Most people who know me are well aware that Bob Dylan has been the background soundtrack of my life since my early teens. Blood on the Tracks and Street Legal were the first albums I remember, although it was Slow Train Coming which really influenced me. I was raised in a Christian home and went to a Christian high school, but I never was attracted to the Christian Music which was coming out at that time. To be honest, it was really bad. With the exception of Larry Norman and the very young Randy Stonehill and Phil Keaggy, there was not much to draw my attention. Then came Slow Train. I got a copy on 8-track tape and wore it out. (Alright, wearing out an 8-track is not that big of a deal, but I did listen to it over and over!). Dylan followed that up with Saved, some of the most honest gospel music every written. There was no doubt in my mind that Bob Dylan was (as is) a brother in Christ. But then came Shot of Love and Infidels, albums which made people doubt he was “really saved.” What kind of a Christian writes songs about Lenny Bruce? What could “Dark Eyes”mean?
I have seen video concerts from the Gospel years in which Dylan tells the crowd that the end times are coming and even asks for prayer requests. He refused to play the old songs, considering them the Devil’s music. His 1981 shows integrated more of his “hits” but still included healthy doses of Gospel songs. But like most good things, Evangelical Christians failed to understand Dylan’s conversion and subsequent lack of Christian commitment. What did they expect, Bob Dylan covering Sandi Patti songs? (He actually did cover a Dallas Holm song, but that was an exception!) Dylan has always been his own man, and he would not be co-opted by anyone (he does not work on Maggie’s Farm, ever). I am not sure Evangelicals were well-equipped mentally to deal with what it means for a secular Jewish Rock Star to convert to Christianity. So much was going on in his life, spiritually and emotionally, that it is remarkable he was able to emerge from those years and produce some of the best music of his career.
But for me, Dylan remained a spiritual beacon light. While not overtly Christian (like Saved), his lyrics continued to be spiritually motivated. Every “Grain of Sand” is one of his best songs, and probably his best “spiritual” song. “The Groom’s Still Waiting” has an apocalyptic worldview worthy of Revelation. He has never really stopped playing songs from the Gospel Years in concert, opening his controversial China concerts with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a highlight from Slow Train. As I get older with Bob, I hear much more Christianity and Judaism in his lyrics than ever before, and I amazed at how much I missed when I was younger. Maybe I am hearing him through my Christian lens, but with only a few exceptions, his resonate with the important questions of life and my ear hears echoes of eternity in them.
So here’s a happy birthday wish to Bob Dylan, may you continue to walk the paths of victory.