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Bob Dylan’s Soulful Christian Phase

I had realized I was an atheist by the age of 21, before my great aunt died. She was a kind and sensitive woman, but I barely knew her. I accompanied my mother to the funeral service at a Serbian Orthodox church. The entire ceremony took place in Serbian and culminated in the priest chanting prayers while spreading incense on the coffin in front of the altar. A choir sang Serbian hymns. The sun cascaded into the cathedral, making the Byzantine art shine with blinding luminosity. I wept.

Aristotle argued that tragic art cleanses the soul of pity and terror through means of pity and terror. “So tragedy is an imitation not of people,” he wrote, “but of action, life, and happiness or unhappiness.” Beauty and wonder were essential to the Athenian philosopher. The soul, he believed, recognizes what is beautiful at first glance.

The Serbian Orthodox funeral for my great aunt possessed beauty, placed the mourner in a state of wonder, and through means of pity and terror imitated the trauma and triumph of human life. It was religion, but it was also art. Art without Aristotle’s elements, as the frivolous nature of American pop culture demonstrates, is useless.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 print issue of The American Conservative.

Bob Dylan has released a new box set, Trouble No More, chronicling the period of his career most controversial to critics—the three years, beginning in the late 1970s, during which he made exclusively Christian music. To anger secular listeners with great severity, Dylan’s gospel was not of the “Jesus is just alright” hippie variety. It was fire and brimstone, “sinners in the hands of an angry God” exhortation. In live performances, his introductions to songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” and “Are You Ready” included end-of-days prophecy and warnings of hellfire for nonbelievers.

Discovering Dylan’s Christian music decades after its release, I was prepared to hate it. But it became the stage of Dylan’s chameleon-like career to which I most return. The rock-gospel trilogy of Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love boasts of some of Dylan’s most powerful and impactful music.

I am not alone among the secular in my appreciation of Dylan’s “born again” evangelization put to song. Christopher Hitchens once said that Dylan “never sang so beautifully” as during his Christian era. Robbie Fulks, a Grammy-nominated folk singer-songwriter whose songs include perhaps the first country anthem for atheism, “God Isn’t Real,” regularly hosts impassioned tribute performances to Dylan’s gospel in Chicago. Fulks was a Christian teenager when he first fell in love with the gospel trilogy of Dylan’s career, but even as an atheist he “cannot shake the music” because he can’t “hold the beliefs of a musician, even if they are against my beliefs, against the music.”

Another of Dylan’s secular supporters was the late Jerry Wexler, Dylan’s producer for Slow Train Coming. Wexler noted the irony that he, “a Jewish atheist,” produced two of the most popular Christian records of the 20th century—Dylan’s gospel debut and the majestic Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. During the recording session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, Dylan attempted to convert Wexler, who left little room for discussion. He told the songwriter, “I’m hopeless. Let’s just a make a good record.”

Dylan and Wexler organized a band that could recapture the big and blistering blues and funk of the Muscle Shoals sound, perfected by Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and Franklin. The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd had already incorporated the fiery soul of the Swampers into several of their best songs, but Dylan had a different mission than pure rock ‘n’ roll. He wanted pity and terror.

Wexler insisted that they recruit Mark Knopfler to play lead guitar. His soulful but restrained licks emerge out of the large and heavy arrangements like flickers of candlelight in the catacombs of Dylan’s spiritual rage. The Memphis Horns and a large enlistment of singers, including Carolyn Dennis, whom Dylan eventually would marry and later divorce, make the music as fit for a smoky blues club as it is for a Pentecostal church.

“Gotta Serve Somebody,” an irresistible, musical outline of hip hop, opens the record with an artistic expression of the Biblical injunction against the futility of attempting to serve two masters. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” Dylan half-sings and half-raps. The hit song also works excellently as a warning against the delusions of American individualists who believe they can detach themselves from all moral commitments by “doing their own thing.”

Dylan said the aim of his Christian lyrics was to “lay down the law.” Much less poetic and often weaker than his best compositions, the gospel songs still have a concussive force behind them. The lyrics are especially effective because Dylan often addresses them to an unnamed, single recipient. He takes his Christian theology, pulls it down from the heavens, and makes it as intimate as a love song or letter to a friend. Rather than vaguely devotional, Dylan’s gospel on the first and third records (Saved, the second album in the trilogy, is traditional in form and content) allows him to amplify socio-spiritual anger toward a world gone wrong. His Christian literalism acts as his own shield against the evils of man, but it is also a curative promise.

“Slow Train” begins, “Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted / Can’t help but wonder, what’s happenin’ to my companions?” Near the end of the song, Dylan demonstrates his unparalleled literacy in the musical measure of a lyric, rhythmically singing:

Well, my baby went to Illinois with some bad talkin’ boy she could destroy

A real suicide case but there was nothin’ I could do to stop it

I don’t care about economy

I don’t care about astronomy

But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets

On the title track of Shot of Love Dylan is delightfully murderous as he takes survey of his surroundings, finding corruption, capriciousness, and cruelty. He prays that God will inject him with the only medicine with the potential to heal:

Why would I want to take your life?

