Why are we worried about Bob Dylan's religion?

Why are we worried about Bob Dylan’s religion?

Why are we worried about Bob Dylan’s religion?

Bob Dylan performs in 1981 at the Colombes Olympic Stadium near Paris before a crowd of 40,000 fans. (Credit: AP.)

Bob Dylan fiercely guards his privacy, so nobody knows for sure what his religious beliefs are. It's possible that for Dylan his spiritual journey is not about getting his theology just right, but getting his art just right so that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may work through it, in which case his Biblical references would be all the more impressive, from an artist who believes it's enough just to be an artist.

Commentary

I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

–Bob Dylan, “Thunder On the Mountain” (2006)

It was November 11, 1979 in San Francisco. I was there with three of my cousins to see Bob Dylan at the Warfield Theatre, where he was scheduled to play for fourteen out of sixteen nights. Three months earlier Dylan had released his 19th studio album, Slow Train Coming.

Much to the surprise of the press, the album consisted exclusively of songs expressing the singer-songwriter’s newfound Christian faith. Months prior to the album’s release rumors had been swirling about Dylan’s conversion, but nobody would have predicted it would result in an album like Slow Train Coming.

Before we had arrived in San Francisco, we had heard from newspaper reports, and from locals who had attended the prior nights, that each evening’s set list had included all nine songs from Slow Train Coming and eight new gospel songs, seven of which would appear on his 1980 album, Saved.  There was no “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” or “All Along the Watchtower.”

Very much like when he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan’s 1979 Warfield performances annoyed a large number of his “true believers,” though fortunately, there was not among them a Pete Seeger trying to cut the cables.

It was the greatest rock concert I had ever attended, before or since.  (Admittedly, there had been very little “before.” I was only 19 years old at the time). A defiant Dylan played and sang his new tunes with great conviction, accompanied by a set of gospel singers that would send shivers down your spine.

The audience was all over the place. Although most cheered and clapped with enthusiasm, others walked out, booed, and/or yelled out the names of Dylan classics that we all knew he was not going to play that night. The atmosphere was electric.  It was the only time in my life that I was in a venue in which my ears heard shouts of “Praise the Lord” while my nose smelled the scent of weed.

After releasing Saved in the summer of 1980, Dylan went on tour again, though this time he began including in his set list some of his older tunes.  In 1981, another album followed, Shot of Love.  Although not as theologically assertive as its two predecessors, Shot of Love is often viewed as Dylan’s third “Christian album.”

But like the abrupt absence during his 1966 World Tour of his “finger pointin’ songs” that dominated his 1965 UK shows, when Dylan went on tour in 1984, the gospel songs almost entirely disappeared. (“Every Grain of Sand,” from Shot of Love, was the only gospel song consistently performed during this tour).

What happened? As the story is often told and retold in the press (and on hundreds of websites), months after the release of Shot of Love Dylan abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism, the faith in which he was raised.

All sorts of evidence is adduced for this hypothesis, such as Dylan’s 1983 attendance at his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem; his studying with members of Lubavitch (or Chabad), an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group; the release of the album, Infidels (1983), that includes a strong defense of Zionism (“Neighborhood Bully”) and several songs with mystical lyrics seemingly more consistent with Chabad theology (e.g., “Jokerman,” “I and I”) than that of the Evangelical Christianity to which Dylan had converted in late 1978.

Scott M. Marshall, in his new book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (BP Books, 2017), casts doubt on this hypothesis. Based on scores of interviews he conducted with many people who have been close to Dylan over the years, evaluations of public comments made by the singer since the late 1970s, and the songs penned and performed since his conversion, Marshall claims that it is wrong to confidently conclude that Dylan ever abandoned his Christian faith.

(Interestingly, he also claims that it is just as wrong to confidently conclude that Dylan ever abandoned his Jewish roots).

Marshall takes the reader through over five decades of Dylan’s professional life, beginning with his arrival in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1961. What we learn is that from the very beginning the former Robert Zimmerman had an inclination, probably formed by his Jewish home life in the predominately Christian Hibbing, Minnesota, to interpret reality consonant with the biblical tradition.

Because of his immersion in great poetry and literature, combined with his native songwriting and storytelling abilities, much of Dylan’s art, Marshall argues, is infused with theological language. Even his songs about romantic love seem to be pointing to something transcendent, a reality that cannot be contained by the limits of human language but can only be expressed, however inadequately, in allegorical prose.

