Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan’s spiritual journey

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It may be like a misheard lyric, but I read a reviewer had described Bob Dylan’s 1979 Slow Train Coming album as ‘great gospel, bad Dylan.’ That may not be the gospel truth, but the sentiment towards the album was one Dylan fans shared after his conversion to Christianity.

Main image: Bob Dylan singing and playing guitar (Xavier Badosa/Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) turned 80 on 23 May this year. Since Slow Train Coming, he’s released 20 studio albums, won or been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, hosted a popular radio show and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But, as far as many Dylan fans saw it, his dalliance with Christianity ended in 1985 with his album, Empire Burlesque. They didn’t think that one was great Dylan, but at least the bad gospel had gone. It was still there, cloaked in apocalyptic imagery, but fans could just as easily hear that as Dylan’s pre-gospel apocalyptic imagery — and get back to enjoying their idol.

Before, during and after Empire Burlesque, Dylan has less stridently than in Slow Train Coming, but arguably with more poignancy, applied his Nobel Prize talent to lyrics that explore Christian faith. Those poetic theological excursions include songs such as ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘Ring Them Bells’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘Disease of Conceit’, ‘Everything is Broken’, ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Series of Dreams’.

Back in ’79, with Dylan’s born-again experience firing its engines, Slow Train Coming was straight-up, horns blasting (often literally) gospel. And many of those tunes introduced his audience to a God of Thunder, swinging a hammer at all who rejected him. The surprise was that this surprised people: Dylan had always been forceful, never afraid to pound the powers-that-be. On his next three albums, Saved, Shot of Love and Infidels, the God of Thunder still wielded his hammer, but he had a counterpoint in the God of Grace:

 

'Dylan’s religious project is, however, far from simplistic evangelism; he is a lyricist in the order of the great religious poets, even the Psalmist, with his depths calling us deeper.'

 

‘The wicked know no peace and you just can't fake it
There's only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I'll make it
By the saving grace that's over me.’

‘Saving Grace’ — 1980

‘I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.’

‘Every Grain of Sand’ — 1981

The God of Grace was joined by the God of Justice, impressing the needs of the poor and oppressed upon world leaders. And the God of Love got back to a Dylan staple: affairs of the heart. Dylan’s one-way gospel lyric output set out on the manifold path it’s been for the past 40 years.

Philosopher-theologian James K. A. Smith wrote in Christian Century magazine that he’s abandoned the idea the west can think its way out of what he sees as cultural malaise and a failure of imagination. ‘Specifically,’ he writes, ‘the failure to imagine the other as neighbour.’ As new editor of theology and arts magazine Image, Smith continues ‘[i]n the spirit of tikkun olam, Judaism’s endeavour to repair the world, I’m throwing in my lot with the poets and painters, the novelists and songwriters.’

Songwriters, no doubt, like Dylan. And, given the Zimmerman’s Jewish heritage, it’s fitting to see the bard who told us in 1989 that ‘everything is broken’ working in the spirit of tikkun olam. His songs often have a religious perspective, with an emphasis on religion’s Latin root word ligare: to bind together. In trying to repair the world, Dylan binds the human and divine through lyric and melody, offered in a uniquely phrased gravel voice, and held together with juke joint blues meets folk and rock.

Dylan’s religious project is, however, far from simplistic evangelism; he is a lyricist in the order of the great religious poets, even the Psalmist, with his depths calling us deeper. A glance at just a few lines from ‘Pay in Blood’ (2012) shows Dylan the religious poet in full voice. 

Some Christian critics want the line, ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’, to refer to Christ’s substitutionary atonement. But other critics says the lyric is an act of destabilising the powers-that-be, with Dylan taking the voice of a ‘master of war’, sacrificing soldiers for a military agenda. Still others see the song’s religious content as autobiographical, the aging Jewish bard calling out folksters of old who labelled him a ‘Judas’ when he plugged in his electric guitar.

And so it goes through the song; potential interpretations shift, one meaning or persona rising up . . .

‘Well, I’m grinding my life away, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done’

 . . . only to fade and be replaced by another . . .

‘Night after night, day after day
They strip your useless hopes away
The more I take, the more I give
The more I die, the more I live’

Is Dylan speaking the words of an angry God or the military ogre — or are these metaphoric words speaking to his own spiritual journey? Is it all three? Like the best religious poetry, Dylan’s works resists easy interpretation and remains open to endless meditation:

‘How I made it back home nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I been through hell, what good did it do?
My conscience is clear, what about you?’ 

