Back in 1968, an already unpredictable Bob Dylan released his most unusual album to date—John Wesley Harding, a spiritually saturated country-folk-rock effort that marked his comeback from a near-fatal motorcycle crash eighteen months earlier. His fans—many of whom still thought he might be dead, so reclusive was he—breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. Dylan was out on vinyl once again, and all was right with the world.
And the album contained some really good stuff, including one of his most enduring songs ever, “All Along the Watchtower.” Soon enough, though, reviewers and critics began analyzing the biblical thread that ran through the lyrics. True, Dylan had been known to write and perform songs that contained scriptural references, but somehow, this was different. Hearing dozens of allusions to Scripture on a single album—and hearing a Jewish guy sing “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”—raised more than a few eyebrows.
What was going on here?
John Cohen, for one, was determined to find out. A folk singer and a longtime friend of Dylan’s, Cohen speculated that perhaps Bob had fallen under the literary influence of Franz Kafka’s parables. No, Dylan told him, that wasn’t it, adding that the only parables he was familiar with were those found in the Bible. The Bible? That’s right. Dylan told Cohen he read the Bible often.
“I don’t think you’re the kind of person who goes to the hotel, where the Gideons leave a Bible, and you pick it up,” Cohen said.
“Well, you never know,” Bob answered. It was a wonderfully Dylanesque answer, the kind that would come to characterize the legendary musician in countless interviews for decades to come. And in one way or another, it’s the answer Dylan has been giving for years to those people who think they’ve got him all figured out.
Never was there greater speculation about the enigmatic icon than after his much-publicized conversion to Christianity in 1979. It’s all over for Dylan, the music industry decreed; he’s a right-wing fundamentalist, and there’s no way he can keep his creative edge in that dull, stifling camp. Well, you never know.
Meanwhile, the church was shouting “Hallelujah!” over the news that this high-profile rebel—the very symbol of an entire generation gone to pot—had renounced his evil ways and joined the ranks of true believers. Just wait till he gets his act together, the church said; he’ll be a model Christian, the kind we can parade in front of the world to show how good we are at turning an ex-hippie into an exemplary believer. Well, you never know.
And then, Dylan was spotted in Jerusalem, participating in the bar mitzvah of one of his sons. The word was out: Bob Dylan had renounced his faith in Christ and returned to his Jewish roots. After all, what else could his presence at such a holy rite of passage mean? Well, you never know.
Finally, for those who still cared enough to be confused about his spiritual life, there was the no-small matter of Dylan’s lifestyle. Come on—the man’s been married and divorced several times, he doesn’t go to church, he hangs out with all the wrong people. How can he call himself a Christian? Well, you never know.
And that’s what Dylan has been saying all along. You never know what’s going on in another person’s interior life. You can try to judge by the external signs, but you’re likely to be wrong.
Just look at David, the shepherd boy who became the king of Israel. Imagine, if you can, how he’d come across if the only bits of information we had about him were the external facts found in the historical accounts of his life and his reign. He’d still be a national hero, of course, and he’d still be likable despite his obvious failings. But David left far more than mere facts about his life. He left a legacy that maps out his soul’s interior journey, a collection of songs that express the cry of his heart. Even people with little knowledge of the Bible know something about the book of Psalms. Through the Psalms, we get to see a different side of David, the very private life of a very public figure.
And so it is with Bob Dylan. Journalists and photographers have at times followed him around and reported on his every move, drawing conclusions from what they observed. All too often, though, their powers of observation have been either limited or downright flawed. Some have judged him by what they saw, or worse, what they assumed—ignoring the Psalm-like evidence of Dylan’s interior life found in the songs he’s written and performed. Others have tried to sift the evidence of his spirituality through a cultural grid, whether that culture be evangelical Christianity or Judaism or secularism. And they’ve always come up short.
