09/23/2011 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Bob Dylan and My Workingman's Blues: Confessions of a Religion and Literature Professor

Ah yes, the beginning of a new school year. There is always such good energy on campus when students arrive, and, as is often the case, a new semester gets me thinking about my own educational path and the reasons why I do what I do. Ultimately, I blame it on Bob Dylan.

Columbia Records released Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits on March 27, 1967, within hours of my birth. Significant? A sign? It took me 13 years to save the money but I eventually bought that record. At the time, it seemed a relatively inconsequential purchase, but it proved quite the opposite. Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits sold well in 1980. What if, by some inexplicable whim, I grabbed that "best of" collection instead? I have a hunch I would not be teaching today had I done so. Said differently, Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, that album that so momentously marked my arrival to the world(!), introduced me to my two professional interests, religion and poetry.

On the literary side of things, I first learned to enjoy wordplay and the mingling of wit, politics and social commentary listening to such treasures as "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." These songs gesture to something beyond mere entertainment, and they introduced me to a style of writing that demolished cliché distinctions of high and low art. Dylan's music is both appealing to mass audiences while rewarding thoughtful, critical, careful listening. No wonder his work earns both Grammy and Pulitzer nods.

I also credit Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits for a longstanding interest in spirituality and religious discourse. Long before and long after his foray into gospel music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dylan invited listeners to imagine an undefined something beyond the reach of their senses. He gave permission to contemplate the divine within pop-culture media, an activity traditionally reserved for those professional, sanctioned religionists in seminaries, synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. What is more, Dylan allowed room for ambiguity, mystery, enigma and paradox. In an era of endless niche-market study Bibles, how-to manuals, and Idiots' and Dummies' guides to sacred subjects -- attempts to reduce the beauties and complexities of ancient religious traditions to simplistic footnotes -- there is something refreshing about his humility and willingness to live with unanswered questions. For Dylan, the ineffable is always just out of reach, and our attempts to grasp it are necessarily partial and incomplete. Yes, the answers we seek often blow about in the wind.

How does this connect to my job? The study of religion and literature grew quite naturally out of the curiosities and interests first nurtured by Bob Dylan's music, and without that seminal encounter with a 1967 album ... well, who knows. (If I did grab that Kenny Rogers' album, would I be a gambler today, or a coward?) Of course, my title for this blog is tongue in cheek. I suspect the same is true for Dylan when he sings about a workingman's blues (Modern Times, 2006). Since he continues touring well past his 70th birthday (May 24, 2011), it appears he enjoys his job as much as I do.