U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“I Don’t Want To Fake You Out”: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History I (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: Today we’ll be featuring two takes on Kathryn Lofton’s terrific keynote address from the recently concluded S-USIH Conference, “‘I Don’t Want to Fake You Out’: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History.”  Lofton, a Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History, and Divinity at Yale University, gave what can only be described as an extraordinary performance that left most of her audience rather in awe. Our first review of Lofton’s keynote comes from Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. He studies nineteenth-century American cultural history, secularism, religion and law, and the Pacific world. He also blogs regularly at Religion and American History.

“…any inquiry into intellectual honesty in religion raises profound psychological problems.” – Justice Robert H. Jackson, dissent, U.S. v. Ballard (1944)

“I should emphasize that none of us questioned the genuineness of the Hobby Lobby owners’ belief. That was a given.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenter, in The New Republic (2014)

Historians of religion and historians of ideas—and especially those who are both—often find themselves on a search for belief. Intellectual history, Kathryn Lofton argued in her keynote address, is about finding the mental commitments that explain action. The connections between these, and the process by which one becomes the other are never entirely clear. Before this issue, though, there’s a more basic one with which to wrangle. If we are to study people and their ideas, then we must have some access to their ideas, their belief. But we can never access that, at least not directly. We have only words, actions, speeches, writings, chords, lyrics. We can’t find a belief in an archive. Nevertheless, the search for belief in history still drives many histories. “Did he really believe that?” “What did she really think about this?” “Did she really mean it?” It is at these kinds of inquiries that Bob Dylan scoffs.

For her address, Lofton selected as her data the histories and historiographies of Dylan. Any historical thinker is complicated, contradictory, and shifty. But Dylan illustrates this reality spectacularly—and on purpose. He is willing to take on various identities, but it’s up to others to supply them. The only labels he explicitly rejects are messianic ones. He deflects questions about the meaning of his lyrics, about his own beliefs, about his own much-publicized supposed evangelical conversion. When asked about supposedly revolutionary moments in his own life, only a few years later, Dylan seemed uninterested. He claimed not to remember. As millions of fans memorize, recite, debate, and interpret his words, Dylan dismisses it all. The “religion,” the “belief,” if you want to find it, is not in the words, he claims. Just listen to the music. Dylan is, to borrow Lofton’s phrase, a master of the “idiom of dissuasion.”

To study Dylan’s beliefs lays bare the problem in all investigations into religious belief: authenticity is never certain. Maybe it’s all a ruse. Maybe they don’t really believe it. Maybe he’s faking you out. Dylan says explicitly, “I’m not trying to fake you out.” Which is exactly what someone would say if he were trying to fake you out.

In this way, Dylan is a purveyor of humbugs. Here Lofton cited, in addition to Jason Bivins’s recent piece on belief and the category’s inadequacies, David Walker’s recent article in the Journal of Religion and American Culture on P.T. Barnum, Spiritualism, and the category “humbug.” (Though neither Lofton nor Walker cited it, we might also draw on James W. Cook’s excellent book The Arts of Deceptionfor understanding humbug.) A humbug is a trick, but from the outset it acknowledges that it might be a trick. Barnum and his fellow peddlers of humbug invite critical inquiry. They present the object—an object of fascination—and invite the viewer, the consumer, to “believe it or not.” In Dylan’s case, Lofton argued, Dylan himself is the object of fascination. Who is the real Bob Dylan? Is he a Christian? A Jew? Does he mean it? “What Is It?” Dylan is no huckster. A huckster traffics not in humbugs. The huckster presents materials as if they were clearly true, knowing full well that they are not. The peddler of humbugs simply offers the object and leaves the rest to the consumer, profiting from—and even mocking—their fascination.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I know that Lofton’s talk was videotaped. Does anyone know if it would be possible to post or link to the video? I have some colleagues who would be interested in seeing it.


    • I’ve been told that the video of this talk (as well as the video and audio of other panels that were recorded) will be online soon. When they go up, we’ll be sure to announce on the blog where you can find them.

  2. My memory of the talk and Lofton’s point was the question of why do people (i.e. Dylan’s fans) care what he believes? Beyond following his celebrity, what is it that people get out of knowing what he believes? …That said, I don’t recall Lofton offering any answers to *that* question. Her keynote seemed, to me anyway, focused on the entertaining aspects of Dylan avoiding many offering direct and meaningful answers to questions about his beliefs (to McCrary’s points about humbugs)—as a prelude to asking that *bigger* question above. – TL

    • As Ken Kesey was fond of saying, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus.” If if you start out trying to understand Dylan and his beliefs, you will miss the thing itself that is the whole point of the matter.

      Such individuals have been late to the bus stop and have missed it and are not on the bus so to speak. Those on the bus, however, have left the realm of literal rational thought and entered some other state of being and “understanding” that has value only in and of itself.

      It’s the realm of poetry in its proper and original role and place. It’s immediate. It’s magic. It’s mystery. It’s alchemical and can’t be explained. It’s not the New Criticism and the Kenyon Review. It’s Whitman and the Beats.

      John Lennon put it well when he said of Dylan: “You don’t have to hear what he’s saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.” Or as Dylan himself said: “The point is not understanding what I write but feeling it.”

  3. Charles, This is an excellent recap of Lofton’s complex and nuanced presentation. “To study Dylan’s beliefs lays bare the problem in all investigations into religious belief: authenticity is never certain. Maybe it’s all a ruse. Maybe they don’t really believe it.” It doesn’t matter for us.

    The beauty of this entire presentation is to turn historians not to the varsity of belief, or the truth of any idea, but how those ideas are adopted, acted on, move, change once they are out in the broader culture. Even the “intellectuals” we study are not fully aware of the afterlife of their own thought, because ideas are profoundly social and are not owned by any one. Let’s not be so fascinated with thought leaders, which can quickly turned into a messiahship, as with what they are evoking. Excellent post.

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