in love with Margie Smith, a nurse half his age, had to choose between her and his monastic vows, which included not only celibacy but the solitude of a cloistered life, a solitude that was always in tension with his public life as a writer and activist in the peace movement.

Claiming that “their souls were next door neighbors,” Hudson shows the “surprising parallels” between the two.  Both were

  • “cultural icons of the 1960s” and had to deal with interruptions from fans and interviewers”;
  • “prolific to the point of compulsion”;
  • “amateur visual artists” with “a love of photography, both behind and in front of the camera”;
  • “as inscrutable as they were brilliant”;
  • fiercely in “need for autonomy” and freedom, Dylan from the expectations of his fans and manager and Merton from the constraints of the Catholic Church and his monastic vows;
  • “unflagging spiritual pilgrims, perpetually restless, intense, and curious” (3-5).
  • poets, one a poet-singer and the other a poet-monk.

Perhaps their most interesting parallel was their gift of “the ability to hold within themselves beliefs entirely at odds with each other, dissonances usually more upsetting to their fans than to themselves.”  Merton explained, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.”  Dylan simply said, “Chaos is a friend of mine”(5)   Hudson expresses his understanding of this ability in Merton in this statement:  “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)

Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is not more about Dylan in the book—three “interludes” that focus singularly on him—but Hudson makes up for sparse attention by doing justice to his crisis of the summer of 1966—no, not the motorcycle accident itself but the larger problem that it symbolized.  Hudson says that “if Dylan had done no more than stub his toe, a serious accident took place, one that involved the high-speed collision of his fame, his drug and alcohol abuse, and an impossible number of commitments that had been foisted upon him”(113).  His manager, Albert Grossman, was pushing him to promote his newest album, Blond on Blond, to go another tour, to write new songs, and to write a book (for which Grossman had signed a deal with Macmillan without consulting Dylan).  In addition, he simply needed to disappear from public view—from fans both adoring and hostile—“to find out what it felt like to be a family man, a patrician farmer, a father who was there for his kids.”  Hudson sees the “accident” as the beginning of “Dylan’s own search for solitude” (117), a search that in some ways mirrored Merton’s.

Merton had planned to write an article about Dylan.  Hudson says, “The core of the article would no doubt have been Dylan’s ‘prophetic’ voice . . . . For Merton, prophetic implied both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time,” and he believed poets possessed a prophetic vocation (159).  He never got around to writing it.  Merton died by electrocution in December 1968 when he touched a defective floor fan at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand.

On July 25, 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival Dylan sang, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . .”  (51)  Hudson calls that line “a chilling declaration of defiance that has resonated through the decades for anyone who has ever wrestled with authority, who has ever kicked against the oppression of society’s leveling influence.”  In The Monk’s Record Player he subtly shows how those words came to expression in Merton’s life and writing as he lived out his vocation as prophet and poet.

The Monk’s Record Player pays close attention to the influence Dylan had on Merton, documented in the monk’s journals and letters and evidenced in changes in his writing style, particularly in Cables to the Ace, in which Hudson says Merton “went electric, every bit as much as Dylan did at Newport the previous year”(139). Hudson gives reasons Dylan may have known of Merton, though the songwriter never mentions the monk in his own writings.  Nevertheless, Hudson makes a convincing case for affinities between the two men and succeeds in what he sets out to do—to write a book  “about solitude and love, originality and autonomy, and the extent to which music—functioning therapeutically—touched the life of one particularly gifted and troubled thinker in a time of crisis” (8).

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

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 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom

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Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading

Slow Reading

Reading for th Common Good

In college I took a non-credit speed reading course so I could read assignments faster. The idea was to move my hand or an index card down the center of the page to learn to avoid unnecessary eye movements to the left and right in order to take in larger chunks of print.  Either I didn’t understand the process, or it just didn’t work. The main benefit was the illusion that I had read Moby Dick and Don Quixote, when in fact my comprehension and retention were close to zero.  As a writer, I’ve learned to skim sources at a fast clip, but skimming is a finding technique that lodges little or nothing in the memory.  Now with the Internet and social media, I’m looking at more words than ever, but this “skill” is just a high tech version of speed reading and skimming.

Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good:  How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, has challenged me to slow down. Smith is the editor of the Englewood Review of Books and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in urban Indianapolis.  When that congregation was faced with the temptation to move to the suburbs, it decided to stay put and work in its community.  To that end, it embarked on reading as a way to discern and prepare for action. It opened a bookstore and started its online and print review to encourage other congregations to read broadly in order to act faithfully.  The congregation became involved in actions that require learning– for example, economic development, alternative energy, caring for the marginalized. Smith explains, “Without learning, our action tends to be reaction . . . .”

