An Anguished Apostasy
Listen to “An Anguished Apostasy” by Fred Smith
When Bob Dylan stepped on the Newport Folk Festival stage in July 1965 there was nothing in his last three appearances that could have prepared the 100,000 devout fans for what happened next. Instead of his usual acoustic guitar and denim work clothes, he was outfitted completely in black and then plugged in an electric guitar. What followed was a moment that marked the end of the folk revival by the performer everyone considered the voice belonging to them all. The introduction that night was, “And here he is…take him, you know him, he’s yours.” If they had only known what was coming. With the Butterfield Blues Band behind him he launched into “Like A Rolling Stone” and the jeering catcalls from a dismayed audience started immediately. “Bob Dylan has become a pawn in his own game,” one wrote. By some accounts Pete Seeger, a giant in the folk world and organizer of the Festival, wanted to cut the sound cable with an axe. In just a short three song set the icon of folk music had become a heretic and traitor. Coming back on the stage after walking off he brought his acoustic guitar and sang, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” To a stunned and outraged sea of fans he sang: “Leave your stepping stones behind there, something calls for you. Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.” He did not return to the Festival for thirty-seven years. Decades later he was asked what he thought at that moment of the introduction and he wrote, “Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.”
For some rare people, it might be easy or at least bearable not to belong but not for most. We need a group, a tribe, a place to find acceptance and identity. Even as a boy I remember the impression made on me by the story “The Man Without A Country” about Philip Nolan who was condemned to sail confined on ships for fifty years and never hear The United States mentioned again. It’s not natural to be cut off by force or voluntarily. James Baldwin wrote: “A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of people, even their hatred, is moving, because it is so blind: It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction.”
The apostle Paul suffered the same alienation from his own people. He was not only a heretic but an apostate. A heretic holds wrong beliefs while misleading others. Paul in their eyes was certainly that but, far worse, an apostate. He was a defector who had turned his back on and betrayed his own countrymen. That is why they hounded and organized mobs – Jews and Greeks alike – against him. Many Jews held a variety of beliefs and interpretations so it was not just faith that was threatened but their whole identity as a race. By his turning the world upside down their status as peculiar and privileged people in the Empire was in jeopardy. Losing the prestige of being a Jew was the loss of national standing and purpose. It was the loss of being God’s exceptional people.
Yet, how did Paul respond to their hatred and abuse? Not like Bob Dylan. Instead, he wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” His love for them was complete. It was truly terrible for him to watch his people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction.
Today, there are many busy being pundits, analysts, and even speaking truth to oppressive power. However, what we need more are apostates still loving their persecutors and willing to lose the security of the society of friends they call home. None of us want to be cut off, do we? None of us want to be pariahs without a country or belonging to a place. But, I believe this conflict between our unique history and our uncertain future – not just in race – will only be changed by the sacrifice of those able to withstand the isolated suffering of an anguished apostasy. Yes, it will mean giving up belonging and becoming those without a people but that may be the harsh calling of a few.
Photo by Jerry Schatzberg
You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.