[The following is an excerpt from Rock God: How God Shakes, Rattles and Rolls Our Easy-Listening Lives, coming from SalvationLife Books in June 2014.]
The Newport Folk Festival had hosted Bob Dylan in 1963 and 1964, where he was an up-and-coming golden boy lifting high the folk torch for the new generation. But when he took the stage in 1965, it was no longer just Bob and an acoustic guitar and harmonica. The unthinkable happened: Bob Dylan went electric. Playing a Fender Stratocaster and backed by an electric band, Bob launched into “Maggie’s Farm” and then “Like a Rolling Stone” to a mixture of cheers and boos. This new sound characterized Dylan’s new album and subsequent tour, which was met with the mixed reaction throughout, including the concert in Manchester, England, during which a fan yelled, “Judas!” (In response, Dylan called the man a liar and then told his band to play it loud!)
So what was the big deal? Why did an electrified Bob Dylan so bother not only the fans, but many of Bob’s own heroes in the folk music community? The accusation was basically that Dylan had turned his back on his roots to become a rock star. Folk music is music of the people. It’s music for singing along, for rallying others, for giving voice to the worker and the young and the oppressed and the voiceless. It isn’t about volume and spectacle and rock star trappings. Bob Dylan couldn’t be both a folkie and a rocker. Or could he?
What if, by going electric, Dylan was actually enlarging the music of the people? Perhaps he didn’t like being pigeonholed, nor did he like “the people” being pigeonholed with one style of music. With hindsight it’s clear that Bob Dylan had many stories to tell – stories of the people. And he found rock to be a suitable voice. Rock and roll is also roots music, the music of the people. Rock and roll was not born onstage. It was born in the fields and in the church. It’s music for garages and front porches and street corners. Yes it blows the walls off of coliseums. But it always comes back to the street…to the people.
God is a God of the people. He’s not a product of the people, but a God who does not restrict his revelations or residency to an elite class or halls of power. Instead, he is Immanuel, literally “God with us.” This is how he is revealed at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel with the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:23; Is. 7:14). And Jesus reminds his followers of the same thing at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). And these declarations bookend story after story of the good news that God has come in flesh to live and die and rise and make all things new, right in our midst.
God is here, with us, rooted inside us. He is the Rock God, the God of fields and churches, of garages and front porches and street corners. The God of the people. We don’t save rock and roll for times when we jump on a Harley, light up a smoke, and leave our hometown behind. Rock and roll is all about our hometown. We move into the music. It’s part of us, and we’re part of it.
And this is the way of the Rock God, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He isn’t some distant deity we only encounter in a church building or in a “religious experience” or in death. We find him rooted in us, and we find ourselves rooted in him. He comes to us, and we leave ourselves behind to go to him. We leave the flash and bombast and rock star trappings and sold-out soullessness to return to the raw, the real, the Rock God…