Bob Dylan refuses to be categorized—or, perhaps better, simply cannot be categorized. Those who early on pigeonholed him as a folk singer eventually realized their mistake, since his music clearly extended beyond the confines of that genre. To this day there are many who think of Dylan as a 1960s anti-war protestor, even though he has never considered himself to be a pacifist. Also during the ‘60s, even his most ardent fans—who probably should have known better—would have labeled him a hippie, which he also never was. Bob Dylan has always simply been his own man. More accurately, Bob Dylan has always been God’s own man, long before he knew it.
Despite the pride America likes to take in being known as a nation of rugged individualists, our society has a difficult time dealing with people who fail to fit into the dominant culture’s notion of how they should live their lives. What’s even worse, though, is that the dominant religious culture has the same problem—often, with devastating eternal consequences. If you don’t come to faith in Christ in a certain way, if you don’t look and think and act and worship in a particular manner, well, then, you’re probably not even a Christian. It’s that kind of thinking, that kind of judgmentalism, that has turned many a prospective or new believer away from the church—and away from Christ, since all too many people see the church and Christ as one and the same. They see the church’s rejection of them as Christ’s rejection of them.
Dylan is among those who do not fit the mold created by the dominant religious culture in America. Bob Dylan knows who he is and where he stands in relation to God, even if the church doesn’t. He’s been finding his way spiritually since he was a teenager, largely on his own. There are those within the church who consider the solitary spiritual journey to be a dangerous one, and they can point to any number of shipwrecked lives to support their position. At the same time, though, they fail to make allowances for those who manage to maintain a relationship with God apart from the traditional church, those who actually have the wisdom and common sense and discernment to read the Bible on their own with insight and accuracy. Since Bob Dylan is not exactly known for being superficial or shallow, it’s reasonably safe to assume that he brings the same philosophical depth to the Bible that he exhibits in his lyrics. His profound respect for the Word of God all but guarantees his careful handling of the truth it contains.
Whether Dylan likes it or not—and he clearly does not—he is a prophet for our time. And prophets tend to make people nervous, very nervous. They live on the margins of society, unrestricted by the expectations of others. They disturb the status quo. They challenge us to be better than we are, to think more deeply, care more passionately, live more radically. They serve as mirrors that reflect the images of the worst that we are and the best we can possibly hope to be.
Musically, Dylan’s voice has been perhaps the most prophetic voice in the last half century. He led the folk genre out of the beatnik coffee houses and onto the airwaves of major pop-rock radio stations. He plugged his band into amplifiers, ignored the subsequent criticism, and paved the way for an entirely new musical style, folk-rock. He was country when country wasn’t cool, lending credibility to yet another groundbreaking style, country-rock. He defied recording industry executives by releasing a string of gospel albums. And he continued to create fresh material long after other aging musicians had resorted to recycling their old hits; he beat the odds by releasing one of his best albums ever a full year after his sixtieth birthday. But most of all, it was Bob Dylan who showed the world that popular musicians had something significant to say. He gave every future songwriter the license to marry substantial and thoughtful lyrics to the beat of contemporary music.
Spiritually, Dylan’s prophetic role has served primarily as a sign of things to come. Two decades ago, he walked away from the particular brand of evangelicalism that initially captured his attention, and apparently, his departure was amicable. He simply moved on, quietly taking the next step on his spiritual journey, one that led him to explore his Jewish roots. Today, neither the church nor the synagogue knows what to make of him. His personal expression of faith is larger than any limitations others try to place on him.
And that is precisely where many believers find themselves right now, with an expansive view of faith that threatens to disturb the status quo of the church. And once again, Dylan’s got a head start on the rest of us, this time a twenty-year lead. Even so, as far ahead of the pack as Dylan has always traveled, there’s something almost first century about him. It’s not hard to imagine Bob Dylan sitting under the teaching of the Master on a Palestinian hillside, listening attentively, questioning respectfully, analyzing thoughtfully. Could it be that this is where Dylan has been getting his insights all along?
Well, you never know.