Dylan’s overtly political songs — ‘Hurricane’, ‘Political World’ — and love songs — ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Tangled up in Blue’ — have often been challenging. It’s the same with his religious output. A listening tour of the last forty years of Dylan’s back catalogue offers moments of sonic lectio divina with a prophetic edge, a fitting way to celebrate the Minnesota maestro’s eight decades.

 

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne writer and his latest book is Matters of Life and Faith (Coventry Press, 2021)

Main image: Bob Dylan (Xavier Badosa/Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Paul Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Christianity, Judaism, Slow Train Coming

 

 

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Existing comments

When (some) people expressed astonishment at Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature a witty letter-writer to the SMH advised them "don't think twice, it's all right". "Like A Rolling Stone" sung only by Dylan is my sublime treat. I could go on..... I've been reading one of John Donne's sermons today in which he states: "And for my diet I have St Augustine's protestation that he loved the Books of Psalms, and St Chrysostom's that he loved St Paul's Epistles, with a particular devotion." Have Dylan's songs reached that level? His devoted followers can answer.
Pam | 01 June 2021


Maybe not Pam but he is the most significant and provocative western song writer of the past 60 years. North Country Blues and Hurricane are two of my favorites. Thanks for writing this piece Paul. It makes a refreshing change from the carping, maniacal, point scoring pseudo theologians commenting on the religious debates. Your article highlights the fact that neither David nor Bob were trained in "Christology," yet always got down to the heart of the matter.
Francis Armstrong | 02 June 2021


One favourite Dylan lyric that resonates with Christ's teaching is "those not busy being born are busy dying"; though I think his poetic and musical corpus thus far defies a systematic theologising, so tripping and tumbling have been his protean interests and influences in an era of rapid and far-reaching change. His "modus eundi", however, does strongly suggest to me an understanding of life that has more of pilgrimage than of journey.
John RD | 02 June 2021


To me Dylan is the sound of chopper engines, the smell of cordite and the extreme sadness of young lives needlessly spent. We nevertheless loved him even though he made us cry. Greatly deserved winner of the Nobel Prize.
john frawley | 02 June 2021


Fantastic thanks Paul. I grew up on Dylan. So many of his songs speak to the heart. He is a legend.
Frank S | 02 June 2021


Thanks Paul. The third print edition of Eureka Street, back in May 1991, celebrated Bob’s 50th birthday with a cover story: your old road is rapidly age in’. The more profound the art, the longer it lasts.
John Honner | 04 June 2021


I was about 17 years old when Slow Train came out. I had been listening to Dylan on and off before that and didnt find anything really surprising. He had been referencing the bible for years. He was Jewish. What was the big deal. Of course I was already someone who would call themselves a Christian. What I found disturbing was the number of my Christian contemporaries who nearly automatically became Dylan fans and who just as quickly cast him off when he moved out of that phase. I continued to listen and continue to be inspired by his spirituality and will always be a fan
geoff | 04 June 2021


Thanks Paul for a fabulous piece. You're right about the various religious themes running through many stages of Dylan, some more subtle, some a kick in the head. Most, living up to Emily Dickenson's delightful 'Tell the truth, and tell it slant'. I remember people claiming bizarrely that Dylan had given up his faith soon after his so called Christian stage because he went to his son's bar miztvah. What decent father wouldn't? Even Paul circumsized his 'spiritual son' Timothy to go to Jerusalem. Dylan's always drawn Christian and Jewish and many other sources into a distinctive blend. All Along the Watchtower is a riff on 2nd Isaiah.
Gordon Robert Preece | 04 June 2021


One of the most insightful pieces I've ever read about Bob Dylan, Paul. It made me sit up and think. As far as I am aware, Bob grew up without religion in a secular Jewish family. He literally had no religion. Hence, when he converted to what I would consider a one dimensional version of Christianity, he was a bit like a novice surfer wiped out by a really big wave. It wouldn't last. He'd get up again. I deprecate certain Evangelicals thinking they have a monopoly on Christianity: they don't. I believe Bob returned to Judaism, but I don't think he stuck around bigtime. He is a poet with definite mystic tendencies. He reminds me of another poet, the late Thomas Merton.
Edward Fido | 08 June 2021


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