You’ve only murdered my father

Raped his wife

Tattooed my babies with a poison pen

Mocked my God

Humiliated my friends

I need a shot of love…

The device of speaking directly, in the heat of an emotional moment, to an unidentified recipient brilliantly humanizes Dylan’s religion, and it makes his shift into devotional music more profound and effectual. “I Believe in You” is a love song more than anything else. He tells God that “they”—skeptics full of doubt and scorn—cannot break his faith.“I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter / I believe in you even though we be apart…”

It is impossible to deny that some of Dylan’s unfortunate lyrics, and his apocalyptic preaching, bust through the barrier separating sanity from insanity. In “Precious Angel,” an otherwise magnificent song, he celebrates the coming of a time when “men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die.” In what other context but religious expression would such a misanthropic and sinister wish elicit anything but horror?

The xenophobia of “Slow Train” has Dylan crawling on all fours with the alt-right when he sings of “Sheiks walkin’ around like kings / Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings / Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris…”

Dylan has never fully explained his Christian conversion, saying only that a fan threw him a cross on stage and a miracle, through the intercession of the cross, occurred in his presence. The hocus pocus of Dylan’s testimony provokes scrutiny of the soft bigotry of low expectations helpful to religion. If he were to have claimed that a miracle happened due to a drumstick, few wouldn’t assume that the use of narcotics played a larger role than the divine.

Much of Dylan’s fundamentalist ideology, at least as he expressed it in the early 1980s, simultaneous with the rise of the Religious Right, is hideous in theory and practice, while many of the beliefs that inspire it are imbecilic, but—and I ask this with the pleasure of knowing that it subverts current socio-political convention—who cares?

The bifurcation of America into two hysterical tribes of political partisanship encourages its unimaginative residents to evaluate everything according to political function. A civilized people would do well to consider the seemingly radical proposal of assessing art according to artistic merit. I would have deprived myself of great joy, beauty, and wisdom had I shut off Dylan’s records, and my inhumanity would have defied measurement if I walked out of my great aunt’s funeral, or even hardened my heart to prevent the emergence of tears.

The degradation of American discourse into the shouts of accusation from social media mobs has made the entire country feel tragically less human. People seem to actually wake up in the morning itching to find out what this or that son-of-a-bitch tweeted. The daily outrages accumulate into nothing.

In the most marvelous composition of Dylan’s Christian music, “Every Grain of Sand,” the songwriter takes measure of his entire life, and searches for some semblance of meaning and source of purpose:

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear

Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer

The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way

To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame

And every time I pass that way I always hear my name

Then onward in my journey I come to understand

That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

The questions at the heart of Dylan’s struggle are those that trouble every human life: How can we prevent our regrets from disabling our ambition? How do we face our imminent extinction with pride and strength? How do we gain the confidence to behave as if our lives matter for more than what is empirically verifiable?

Dylan might have found different answers than me, but only a fool would feel that those differences undermine the power of his inquiry. People are at their best when they invest more energy into the edifying expression of helpful questions than the demand for “correct” answers. When they forget about the superiority of questions over answers, they should know that they join company with the worst political and religious movements, whether the communism of the Soviet Union or the Islamic fundamentalism of many sadistic regimes currently in power.

The ideology of Bob Dylan collides with his own art on “Precious Angel.” He sings, “Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.” Art, contrary to the insipid dogmas of those with the totalitarian impulse, is the neutral ground. For the growth of the intellect and the enlargement of the soul, it is also fertile ground.

David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing), and the forthcoming Half-Lights at Evening: Essays on Hope (Agate Publishing).

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Bob Dylan’s Soulful Christian Phase"

#1 Comment By BobS On January 30, 2018 @ 7:51 am

Slow Train Coming (salvaged by Mark Knopfler), Saved, and Shot of Love were arguably the weakest run of albums in Dylan’s career (with Saved contending with Self Portrait and Street Legal as his worst).

#2 Comment By E. J. On January 30, 2018 @ 11:09 am

“In “Precious Angel,” an otherwise magnificent song, he celebrates the coming of a time when “men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die.” In what other context but religious expression would such a misanthropic and sinister wish elicit anything but horror?”

For the record, that’s not a “wish.” That’s a paraphrase of a prophecy from the book of Revelation.

#3 Comment By Steve Rafalsky On January 30, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

Thanks, David, for the article. The book by Taylor and Israelson, “The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin”, made an excellent case for the authenticity and continuation of his “Christian phase”. Convinced me, at any rate, and I can be pretty skeptical.

#4 Comment By PSonnenberg On January 30, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

To me, listening to those albums is like reading the best science fiction… The power and immediacy of the songs and my deep respect for the singer allows me to “inhabit” beliefs and a world view that reason has long since made otherwise uninhabitable for me. I find it thrilling every time, even while ultimately confirms for me the choices I’ve made in this regard.

#5 Comment By Siwash On January 30, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

Absolutely love Slow Train Coming.