© 2002 Relevant Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Read Chapter 1:
Chapter 1: Relentless Seeker
In December of 1997, a visibly uncomfortable Bob Dylan sat in a seat of honor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation’s capital. Flanked by President and Mrs. Clinton and two fellow honorees, actress Lauren Bacall and opera diva Jessye Norman, the tuxedoed troubadour looked like a bewildered street person, cleaned up and placed amid the glitterati of official Washington, D.C., and not quite sure why.
One of five entertainers being honored that night, Dylan appeared to be laboring under what one writer would later call “the sheer weight of being Bob Dylan.” Few if any people in entertainment history have achieved such a mythological, legendary status in as short a time as Dylan did—or maintained that status for as long as he has. On this night in Washington, the television cameras caught the image of a man who seemed as if he had stumbled into the wrong building, the wrong room, only to find himself to be the center of attention. He looked intense, puzzled, even nervous; at times, it became difficult to watch the private agony he seemed to be wearing on his face.
Actor Gregory Peck introduced Dylan, talked about his impact on the music world and the culture, and narrated a short video biography of the singer. If Gregory Peck seemed to the audience to be an odd choice to emcee this portion of the evening, Peck apparently didn’t think it strange at all. You just can’t predict who’s going to turn out to be a Dylan fan.
Still giving the impression that he wanted to run and hide, Dylan—who conveyed his appreciation for the tribute despite his discomfort—managed to stay put through the next part of the show, live performances by rocker Bruce Springsteen singing “The Times They Are A-Changin”’ and country singer David Ball performing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
And then, just when Dylan looked as if he couldn’t possibly take any more, an unexpected, magical moment occurred. As gospel singer Shirley Caesar finished her rendition of his best-known Christian song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Bob Dylan, the man who had barely cracked a smile all night, suddenly came to life, beaming at his friend with positively joyful enthusiasm. The transformation was nothing short of supernatural; the Kennedy Center honoree stood to his feet, prompting a standing ovation for Caesar, who was then joined on stage by Springsteen and Ball. Right behind Dylan was a woman who was just as caught up in Caesar’s performance as he was—his escort for the evening, Beatty Zimmerman, his mother.
Critics have had a field day with Bob Dylan ever since his first album was released in 1962. But his critics would be hard-pressed on this night to try to deny what was there for the world to see—a reluctant but grateful and courteous man who obviously finds joy in life through family, friends, and music. And yes, through gospel music. If Caesar had not been permitted to perform that night, Dylan would have been a no-show.
Critics would also be hard-pressed to deny that Dylan was deserving of a Kennedy Center Honor. As a young man in his twenties, Robert Zimmerman—by then known as Bob Dylan—would write an astonishing number of compelling songs that became the anthems for an entire generation and changed the landscape of popular music. With an intensity that bordered on compulsion, Dylan earned his place in pop music history as the most prolific songwriter of the 1960s. His lifetime output of masterful songs, sung by the masses and recorded by innumerable professionals, is no less remarkable.
Virtually unscathed by garden-variety scandals typical to the rock music world, Dylan nonetheless managed to touch off a monumental furor in 1979 with his fans, his peers in the music industry, and especially his critics in the media. But the focus of this volatile situation had nothing to do with Dylan’s music or his personal relationships or his lifestyle. What sent shock waves through the industry, the media, and his fan base was the news that Bob Dylan, the symbol of protest against the Establishment, had placed his faith in Jesus. The Jewish icon of the counterculture was now a born-again Christian; Bob Dylan had come to believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures, just as the Jewish writers of the New Testament had maintained.