In his chapter specifically on Slow Reading,  Smith puts it in the context of other “Slow” movements:  Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Parenting.  He says, “What these movements have in common is not just the means of acting slowly and attentively.  They also share a common end:  the cultivation of local community.”  Smith praises Isabel Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press:  Experiments in Slow Reading in which she describes how this practice transformed a South African community of expatriate Indians in the early twentieth century.  He also draws on the history of lectio divina, the monastic practice of slowly reading, meditating, praying, and reflecting on scripture, in order to underline the power of slow reading.  The final stage of this process is contemplation “in which we begin to imagine how the text is to be lived out within our everyday life.”

Smith invites congregations to read as an intentional, communal activity that is more transformative if it is done slowly–through reading for comprehension followed by conversation prompted by the questions that the text asks of readers.   The process also involves “reading the world” which means reading to understand the social, economic, historic, ecological, and political dynamics that affect the area in which the congregation works, whether that be local, national, or global. Smith says “reading in communion” helps churches discern God’s work in the world, provided the reading is wide in scope—not just scripture, but books on poverty, sociology, economics, and even fiction and poetry, both of which allow us to see the world and our relationships in fresh ways.

My interest in this book stems from two longings.  The first is that more congregations would see doing justice as part of their call to ministry in today’s complex and divided world.  This book presents a way to understand the motivations and practicalities of that call. The second longing is more personal–to get rid of any remnants of that speed reading course that still lead me to think I’ve learned something when, in truth, I haven’t.

What books have you read slowly lately?  What difference did it make?

A Further Journey: A Review of David Gregory’s How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

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“Not having a strong religious background freed me in a way,” writes journalist David Gregory, whose father was a cultural Jew and whose mother a non-practicing Irish Catholic.  “It gave me a chance to build my own faith identity.”  My interest in How’s Your Faith?  An Unlikely Spiritual Journey (Simon & Schuster, 2015) is in Gregory as a spiritual seeker.  How would a highly educated, well-known journalist –in his words—“build [his] own faith identity”?

Gregory traces the beginning of his spiritual yearning to age 11 when he was struggling with his mother’s alcoholism.  His parents were divorced, and he and his sister lived with their mother.  Through his childhood, he had endured her drinking, but her arrest for drunken driving when he was 15 led him to move in with his father, a Hollywood producer. Though his father offered him a safe haven, Gregory was angry at both parents—at his father for not removing sooner him from his mother’s home and at his mother for being an alcoholic.  Powerless in his own family, he poured his energy into becoming a journalist, and his career success crowded out any kind of faith quest until after his marriage.

Gregory had met his wife, Beth Wilkinson, when he was a reporter for NBC covering the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and she was one of four main prosecutors for the Justice Department.  When they became parents, he wanted to raise their children in the Jewish faith.  Wilkinson, a Christian with firm roots in the United Methodist Church, agreed on the condition that they “have a deep commitment to belief, not just culture.”

When the challenge came of providing a Jewish upbringing for his children, Gregory approached the project of his spiritual journey much as he would a journalistic assignment.  He interviewed high-profile religious leaders such as Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as well as various rabbis. Gregory offers no real criteria for judging the theological depth and potential helpfulness of his interviewees.

His catalyst for real growth turned out not to be a high-profile person, but a biblical scholar and Orthodox Jew, Erica Brown, who served as both teacher and spiritual director.  She asked him, “What would you be if you lost it all?”  Her work with him prepared him for the day when he did lose it all.  When NBC pressured him to leave his position as moderator of Meet the Press, the network wouldn’t let him have a “farewell” show, which he very much wanted.  The news of NBC’s denial of his request came to him just before he and his wife boarded a plane to pick up their children at a camp in New Hampshire.

Gregory’s rise in TV journalism had seemed to be the result of his own planning and hard work, but the end of his highest achievement was totally out of his control. When he and Beth arrived at the camp, he realized that he couldn’t be in a better place to experience this “low moment” in his career. He writes, “Being so far from the Washington and New York media circus made it easier to start letting go.  My world was about to explode all over social media, but I was free to enjoy my more serene surroundings.”  Even as he faced public humiliation, he was able to claim his identity as a husband, father, and person of faith.

The title of Gregory’s memoir is a question that President George W. Bush had asked him on several occasions—“How’s your faith?”  Although at first he was a bit intimidated by it, he came to see the question as invitation for self-examination.   In the final chapter Gregory writes, “Even when I began delving into a religious life more seriously, I was cautious.  I actually believe that my success was an obstacle to my spiritual growth.  . . .  Something about falling made me feel more grounded in my faith.”  After leaving NBC, he recognized that this failure was an opportunity for learning and growth, and he took it.

He concludes, “What I have seen is that God is there when we pay attention to what is happening in our lives. . . . I believe God is working on me, helping me to stand in the flow of grace.  But I am not done, by any means.  The work doesn’t end.”

Gregory found something of the truth that Richard Rohr speaks about in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  The second half of life is a “further journey” into spiritual maturity.  It has little to do with chronological years and more to do with the willingness to let go of the self that we’ve worked hard to create in order to find our true selves.  Rohr says, “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.”[1] Gregory has begun that “further journey.”

[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011) xix.