Bob Dylan: The spiritual journey of a 20th century icon

Monday 23rd June 2003

Darren Hirst examines the spiritual journey of the folk rock megastar BOB DYLAN.

Photo by Sony Music
Photo by Sony Music

When Leon Patillo was converted in the late '70s, the Christian music industry and its press was full of the news of the conversion of "Santana's lead singer". Those who are familiar with the music of Santana will know that the band revolves around and is named for its guitarist and has used a mammoth amount of vocalists over the last 30 years. But the facts don't always get in the way of Christian reporting and a good story when it sees one. Patillo may now only merit a footnote in the history of contemporary Christian music but his launch into the Christian marketplace and its subculture was indicative of something that was going to happen time and time again in the late '70s and early '80s. The Church had come to believe that celebrity converts in some ways added to the validity of the Gospel. Perhaps if it waved the flag and showed that someone famous believed then those who didn't would be persuaded by celebrity testimony.

Perhaps it was symptomatic of the times. It was the opening of an era in church life which was heavily influenced by the Vineyard fellowship, John Wimber and his teachings. The argument went something like this - if people see marvellous works of God then they would be persuaded of the validity of the Gospel and accept Christ. Leaving aside troubling comments of Christ that suggested it was an adulterous generation that looked for a sign and that people would not be persuaded even if someone was raised from the dead, whatever the weaknesses of the theology and the theory of the Church, the Vineyard movement would make a lasting impression on the Church for the next two decades, until the passing of Wimber, its most persuasive advocate.

Which brings us to Bob Dylan. Not only was Dylan the height of the cult of the celebrity convert, his conversion occurred whilst he was under the auspices of the Vineyard movement. After his conversion, Dylan immediately began to record exclusively Gospel songs and began to perform in concert in a way that was out of keeping with the first 20 years of his career. Someone who previously had needed to be encouraged to say "thank you" between songs and who evaded questions presented by the press, now began to preach sermons about Armageddon and give interviews about his new found faith. Sometimes he was booed and heckled whilst on stage whilst others talked about it all being "a phase". In 1982, he reverted to type refusing to talk about much of anything once more. He left Vineyard, began to study Scripture with the Jewish Lubavitch sect and declined to host a gospel music awards show. The Church that had a use for Dylan's celebrity now had no use for him. His 1983 album 'Infidels' was searched by the Christian press for the expected disowning of the Christian faith and though it didn't come the religious press paid less and less attention to each subsequent Dylan album. The Dylan Christian era was over, it seemed.

It's 2003 and people in the Christian press are talking about Bob Dylan and Jesus Christ in the same breath again. Relevant Books have published Restless Pilgrim The Spiritual Journey Of Bob Dylan, an analysis of Dylan and faith by Scott Marshall and Marcia Ford. Meanwhile, Dylan's record label, Sony/ Columbia, have released an album of covers from 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved' (Dylan's two most strident Gospel albums) entitled 'Gotta Serve Somebody The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan'. Meanwhile, Dylan has had a new film previewed at the Sundance Festival in the US and is continuing to tour in Australia and New Zealand.

So what are they saying? Well, the limits of the Church's discussion are reflected best by Restless Pilgrim, Marshall and Ford's recent book. Dylan's faith, we are told, is alive and well. He studied with the Lubavitchers as a Christian we are assured and when he does speak publicly his comments are consistent with belief. The book spends nearly 200 pages simply revisiting the "is he/ isn't he" debate which might just about have been relevant (no pun intended) in 1983 but surely not in 2003! There are no surprises and little consideration of Dylan's music unless it is to prove that he is one of us.

In 1980, the Church's contact with celebrity converts was in its infancy and this shallow analysis was the best that any of us could do but surely by now we should have a little more depth. As Christians, we have little business judging another's salvation but as Christian musicians, writers and art critics we have a duty to do more than this with any given subject. In 1980, Christian reviewer Tony Jasper said that he had no desire to see Bob Dylan sharing a platform with Billy Graham but that he would like to see Dylan return his attention to "the world, ... social and political events, ... people ... but now obviously permeated (by) learning from the New Testament." Journalist and poet Steve Turner has argued in his book Imagine that Christians in the arts are called "to simply 'be there' where it counts and create something different and challenging by staying faithful and allowing that faith to invade their vision. If we want to see art that challenges the prevailing secularism we need artists who are not only skilful but also theologically well equipped, grounded in a fellowship and living obedient lives. Christianity is not a mere philosophy, it is a spiritual relationship that results in changed thoughts and actions, and it will only rub off on our work if it has first of all permeated our lives."