No one, except for the privileged few who were around when Dylan had his encounter with Jesus, seemed to know what to make of this. The initial shock of hearing that Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan!—professed to have a personal relationship with Jesus was followed by utter confusion. How could this be? There seemed to be no sane explanation for this bewildering turn of events. Some cynics charged that Dylan had been brainwashed, but that didn’t compute. The thought that he, of all people, could be brainwashed was laughable. Others argued that he had simply sold out; the popularity of contemporary Christian music was on the rise, and he had decided to cash in on the booming genre. Even his friend Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones joked that Dylan had become the “prophet of profit.” But that accusation didn’t make sense either, because Christian music sales were still minuscule compared to secular sales. Most baffling of all, though, was the seeming contradiction between Dylan’s Jewish ethnicity and his newfound passion for Jesus. Many in the Jewish community felt that Dylan had betrayed his heritage; others, apparently unaware of the existence of any Jewish believers in Jesus, found the whole situation incomprehensible: How could a Jew believe in Jesus?
One thing was certain: No genuine dyed-in-the-wool Dylan fan would soon forget this news from 1979. Some never quite recovered; for many a Dylan fan, it seemed the party was over. Others eventually came around and let Dylan be Dylan, whether they understood him or not. And, oddly enough, a few second- and third-generation fans aren’t even aware of Dylan’s encounter with Jesus.
But what about Dylan’s spiritual leanings prior to 1979? Before his experience with Jesus there were numerous indications that he was familiar with the teachings of the New Testament; he hadn’t exactly been silent about the person of Jesus. Before his twentieth birthday, he had sung Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ” and the traditional song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.” In 1962, Dylan himself wrote “Long Ago, Far Away,” a song that opened and concluded with references to the crucifixion. His eponymous debut album, released that same year, contained the Blind Willie Johnson derivative “In My Time of Dyin’,” with its midnight cry of “Jesus gonna make my dyin’ bed.” In addition, “Fixin’ to Die,” a very rough derivative of a Bukka White song, included a similar plea: “Tell Jesus to make my dyin’ bed.”
Also featured on his debut album was “Gospel Plow,” adapted from the traditional “Hold On,” a song that gospel legend Mahalia Jackson used to sing. In the summer of 1962, Dylan attended a concert put on by the New Orleans native; besides being exposed to the genre that was at the very root of American music, Dylan heard Jackson and other gospel singers present a powerful, personal testimony of faith in Jesus. The closing song on the album, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”—based on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 original—was adapted by Dylan to include the declaration, “My heart stopped beatin’ and my hands turned cold / Now I believe what the Bible told.”
Dylan’s preoccupation with weighty spiritual matters was also evident in his 1962 recording of “I’d Hate to Be You on That Dreadful Day,” a song that depicts the dilemma of a person who arrives at the pearly gates only to be told that it’s too late to make amends for the life he lived on earth. “Shoulda listened when you heard the word down there,” Dylan tells the dearly departed through the lyrics, indicating that the songwriter believed his Maker would be waiting on the other side. For those who had denied or ignored God, the song warned that it would be a dreadful day indeed.
Having grown up in a Jewish home and been bar mitzvahed as an adolescent, a young Bob Dylan would have had more than a passing acquaintance with the Hebrew language and Scriptures. Perhaps equally—or even more—influential was the gospel music he heard on the radio late at night, when from his home in Minnesota he could pull in a signal from far-away Shreveport, Louisiana, a thousand miles to the south. That station played rhythm and blues, the music of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf—singers and songwriters who would have a profound effect on Dylan’s musical style. But nothing struck a chord in him the way gospel music did.
Dylan still remembers when he was twelve and first heard the legendary gospel group The Staple Singers. “At midnight the gospel stuff would start,” he said, referring to the Shreveport station. “I got to be acquainted with the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Highway QC’s and all that. But the Staple Singers came on…and they were so different.”
As a twenty-two year old in 1963, Dylan referred to Jesus in his lyrical masterpieces “Masters of War” and “With God on Our Side.” The former included an overstatement that had Jesus drawing a line on His forgiveness; the latter asked a question loaded with heavy implications: Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself, Dylan wrote. Regardless of the answer, one thing was certain: If the pop genre had a coffin, then as a lyricist Dylan had certainly just driven a few nails into it.
