Let’s first look at why people listen to Bob Marley. There is more to it than the fact that it’s good music. Marley’s music carries with it an air of authority because it is infused with experience and scripture. In some ways, this is why someone would listen to what I have to say: because it is based on experience and scripture. When my little brother was killed in a car crash, I felt that my very survival depended on my entering the classroom of Bob Marley, my brother’s favorite musician. That experience led to more than twenty years of researching Marley’s use of the Bible and obtaining a master’s degree in theology, which lends credibility to my understanding of the Bible and Marley’s use of it.
To me one of the most controversial things about Marley was the fact that you have an international music superstar touring the world not just with his guitar, but with a Bible in hand. This is attested to time and time again by music journalists such as Vivien Goldman, Stephen Davis, and Timothy White, as well as by photographers such as Kate Simon and Lynn Goldsmith. I’m not sure the world was ready for a Bible-toting rock star in the 1970s, and I’m not sure it’s ready today. Perhaps this is why this important aspect of Marley has been overlooked.
It does at times, in order to provide context for Marley’s lyrics and the scriptural passages they draw from. One of the points that arises from the book is that Marley’s biblical interpretation stands independent of any particular creed. It defies easy categorization. Just as Marley transcends categories of black and white, city and country, and spiritual and secular, he unites different ways of looking at the Bible and in some cases offers his own distinct Marleyan perspective on a given scripture passage.
Well, I deal with biblical interpretation not religion. The point is not to convert people to Marley’s religion, but for them to learn about the Bible through the lens of Bob Marley, and how to draw life lessons from the Bible as Marley did. Scripture and experience were key for Marley, not religion. In fact, in June 1975 he stated that he didn’t have a religion, but rather “a natural thing you’re supposed to have.” Marley considered spirituality a thing of nature. In June 1976 he said, “Man can’t do without God. Just like you’re thirsty, you have to drink water. You just can’t do without God.”
One area I think the book could make an impact is in combating the downward trend in biblical literacy rates. Examining the Bible through the lens of Bob Marley is an interesting way to learn about the Bible and about how to draw life lessons from the Bible as Marley did. This is not to convert people to Marley’s religion, but to provide a better understanding of the Bible using Marley’s lyrics as stepping-stones. The point is not necessarily to agree with Marley, but to understand the scriptural passages he draws from and the context in which they were written. Some of these contexts are surprisingly not far removed from Marley’s context, or our own. I’m an example of someone who has incorporated ideas from scripture into my life via the intermediary of Marley. His music helped me and my family endure the loss of my sixteen-year old brother.
Marley relies on wisdom more than any other type of biblical literature. But he’s not just quoting wisdom texts, he’s interpreting them and finding relevance for the struggles of today. He is teaching an alternative consciousness based on wisdom. Marley is a wisdom teacher. This aspect of Marley is as relevant today as it was in his heyday, if not more so. His words of wisdom circulate daily on social media. He recently reached the top 10 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which ranks the most popular artists on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. I think his success as a wisdom teacher is evident in the fact that even anonymous wisdom quotations circulated on the Internet are attributed to Bob Marley.
I followed the data gathered during my comprehensive study to see where it would lead me. I learned many new insights and allowed the data to drive the plan for the book. For example, Old Testament wisdom texts such as Proverbs and Psalms along with New Testament letters of Paul are two key types of biblical source material for Marley that complement one another. The Exodus album contains the highest quantity of Paul references and a low quantity of wisdom references, while Uprising contains the highest quantity of wisdom references and no references to Paul. When Marley quotes wisdom, he’s teaching, and when he quotes Paul, he’s preaching.
I don’t want to say challenging because it was a labor of love, but the foundation of the book is a comprehensive study of biblical references in all of Marley’s songs. I catalogued each biblical reference by song, album, biblical book, and biblical book type. I then analyzed the data looking for patterns and trends. It took a lot of effort to be this thorough, but I felt it was necessary in order to really understand Marley’s use of the Bible.
The book offers a new perspective on Marley. Through my analysis, Marley emerges as a thoughtful and intriguing interpreter of the Bible in his lyrics. This is a side of Marley that has not been adequately appreciated. But hopefully the book will affect people’s perceptions about the Bible as well. People have looked at the Bible as something for specialists to study, but Marley shows us that active and fruitful engagement with scripture does not require specialized training. To use a musical analogy, some of the best songwriters are self-taught musicians.
Perhaps because Marley is seen as a rebel and a rock star, and these aspects appear to exist in opposition to the world of the Bible. But the Bible does not exist apart from the world of the rebel. In fact, Marley sings about Paul Bogle and Marcus Garvey, rebellious figures in their own right who were inspired by their reading of scripture. Marley continues in a long line of scriptural resistance.