With God on his side

Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born Again.
Written & directed by Joel Gilbert. Highway 61 Entertainment

Bob Dylan is arguably the most influential singer-songwriter ever. He was the “voice of a generation”. He was Don MacLean’s joker who sang “for the king and queen in a coat he’d borrowed from James Dean and a voice that came from you and me”. Just as I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been assassinated and that the World Trade Centre had been brought down by terrorists, so I can remember Paul Gambaccini announcing on Radio 1 at the end of 1978 that Bob Dylan had become a born-again Christian. Even now, thirty years on, people ask me if I know what happened to Dylan. Is he still a Christian? Has he renounced his faith? Has he “gone back to Judaism”?

Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years is an attempt by film producer and Dylan aficionado Joel Gilbert to find out why and how Dylan “fell into the arms of the Lord” and what happened afterwards. Gilbert interviews some of those closest to Dylan at the time; his pastor Bill Dwyer, Oscar-winning songwriter Al Kasha, backing singer Regina McCrary and others. Mitch Glaser, who was with Jews for Jesus during Dylan’s born-again period, although not a personal friend, reveals that Dylan asked JFJ to distribute evangelistic broadsides at his San Francisco concerts.

Dylan is no stranger to controversy. When he went electric in the sixties, fans on both sides of the Atlantic denounced him for selling out. As the era of psychedelia dawned and Jimi Hendrix sang of the Purple Haze in his mind and The Beatles released Sgt Pepper, Dylan astonished us all by making the acoustic John Wesley Harding, an album replete with biblical allusions and references to St Augustine, whom Dylan had “put out to death”, and a penitent Tom Paine whose rationalism, though like a fair damsel, had done Dylan harm.

After releasing Blood on the Tracks, just when everyone thought the Dylan they knew and loved was with them to stay, he alienated fans and infuriated the music critics once again by releasing Slow Train Coming, the first of three gospel albums. Fans who turned up at his San Francisco concerts expecting to hear Like a Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street, were infuriated to be told that they were “gonna have to serve somebody” and had to be “saved by the blood of the Lamb”. To those who stormed out of his concerts, Dylan responded, “the old stuff’s not gonna save them”.

Although there is an ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek element to Gilbert’s documentary, and in spite of the world-weary cynicism of San Francisco Chronicle’s Joel Selvin, the film is surprisingly sympathetic to Dylan. Joel Gilbert really wants to understand the message of Christianity and what it was that brought about Dylan’s “conversion”. We hear of Dylan giving up three months to study at the Vineyard Fellowship’s Bible School, of his prayer meetings before his shows and of the affirmation of his Jewish identity by the Vineyard Fellowship. Pastor Bill Dwyer tells us that at one time twenty to thirty percent of his congregation was Jewish. There is an abundance of explanation of what it means to be “born again” and a clear case is set forth for how one can be both Jewish and a believer in Jesus. Because Christianity is Jewish, claims Mitch Glaser, it is Gentiles who need to “convert”: not Jews.

The evident weakness with Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years is that there is nothing from the horse’s mouth. Apart from archive footage, there is no interview with Bob Dylan himself but, given the reluctance of Dylan to do interviews, that is hardly surprising. Neither is there any substantial revelation of what became of the born-again Bob. According to the film, the anti-missionary Lubavitch Chabad movement got to him and Dylan, says Al Kasha, became disillusioned not with Jesus but with Christians who wanted to take advantage of him.

Dylan has never repudiated his faith in Jesus. In the eighties and nineties, when his born-again period was behind him, Dylan was introducing his gospel song In the Garden as a song about his “hero”, and in live performances of his protest song Masters of War he was omitting the verse that declared not even Jesus would forgive them.

Was Dylan truly born again? Is he still a believer? Has he repudiated his faith? As the man himself one wrote: “I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide”. This film doesn’t answer those questions. Instead it provides a fascinating and informative insight into what is acknowledged to be one of the best and most creative periods of Bob Dylan’s career, a period that people are still speaking about. For anyone with more than a passing interest into this remarkable man, this DVD should be among your Dylan albums and biographies.

Bonus features include an interview with Rueben “Hurricane” Carter, a photo gallery and a downloadable MP3 soundtrack.

Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is available from our Shalom Ministries

Article written in 2008

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