Despite these and other biblical allusions in his early lyrics, on more than one occasion Dylan flatly denied having a personal faith. Claiming to have tried out several different religions, Dylan said he had no religion of his own. He believed that individuals and churches interpreted the Bible to suit their own needs. God is all around us, he said, but people don’t respect or recognize Him; after all, look what they did to Jesus when He walked on the earth, he pointed out.
Dylan may not have claimed a personal faith, but his own words indicate that God was very much on his mind, just as the Bible was very much a part of his life. As author John J. Thompson pointed out, “What he said wasn’t always literally what he believed. He enjoyed toying with the minds of both his mates [friendsl and his adversaries.” That “toying” was most evident in the on-screen persona Dylan adopted for his 1965 documentary Dont Look Back [sic], in which he spoke exactly the way a true agnostic would.
So obvious was the spiritual content of Dylan’s epic album Highway 61 Revisited, released in 1965 when the singer was twenty-four, that journalist Michael Corcoran would later describe the lyrics as a translation of the Bible in street terms. San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph Gleason, who initially dismissed Dylan as a lightweight, would eventually label Dylan not only a genius but also a “singing conscience and moral referee.”
And in their book tracing the gospel roots of rock, authors Davin Seay and Mary Neely describe Highway 61 Revisited—which they consider to be one of the greatest albums in rock history—as Dylan’s exercise in “turning over rocks in the rubble at the end of time, prefiguring not just the demise of the sixties but some sort of ultimate extinguishment of hope, love, and body warmth. The stops along Highway 61 Revisited are more than scenes from an explicit nightmare. They are the summary executions that Dylan, as judge and jury, has ordered up for every metaphysical criminal he has ever encountered or ever fancied that he has encountered.”
It didn’t take long before yet another role was assigned to the groundbreaking songwriter—the role of prophet. While Dylan consistently shunned this role, it became increasingly clear that he couldn’t escape it. Gifted with extraordinary spiritual and moral insight, Dylan had become the spokesman for an entire disenchanted, disillusioned generation. Whether he liked it or not, he fit the prophetic bill.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, Dylan is a God-driven man, although he would not acknowledge or even fully recognize that until he was nearly forty years old. The singer resembles Jeremiah in a host of additional ways. Caught up in the political and social turbulence of the times in which they lived, both men were outspoken critics of the governing authorities. And each recognized the hypocrisy of some religious leaders, a realization that led both to embrace a highly personal and private faith in preference to organized worship as part of a religious community.
Comparisons like that do not sit well with Bob Dylan. He once told Playboy magazine that if he had wanted to send messages to his generation, he would have hired Western Union. But Dylan had a much larger platform than Western Union for delivering his messages, whether those messages were intended or not. Among young Jews in particular, Dylan stood out as a beacon of hope— an especially unsettling situation for the former Robert Zimmerman. With regard to Dylan’s relationship with his Jewish fans, J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish weekly Forward, compares Dylan to another biblical prophet, Jonah, the one who fled from the mission God had assigned to him. Maybe Dylan had not been sent by God to help Jewish baby-boomers sort out their faith and their identity as Jews, but that didn’t stop them from looking to him for just such a miracle. As Goldberg aptly points out, Dylan was just as confused about his Jewish identity as they were. He could not and would not be the one to lead them out of the wilderness of their own confusion.
Whether or not Dylan was willing to assume the mantle of spiritual leadership, one thing is certain: Dylan was a relentless spiritual seeker. Publicly, Dylan acknowledged only a passing acquaintance with the Bible in 1965, but his mother painted quite a different portrait of her son in a 1968 interview with author Toby Thompson for his book Positively Main Street. In between those two dates, of course, the legendary musician had spent eighteen months out of the limelight following a motorcycle accident in 1966. The time he spent recuperating at his Woodstock, New York, home offered him an opportunity to read the Scriptures more carefully than he ever could have had he been recording and touring. Describing a house that overflowed with books, Beatty Zimmerman told Thompson that one book, the Bible, dominated both Dylan’s den and his interest. Resting on an open stand in the middle of his study, the Bible was the book that formed the focal point of the singer’s attention; Zimmerman’s comments depict a restless inquisitor, frequently going over to the Bible to check something out.
