In 1979, Bob Dylan released an album of evangelical songs under the title “Slow Train Coming,” baffling many of his devoted fans and adoring critics. “Listening to the new Bob Dylan album is something like being accosted in an airport,” grumbled Greil Marcus, the seminal culture critic. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards saw it as an attempt to sell records, calling the proselyting songwriter “the prophet of profit.”
The Christian music world was elated at the apparently born-again Bob Dylan. The Gospel Music Association gave “Slow Train Coming” a Dove Award, the Christian music industry’s equivalent of a Grammy, for the best album by a secular artist. The late Keith Green, who has been described as Christian music’s John Lennon, invited Dylan to blow some harmonica on one of his records. But best of all, many believers thought it was inevitable that Dylan would bring his extensive fan base to Jesus.
Nearly four decades later, with his recent selection for the Nobel Prize in literature, Dylan is almost universally revered-and his only records on the explicit theme of faith have become more of an obscure footnote than a defining chapter. Fans who might once have been put off by “Slow Train Coming,” and two subsequent religious-themed records, “Saved” in 1980 and “Shot of Love” in 1981, now can attribute this three-year phase as another of Dylan’s efforts to defy categorization even if it meant alienating some of his admirers, just as he did when he plugged in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Even Dylan, who has rarely spoken of his Christian phase and ignored it entirely in Chronicles: Vol. 1, the first installment of his autobiography, seems to have a revived appreciation of this strange moment in his artistic journey. According to Rolling Stone magazine, he is interested in releasing a “bootleg” album of material for this period.
Yet many Christian music fans have never gotten over what they consider his rejection of their faith. Dylan stopped making overtly religious albums after “Shot of Love” and no longer publicly proclaimed his faith on stage, although he never renounced it either. Even when he was telling fans that Jesus would return, Dylan seemed ambivalent about courting evangelical listeners who transformed the Christian music industry into a billion-dollar-a-year business. The reason “Dylan wasn’t embraced by the Christian world is that he didn’t want to be embraced,” says Don Cusic, author of “Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music.”
Michael Gilmour, author of “The Gospel According to Bob Dylan” and “Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture,” recalls what happened a few years ago when he wrote a piece about Dylan that appeared on Christianity Today’s website. “Someone wrote a comment saying that Dylan is of the devil because he stopped singing Christian music,” Gilmour says. “You get these kind of weird hatreds of Dylan because he assumed the form of preacher and then he left it. “
John J. Thompson, associate dean of Trevecca Nazarene University’s School of Music & Worship Arts in Nashville, encountered some of the same anti-Dylan sentiment when he ran a faith-based record store in the 1990s. “We sold all of Dylan’s stuff.” Thompson says. “Every so often, there would be somebody, “Oh, he’s not a Christian anymore.”
But like so much related to Dylan, very little is black and white. Thompson says there were also believers like himself who thought Dylan remained spiritually relevant long after his overly Christian period. “He didn’t really close the doors,” Thompson says. “Once you start looking [for] Biblical references, you can find them all over the place in Dylan’s music.” This is a theme in Gilmour’s work as well as the highly regarded “Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved” by the late Stephen Webb, a one-time professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana.
Thompson also believes that by publicly embracing Jesus even for just a few years, Dylan made it possible for a new generation of Christian bands, such as U2, to achieve mainstream success. “You have younger artists who grew up with the example of U2 and Bob Dylan, like The Call and Bruce Cockburn,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are interested in that kind of music who aren’t necessarily Christians. And for a lot of those of us that call ourselves that, Dylan [is] still a hero. I still can’t wait to get every record and pore over it.”