“Man gave names to all the animals. . . “

#6 Comment By Bob Jope On January 31, 2018 @ 4:22 am

P Sonnenberg gets it right for me. Meantime, the intimacy and passionate intensity of the best of these lyrics call John Donne to mind:again, ‘Christian’ writing that transcends that banal label- dark, complex, wrangling…. Mind you, there are some awkward, lumpen lyric, too – eg ‘an unknown hour that no-one knew’!

#7 Comment By Bob Jope On January 31, 2018 @ 4:24 am

Sorry – should be ‘lyrics’ in the last line!

#8 Comment By jzsnake On January 31, 2018 @ 7:59 am

If watching some of these songs live on youtube doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

#9 Comment By ScottL On January 31, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

By far this is the deepest and most useful assessment of this box set published so far. Cannot but agree that the music and the singing is among his best despite the reputation (and straying into humorless zealotry). I would just add that another point of success for this religious period is that Bob Dylan managed to create freely something new beyond the spectre of self-competition and self-parady. Careening into Jesus freed him most of all from having to out-brake himself or make another Highway 61 Revisited. He was free to create actual songs – things that stand or fall on their own – rather than mere extensions of his celebrity and legend. I believe this freedom from that (inevitable) baggage is what inspired the exceptional singing of those songs. He truly sang like a free bird and perhaps it was the last time he would sing so freely. Good article!

#10 Comment By Steve On January 31, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

Your insights into Dylan’s music and life go deeper than most articles about him and his music. But…I must disagree with you about your conclusion that art is the neutral ground we need. I am a painter ( not a slopper of paint which is different ) and have to deal with inspirations and concepts that take me to the edge of reason. I can attest to the need to make a decision, to resolve something critical in the work, to choose a belief. Neutral? Hardly.

#11 Comment By John McMillin On January 31, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

That’s a lovely and illuminating review of an album that’s in my car deck right now. And, even better, I can bear personal witness to the miracle of Christian Dylan’s Denver Concert, 38 years ago. It was hastily announced and started at midnight, after the previously scheduled act, Pat Benatar, was finished. I had the Slow Train album, I knew the tunes, so I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t a believer, but I grew up in the South and always enjoyed a good Gospel show.

What took place this night was a quiet echo of Dylan’s first electric concerts, such as Newport. All the most fervent fans who had lined up earliest for the best seats remained in those seats, hands in their laps, after most songs. Those out at the corners of the theater got into it, and applauded like any other show.

The energy and commitment of the band won me over- certainly I believed in them. Today, the album sounds more ragged than I recall, but real. Dylan rarely sounded more heartfelt and emphatic- and this followed, remember, the ill-regarded Glitter Dylan phase that gave us — well, not much of lasting value.

#12 Comment By David On January 31, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

The photo is 20 years off.

I think Dylan just getting clean was a big boost to his art.

I also find the “Sheiks walking around like kings” lyric interesting. Maybe two years later, Dylan’s sticking up for Israel in Neighborhood Bully. I’ve always thought he felt personally affronted by OPEC. The oil embargo was a response to our support for Israel, but unlike some alt-rightists, Dylan never questioned those controlling America’s future to Tel Aviv, never mind their attire.

On his last album of original songs, he sings, “I pay in blood but not my own.”

#13 Comment By Charley Nelson On January 31, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

Good article. Dylan’s born again phase produced some really good music and it never really represented the 180 degree turn in his thoughts that some people felt it did. Listening to “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” the other day I was struck by the fact that many of these songs speak out against the powerful taking advantage of the less fortunate. That’s hardly a departure from the early ’60s folk music Dylan.

True, some of the songs were more of the fire and brimstone variety. However, my favorite of them all is “Every Grain of Sand” (which is mentioned in this article). The lyrics…

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me…”

…don’t exactly speak of a man absolutely convinced of his faith.

#14 Comment By DeGaulle On February 1, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

It wasn’t just a phase. Dylan remains a Christian to this day. That’s why he pays in Blood, but not his own.

And men will beg God to kill them, because they know the truth of themselves.

#15 Comment By Rob G On February 2, 2018 @ 7:26 am

“Slow Train Coming (salvaged by Mark Knopfler), Saved, and Shot of Love were arguably the weakest run of albums in Dylan’s career (with Saved contending with Self Portrait and Street Legal as his worst).”

Hogwash. Slow Train generally rates a solid ‘B’ among critics, and Saved is a great melding of black gospel and rock, a fact lost on those critics largely unfamiliar with the former. Shot of Love is a mixed bag, but contains several gems.

“If watching some of these songs live on youtube doesn’t convince you, nothing will.”

Yep. I think this is true especially of the ‘Saved’ material. “Pressing On” positively burns, for instance.

#16 Comment By Hexexis On February 4, 2018 @ 12:02 am

Saw Dylan in Maryland in 1981, maybe some time B4 Shot of Love was released (he bemoaned the thought that probably no one would buy it).

There were some Dylan standards (It Ain’t Me Babe); Lenny Bruce Is Dead (from Shot); but the hi-lites of a concert form Dylan’s Christian phase were Dave Mason’s We Just Disagree & Dion’s Abraham Martin & John, on solo piano during the intermission.