It was into this Bible-soaked environment that a soul-searching Noel Paul Stookey—Paul of Peter, Paul, and Mary—arrived to pay Dylan a visit in 1967. Before leaving, Stookey received a significant piece of advice from his friend: Read the Bible. Stookey had never even opened a Bible before. But the following year, he found himself in the middle of an encounter with Jesus that changed the course of his life. More than ten years before his own life-changing experience with Jesus, Dylan the prophet was also functioning as Dylan the evangelist. And all this as the psychedelic era was in full swing. For Dylan-watchers, this was a mind-boggling, surreal concept.
An insightful John Herdman, author of Voice Without Restraint, singles out one of Dylan’s songs from this period as a pivotal point in his songwriting career. Written in 1967 but never officially released, “Sign on the Cross” refers to the sign that Pontius Pilate had placed on the cross on which Jesus was crucified, as described in John 19:19: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
“The underlying motif [of the song] is obviously worry, a nagging and disquieting worry about the cross and what it represents,” Herdman writes. “Something is now becoming clearer. Behind Dylan’s prophetic utterances of doom directed toward society lies fear, personal fear, fear about his own salvation. Now for the first time, instead of projecting that fear outward in apocalyptic imagery, he begins to examine its source within his own consciousness…he suggests, too, in the final verse, that this worry may be a sign of strength rather than of weakness. The song, has, as it is without doubt supposed to have, a disconcerting, unsettling effect…Dylan is asking, and from a Jewish point of view, the question: Was this man really the Messiah?”
That same year, Dylan released John Wesley Harding, with its estimated sixty-plus biblical allusions; nearly ten years later, he told TV Guide’s Neil Hickey that he considered that effort to be the first biblical rock album. In 1968, Jimi Hendrix turned one of its songs, “All Along the Watchtower,” into a hit that still gets its share of airplay on the radio; most listeners are probably unaware of the direct connection between the image in the lyrics and the words found in Isaiah 28. But Rolling Stones biographer Stephen Davis was among those who did pick up on the entire album’s biblical feel, comparing the songs to “new acoustic psalms.”
Dylan may not have had a personal relationship with God around that time, but his monotheistic leanings were evident. The closing song on 19 70’s New Morning, “Father of Night,” acknowledges a God of creation and calls for solemn praise. Just days after the album’s release, Dylan gave a copy of New Morning to an old friend, former New York deejay Scott Ross, who had recently become a Christian. “Listen to it,” he told Ross. “There’s a couple of things on there about God.”
“And sure enough,” remembers Ross, “there were some things in there about God. They were pretty clear, so I just kept praying for him.”
Dylan had been the one to open up the conversation about Ross’s new life of faith. Clearly intrigued by his experience, he continued to ask questions about what exactly had happened to Ross, whom he had not seen since 1965. “A lot of our earlier conversations in my pre-Jesus days were so spacey. We got into some weird, esoteric, ozone-level kind of stuff. Who knew what we were saying? We thought we were intelligent and profound and deep, but it was just a lot of gobbledygook,” Ross said. “But there were still things we were reaching for. I think what he was hearing in me was something pretty clear, that I had come to some realization of truth that he was intrigued by. At that point, I don’t think he called that truth ‘Jesus,’ but he was certainly interested. And God certainly came into the conversation, and I was clear that my conversion was to Christ.”
In 1970, an Ivy League school apparently thought Dylan was “intelligent and profound and deep.” Princeton University awarded Dylan an honorary doctorate degree, citing his music as an “authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of young America” while commending him for placing a higher priority on his private family life than on the spotlight of publicity.
