By Miller Friedman
Call it what you want it — the “gospel” tour, the “born-again” tour, the “Christian” tour — but it was clear in November 1979 that Dylan, perhaps the world’s most famous Jewish musician, had developed a strong relationship with the Christian faith.
Dylan’s overt Christian lyrics began appearing that year with the release of the album “Slow Train Coming.” Christian themes continued through 1980 and 1981 with albums “Saved” and “Shot of Love.” On tour, Dylan, famously tight-lipped with his audience, preached gospel on stage, speaking directly to his audiences about Jesus in a way he never had before.
By 1983, it was over. Dylan seemed to have moved on and was involved with the Chasidic Chabad movement.
All of this begged the question that people are still asking to this day: what in the world was going on with Bob Dylan?
Seth Rogovoy, author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet,” believes that Dylan never lost his Jewish roots, even in the midst of the most Christian period of his life.
“Slow Train Coming” doesn’t show a full commitment to Christianity, Rogovoy said. “There is stuff that is very Jewish on the album, and stuff that comes directly from Jewish scripture.”
Rogovoy said that one could look at what he calls Dylan’s “gospel” period, as an exploration of a new musical style in addition to an exploration of a new religion.
“You can look at ‘Slow Train Coming’ especially as Dylan exploring deep R&B and gospel,” Rogovoy said. “You can see all of this in musical terms, as Dylan just exploring different genres and making them his own.”
Rogovoy believes many of the songs on “Slow Train Coming” contain lyrical elements that highlight how Dylan had not quite become as Christian as many believed.
“The songs on ‘Slow Train Coming’ are full of humor and wit. If he’s just being a fire-breathing born-again preacher, why is he subverting it all with, ‘you can call me R.J., you can call me Ray, you can call me Bobby, you can call me Zimmy?’” Rogovoy said. “I think it’s him distancing himself a little bit.”
Other Dylan experts view this Christian period as one of legitimate spiritual awakening for the musical icon. Michelle Engert, professor of justice, law and criminology at American University and frequent Bob Dylan lecturer, believes Dylan was being fully sincere while preaching and singing about Jesus.
In a 1979 interview, Dylan told a story of a fan throwing a cross on the stage at one of his shows and how this incident started him on his path toward Christianity. While many are skeptical of this story, Engert is not.
“Getting to the truth with him is complicated, but I do believe that something like that happened, the cross being thrown and him having that moment,” Engert said.
Engert said she thinks Dylan’s awakening in the late 1970s had something to do with his recent divorce from his wife Sara Lownds.
“It makes sense at this time because the stabilizing force for Bob had been the wife and the marriage and the kids, all of which was going away in 1978,” Engert said.
Larry Yudelson, journalist and creator of the Dylan website “Tangled Up in Jews,” also believes Dylan’s Christian music came from a genuine place.
“I think he had a calling,” Yudelson said. “[Dylan being] disingenuous would be putting out an album of Christmas songs, or one or two songs like this,” Yudelson said.
A countless number of Jews felt betrayed by Dylan’s Christian period, and “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” were dismissed by Dylan’s Jewish fan base.
“I felt those things very strongly myself,” Rogovoy said. “I know other friends of mine were kind of horrified.”
In retrospect, though, Rogovoy, Engert and Yudelson all agree that Jews were too harsh on Dylan during his Christian period. Indeed, fans who were disgusted by his gospel preaching were most likely delighted to witness Dylan at the Western Wall to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah. And fans who rejected the Christian messages in Dylan’s songs were probably happy to hear the message contained in his 1983 pro-Israel anthem, “Neighborhood Bully.”
Stripped bare of its context, though, many Jews admit today that the musical content of songs from this period are quite impressive.
“[A song like] ‘When He Returns’ can still make your hair stand on end to this day,” Engert said.
Rogovoy attributes a portion of the success of “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” to producer Jerry Wexler, a Jew whose name is on many of the soul and R&B hits of the 1960s. “It is no surprise that the sound, the vocals, the music, the instrumentation, the arrangements, sound so great,” Rogovoy said.
So is Bob Dylan a Jew? Is he a Christian? Is he some sort of hybrid of the two? Ultimately, even if Dylan knows in his heart where he stands religiously, it is not likely that he will publicize it.
“Bob Dylan does not like being told to answer to us,” Yudelson said.
Maybe the best thing to do is to take Dylan at his word. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing,” Dylan said in a 1997 interview with Newsweek. “This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else,”
According to Rogovoy, “that’s probably one of the most honest things he’s ever said.”