One of the most controversial periods in the life of Bob Dylan was his late '70s conversion to Christianity, as captured in the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved. Steve Turner reported on the man's newfound faith in this NME report from September 1979——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Nothing guarantees more scorn in rock 'n' roll circles than a man who gets religion. I mean, we pay these guys to visit hell and bring us back colour slides and here they go slipping off to heaven. It's a severe breach of contract.
Bob Dylan's newfound faith shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, though. In 1965 he claimed "I just don't have any religion or philosophy," and then went on to plug the I Ching. In his 1966 Playboy interview he's asked by Nat Hentoff: "You told an interviewer last year, 'I've done everything I ever wanted to do.' If that's true, what do you have to look forward to?" "Salvation," replied Dylan, "just plain salvation."
Perhaps the most interesting interview in the light of recent events is one he gave to the American TV Guide in 1976. The interviewer asked him about his 1971 visit to Israel and subsequent interest in Judaism. "I'm interested in what and who a Jew is," said Dylan. "I'm interested in the fact that Jews are Semites, like Babylonians, Hittites, Arabs, Syrians, Ethiopians. But a Jew is different because a lot of people hate Jews. There's something going on there that's hard to explain."
He was then asked how he imagined God.
"I can see God in a daisy. I can see God at night in the wind and rain. I see Creation just about everywhere. The highest form of song is prayer. King David's, Solomon's, the wailing of a coyote, the rumble of the earth. It must be wonderful to be God. There's so much going on out there that you can't get to it all. It would take longer than for ever."
During the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan found himself working alongside three musicians who were later to become born-again Christians — T-Bone Burnett on bass, Steve Soles rhythm and David Mansfield violin. Soles and Mansfield accompanied Dylan on the 1978 European tour and Soles in particular had spent a lot of time arguing religion with his boss. In retrospect he and Burnett don't feel that they had much effect on the man although it's hard to believe that their words went wasted. The only thing that Soles can recall registering with him was his constantly saying that: "You can't place your faith in man. I kept telling him that I was so glad that I didn't have to place my faith in man any longer."
The turning point for Dylan came when the girl he'd been living with became a committed Christian. She promptly moved out on him as she'd attained a new set of values. The depth of this commitment caused him to set about investigating for himself. She is now immortalised as the Precious Angel who was "the one/To show me I was blinded/To show me I was gone".
His first stop was a Bible study led by Hal Lindsey, an American Christian author whose book The Later Great Planet Earth came out in 1970 and has remained a best-seller. Lindsey's particular concern — the final events in the history of the world as prophesised by the Book of Revelation — obviously captured Dylan's imagination and he would have been intrigued by Lindsey's emphasis on biblical prophecies concerning the role of Israel and the Jewish people in the days before the return of Christ to earth.
Basically Lindsey, in common with many Christian eschatologists of the past 350 years, sees the restoration of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people as the beginning of the end — an end which sees Jews acknowledging Jesus Christ as the Messiah, a holocaust in the Middle East involving Russia, China, the Arab nations and the Common Market countries and the literal return of Christ.
Close friends like Soles and Burnett all remark on the difference in Dylan's attitude since the conversion. "He's excited by the fact that he feels he's been rescued," said one. Others commented on the love and warmth that he's now projecting. One of his first worries has been to decide his relationship with his back catalogue. Initially he felt he could no longer sing many of the songs from his past, but a musician friend of his — a fellow Jewish Christian who has become something of a spiritual confidant to him — advised him to carry on performing them as they were a valid part of his pilgrimage.
Dylan's conversion is as much as anything an indication of two movements that have been gaining ground in the US. The first is amongst musicians, with Dan Peek (America), Ritchie Furay (Poco), Roger McGuinn (Byrds), Al Perkins (Manassas), B.J. Thomas, Barry McGuire and Leon Patillo (Santana) becoming Christians in recent years. The second is the rise of Messianic Judaism — Jews who believe that acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament merely completes their Jewishness rather than negates it.
© Steve Turner, 1979
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