Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life
Did you write The Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above?
Do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your mortal soul
And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?
This book purportedly sets out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually. Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not. Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”
Maybe “ironic” is not the right word. Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.” We Christians know that one quite well. Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way. For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world,” and we say of Christ that He is “fully man and fully God.”
But whether you call the first sentence in this book ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement. Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in. The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster, turned it up to eleven, and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival. His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with those impure and juvenile rock and rollers. How could this be? He would never survive this, so they said.
From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another. Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.
But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.
What a shock. This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ. Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason. Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious. And weren’t those people he had aligned himself with just the same people who had eschewed if not his music then at least everything we believed his music implied or stood for. How could this be? He would never survive this, so they said.
In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.
These new songs were not warm and fuzzy. They were not of the ‘let me suggest that you try to be good’ variety. No, these new songs were preaching. They were a presentation of the gospel and personally confrontational. Dylan telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.” His rhetoric was straight out of a tent meeting. He told his listeners that they were not self-sufficient and that they could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You might like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
And it wasn’t only the songs. They were straightforward enough, but for a couple of years there, Dylan actually preached the Gospel to his concert crowds between numbers. He refused to play the old hits that so many of the ticket-buyers had come to hear and actually went on long raps about Jesus the Messiah and His coming again.
This raised the hackles not only of his hip fans, it did not sit well with his family. Bob Dylan, Robert Zimmerman to them, was born and raised a Jew and all this talk about Jesus was, to put it mildly, strange to them. One of Dylan’s aunts, Ethel Crystal, told an interviewer that she thought the “whole gospel thing” was “done for publicity.”
Hoo-boy. For “publicity?” He turns against everything his fans thought and hoped that he stood for, angers and disappoints concert-goers, has his concert promoters and record producers ready to drop him and this is for publicity?
I can believe a lot of things about Bob Dylan, not all of them flattering, but I can’t believe that.
And it is here that we get to one of the interesting and well-developed themes in the book: the tension between Dylan’s Christian confession and his Jewish heritage.
First, a bit of disclosure here. I am a Christian. I was thrilled with Dylan’s profession of Christ, bought all three of the “gospel” records, and attended a concert in Charleston WV in February of 1980. Dylan’s conversion could not have been better timed for me. I had always been a Dylan fan and in 1980 I was twenty-eight years old and finding out a bit about the real world and learning that the faith I had been raised in was really a matter of life and death. I loved these songs then and I still love them now. In fact, while I was reading this book I went back and watched videos of his performances during these years. I was ever more impressed by what Dylan did. When he tells the Grammy Awards crowd –every rich, self-satisfied, and famous one of them – that they’ve gotta serve somebody, well, that does something for me.
A bit more about me. My life in the church has never included anything even approaching prejudice against or hatred of Jews. In fact, I have a hard time understanding Anti-Semitism, given my personal experience with those who claim lineage from Abraham. I have found them to be the most responsible of citizens, family conscious, hard-working and caring people. And when I was taught the Bible I was instructed that almost all of it – save the Books of Luke and Acts – was written by Jews. Jesus is a Jew – a direct descendent of King David - and his Bible was the Old Testament – the Torah and the Psalms and the Prophets. I feel almost ridiculous having to say this – it all seems so obvious to me. But in the book – in this book, I mean, not The Book – the strange divide between Christians and Jews is highlighted.
Scott Marshall quotes Ruth Rosen, the daughter of Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, on this issue:
For the majority of Jews, the New Testament is a closed and unfamiliar book because it is identified with the age-long persecution of the Jewish people in the name of Christianity. Because most Jews believe that the New Testament promotes anti-Semitism, they think there could be nothing in it which would sustain Jewish life and values. Thus, the common Jewish assessment of the New Testament is formed by a preconditioned impression. In many ways, Jewish experience seems to support this assessment. However, the majority of Jewish people do not feel inclined to verify the assessment by an investigation of the New Testament itself . . .
I have seen it both ways. In conversations with two Jewish friends, both of them Ivy-League educated and both deeply schooled in the traditions of their elders, I found one who had read and understood the New Testament and who, to my complete shock, said this: “Oh, I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, all right. It’s just all that Catholic voodoo I can’t get around.”
The other was surprised when in the course of a conversation I mentioned that a great deal of the New Testament consists of letters that were dashed off by one Apostle or another to churches or fellow-workers in the faith during the first century. That the New Testament was so constituted seemed a surprise.
