The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

Chances are you don’t tend think of Bob Dylan as a Christian visionary.  But an archival deluxe set just released this week, “Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol 13/ 1979-1981,” may well change your mind.

The collection covers what’s sometimes called “the Christian period” in Dylan’s music, the three albums he released in 1979 (“Slow Train Coming”), 1980 (“Saved”), and 1981 (“Shot of Love”).  

Dylan has always used biblical and religious imagery in his music, both before and after these three adventurous years.  But for these songs he not only pivoted his poetry into explicitly Christian territory, he also recruited a band of some of the most talented and accomplished gospel musicians ever assembled.  At the time, Dylan’s fans were taken aback and polarized by this transformation, but music critics today are reappraising the period as one full of brilliant musicianship, lyrical daring, and passionate Christian faith.

So here we have one of the most groundbreaking, influential artists in American history (a Nobel laureate, no less!) writing and performing songs about Christian life for three intensive, generative years.  This is the kind of artistic vitality churches today should celebrate and explore, lifting it up in our congregations and beyond – not least because what Dylan does in these songs, both poetically and musically, is shot through with vigor and insight.

There's chatter out there about the precise character of Dylan's conversion (whether it was "fundamentalist," etc.), but speculation about the inner life of an intensely private person is seldom illuminating – and in any case the songs speak for themselves, laying out a complex, evolving picture of an artist thinking through the major stakes, themes, and patterns of Christian life.

Here’s a taste:  

“SlowTrain Coming,” the title track of the first album in the trio, is a bluesy, spirited piece of cultural and theological criticism (read his lyrics while you listen).  Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Dylan calls out the decadence and injustice of this day, but finds the greatest danger to be inside religious precincts, not outside them:

But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All unbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

“Every Grain of Sand,” a tender meditation on God’s providence and care, is now widely considered one of Dylan’s most beautiful, anguished ballads (lyrics here).  At a Dylan-tribute concert last year, of all the songs Emmy Lou Harris could have chosen to perform, she chose this one – and her version is extraordinary.

In "What Can I Do For You?", Dylan poetically plays with a central theological tension in Christian life:  between (a) Thank you, God, you've done it all, there's nothing left to do; and (b) What can I do for you?  (Lyrics here, and watch the exclusive clip embedded in the New York Times story about the archival release this week.  Don't miss the harmonica-and-organ coda at the end of the song, where Dylan and Spooner Oldham quietly, prayerfully launch the song to new heights).

Finally, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is essentially a children’s song with a blues-and-reggae feel, a deceptively simple structure, and a cheerfully chilling final verse (lyrics here).  Many have covered it over the years, including Jason Mraz, of all people, whose version nicely captures the song’s fun, mischievous spirit.

So check out the Gospel According to Dylan – and spread the word about how this Michelangelo of American music and literature interpreted and articulated Christian faith (for example, you could add all these links to your Facebook feed this week!).  It's all well and good for music critics to be rediscovering these works of art, but the church, too, should be out front leading the way.