(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.