In a move that surprised many, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I shan’t go into the drama that ensued after the announcement and how he almost seemed to snub the Swedish Academy (which awards the prize) as they tried to inform him about it. What I do want to write about is the speech that he wrote that was read at the awards banquet last weekend. It was a simple, humble acceptance speech which had a depth that touched me greatly.
At the heart of the speech is the question of what makes literature literature or what makes good art good art. Using Shakespeare as an example, Dylan asks if one needs to know if one is writing literature when one writes something for the consumption of others. When an artist sets out to create, he or she would usually not be concerned with how the work would be received or what awards it would win but more with the technicalities of how to create it well in the eyes of the artist him or herself. An artist creates because he or she feels the need to do so, not out of the need for recognition from the world. That last bit seems to be the little subversive element to Dylan’s message. It’s a subtle (or perhaps not quite so subtle) jab at the Nobel Prize committee that, to him, ‘canonises’ texts and writers and in the process, determines what constitutes literature (or not). That’s not how artists work.
He wrote in the speech:
‘I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”‘
What touched me about this was the reflection about how ordinariness can become extraordinary, whether acknowledged by a wider audience or not. He wrote about Shakespeare wondering about casting, staging and finances as he wrote his plays – important but very mundane questions that dramatists like him would have to worry about as they write plays. Dylan himself wondered about his songs and other technical but very mundane things. This lies at the heart of what we do – we don’t set out to be extraordinary but go about doing and worrying about ordinary things because what we do is important. We care about what we do, what we produce and what we create. This, I feel, makes the difference.
In a very roundabout way, this leads me back to where I am now and what I’m doing. It leads me think about the ordinary things that I do and wonder, ‘Is it theology?’ It leads me to think about what makes theology theology. Is it all about studies, books and peer-reviewed papers? Or can it be reflections that stem from the life of us ‘ordinary’ people? I’m tempted to say ‘yes’ to both with one caveat – that theology should be related with our relationship with God and with our lives in the church. My favourite definition of theology is fides quaerens intellectum or faith seeking understanding. That can come in the form of a complex well-researched paper on faith or a simple yet profound reflection on our lives of faith. In our normal lives, we ask questions about faith and God all the time. Taking some time to deepen these questions, to try to understand what our faith is all about – that’s the start of theology.Not everyone can write books and articles on theology but everyone of faith can think about and seek God. We’re all called to try to deepen our faith, our relationships within our faith communities and our relationship with God. We do that through the ordinary questions that we ask and the ordinary things that we do. We question and seek because we care about who we seek and what we do. Dylan mentioned honesty as being important when performing to a small audience. That applies to us to. Our personal attempts at theology as we try to question and seek in our lives require honesty, both to ourselves as well as to God. Our honesty helps keep the questions real and relevant to our lives, our faith and relationship with God.
So let’s continue living in our ordinariness, revelling in it and relishing all that we do and create. Let’s note the questions about our faith that emerge from our ordinariness and seek answers for them in the best way that we can. And let’s be honest with ourselves and with God so that we can be content with the things that we do and ready for the answers that can come our way. That, to me, is the start of theology and the basis of a wonderful life of faith.
The answer doesn’t always blow in the wind for it’s sometimes already deep within our hearts.