Christians sometimes think that if we could just get someone rich, powerful, and influential to turn to Christ, then the rest of the world will follow. Most of us have had these thoughts from time to time. If the right movie star or rock star or athlete or politician or philosopher or scientist or whomever could be influenced with the gospel, this person could then reach the world.
The idea is that the influence that this person has built up through her fame will automatically transfer into influence for the gospel. If this person has had the ear of our culture through her songs or athletic skills or political prowess, then won’t everyone want to listen to her talk about her newfound faith?
It’s a nice thought, but probably not.
As rock stars go, few have had more of an influence or enjoyed more name recognition than Bob Dylan. What if we could win him over for Christ? Well, we did. In the late 70s Dylan converted to Christianity and was very outspoken about it. He even recorded a couple of albums that were so heavy in Christian content they made Michael W. Smith sound secular.
In his excellent book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Steve Turner describes what it was like to be at a post-conversion Bob Dylan concert. Dylan sang his songs calling people to repentance and faith in Christ to huge crowds. Did people listen to Dylan singing about Jesus the same way they had listened to him sing about the war or drugs or guys playing the tambourine? No. They booed. They shouted for him to play his older songs.
In Steve Turner’s experience, Dylan’s influence as a musician didn’t transfer directly and proportionately into influence for Christ. People were into the Dylan who sang about peace and a-changin’ times, but they weren’t into the Dylan who sang about Jesus.
Turner explains some of this in terms of our misunderstanding of art. In other words, we think that songs are sermons set to music. Those of us who are more preaching-minded feel that our sermons will be made even more powerful with musical accompaniment, but it just doesn’t work like that. The message is more embodied than spoken. Art works more through indirection than through direct address. I’m not saying that our faith shouldn’t manifest itself in our music, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t expect a song to work in the same way as a sermon. And we shouldn’t expect people to suddenly get behind the Christian message when it comes packaged with folksy guitar, crazy vocals, and a harmonica.
I don’t want to overstate anything. God can and does use whomever He wills. I don’t doubt for a minute that many people were influenced by Dylan’s faith. But I don’t think our hopes for the transformation of the world should be contingent on the conversion of the famous and powerful. As much as we are drawn to this top down approach, it seems that God prefers to work from the bottom up.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)