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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Bob Dylan's Spiritual Journey

[Subtitle: "Or, A Desparate Attempt by an Exasperated Catholic Blogger to Demonstrate the Existence of Other Topics on the Internet besides Mel Gibson's The Passion and the Alleged Anti-Semitism of The Director"]

Jewsweek is running a fascinating 4-part series on the spiritual life of Bob Dylan, titled "Bob Dylan's Unshakeable Monotheism", by music journalist Scott Marshall. Parts II and III cover Dylan's encounter with Jesus in 1979 and his "gospel period" during the early 1980's. Apparently Dylan had some kind of spiritual epiphany (what evangelicals might call a "born-again" experience), prompting his baptism and study of scripture under the tutorship of several pastors from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. He would preach the gospel over the span of several albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love), even collaborating with Christian gospel artist Kieth Green.

I have heard people mention Dylan's conversion before, dismissing it as a "Jesus phase" which he eventually grew out of. While there is much speculation as to whether Dylan returned to his Jewish faith in later years, Marshall insists that this was never confirmed by the musician, as he has "never formally announced his departure from (or return to) Judaism." Dylan no longer sings exclusively gospel songs as he did during the 80's, and eschews religious labels and denominational affiliations ("Jews separate themselves like that: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform ... as if God calls them that. Christians, too: Baptists, Assembly of God, Methodists, Calvinists. God has no respect for a person's title. He don't care what you call yourself"). In many ways he runs counter to the typical notion of a "right-wing fundamentalist" -- and yet, judging from the copious excerpts from interviews he continues to affirm a literal belief in the Bible ("You can't get away from it, wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and they're true now"), the existence of [original?] sin ("We're all sinners . . . Most people walking around have this strange conception that they're born good, that they're really good people -- but the world has just made a mess of their lives. . . . it's not hard for me to identify with anybody who's on the wrong side. We're all on the wrong side, really"), and a conception of "the Messianic Age" that is distinctly Judeo-Christian. Moreover, when challenged, Dylan displays a willingness to defend his faith, as in this amusing encounter with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997):

Bob Dylan: "Allen, do you have a quarrel with God?"
Allen Ginsberg: "I've never met the man."
Bob Dylan: "Then you have a quarrel with God."
Allen Ginsberg: "Well, I didn't start anything!"

Two interesting points stand out in this article: the first is the the explicit and unrelenting hostility of the secular media towards Christianity, manifested in their ridicule and biting criticism of Dylan's religious expression during his "gospel period" -- a hostility rooted, I suspect, partly in confusion and fear. After all, what can a contemporary journalist do when confronted by a musician (and 1960's folk/rock icon no less) who displays a literal belief in the scriptures and the Messiah, and proclaims the validity of right and wrong, sin and divine judgement? (Or as Dylan puts it: "Make something religious and people don't have to deal with it, they can say it's irrelevant. 'Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.' That scares the s**t out of people. They'd like to avoid that. Tell that to someone and you become their enemy.")

The second point I found especially interesting was Dylan's personal experience as a Jew who -- while maintaining a belief in Jesus as the Messiah -- insists that he hasn't "abandoned" his Jewish faith, despite all assertions to the contrary by his colleagues and critics. As one of the Vineyard pastors says, "I think he [Dylan] is one of those fortunate ones who realized that Judaism and Christianity can work very well together because Christ is just Yeshua ha' Meshiah [Jesus the Messiah]." Orthodox Jews may disagree with this assertion, and may consider the Jewish convert to Christianity as one forever lost and dead, but one cannot deny the fact that those Jews who embrace Christianity nevertheless feel a tangible bond to their Jewish faith and tradition. Consequently, it felt natural for Dylan to lend his support to Jewish causes like Chabad and attend his son's bar mitzvah in 1983 at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem . . . and at the same time, play overtly Christian songs like "In The Garden," which "amounted to a narrative about the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus."

Bob Dylan was before my time and I confess to having little knowledge or experience of his music, so I'm very appreciative of these articles. Scott Marshall has also written a book on this topic, titled: Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (Relevant Books, 2002).

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