Bob Dylan’s Oft-Overlooked Christian Music

Bob Dylan performing in Los Angeles in 2012. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

In 1966, John Lennon wondered which would go first, Christianity or rock music. He quipped that the Beatles were certainly more popular than Jesus.

In 1978, Bob Dylan was “born again” and the Beatles had broken up.

The most important artists of the era provide uneven bookmarks to the cultural politics of the heady decade of “the sixties,” which really spanned from the mid-’60s to mid-’70s.

For the discontents of the long decade of the ’60s, liberals were actually libertines who had gained control of the powerful machinations of the state and culture. They used Great Society programs and rock n’ roll to change the politics and culture of the nation. Music and government subverted “tradition” and encouraged racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights, and economic fairness, which challenged the church and the family.

This is what made Dylan’s conversion in the late ’70s so interesting. A leading rock star of the era had found Jesus and would release a trilogy of Christian albums that dealt with themes of salvation, religious persecution, purity, and the futility of politics.

But Dylan’s Christianity was markedly out of step with that of the dominant themes of the previous era. He was not a Jesus Freak, the movement of the street Christians and coffee houses that began in the Haigh-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and spread across the nation. He was not appropriating mainstream hipness and adapting its cultural productions in order to make Christianity more palatable or approachable. He steered clear of the Jesus-as-radical tradition. Neither was his understanding of the gospel similar to the emancipationist and liberationist interpretations of Civil Rights activists. In his trilogy, he was not recording the soundtrack to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

Dylan’s Christianity had less in common with Jesse Jackson’s and had more in common with Jerry Falwell’s. It fit comfortably within the perspectives of a reactionary Christianity that blamed liberalism and the Civil Rights movement for the nation’s religious, moral, and economic decline. The end times were near and the nation needed to prepare for God’s wrath.

Dylan’s first Christian album was Slow Train Coming in 1979 and the first track, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” established that in the larger ongoing spiritual warfare that was occurring, everyone was going to either have to choose to follow the righteous path of the Lord or the crooked road of the devil. This theme was repeated in the song “Precious Angel,” when Dylan sings, “now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down / Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and their ain’t neutral grown / the enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived / when the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe?”

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SOURCE: Sojourners, Aaron E. Sanchez