Thinking Twice about Bob Dylan
Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, shocked his fans in 1965 when he played his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. But he shocked them even more when he released his Slow Train Coming album in August 1979. The songs explicitly expressed Dylan’s newfound faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
When Dylan debuted songs from his new album on Saturday Night Live—including “Gotta Serve Somebody”—Rabbi Laurence Schlesinger, who has written about Dylan, said he was “completely stunned” at the words and message.1
The album sleeve of Dylan’s next record, Saved, included a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures which showed that Dylan understood that he was still very much a Jew, one who had now entered into a new covenant with God through Jesus: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
Dylan’s next album, Shot of Love, released in August 1981, mixed secular and religious songs. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times asked Dylan why some of those new songs seemed “only remotely religious.” Dylan replied, “They’ve evolved. I’ve made my statement, and I don’t think I could make it any better than in some of those songs. Once I’ve said what I need to say in a song, that’s it. I don’t want to repeat myself.”2
That answer didn’t stop the media from speculating that Dylan was retreating from his profession of faith. In March 1982, New York Magazine published an article entitled, “Dylan Ditching Gospel?” In the article, an unnamed source speculated that because Dylan was attending his son’s bar mitzvah instead of a ceremony to present the Gospel Song of the Year for the National Music Publishers’ Association, “[his Christian period] is over.”3 But, as author Scott Marshall pointed out, “It didn’t seem to occur to them [the rumor-mongers] that Dylan would choose sharing this special rite of passage with his son over the opportunity to hand out a music award.”4 The anonymous source also conjectured that Dylan had only been “testing” his faith the last three years and had now settled back into Judaism. As Marshall noted, “The irony, to anyone who was paying attention to Dylan’s own words during those years, is that he never left his Jewish roots. All along, he saw a direct connection between his identity as a Jew and his belief in Jesus as the Messiah. He could not have been more clear about that.”5
More speculation arose when Dylan began studies at the Lubavitch Center in Brooklyn in 1983. But Larry Emond, a pastor who regularly met with Dylan, observed:
[Dylan] was one of those fortunate ones who realized that Judaism and Christianity can work very well together, because Christ is Yeshua ha’Meshiah [Jesus the Messiah]. And so he doesn’t have any problems about putting on a yarmulke and going to a bar mitzvah, because he can respect that. And [he] recognizes that maybe those people themselves will recognize who Yeshua ha’Meshiah is one of these days.6
It has become more difficult to discern Dylan’s beliefs going forward, in part because, as he said, he feels he has covered that territory already in his songs and doesn’t want to repeat himself. However, even though his songs since his “gospel period” are not overtly religious, his lyrics still often address spiritual topics (see “Dylan’s Biblical Lyrics”).
Dylan doesn’t give many personal interviews, and, when he does, he prefers to focus on his music. He is also is a master of ambiguity. But he has made some telling comments regarding issues of faith. When asked in 1984 if he believed in evil, Dylan replied:
Sure I believe in it. I believe that ever since Adam and Eve got thrown out of the garden that the whole nature of the planet has been heading in one direction— towards apocalypse. It’s all there in the Book of Revelation, but it’s difficult talking about these things to most people because most people don’t know what you’re talking about, or don’t want to listen.7
In an interview with Rolling Stone around that time, the conversation went like this:
You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.
Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
. . .
When you meet up with Orthodox [Jewish] people, can you sit down with them and say, “Well, you should really check out Christianity”?
Well, yeah, if somebody asks me, I’ll tell ‘em. But you know, I’m not just going to offer my opinion. I’m more about playing my music, you know?8
In a 1985 interview, Dylan had this to say:
We’re all sinners. People seem to think that because their sins are different from other people’s sins, they’re not sinners. People don’t like to think of themselves as sinners. It makes them feel uncomfortable. “What do you mean sinners?” It puts them at a disadvantage in their mind. 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. I have another point of view. But it’s not hard for me to identify with anybody who’s on the wrong side. We’re all on the wrong side, really.
The Bible runs through all U.S. life, whether people know if or not. It’s the founding book. The founding fathers’ book anyway. People can’t get away from it. You can’t get away from it wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and they’re true now. They’re scriptural, spiritual laws. I guess people can read into that what they want. But if you’re familiar with those concepts they’ll probably find enough of them in my stuff. Because I always get back to that.9
Rolling Stone interviewed Dylan again in 1986, and Mikal Gilmore asked him if he had moved to the right, politically. Dylan replied:
Well, for me, there is no right and there is no left. There’s truth and there’s untruth, y’know? There’s honesty and there’s hypocrisy. Look in the Bible: you don’t see nothing about right or left. Other people might have other ideas about things, but I don’t, because I’m not that smart. I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.
