Bob Dylan and the Spheres of Existence shows that existential questions lie at the heart of Bob Dylan’s songwriting—a point that will developed with the help of renowned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. One of the focal points of Kierkegaard’s authorship is the journey towards authentic selfhood. Famously, he thematizes this journey in terms of existential “spheres”—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Whereas the aesthetic involves a preference for immediacy, the ethical has to do with achieving a sense of personal identity by way of living for enduring commitments and values. Yet, higher than both of these stages is the religious, which initially concerns the immanent human quest for eternal life but, for Kierkegaard, ultimately comes to rest in God’s transcendent self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This book argues that Kierkegaard's theory can help us deepen our understanding of and relation to Dylan’s art. Just as Kierkegaard presupposes existential “movement” and transformation, so is Dylan celebrated for his shifting personae and philosophical variance. But this is not mere aesthetic dabbling on Dylan’s part. On the contrary, his diverse “masks” and voices encourage his audience to engage the worldview being presented, albeit in such a way that religious faith is identified as humanity’s source of ultimate meaning.
Christopher B. Barnett is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
1. Bob Dylan and Religion: A Survey
2. Dylan as Poet of the Aesthetic
3. Dylan as Poet of the Ethical
4. Dylan as Poet of the Religious
Epilogue: The Poet in an Age of Technology
Bob Dylan and the Spheres of Existence is a readable, knowledgeable, and ultimately persuasive interpretation of Bob Dylan’s remarkable musical development in the prism of Kierkegaardian philosophy. Barnett’s tour de force uses Kierkegaard’s analysis of the three existence-spheres of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious to unlock the puzzle of the multiple religious images and allusions scattered through the Dylan songbook. Although primarily written for those who know their Street-Legal from their Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan and the Spheres of Existence will also speak to all who are interested in the interactions between philosophy, faith, and modern culture.
Bob Dylan is arguably the most important and influential American songwriter since the early 1960s. Not only because of his well-known, and often mischaracterized, songs of protest, but also because of the way he is able to communicate through his art, with depth and integrity, a wide variety of human experiences. Among those experiences is one’s relationship to the transcendent, God. In this wonderful book, Christopher Barnett explores, with the assistance of Søren Kierkegaard (and several other thinkers), the religious dimensions of Dylan’s work. He makes a convincing case that one cannot truly understand the artist without first understanding the architectonic role that religion plays in his creative corpus.
A compelling rethinking of the role of religion in Bob Dylan’s life and music as well as a substantive introduction to Søren Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, this book is both surprisingly accessible and unflinchingly rigorous. Although lots of cool stuff has been written about Dylan, this is hands down the coolest book ever written about Kierkegaard.
Christopher Barnett has done something wondrous here, writing a book that is somehow simultaneously totally surprising and yet convincing precisely because the truths it communicates seem so obvious to anyone conversant with both Dylan and Kierkegaard. Bringing these two profound-yet-mischievous writers and thinkers together at the intersection of music, theology, philosophy, and poetry, Barnett introduces them to us anew, old friends we’re meeting again for the first time, and in a way that will have readers rethinking what they think they know about them both.
In this ambitious book, Christopher B. Barnett offers a unified reading of Dylan’s entire career by tracing the religious themes that run constant through his promethean body of work. Not content with offering such a synthetic view, Barnett then deepens his account by showing how these themes resonate with many of Kierkegaard’s most profound religious ideas. Clearly written, Bob Dylan and the Spheres of Existence is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Dylan’s work and everyone interested in productive ways of relating theology to popular culture.