What’s the point of all of this? Well, when one considers the question of Bob Dylan’s faith, one must come to the matter with the knowledge that this issue is, to say the very least, a hot button in Jewish circles. Scott Marshall comments that a change from the faith to atheism would be more tolerated and accepted in Jewish communities that a conversion to Christianity. There is, accordingly, a lot of bias and interest involved on both sides of the question. Christians, like me, who want to believe that Dylan’s confession was sincere and permanent and others who want to see the matter as a “phase” that their own favorite son soon “got over.”
So, we have a three-way tug-of-war going on here, with the Christian Dylan fans, like me, pulling one way – i.e. Dylan’s experience with Jesus Christ was a real, actual event (Dylan himself described it as “knee buckling”) and his gospel songs were not motivated by a desire for publicity but are authentic expressions of a converted soul, of a man who has met the Lord and, despite his open sympathy for the Hebrew community, of which he and his children are inseparably a part, and in spite of Dylan’s more recent writing that is less directly concerned with the Gospel and in spite of any crazy, excessive behavior Dylan may have engaged in since that time, he has never disavowed his confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and never disavowed a word of the songs he wrote as a result of that experience;
Secular fans pulling another way – that Dylan’s “gospel period” was just an emotional phase, not untypical for artistic types, but it has no spiritual or lasting reality and though Dylan himself has not directly and expressly disavowed his experience with Christ, such a disavowal can be fairly inferred from Dylan’s downplay of his gospel songs in recent concerts, his open participation in Jewish rituals and his rock-star behavior.
(Let me be clear about that last thing. Marshall’s book hints that there are rumors of Dylan doing the kind of drinking and womanizing lately that we’ve come to expect of musicians while on the road. The book does not detail or suggest any support for such rumors and I am not here implying that there is any truth to it. All I am saying is that if such rumors are out there, it is a cinch that this tug-of-war team will use them to establish their case.)
The third team in this battle is, of course, Dylan’s Jewish buddies and fans. The book tells that Elie Wiesel viewed Dylan’s conversion as “a tragedy” and that Paul Shaffer, the long-time music director for the David Letterman Show, admitted that he was brokenhearted by the news of Dylan’s confession. This group sees Dylan as one of their own; one of their very best. Dylan’s embrace of Christ is at best a kind of family embarrassment to them and at worst a real collaboration, by a former hero, with a deadly enemy. This group will repeat almost all of the arguments made by the secularists as described above and add great emphasis to the evidence of Dylan’s attendance at bar mitzvahs and other Jewish celebrations and his involvement with the Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish group.
It is the goal of Marshall’s book to sort it all out.
By now you are aware of this writer’s bias and interest in the matter. Nonetheless, let me try to give you some outline of the story.
First, the case for Dylan’s rabid interest in the Bible is unassailable. Whether you buy the Christian conversion business or not, it is simply undeniable that a kind of Biblical, monotheistic and moral worldview has been a fundamental part of Dylan’s philosophy and writing from the very start of his career. The book does a good job of making this case.
So Bob Dylan studied with the Lubavitchers, attended his son’s bar mitzvah, visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and has been seen on occasion in one synagogue or another on one Jewish Holy Day or another. Does all or any of that undercut the notion that Dylan believes the New Testament? Believes that Jesus is the Christ?
At first glance, we might be tempted to say that it does. The New Testament tells that adherence to the Jewish ritual law is no longer necessary. Salvation does not lie in the keeping of the law, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ. We don’t merit salvation. No man is justified by the keeping of the ritual law. Someone will argue that Dylan’s actions here all point to an opposite conviction and a return to Jewish practice and to the Jewish faith. He is participating in those very rituals that the New Testament rejects. How can he be Christian?
Well, let’s try to think of some other examples that we might compare Mr. Dylan’s conduct to. Who are some other Jews who met Jesus, and how did they handle their allegiances – familial and communal – when it came to the old rituals and practices?
Oh, here’s one! Saint Peter! What a convenient example! He, like all the rest of the Apostles, was a Jew and we can be as sure of his belief in Christ as we are of anything. The New Testament, which chronicles Peter’s discipleship at the feet of Jesus Christ is, far and away the most reliable historical source out of the ancient world. If we would doubt the accuracy of the New Testament, we’d have to ignore every other source of ancient history. The evidence supporting the accounts in the Biblical Gospels is overwhelmingly stronger than that supporting any other ancient source. In other words, the evidence for Peter’s discipleship ( and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for that matter) is far, far stronger than the evidence that there ever was a Battle of Thermopylae.