These seem appropriate grounds for assessment. If we hold up Dylan's art and life to these criteria is he an artist who has anything to say to the Church, to the world from a faith perspective? For me, the question of the continuing existence of Dylan's faith has been settled since one day in 1985 when he began a tour in Australasia with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In the afternoon, he was obliged to give a press conference. In response to a question whether he regarded himself as a follower of Christ or as a Jew, he humorously responded that he followed Christ "about 50% of the time and (is) a Jew only when I have to be." I doubt that a Messianic Jewish believer could have given a more self-effacing and honest response. That evening he went out and sang a song for the one he described as "his hero" - "In the Garden" from his 'Saved' album. But by that time the Church had stopped listening and there has been little analysis since then of Dylan's art from a Christian perspective.

Trying to assess the whole of the last 20 years of Dylan's career is way beyond the scope of this article but perhaps we can find a few stopping points in his personal life, his recorded albums and his live performances which help us to see whether the work of the Spirit of God can be seen to be influencing his art and life over this period and whether he has significant things to say to us.

Personal Witness

As previously indicated, Bob Dylan, prior to his conversion, was never the media's darling. He is the past master of the humorous, the evasive or the petulant answer. Despite this, he has always addressed, when asked in interviews, issues about God, about his Messiah, about the nature of this fallen world and about his attitude to Scripture. Again the Church's disappointment with him stems from an expectation that he would maintain the kind of witness he had in the first years of his conversion. There are two problems with this. Firstly, Dylan was clearly acting somewhat out of character at this point. Secondly, there are suggestions from those close to Dylan that at times he has struggled to live out his faith and sought purposely to avoid being put on a platform and risk bringing the faith into disrepute. Whilst the Christian press and others were speculating that Dylan was still seeking to re-establish his relationship with his first wife Sara (which ended the year before his conversion), he had quietly married his backing singer, Carolyn, and they had a daughter, Desiree. The period that this relationship ended and came to divorce was a particularly painful one for Bob. One performance from this period was so incoherent that the bootleggers named it Name That Song. However, following the period of the divorce (1992), Dylan's tendency to sing and talk about his faith, albeit obliquely and enigmatically, has returned.

As we consider Dylan's recorded output since 1983, there is obviously too much to cover in an article of this scope. As the image of the train has been a key one since 1965 when he first wrote of the "holy slow train", I thought rather than try to survey his whole output, we would make selected train station stops as we journey through this 20 year period.

Station 1 - 1985 - 'Empire Burlesque'

This overlooked album includes some of Bob's best poetry. The opener "Tight Connection To My Heart" borrows from the language of Song Of Songs as the narrator wanders through the town hoping that someone else has seen the object of his love. The narrative voice is to be disappointed in his search for like-minded individuals. By the end of his album we find that his journey through the world has revealed that few are still seeking his love and all he has found are "Dark Eyes". This last song leans on Jesus' notion that the eyes are the lamp of the body in Matthew 6. The album also has two warnings -one for unbelievers in the apocalyptic-flavoured "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky" and one for straying believers, "Something's Burning Baby". In interview, Dylan was to comment about this album where the characters and narrator were not named but identifiable to the listener. "Sometimes it's me, sometimes it's the 'I' that created me".

Station 2 - 1986 - "Brownsville Girl" on 'Knocked Out Loaded'

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Reader Comments

Posted by Mikael in Sweden @ 16:47 on Oct 5 2014

I think Dylan still believes in a supreme being, however sadly I don't think it is Christ anymore. If it were this would be reflected clearly in his lyrics. One might also ask oneself why he has the all-seeing eye with the numbers 666 as a back-drop in his concerts? I think that "Empire burlesque" was his break-up album with Jesus. Just listen to "Tight connection" or "Seeing the real you at last". He still loves Jesus, but doesn't think he is God. That is my theory.

