Friday, February 5, 2016

What Good am I? And What is the Chief End of Man?

What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?

What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?

What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

Oh, What can we say?  It’s a masterpiece.  You can’t analyze a masterpiece.  It is open to lots of interpretations.  You can’t break down the meaning of the Mona Lisa.   But can we at least provide some historical context?  Can we at least analyze the surrounding words?  Can we at least see how the song might fit with the rest of 1989 Oh Mercy Album?  Can we at least look at the way the artist uses these amazing five short verses to build to such powerful and masterful conclusion?   Yeah we can do all that.  So let’s get started.

Let’s start at the end.  Since this last verse seems to be the culmination and appears to contain the whole meaning of the song.

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

Why would I want to say foolish things?     Popular culture, says foolish things all day long: 

The news of the day is on all the time
All the latest gossip all the latest rhyme

Reality TV and the Kardashians speak foolish things.  So much of life in our times is almost all about foolish things.  Ninety percent of what is on television is foolish things.   We don’t need any more foolish things!  Interviewers are constantly asking Bob Dylan foolish things.  He wants to get beyond foolish things.  How about getting into something significant and important?  How about something meaningful so that we can get an answer to that burning question that we all have continually bouncing around inside ourselves; it is really the question for all the ages, What Good Am I?  Or put another way,  Why am I here?   What is my Purpose?  Or turning it around, “What am I Good For?”  How can I find the Good?  And in my movement toward the Good, How can I stop this incessant problem that we all have of:

if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see

In these profound questions aren’t we really just asking for the singular and overriding end for which human beings were created, and for what purpose?  Isn’t this the same thing Plato and Aristotle sought after, the Summum bonum “the highest good”?  Or as it was so poignantly put in Seventeenth Century, “What is the Chief end of Man?”  We have got to get beyond the foolish things!   They won’t provide us with the answer to our deepest longing.  And If we never get to the answer of the critical question, What Good am I?, because we “freeze in the moment,” the moment for decisive action, like “the rest that don’t try” What Good are we?

What about laughing in the face of what sorrow brings?  In other words, pretending that we do not live in a sin laden, cursed and sorrow filled world with all the miseries of this life and always trying to put a happy face on it.  The problem with such an effort is that it is bound to fail because at bottom:

power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is

But now we come now to the hardest line in the entire song.   The last line:

And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

Who is silently dying in this story?  We began in the second line by recognizing that we can’t just

just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed

to do that would be like

turning a deaf ear to the thundering sky

This is not an old woman on her death bed.  No! The way that she is dressed should turn our heads, not away but towards!   We need to respond in an appropriate way to this positive stimulus.

I think we can get some much needed help here from the other songs on this amazing Oh Mercy Album.  Another similar song that gets into the big questions, the questions about God and Man and Law is the very powerful Man In The Long Black Coat.   That one too has death as it focus, remember there  

was dust on the man
In the long black coat

The dust of death, and there’s also a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry.  The woman in that story

She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

And it was not only because she was seduced, we should remember that she is the one who

she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance,

You’re telling me that she ran off with death personified?   Yeah, that is what he is telling us.   And similarly in our song we can’t let this happen, we can’t …

 just turn my back while you silently die

If we did, ….What good am I?

To do so would be to:

know and don’t do
to see and don’t say

These are called “Sins of Omission” and Freezing in the moment is just not going to cut it.  Nor will being like all the others, all the rest who don’t try.

So what do we need to do to stop turning our back on others while they silently die?   Or to get ourselves to stop Freezing in the moment? Or following all the rest who don’t try?

There is another important couplet in this oh-so-sparse, yet oh-so-dense song which is so filled with meaning:

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

This verse is critical to the meaning of the song.  With this verse, the song takes a critical turn and the musical key changes here too.   There is recognition that there is a problem with being “fast bound in sin and nature’s night” as the hymn writer put it.  The image used here is reminiscent of another great English writer, C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia and specifically the volume called The Silver Chair.   In the story, Prince Rilian is strapped into a Silver Chair each night because during a certain hour of the night he raves and raves crazy talk.   Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle are instructed that under no circumstances are they to pay any attention to what he is raving about in the middle of the night.

But when they witness the beginning of the knight's transformation, the knight cries out, "I adjure you to set me free.  By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the Great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you!"  Once the name of Aslan, the Christ figure, is evoked they know what they must do.

The three cut him loose, and the knight is turned back to his normal princely self, and the new released prince then grabs his sword, and slashes the silver chair to pieces.

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

Isn’t this the same bondage describe in Dylan’s 1979 Precious Angel:

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”

The songwriter encourages us to ask some hard questions.   Why are we also so “fast bound in sin and natures night” Why?   Why are we so prone to:

know and don’t do   (hypocrisy)
to see and don’t say  (failure to act on truth)
to look right through you  (centered on self)

But the good news of the gospel that Bob so fully embraced in 1979 is that while it is true that we are unable to save ourselves, we can’t escape the bondage by ourselves, but our hands can be untied, and an end can be made of our bondage to sin and nature’s night.  And when it is understood that God sent his only son to die in the place of His people, they see that they are of great value to him, and as Bob sang often during this period:
Jesus is coming
Coming back to gather his jewels

This too is the explanation why Christians are always so compelled to share their faith by reaching out in love to other sinners, telling them about the wonderful, absolutely free salvation that they have found and offering them that same grace that is to be found in Christ alone.   They simply can’t:

just turn their backs while you silently die

If they did, they would then have to ask themselves the hardest question?

What good am I?

And it is the gospel that makes this fundamental transformation in a person, so that they can finally at last know the answer to life's most pressing question, “What Good … Am I?”

And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you

I Believe In You, Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music

By His truth I can be upright
By His strength I do endure
By His power I’ve been lifted
In His love I am secure
He bought me with a price
Freed me from the pit
Full of emptiness and wrath
And the fire that burns in it

Saved, Copyright © 1980 by Special Rider Music



    1. Exactly my thoughts on this. It's a song to which I have an intensely personal reaction. It's to do with my personal conscience and I hope has a similar effect on others, but really nothing to do with the dreadful Narnia books which sickened me even as a child.

    2. Hey Somebody! Thanks for your comments. Like I said, "It is open to lots of interpretations." I like your Handle that shows you, like Patty Smith, believe in "Particular-ism."

      This topic is wonderfully explored by B.B. Warfield in his Plan of Salvation where he builds a powerful case in his discussion of: Universalism vs. Particularism: Given the reality that God works on men’s souls directly–the next question is whether he exerts this saving power equally on all men. Does he apply this saving power on every person, whether they or saved or not (Universalism), or does he apply it to particular individuals who are actually saved (Particularism)? Does God’s grace just make salvation a possibility or does it actually make salvation a reality?

      Warfield’s answer: Particularism (Calvinism).

      The logic and flow of Warfield’s argument are powerful and weighty. He builds such momentum towards Particularism (Calvinism), that even at an early point in the book the reader gets the sense that it is an inevitability. All the biblical and theological arrows are pointing in the same direction. So Patty Smith gets it right, Jesus died for Somebody's Sins.....