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.



Continued from page 1

Conceptually 'Knocked Out Loaded' is much looser than its predecessor. Each song stands alone. "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" is another warning for those who know the truth but no longer live as if they do. His cover of "They Killed Him" finds Bob singing of "the holy son of God Almighty, the holy one called Jesus Christ." If we want poetry and innovative music stylings on this album though we must look to "Brownsville Girl". The song begins with Dylan reflecting on a cowboy film he saw where the hero forgives the villain and justifies his behaviour so that he might go free. By the end of the song he is in another place that he came to after "the stars were torn down". This latter image is a favourite of Dylan's and is based on Revelation 6 13 where "the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind." Dylan shows his mastery of language as the narrator decries people who "don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent" whilst characterising himself as one who has "always been the kind of person that doesn't like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line." Like the villain in the Western movie the narrator has one who has spoken for his justification and forgiveness "You saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune/ Underneath it, it said, 'A man with no alibi'/ You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you/ Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears/ It was the best acting I saw anybody do." As long as we grasp that the name of the town of Corpus Christi translates to "body of Christ" and appreciate that a limb is part of a tree then this beautiful imagery should not be beyond comprehension.

Station 3 - 1989 - 'Oh Mercy'

On 'Oh Mercy' Dylan looks over the world (on "Political World" and "Everything Is Broken"), its ambitions (on "Disease Of Conceit"), his own life (on "What Good Am I") and even the Church (" Ring Them Bells") and argues that everything is not how it is supposed to be and needs reforming. Ironically, whilst the Church was not listening, the secular Dylan audience understood his mindset and analysed it well as in this quote from the non-religious Dylan fan magazine Isis which interprets "Ring Them Bells" "In this new and major Dylan song, the 'heathen' is at present in 'the city that dreams. ' However, we already know from 'Slow Train Coming' album that 'in order to dream you gotta still be asleep. ' So it would appear that the lyric is in fact asking the 'heathen' to wake up (to God), and in order to both rejoice and summon others he should 'ring them bells'. The next line tells of the sanctuary (Ezekiel 37 28) that is to be found in God's city."

Any music that causes the artists' fan base to search the Scriptures must have merit. The song is not kind to the church. It pictures "the Bride" of Christ "going backwards" whilst "the Shepherds are asleep" in the fields neglecting the flock.

Station 4 - 1997 - 'Time Out Of Mind'

This album was released shortly after Dylan came out of hospital after receiving treatment for a heart complaint. The reviewers thought that this accounted for its "morbid fascination" with the end of life but neglected to note that it was recorded before his hospitalisation. Rather, the album treats life like a journey which climaxes in the transition from this world into the city of God. The writer is very aware that this journey has been treated before and relies heavily on the language of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Like Christian in Doubting Castle, he finds himself "20 miles out of town, in cold irons bound" (" Cold Irons Bound"). The purpose of the journey is to get in to Heaven "before they close the door." His final destination is the "Highlands" which is where he trusts he will "be when I'm called home." As in Vanity Fair, the believer is struggling to keep his mind on eternal things amongst the minutiae of so much that is passing away and temporal.

Station 5 - 2001 - 'Live 1961-2000'

This live album which was intended for the Japanese market has become widely available. Much of the album is made up of songs recorded by Dylan after his conversion. The album opens and closes with new songs which emphasise the two ways in which the artist has chosen to communicate his faith in concert. The album opens with the traditional bluegrass hymn "Somebody Touched Me" "It was on a Sunday/ Somebody touched me/ Must have been the hand of the Lord." This song has more in common with the lyrics of his 'Saved' album than his more recent recordings. The album closes with "Things Have Changed", a song which would win a Grammy and combines a quote from a hymn with the journeying language of his 'Time Out Of Mind' album and the internal struggle of sanctification which would be the central theme on his next record "Don't get up gentleman, I'm only passing through/ I've been walking 40 miles of bad road/ If the Bible is right, this world will explode/ I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can."

Station 6 - 2001 - 'Love And Theft'

'Love And Theft' is Dylan's most recent studio album. It deals with the struggles and complexity of the idea of the "old man" and "new man" co-existing in the life of the believer in this world and those things which point towards God and away from God. This duality begins in the title (" Love" fulfils the commandments and "Theft" breaks them) and runs through the heart of every song. In "Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum" we find two men who look the same who are both capable of good and evil. The other principle characters of the album find themselves struggling through this world of sin trying to identify the hand of God in the dark shadows of a failing light. In "Bye And Bye" the voice of God is heard "I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more/ I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war." The "civil war" of the album is internal and not external. The time when the characters will "sin no more" is in the "Bye And Bye" and not in the present. Meanwhile, to live for God is hard.

The album ends with "Love" acting like a sword which divides this world between good and bad but also with an invitation for all to join this struggle of salvation before it is too late "You got a way of tearing a world apart, Love, see what you done/ Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born/ Look up, look up - seek your Maker - 'fore Gabriel blows his horn." As we have seen, most of Dylan's albums are thematic and limited to one or a few chosen subjects. To understand the scope of the way that his faith has touched his art we must consider his live performances. Since his divorce, Dylan has toured almost non-stop and clearly sees this as the centre of his work as a musician.

Writer Markus Prieur, in a fascinating article, Can't Let Go No More in Judas Magazine (another Dylan fan publication!), has pointed out the way that Dylan tends to open with a song of faith and later in his show tends to group his songs together in his performance to develop a particular theme of faith. His opening songs over the last four years have been mostly covers of bluegrass hymns. There has been "I Am The Man, Thomas" (a song about the resurrection appearance to a doubting disciple), or songs of worship and future hope like "A Voice From On High", "Hallelujah, I'm Ready To Go" or the aforementioned "Somebody Touched Me". His principle theme in the grouped songs from the latter part of the show tend to emphasise the transitory nature of life in this world and the security of the salvation he has found. Consequently, he pairs songs like the bluegrass "This World Can't Stand Long" or his own "Down In The Flood" with songs like "Rock Of Ages" or "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour" (the hymns) or his own "Solid Rock" or "Saving Grace". Ironically, the very reviewers who disparaged "Saving Grace" when it first appeared on 'Saved' argued that it was the best performance in the early shows of his recent Australian tour.

In conclusion, if we take any note of Dylan's music then perhaps we should be not seeking to establish whether he is merely a believer (like the Restless Pilgrim book) but whether his work is correspondent with the mature voice of someone who has been a man of faith for a quarter of a century. In recent years, he has encouraged an artist to turn a song from "Slow Train Coming" into a children's book, used his Gospel songs creatively in concert and his biblical knowledge to create truly poetic visions in his new songs and albums. In 2003, he has written and starred in a film which the reviewers argue turns to the common Dylan themes and pre-occupation of a "broken and decadent world and the need for a Messiah" and worked with gospel singers to develop the songs from 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved' into the stylings of the black gospel Church. When we hear Dylan performing his duet with Mavis Staples on "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" perhaps we will conclude that he has, with God's help, done so and learn from some of the results. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
 
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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. www.DylanCode.com



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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