Newly curious lately, I found a DVD in the library called “Both Ends of the Rainbow” that purports to be about his turning to Jesus, but is mostly a screed of interviews with music critics flummoxed and/or annoyed by Dylan’s heart change. Apparently one night in 1978 the singer had a vision of the King of Kings that he said he knew was a born-again experience. He was baptized with water and began to attend the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California, seriously devoting himself to studying the Bible.
His new faith stirred up a whirlwind of intense creative ardor. Like a personal hallelujah chorus, a flood of Christ-centered songs poured out of him, resulting in a trilogy of albums in the next three years: Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. “You Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train won Dylan his first Grammy award and the lyrics say it all in typically direct Dylan fashion: “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”
In concert, Dylan became just as forthright, preaching impromptu messages from the stage that actually reminded some of Billy Graham. Said one critic, “they didn’t mind when he was being judgmental about other people but now he was being judgmental about them and their secularism” and their reaction ranged from disbelief to derision to outrage. For the first time ever, fans walked out on Bob Dylan. One complained that he paid $26 for a ticket and could have gone to church instead.
Before a concert in Tucson, a radio jock interviewed Dylan with the news the local chapter of the American Atheists planned to leaflet his performance to protest his “reactionary and repressive” new religion. Dylan calmly asked what exactly they are protesting: “Are they against the doctrine of Jesus Christ, or that he died on the cross, or that man is born in sin?” The jock said that being atheists, they’re against all religion. Said Dylan, “This is not about religion. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life… Christ didn’t preach religion. He came to give life more abundantly…he’s talking about life.”
Some of the critics claimed that since he was born a Jew, Robert Zimmerman could never be a born-again Christian, apparently ignorant of the fact that all of Jesus’ disciples and most of his early followers were Jews who became born-again Christians. Many felt betrayed that this hero of the counter-culture had gone from rebellious hipster to solidly “traditional” fuddy-duddy nearly overnight. But Dylan couldn’t do anything in the traditional way – including Christianity.
By the mid-80’s he was protecting himself from the mockery by retreating to a more private faith. The onstage preaching stopped. Because he sometimes attended Jewish services, reviewers crowed that he had abandoned Christianity. But Dylan was just reverting to his usual enigmatic self, having realized he gave too much away in the first flush of his conversion. Also he’s always relished being the artful dodger; just watch his early interviews.
Dylan has never recanted his Christian faith, and continues to perform songs from his gospel albums as well as traditional religious songs. Old and New Testament references abound in his lyrics still. He opened many of his 2011 China tour appearances with “Gonna Change my Way of Thinking,” a song that talks about Jesus’ return. Dylan certainly knows the Biblical truth that once you’ve accepted Christ, you’re His for eternity. As recently as 2009, an interviewer commented that the singer had rendered “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on his Christmas album, “like a true believer.” Dylan replied, “Well, I am a true believer.”
Dylan doubtless connects with Christ on a deep, visceral level, and for good reason. Both are singular life forms, loners who have had their share of pain and rejection. Both are transcendent spirits, much misunderstood. When Bob Dylan wrote these words in his song, “I Believe in You,” they also expressed the hope of all Christians for abiding faith, as well as Christ’s faithfulness to his Father’s mission:
I believe in you when winter turn to summer
I believe in you when white turn to black
I believe in you even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back
Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
’Cause I believe in you
Happy Birthday, Bobby D!