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Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan’s spiritual journey

  • 01 June 2021
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.

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 itThere's only one road and it leads to CalvaryIt gets discouraging at times, but I know I'll make itBy the saving grace that's over me.’

‘Saving Grace’ — 1980

‘I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flameAnd every time I pass that way I always hear my nameThen onward in my journey I come to understandThat every hair is numbered like every