Posted by Joni Zornes in Tidewater, VA @ 00:36 on Jan 31 2014

I believe Bob was a believer before '79, when he made an open confession of faith. In the 1975 Ft Collins concert (Hard Rain), the song "Oh Sister" was a definate precursor to his upcomming profession. The Hard Rain version of "Shelter from the Storm" is so much the story of God's Grace. With more than 20 inferences to old and new testament scripture in SFTS, I have no doubt it's refering to Grace. If you watch the video, Bob has apparently painted 3 or 4 backdrops, one with apparently Christ being beaten, one with Bob and a giant key over his head and a Christian symbol of a fish to the right and another with the Star of David and two women, one black and one white. Bob's influence by black American gospel singers has been long unnoticed, going back to Mavis Staples who he asked to marry in the early '60's. I like to think "Gotta Serve Somebody" was sort of a reunion of them. I pray for Bob and listen to "When He Returns" every night.

Posted by Ttirb Snilloc in United States @ 03:52 on Jul 8 2013

I remember I was working on the brakes of a 1972 Datsun 240Z in Wheaton, IL when my friend told me that Bobby Dylan had been visiting a church somewhere in the Midwest area. That fact was supposed to be an absolute secret, but I was taken into this person's confidence so that I might be able to pray for Mr. Dylan's conversion. I have never met Dylan, but I feel a closeness to him because I prayed for him. I have always thought that Bob was saved based on the depth of the songs produced after he became a Christian. The thoughts and concepts in the songwriting were just too full of real honest to goodness sanctified wisdom and understanding. My trust in God would remain unshaken should I find that Dylan has fallen away. Because the Scriptures are clear that he was never of us if he falls away. But if I know that he walks with Christ, if Bobby Dylan still clings to the cross, I will rejoice! I will rejoice!

Posted by Tim in UK @ 13:58 on Jun 2 2012

Great article. All the more poignant with the new version of 'Gonna change my way of thinking' (Jesus is coming...), and 'Christmas in the Heart'. Check out 'Out of the Dark Woods, Dylan, Depression and Faith, by Dr Bradford - a biblical author writing along the exact same lines.

Posted by Steve Sorensen in Columbia, MD @ 08:09 on Apr 16 2012

Here us a site I've put together to honor Bob and his Lord.

Posted by cliff schrage in NY @ 19:23 on Mar 20 2012

All a man with a large audience needs to do to maintain his witness before all those watching is confess, "I need a savior, and believe Jesus is mine." With mistakes and repentance, that's all that's needed.

Posted by Ed Humphreys in Alabama @ 16:36 on Feb 11 2012

I Googled articles to find information on Bob Dylan's statements since Slow Train Coming. I have grown in my Christian faith over years. I was listening to the album, and the depth of the message reflects a true heart understanding of God and the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed to men today by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I found this to be an excellent article. The depth of true heart faith is not something that is subject to superficial public inspection, especially if "fame" is the glass one is looking through for validation. I know that one with true heart faith will not make a display to please men, (like the TV "preachers" who beg for money), and instead will withdraw from personal influence while all the more displaying humility. The depth of Bob Dylan's messages in song stand in stark contrast to comments that reflect other celebrity phases like Quaballah. Bob Dylan's words also stand in contrast to the trite analysis of the "invention" of a tinity. Little thought, and much parroting, produce such repetition of superficial thought. We have a little picture of the years of thought that true faith recquires in what Bob Dylan has shared. Knowing the unsearchable depths of faith in God as revealed to men through the man Jesus the Christ, Bob Dylan's testimony has a reality that few have been able to proclaim.

Posted by Steve Sorensen in Columbia, Maryland, USA @ 00:45 on May 19 2011

This is one of the most solid and sound articles I have read on Bob Dylan's relationship with the Lord Jesus. Thank you very much!

Posted by carol in Uk @ 11:28 on Feb 25 2011

I have prayed for b dylan so much that I think he really ought to invite me for dinner.

Posted by John Boduch in Atlanta @ 01:06 on Feb 12 2011

Excellent article. Just watched the movie "I'm not there" and wanted to know more about his walk. Thanks, John

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