When asked if a good Christian has to be a political conservative, Dylan responded:
Conservative? Well, don’t forget, Jesus said that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. I mean, is that conservative? I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of preachers say how God wants everybody to be wealthy and healthy. Well, it doesn’t say that in the Bible. You can twist anybody’s words, but that’s only for fools and people who follow fools.10
In an interview for USA Today in 1989, Edna Gunderson asked Dylan if he was concerned about his “image.” He replied:
It’s been years since I’ve read anything about myself. [People] can think what they want and let me be. You can’t let the fame get in the way of your calling. Everybody is entitled to lead a private life. Then again, God watches everybody, so there’s nothing really private, nothing we can hide. As long as you’re exposing everything to the power that created you, people can’t uncover too much.11
Of course, that didn’t stop them from trying. In 2001, Howard Sounes released his book, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, in which he revealed that Dylan returned to womanizing and drink after becoming a follower of Jesus. But, as Steve Turner wrote in his review of the book for Christianity Today, “The best advice I got was from a former sideman of Dylan’s who had converted about the same time. He said it would be safer to distinguish between the lyrics of the songs, which would remain true whatever failings their author may later exhibit, and Dylan himself.”12
Speculation on Dylan’s spiritual state ran rampant when he did his first television interview in nineteen years, with Ed Bradley, which aired on 60 Minutes on June 26, 2005. Here is the portion of the interview that especially raised eyebrows:
Bradley: Why do you still do it? Why are you still out here?
Dylan: It goes back to that destiny thing. I made a bargain with it a long time ago, and I’m holding up my end.
Bradley: What was your bargain?
Dylan: To get where I am now.
Bradley: Should I ask whom you made the bargain with?
Dylan: With the chief commander.
Bradley: On this earth?
Dylan: (laughing) On this earth and in the world we can’t see.
Hold on! Did Dylan make a deal with the devil? Or is the “chief commander” God? Christians weighed in. David Cloud speculated that Dylan’s deal “refers to the old blues concept of selling one’s soul to the devil, something that Robert Johnson and others have sung about.”13
But Kees de Graaf argued that a person can indeed make a deal with God—the new covenant that Dylan refers to in the liner notes to his Saved album and in his “Covenant Woman” song on that album, where he sings, “I’ve got a covenant too.”14
In 2009, after Dylan released his Christmas album, interviewer Bill Flanagan, speaking of Dylan’s performance of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” told Dylan, “You sure deliver that song like a true believer.” Dylan responded, “Well, I am a true believer.”15
As Dylan continually points out, his personal life is between him and God. At live performances he has continued to sing songs from his “gospel” albums, including, even in recent years, “I Believe in You,” “Saving Grace,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” and “Every Grain of Sand.”
So is Dylan still a Jew for Jesus? Only his Creator knows for sure. But more importantly, what would it take for you to “change your way of thinking [about Jesus]?”
- Scott M. Marshall, Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002), p. 35.
- Robert Hilburn, interview with Dylan, Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1980.
- “Dylan Ditching Gospel?” New York Magazine, March 15, 1982, p. 15.
- Marshall, op. cit., p. 62.
- “Has Born-again Bob Dylan Returned to Judaism?” Christianity Today, January 13, 1984, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/mayweb-only/5-21-45.0.html
- Mick Brown, “Bob Dylan: ‘Jesus, who’s got time to keep up with the times?’” The Sunday Times, July 1, 1984, p. 15.
- Kurt Loder, “Bob Dylan, Recovering Christian,” Rolling Stone, June 21, 1984, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bob-dylan-recovering-christian-19840621
- Bill Flanagan, Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters (Rosetta Books, LLC, eBook), print book c. 1987.
- Mikal Gilmore, “Dylan: On Recapturing ‘Highway 61’ and Touring with Tom Petty,” Rolling Stone, July 17, 1986, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/positively-dylan-on-recapturing-the-spirit-of-highway-61-and-teaming-up-with-tom-petty-and-the-heartbreakers-19860717
- Edna Gunderson, “He’s Still Painting His Masterpiece,” USA Today, September 21, 1989.
- Steve Turner, “Watered Down Love,” Christianity Today, May 21, 2001.
- David Cloud, “Bob Dylan,” May 29, 2001, http://www.wayoflife.org/index_files/bob_dylan.html
- Kees de Graaf, “Bob Dylan’s ‘When the Deal Goes Down—lyric analysis, part 1,” http://www.keesdegraaf.com/index.php/158/bob-dylans-when-the-deal-goes-down-lyric-analysis-part-1
- Bill Flanagan, interview with Dylan, October 2009, http://www.dylancode.com/styled/
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.