Have you ever wondered what Bethlehem looked like at the time Jesus was born
there? It wasn’t something Pieter Bruegel the Elder wondered about —
he knew it looked just like any small town in the Netherlands, where he
lived, and that winter there was pretty much the same as the winters he grew up with.
So in 1566 he painted The Census At Bethlehem,
above, from life, as it were, simply inserting Mary and Joseph and
their donkey into the scene. As you can see, the inn looks pretty
crowded — have Mary and Joseph waited too late to arrange for
accommodation? Mary is about to give birth — suppose Joseph can’t
find her a room?
Well, thereby hangs a tale . . .
Dylan closes his very strange Christmas album with this song about Bethlehem, and closes the song itself with a quiet, heartfelt “Amen”. Bethlehem is no stranger to Dylan than it was to Pieter Bruegel — he sings about it as though it’s as real and familiar as that little whistle-stop up the road, where the only motel in town is tiny and the diner closes at nine.
Why does Dylan feel so at home there, just as much at home as Pieter Breugel once did? It’s a mystery which the art itself has no obligation to resolve.
Much has been made of this exchange from an interview Dylan gave to Bill Flannagan of the Street Newspaper:
BF: You really give a heroic performance of “O’ Little Town Of Bethlehem”. The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I don’t want to put you on the
spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.
BD: Well, I am a true believer.
Dylan watchers will know enough to catch the ambiguity of the response. “A true believer in what?” we might ask. As far as I’m concerned, Dylan’s personal religious beliefs are entirely irrelevant to Christmas In the Heart. Nothing he might say or not say about them can change a note of what’s on the record, and nothing on the record can constitute reliable evidence about what he “really believes” — anymore than Jan Van Eyck’s Altarpiece of Ghent can tell us anything definitive about Jan’s personal religious beliefs.
What we can say is that Dylan sings “O’ Little Town Of Bethlehem” in the voice of a true believer, that the performance is incredibly moving, whether considered as a work of art or as a witness of faith. The way he hits the word “dear” in the phrase “the dear Christ enters in”, the solemn humility and peacefulness of that final “Amen” . . . these are things to marvel at, things that touch the heart.
As with Van Eyck’s altarpiece, Dylan has brought a lifetime of craft to this work, an extraordinary commitment of feeling and care, without a trace of cowardly, modernist irony. It is deeply “religious” art, in subject and execution, art that transcends the personality of the artist . . . the sort of art we don’t see much of these days, and a wonderful reminder of what we’ve been missing.
Art like this doesn’t ask (much less answer) the question “What does the artist really believe?” It asks the question “What do you really believe?”
The sarcastic scorn being heaped upon Christmas In the Heart in some quarters, with knowing, cowardly, modernist irony, tells us all we need to know about the sorry state of our culture in this troubled holiday season of 2009. Dylan’s album tells us that things could be different, should be different.
Can I get an “Amen”?
Back to the Christmas In the Heart track list page.