He’s the voice of the 60’s protest movement, the most prolific songwriter ever, covered hundreds of times. All Along the Watchtower alone has been covered over thirty times from artists as diverse as Hendrix, U2, Neil Young, Taj Mahal, Indigo Girls, Dave Matthews Band, Phil Lesh, and Eddie Vedder. His status as a lyricist was acknowledged with the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. He’s a genius. He is Bob Dylan.
He’s also an enigma.
When his Christmas album dropped in 2009 (Christmas in the Heart), I wondered, “Is Bob clowning us?” I dare you to listen to “Must Be Santa” without laughing out loud. Is he betting that his obsessive fans will buy anything no matter how ridiculous? Or is this on the level? We have to ask because “Bob Dylan” was from the beginning a put-on with a fictional backstory of hoboing and train hopping, a disguise that Bob Zimmerman from Hibbing, MN used to break into the folk music scene. Is this Christmas album merely another in a long line of productions designed to keep our attention? It seems we are always asking, “who is Bob Dylan?”
When Slow Train Coming, the first of the “Christian albums,” dropped in 1979, it was met with bewilderment. Dylan had produced an album that was no holds barred Christian. When he began touring around the album, his shows featured nothing but the new catalog of Christian songs he was writing or covering. No Blowin’ in the Wind, no Like a Rolling Stone, no Lay, Lady, Lay. And the crowds booed and became smaller. The shift wasn’t just related to the playlist. Dylan actively evangelized his audiences between songs, urging them to avoid the coming catastrophe and be baptized with the Holy Ghost. This simply was not what his followers had signed on for.
Of course, this is not the first time Dylan had been booed. He was booed at Newport (1965) when he went electric, and then at subsequent concerts in England as he toured around his new electric sound. It seems Dylan delights in frustrating our expectations.
After Shot of Love in 1981, the final of the so-called Christian albums, he began playing the old songs again, but he was adrift musically. Infidels, Empire Burlesque are not great efforts. He was lost and even he thought he might be done.
In 1990 things changed. He worked with producer Daniel Lanois on a new sound he had found on tour and the songs started flowing again. Even the way he performed the old songs changed and had a new energy. The collaboration with Lanois produced a Grammy award for the album Oh Mercy. And the albums that followed were great. Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are my favorite Dylan albums. They roll like fat tires over smooth pavement.
So, now we have folk Dylan, electric Dylan, Christian Dylan, fat tires on smooth pavement Dylan, Christmas album Dylan, and even torch singer Dylan. Who is Bob Dylan?
Here’s my bold claim. I think there is a Dylan that stretches across all the changes, and I think that the “Christian” albums actually provide most clearly the thread that ties his career together. Let me explain.
Dylan was converted, and really converted, to a particular brand of Christianity. Bill Dwyer, a pastor at the Vineyard in LA, taught a discipleship class that Dylan faithfully attended that mixed charismatic theology with the apocalyptic, dispensational teaching of Hal Lindsey and his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. (For a fascinating, though tedious read, see Clinton Heylin’s recent, Trouble in Mind: Bob Dylan’s Christian Years, 2017).
If you had been paying attention, you would say this is just the brand of Christianity that would appeal to Dylan. You see, apocalyptic themes had been appearing in his songs from the very beginning.
So, let’s define apocalyptic. It means something like this: The world as we know it is irredeemable. It won’t get better, and will only get worse until something cataclysmic happens that makes room for something new. Current conditions will be reversed. And because the apocalyptic vision is rooted in things that can’t be easily seen, like the idea that a crucified peasant is the Lord of all creation, apocalyptic is often expressed in jarring images that stretch the imagination.
The early Dylan is full of this kind of stuff. The Times They are a Changin’, Masters of War, Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, All Along the Watchtower. Notice the “gospel” reminiscent reversals imagined in the final stanza of The Times They are a Changin’.
“The line it is drawn, The curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.”
In the 1978 album Street Legal, the one just before Slow Train Coming, Dylan recorded the song, Changing of the Guards, a harbinger of what would come on the Christian albums.
“Eden is burning.
Either get ready for elimination,
Or your heart must have the courage
For the changing of the guards.”
Of course, this apocalyptic perspective is all over the Christian albums, particularly Slow Train Coming. Dylan’s gospel focused on the coming calamities spelled out in Lindsey’s books, and salvation through faith in Jesus as the way to avoid the impending tribulations.
For whatever reasons, Dylan ended the “evangelistic” phase in his recording and performing. He returned to playing the songs his fans wanted to hear. But he didn’t leave the apocalyptic themes behind.
Take the critically acclaimed, Oh Mercy (1990). Songs like Man in a Long Black Coat, Ring Them Bells, Everything is Broken, and Political World, all have apocalyptic sensibilities. We could add to our list later songs like Cold Irons Bound, The Levees Gonna Break, Summer Days, among others. My favorite Dylan song is Things Have Changed, that features the great lyric: “If the Bible is right the world’s gonna explode. I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can.”
So, throughout his career, an apocalyptic imagination has been at work in Dylan’s music. Crisis is just around the corner because the world is irredeemable, and things are only going to change if/when the waters rise or Eden burns.
Dylan’s got good theological company here. Jesus was certainly an apocalyptic prophet, announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and calling for repentance. All the prophets from the Babylonian exile forward, (who Dylan quotes a lot, particularly Jeremiah), are not looking for God to restore a golden past, but are counting on God’s dramatic future reign to break into the present, replacing the unredeemable past.
I want to say to Dylan, “You’re on the right footing, you just got hijacked by the dispensationalists. You couldn’t find a good Anabaptist out there anywhere? Couldn’t mix in any McClendon or Hauerwas?”
At any rate, Dylan would place no hope in the political workings of our world. He wouldn’t see Donald Trump, or Barack Obama or George W, as anything other than another example that we are irredeemable apart from blowing the whole thing up.
He writes in his autobiography, Chronicles, “Politics has taken the place of morality…Don’t give me that dance that God is with us, or that God supports us. Let’s get down to brass tacks. There isn’t any moral order. You can forget that... This is the way the world is and nothing’s gonna change it. It’s a crazy, mixed up world and you have to look it right in the eye” (45).
Thanks Bob, for looking it right in the eye.
Cover Image: By Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as Bob Dylan) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons