Navigate to News section

With New Album Released, Time To Grapple with Dylan’s Christian Period

Unfortunately for Jewish fans, all that Jesus talk wasn’t a lark

Armin Rosen
November 10, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Bob Dylan At Budokan is one of the worst live albums ever made. From its reggae version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” to its rumba version of “One More Cup of Coffee,” Dylan’s 1978 set at the famed Tokyo arena is the work of an artist adrift, bored with himself and bored with the world. Ennui is just one of several unfortunate qualities the Budokan record shares with Street Legal, Dylan’s uncharacteristically florid and over-produced studio effort from 1978. Dylan’s work in the late 70s reflects a life anxiety with which many listeners can likely identify. In 1975, the songwriter reached what might have been the pinnacle of his creative career with Blood on the Tracks, a public autopsy that’s more raw and bracingly self-reflective than anything he recorded in the 60s. With the exception of the equally searing Desire, released in 1976, the next few years (some would say decades) were the aimless labor of a man who had wrung himself dry—someone confused by and alienated from his own accomplishments, a spent soul lapsing into “the madness of becoming what one was never meant to be.”

Along came Jesus. Dylan regained his sense of purpose as a performer and a songwriter through a 1979 conversion to Christianity—the “madness” line appears in “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” from the 1981 album Shot of Love, the last record of Dylan’s Christian-influenced “gospel trilogy.” Jews tempted to dismiss Dylan’s conversion as an empty artistic pose—who comfort themselves with the possibility that Christianity was another aspect of the American folk tradition Dylan wanted to explore, as if old-time religion were a costume he put on for few weird years in the late 70s—no longer have that luxury, assuming they ever did. It’s just about impossible to listen to Trouble No More, the recently released entry in the ongoing Bootleg Series of rarities and outtakes, and think that Dylan doesn’t actually mean every word he’s saying. Words like: “Am I ready to lay down my life for the brethren and to take up my cross, can I surrender to the will of God or am I still acting like the lost?,” wailed during an April 30th, 1980 performance of “Are You Ready?” “I was…stone-cold dead as I stepped out of the womb,” he testifies over a spare electric guitar moments into a riotous 1980 live version of “Saved.” The “Pressing On” from a November 1979 show features a gospel choir singing over a murmuring keyboard, along with vocals from Dylan that are as unnerving as anything on “Hard Rain” or even “Before the Flood.” When Dylan wonders, “Did they know that he was the son of God? Did they know that he was Lord?” on “In the Garden,” played on January 27th, 1980 with an intense and eerie stillness, his wonderment is utterly sincere.

The studio editions of these songs are tedious mediocrities for the most part; the versions that appear on Trouble No More are something else entirely. Unfortunately for Jewish Dylan fans, the collection cancels all doubt: Our hero’s Christian period wasn’t a lark, and it isn’t easily excised from the rest of his career or from his larger meaning. The greatest American Jewish artist once was lost, and then was found. In the time of his confession, in the hour of his greatest need, he turned away from Judaism.

This is a bit of an oversimplification. Dylanological pedants will note that there’s foreshadowing of the songwriter’s Christian conversion scattered through his earlier catalogue. Take, for instance, the possible Dante reference in 1975’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” or the inscrutable “Sign on the Cross” from the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, in which (by one plausible interpretation) the ultimate Christian icon becomes a symbol of looming metaphysical judgement. But then, some counter-pedant might wonder, what do we do with the fact that 1973’s “Forever Young” is obviously inspired by the Birkat Kohanim? What about the capsule version of the Akedah that kicks off the title track on 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited?

The Jewish stuff in Dylan’s work arguably makes his Christian conversion even harder to reconcile, since it proves he was conversant enough in his own tradition to have a firm idea of what he was rejecting. But this is an oversimplification, too: In so much as Dylan could be said to have had a religion before 1979 (or after 1981, when the “gospel period” ended), he wasn’t a follower of Judaism but of the American folk tradition, an infinitely generous common vocabulary whose genius lies in its ability to give expression to Judaism, Christianity, and just about any other possible system of thought, mode of being, or state of mind. The spine-tingling conviction on display in Trouble No More proves folk music was insufficient as a sole source of meaning even for Dylan himself. For a brief period in his life, he needed the succor, comfort, and sense of purpose that only religion itself is capable of providing.

And then, abruptly, he changed his way of thinking again. The gospel records ended in 1981; on his next album, 1983’s Infidels, he indicated that was done with theological clarity, instead warning that even Satan could come as a man of peace. Many of his more overly Christian-inspired songs were shelved from his live act; “Groom” was only performed five times, most recently in 1980. When he did play his Christian tunes, the passion could be notably lacking: As bad as Budokan was, the worst Dylan live track on an official release might be the dreadful “Slow Train Coming” that kicks off 1989’s Dylan & The Dead. Then there were Dylan’s occasional public embraces of Israel, including a 1987 show at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem, along with his appearance on a 1989 Chabad telethon—where he played Hava Nagila on a harmonica!—and a possible Talmudic (or, at minimum, Tanachic) reference dropped in a 1991 Grammy acceptance speech.

Dylan also appears to reflect on his Christian conversion in “Red River Shore,” an outtake from 1997’s Time out of Mind. In that song’s final verse, a now-extinguished Christian faith still looms large enough to intrude into the speaker’s consciousness, just as he feels himself fading from existence:

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring ’em on back to life
Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody saw me here at all
Except the girl from the Red River Shore

Don’t worry about it If it’s hard to make sense of just how purposeful Dylan sounds on Trouble No More—Bob couldn’t really make sense of it, either.

Let’s try anyway. For Jews, Dylan’s conversion to Christianity is discomforting because of what we might recognize about it. Ambivalence towards Jewish identity can sometimes take the form of intense attraction to whatever is the most opposite to Judaism within a given context. At the extremes, Josephus helped lay siege to Jerusalem, and a Jewish-born scholar prosecuted the Talmud in Paris in 1240. In its more mundane and benign form, recourse towards Judaism’s antitheses might be no more harmful to the world than an enthusiasm for pork dishes. Still, the motives for Jewish self-effacement remain consistent and disturbingly relatable across time, however variable the real-world consequences: Being Jewish is hard and confusing. Imagine the liberating clarity that the opposite state must offer—just imagine shoving every psychic and spiritual tzuris out the airlock, all at once. What a relief! One message of Dylan’s conversion saga is that it isn’t always that simple, that nothing in the realm of the spirit turns out to be perfectly clarifying, even for someone whose belief burned as intensely as Dylan’s once did.

Dylan’s gospel period is one of the most vexing enactments of Jewish ambivalence in all of American pop culture, and Trouble No More is a fascinating listen because it doesn’t make things any easier. Dylan’s three gospel records aren’t classics, but it’s clear from this compilation that his spiritual journey paid off, regardless of where it ended up: Trouble’s wonders include a jaw-dropping outtake of “Caribbean Wind” where nearly all the lyrics are different and that’s proven impossible for me not to listening to several times a day. As far as why that journey might have happened at all, it’s better to turn to a younger artist. In 2005, Clem Snide, a country band led by the Tel Aviv-born and Teaneck-raised Eef Barzelay, released a song called “Jews for Jesus Blues” which is one of the most devastating things ever written about the allure of a life outside one’s own skin, and the dangers and disappointments inherent in escape. It begins:

I was searching for something I could not describe
So I stared at the sun till the tears filled my eyes
Well I thought I was empty, so I paid the cost
But now that I’m found I miss being lost

Bob would understand.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.