The Eschatological Imagination: N.T. Wright, Andrew Peterson, and Bob Dylan

Thanks to Britt Norvell, I had the great pleasure to hear the esteemed professor and author N.T. Wright last week in a special gathering hosted by our friends at The Rabbit Room.  After a performance by Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Andy Osenga, and numerous other terribly talented folks, we drank a bit more coffee and ate a bit more chocolate and then sat back down to hear the Bishop expound upon themes from his new book. What was particularly interesting to me, and to followers of Tokens perhaps, was Wright’s fascination with what people like Andrew Peterson and other Square Peg artists are doing:  bearing witness to the work of God in the world through art, employing faculties which are every bit as important, and likely more compelling, than the rational faculties which we academics tend to prioritize.

It is precisely the imagination, Wright reminded all of us present, that so desperately needs formation in our world today:  one of the great needs of the world is the possibility to imagine a different sort of world, to imagine possibilities beyond which our rational, efficient, left-brain thinking can posit.

Such a faculty is so important because of the nature of the “good news.”  One of the things that Wright has been saying in such compelling fashion in numerous books and again in his most recent book is that the gospel is not about floating off “to heaven,” but about the restoration of God’s good will, that God’s will should be “done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But in a world of militarism and nationalism, in which everything is for sale and everything has been commodified, in which even “gospel” has been domesticated so that it no longer refers to a new Kingdom in which all things are put to rights but refers to a self-centered acquisition of a status that frees one from eternal perdition—in such a world, a rightly formed imagination is desperately needed.

Thus the need of the artists with rightly formed imagination:  they have the capacity to draw pictures that lead to repentance, to change, to change the way we see and live in the world.  This was one of the agendas behind the start of Tokens:  to allow space for such imaginative exercises to compel us to new ways of life.

So it was poignant for me to have Andrew Peterson start the evening.  Andrew has written many wonderfully compelling lyrics.  His “After the Last Tear Falls” (co-written with Andrew Osenga) remains a favorite of mine, and it was the closing eschatological song in our very first Tokens episode, about four years ago now:

After the last tear falls After the last secret's told After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone After the last child starves And the last girl walks the boulevard After the last year that's just too hard

There is love Love, love, love There is love Love, love, love There is love

After the last disgrace After the last lie to save some face After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue After the last dirty politician After the last meal down at the mission After the last lonely night in prison

There is love Love, love, love There is love Love, love, love There is love

And in the end, the end is Oceans and oceans Of love and love again We'll see how the tears that have fallen Were caught in the palms Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all And we'll look back on these tears as old tales 'Cause after the last plan fails After the last siren wails After the last young husband sails off to join the war After the last "this marriage is over" After the last young girl's innocence is stolen After the last years of silence that won't let a heart open

There is love Love, love, love There is love

And in the end, the end is Oceans and oceans Of love and love again We'll see how the tears that have fallen Were caught in the palms Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all And we'll look back on these tears as old tale

'Cause after the last tear falls There is love

Along the way, we have had lots of other beautiful eschatological songs, a good number of those being Bob Dylan tunes, such as our rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Vince Gill, Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, and Sonya Isaacs. So it was poignant again that the Bishop Wright has been singing folk songs, apparently, since the 1960’s, and when Andrew asked the Bishop if he would sing us all a song, it did not take too much prodding.  It actually required no prodding at all; only a simple request, and he took up a guitar and regaled us with some both funny and moving tunes, closing with—you guessed it, perhaps—a Bob Dylan tune.  “When the Ship Comes In,” said the Bishop, an expression of numerous “eschatological themes,” an example of a beautifully formed imagination, anticipating all things being put to rights and the world made new.

N.T. Wright Sings Bob Dylan from Thomas McKenzie on Vimeo.