Take, for example, this lyric from “Shelter From the Storm” (1974):

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

The Evangelical Protestant church in which Dylan was discipled, the Vineyard, is part of a consortium of independent Protestant churches that arose out of the Calvary Chapel movement in the late 1970s. Because of their literalistic pre-millennial reading of biblical prophecy, these churches were known for preaching about the end-times and the imminent return of Christ. Thus, Dylan’s songs on Slow Train Coming and Saved focused primarily on warning others for the sake of their conversions while using very direct non-allegorical language.

For this reason, it makes sense that the religious allusions of the pre-Evangelical Dylan seem more “Jewish” (and at times more “Catholic”) and his 1979-1981 songs more “Evangelical Protestant” and hence more literalistic:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you (“Tangled Up in Blue” (1974))

When destruction cometh swiftly
And there’s no time to say a fare-thee-well
Have you decided whether you want to be
In heaven or in hell? (“Are You Ready?” (1980))

Thus, it is not surprising that in 1983 when Dylan was thought by many to have left Evangelical Christianity and returned to the Jewish faith of his childhood, he released an album, Infidels, that is teeming with religious imagery, much of which is biblical.  Take, for example, the opening stanza from “Jokerman” (1983):

Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing
Distant ships sailing into the mist
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing
Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

As to be expected, some reviewers have referred to the lyrics of Infidels as mere “religious imagery,” surmising that Dylan had returned to his old “secular” self and was simply using theological language as a kind of prop to communicate only imminent concerns.

This type of analysis, ironically, assumes a false choice between the literalistic devotional language of American Evangelicalism and pious unbelief dressed up in religious imagery.  It reveals more about the secular press’s impoverished understanding of the spectrum of theological discourse than it does the content of Dylan’s religious beliefs.

On Infidels, God is hiding in plain sight, but the pop-music-industrial-complex largely saw it as a strong sign of Dylan moving away from, rather than a maturing in, his faith. This, by the way, is also true of Dylan’s superb 1989 album, Oh Mercy, which, like Infidels is teeming with religious imagery, much of it Christian.

The song, “What Good Am I?,” seems right out of the book of James:

What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?

Part of Marshall’s thesis is that the Dylan who emerges from his 1983 Lubavitch studies, and subsequently releases Infidels, is not a restored Jew who has rejected Christ, but rather, a Hebrew Christian who has a better and deeper sense of his Judaism and the way it shapes his understanding of the biblical narrative and his relationship with God.

Because Dylan is a man who fiercely guards his privacy, nobody, not even Marshall, knows for sure. He admits as much, noting that all we have are the songs, the concerts, the interviews, and second hand accounts and suppositions from friends and acquaintances. To be sure, over a course of over five decades, that is a lot of material with which to work.  But still, Marshall’s conclusions are just speculations, albeit based on very good grounds.

Marshall, of course, is assuming that Dylan knows exactly who he is and what he believes, and that all we need from him is an explicit affirmation of something like the Apostles’ Creed to settle the matter once and for all.

But why believe this? Perhaps Dylan, like many of us, has not thought it all through, and doesn’t really want to.  He can live with the tensions and the ambiguities without abandoning firm convictions informed by both his understanding of Christ’s “saving grace” and the voices of his “ancestors calling from the land far beyond.”

Just as he effortlessly appropriated folk music and surreal poetry into rock music, he somehow, in his own mind, has been able to seamlessly appropriate the Jesus of the New Testament into his own American Jewish narrative.

It’s also possible that for Dylan his spiritual journey is not about getting his theology just right, but rather, it is about getting his art just right so that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may work through it.  Given the wide range of Dylan’s body of work, this may make the most sense. But in that case, the biblical themes one finds in his lyrics, set lists, interviews, public comments, etc. are all the more impressive, since they emanate from an artist who believes it is enough for an artist to just be an artist.

As Dylan himself said not too long ago in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it – what it all means.”

So maybe we shouldn’t worry so much either.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. He is the author of Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015), winner of the American Academy of Religion’s 2016 Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Constructive-Reflective Studies. In May 2007 he resigned as President of the Evangelical Theological Society a week after returning to the Catholicism of his youth. In November 2017 he will become President of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

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