Bob Dylan – The Curse of Celebrity and the Cross of Christ

(This was the original title. When it was published elsewhere, my editor chose to retitle the piece “Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Journey of a 20th Century Icon” which was not what I wanted AND rather seemed to miss my point)

When Leon Patillo was converted in the late seventies, 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 hard enough and high enough 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 twenty 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, occasionally 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 when none came 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, are releasing 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 U.S. 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 twenty 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 and 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 bring 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 twenty 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 its me, sometimes it’s the “I” that created me”.

Station 2 – 1986 – Brownsville Girl on “Knocked Out Loaded”

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 “Twenty 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 song 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 an hymn with the journeying language of his “Time Out of Mind” album and the internal struggle of sanctibfication which would be 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” this Spring perhaps we will conclude that he has, with God’s help, done so and learn from some of the results.

1 thought on “Bob Dylan – The Curse of Celebrity and the Cross of Christ

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan, sloppy analysis and hearing what we want to hear | twilightdawning

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