Two years prior to receiving the award, Dylan’s family life had changed significantly. His father, Abraham Zimmerman, had suddenly died in 1968. His death apparently prompted Dylan to visit Israel during the summers of 1969 and 1970. Although he went to great pains to keep a third trip private—one that coincided with his thirtieth birthday in May of 1971—the following advertisement awaited him in the Jerusalem Post: “Happy Birthday Bob Dylan, Wherever You Are. Call us if you feel like it. CBS Records, Israel.”
On May 22, 1971, two days before his birthday, Dylan and his first wife, Sara, visited Jerusalem’s Mount Zion Yeshiva, a well known training center for Cabalistic theology, which is based on a mystical method of interpreting Scripture. Introduced to Dylan by one of the resident rabbis, some American students asked why Dylan had historically seemed to avoid focusing on his Jewish roots. “I’m a Jew. It touches my poetry, my life, in ways I can’t describe,” he said. “Why should I declare something that should be so obvious?”
On the day he turned thirty, Dylan visited the Western Wall—also known as the “Wailing Wall”—in Jerusalem, and a UPI photographer who happened to be shooting pictures of tourists captured his presence there on film. After the photographer realized what he had, the photo was published around the world, further fueling the “Dylan as prophet” image.
The reality, of course, was that Bob Dylan simply wanted to go to Israel—a natural desire for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The timing of his trips was also understandable, a normal consequence of his desire to connect with his Jewish heritage following his father’s death. Then, too, an old friend and associate, Harold Leventhal, had given Dylan a book on Israel and encouraged him to visit the Holy Land, according to Stephen Pickering in Bob Dylan Approximately.
When Dylan kicked off his 1974 tour—his first since the bike crash in 1966—the thirty-two year old was at another peak in popularity. He made the cover of Newsweek magazine, and millions of ticket requests had been received for his forty-concert tour. Concert promoters reported that more than 7 percent of the U.S. population had applied for the 658,000 available tickets.
Another indication of his popularity at the time was his image on the cover of People magazine in late 1975. In the accompanying interview conducted by Jim Jerome, Dylan commented on the mythical stature he had attained, denying that he had consciously pursued it and indicating that it was God who had given it to him. He dismissed as unimportant the expectations others placed on him. “I’m doing God’s work. That’s all I know,” he told Jerome.
The following year, TV Guide’s Neil Hickey asked Dylan how he imagined God. Dylan laughed and asked why nobody ever asked a fellow singer like Kris Kristofferson the same kinds of questions. Then he gave his answer. “I can see God in a daisy. I can see God at night in the wind and rain,” said Dylan. “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.”
Claiming that “there’s a mystic in all of us,” Dylan added, “It’s part of our nature. Some of us are shown more than others. Or maybe we’re all shown the same things, but some make more use of it.” He denied attaching any special significance to his visits to Israel but acknowledged his interest in what exactly makes a person a Jew. “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 here that’s hard to explain,” he said. Then he meandered into astrological territory, suggesting that his Gemini nature forced him to live in extremes: “I go from one side to the other without staying in either place very long. I’m happy, sad, up, down, in, out, up in the sky, and down in the depths of the earth.” To say the least, Bob Dylan’s spirituality was enigmatic.
In 1977 and 1978, the two years that preceded his very personal encounter with Jesus, Dylan uncharacteristically talked at length to the media about certain aspects of his personal search. Though they do little to clarify the exact nature of his spirituality, his comments offer a foundation for understanding the swirling spiritual atmosphere that permeated his life just before he embraced Jesus as the Son of the one true God.
One interview in particular seemed to shed a fair amount of light on Dylan’s spiritual tendencies. In 1977, just after Dylan had emerged from his divorce from Sara, the singer talked extensively to Ron Rosenbaum of Playboy. As the two talked, Dylan mentioned his experiences with L.A. palm-reader Tamara Rand, whom he described as “for real…not a gypsy fortuneteller.” Noting the accuracy of her observations, Dylan added, “She’ll take a look at your hand and tell you things you feel but don’t really understand about where you’re heading, what the future looks like. She’s a surprisingly hopeful person.”