So, yes, Peter was a Jew who met Jesus and became His disciple. He witnessed the resurrected Christ and ate fish with Him on a beach in Palestine. He believed. He, accordingly, was free from the requirements of the ritual law. His faith in Christ was so strong that he suffered martyrdom. Tradition – not the New Testament – tells us that he chose to be crucified upside down because he did not deserve the same death as his master Jesus Christ.
But the Bible tells us clearly that there was a time when old Peter himself continued to observe the old Jewish ritual laws. Here is how the Apostle Paul tells the story:
Galatians 2: 11 -13 (The Message)
Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade.
How about that? Why was it that Peter reverted to observance of Jewish ritual? To hear Paul tell it it was because of the pressure put on Peter by other Jews. We must accept this at face value if we credit the scriptures as authoritative, but what might Peter have said about this business?
Would he have said that he lost his mind and forgot the saving work of Christ and decided it was the best thing for him to go back to the same systems of rituals he kept before meeting Jesus? Did his pulling back here mean that he was not a Christian? Or might Peter have said something more along the lines of this “I’ve known these guys for a long time. I don’t see the rituals as a means of salvation, but the old rituals are cultural and communal ties among us old friends. I did what I did to avoid offending them.”
Again, I am not arguing against Paul’s stance here or his final analysis of the situation. I’m just saying that there are such things as communal and cultural ties and there is some value in keeping the peace with one’s neighbors to the extent that you can. Again, I’m not saying that Peter was right to do what he did. I’m just saying that, you know, this kind of thing is understandable. And maybe more understandable for Dylan than for Saint Peter.
Dylan’s son is Hebrew by birth. A bar mitzvah is a part of the culture that surrounds him. In fact, part of the culture that Dylan himself embraced or at least participated in until his conversion. How could Dylan refuse to take part in or at least acknowledge the significance of this ritual? Would Jesus have demanded that?
And let’s look at Paul himself. In the Book of Acts we see him “purifying himself” before entering the Temple in Jerusalem: “. . . and he went into the temple to give notice of the time when the days of purification would be completed – the time, that is to say, when the sacrifice could be offered for each one of [the men].” Acts 21: 25-26
I don’t for a minute pretend to know all that was going on here in this passage, but it seems a very safe bet to me that Paul submitted himself to Jewish rituals – you know, “the Law” that he jumped all over Peter for observing - for the very purpose of keeping the peace among believing Jews. The distinction, I guess, is that Paul did what he did among Jews and out of the hearing of the Gentiles. But the point for now is that observance of Jewish ritual by Jews is not an indication of unbelief! It is not inconsistent with faith in Christ.
Dylan’s observances, it seems to me, are more like those of Paul than those of Peter’s. That is, they are done within the Jewish community and culture alone, outside the hearing, as it were, of the Gentiles. Bob could be keeping the peace; assuring his blood tribe that he hasn’t forgotten himself or the heritage of his people. He has not removed himself from their culture and community.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”
The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?” since that is how so many people see the issue. But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question. Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew. He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American. By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’” So was the Apostle Paul. So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus. So what?
When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures. His answer was, more or less: I don’t see any contradiction. To me it’s all one thing.
Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age. He is right to do that. He’d be wrong not to.
The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.
Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality. One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:
Dylan is not an intellectual. He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.
Dylan is not C. S. Lewis. He is not a systematic theologian. He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience. Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience. We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts. We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism. That’s not who Dylan is. It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates. Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.
Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs. For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living. He did not set out to find and exploit a market. He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul. Even if that took him away from the market.
Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others. He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours. The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel: Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”
If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists? That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?
Marshall offers several ideas on the point. There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession. In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:
Everybody's going and I want to go too
Don't wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I've already confessed – no need to confess again
Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on. Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that. He just goes on to the next chapter.
Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism. This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here. The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.
But the book is a wonderful piece of work. I could hardly put it down. The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated. It deals with an amazing subject this Nobel-Prize and Medal-of-Freedom winning American poet. Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own? Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:
"The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience."
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And amen.
Bottom line? Here is the conviction the book leaves me with: Dylan’s conversion was no stunt. It was not a result of confusion or delusion. He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold. They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand. They may be cherished.