For a season, at least, Dylan apparently placed his faith in Rand. If Rand was indeed dabbling in spiritual activity, she wouldn’t have been very popular among the Jewish prophets of old. Those prophets were believed to have had a direct line from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and would have denounced the activities and observations of a palm-reader. Their God would have nothing to do with such soothsaying, and neither would they.
Curiously, later in the same interview, Dylan stated that he didn’t believe in astrology, despite his earlier mention of his “Gemini nature” to Neil Hickey. When reminded of that comment, he dismissed it with a reply indicating that he didn’t really know why people born under a certain sign have particular characteristics or how relevant any of that is.
It was Rosenbaum, though, who drew out what may be Bob Dylan’s most extensive quote about Jesus prior to 1979. “Do you think Christ is an answer?” inquired Rosenbaum. Dylan’s response was revealing: “What is it that attracts people to Christ? The fact that it was such a tragedy, is what. Who does Christ become when He lives inside a person? Many people say that Christ lives inside them. Well, what does this mean? I’ve talked to many people whom Christ lives inside; I haven’t met one who would want to trade places with Christ. Not one of His people put himself on the line when it came down to the final hour. What would Christ be in this day and age if He came back? What would He be? What would He be to fulfill His function and purpose? He would have to be a leader, I suppose.”
The fact that Rosenbaum’s single question elicited so many questions from Dylan certainly indicates he was genuinely seeking spiritual truth. He wanted to know what it was like, or what it meant, to have Jesus living inside. He wanted to know why the followers of Jesus fled when it came down to that final hour before the crucifixion. He wanted to know what Jesus would do if He returned.
In the same interview, Dylan admitted that he had never felt Jewish and didn’t consider himself to be either Jewish or non-Jewish. Denying any commitment to a specific creed, he claimed to “believe in all of them and none of them.” Not giving up, Rosenbaum asked Dylan about his “sense of God.” “I feel a heartfelt God,” said Dylan. “I don’t particularly think that God wants me thinking about Him all the time…I remember seeing a Time magazine on an airplane a few years back and it had a big cover headline, ‘Is God Dead?’ Would you think it was a responsible thing to do? What does God think of that? If you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself? You know, I think the country’s gone downhill since that day.”
On the one hand, Dylan certainly didn’t adhere to the increasingly popular secular-humanist viewpoint, which denied the supernatural, neatly doing away with God. He was even agitated with the atheistic stance, feeling it was irresponsible and had negative consequences for a nation. On the other hand, Dylan didn’t seem grounded in any firm belief in an exclusive God as found in the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In retrospect, several Dylan observers later saw how his 1978 album Street-Legal provided a host of clues about where the singer’s quest for spiritual truth was heading. With its themes of “loss, searching, estrangement and exile,” as Robert Shelton writes in No Direction Home, the album hints at Dylan’s forthcoming conversion even though no one saw it coming. The day after the album’s release, in response to a question from Philippe Adler of the French magazine L’Expresse—“Do you believe in God?”— Dylan gave the kind of inscrutable reply he’s known for: “Let’s say as He shows Himself.” He later acknowledged that the source of his music was a “higher power.”
In late 1978, the cross of Jesus—or at least a representation of it— was literally thrown at Dylan’s feet during a concert in San Diego, California. Uncharacteristically—Dylan was not one to pick up anything thrown on the stage during a performance—the singer retrieved the small silver cross and kept it. At a concert in Fort Worth, Texas, a week later, Dylan was wearing a cross on his neck. That seemingly simple act was anything but simple; for a Jew, whether secular or religious, to wear the cross of Jesus was unheard of.
Something strange was clearly afoot: Dylan was on his way to encountering the man who had been nailed to a cross in Jerusalem some 2,000 years earlier. Although millions of people around the world had elevated the singer to a near god-like status, their idol was simply a man, a man who had spent his life searching for truth and exposing his search through his lyrics. As 1979 approached, Dylan was grappling with everything he was learning about Jesus.
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