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Standing Naked: Bob Dylan and Jesus

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In 1980, Bob Dylan did a residency at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. Despite the fact that he had numerous guests from the local music scene join him onstage Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia, for example), his concerts were met with derision by a sizable number of fans.  It had been a little over a year since news of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity had become public and most of us who loved his songs still did not understand his decision. He released his first overtly Christian album titled Slow Train Coming in August 1979. Musically, the work was quite listenable and featured Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler. With the exception of one or two songs, the lyrics were not overtly Christian in nature; full of biblical reference, yes, but if one didn’t know Dylan was a Christian, they would not have seen the album as a Christian work. Dylan released one more album that seemed Christian in nature—titled Saved, Dylan released one more album that seemed Christian in nature titled Saved. After the original rapture of conversion had settled in, Dylan backed away from his obviously Christian lyrics and returned to his more metaphorical use of language.
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During this period, there was a concern that Dylan’s politics would become those of the Christian right. In the late 1970s, this element of US society was experiencing a resurgence of popularity. Preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were beginning to align themselves with the right wing of the Republican party, injecting their intolerant philosophy into the mainstream of US politics. The fear that Dylan might fall into this segment of believers stemmed in part from an ignorance of the multiple varieties of Christianity in existence. In addition, there was a common understanding that religion generally served the powerful, who manipulated the words of the gods and prophets to justify their greed and lust for power. Yet Christianity comes in numerous guises; mystical to dogmatic; it is used by some as a reason to justify their wars, their oppression and their hatreds. Others use it to oppose those wars and other injustices. Likewise, Dylan means different things to different people.

In a recently published book, The Political World of Bob Dylan, Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson carefully and eruditely examine Dylan’s conversion, his Christian life and its effect on his politics. Naturally, undertaking this exploration means defining Dylan’s politics in the first place. First and foremost, the reader of this text is made to understand Dylan’s perception of himself as an outsider. When looking for reasons for Dylan’s identification as such. Both Israelson and Taylor discuss his childhood in Duluth, Minnesota, his Jewish heritage and the generally isolationist and anti-corporate political culture of the upper Midwestern states in the US, specifically Minnesota and Wisconsin. As Israelson notes in his section of the book, the US student organization that was essential in the development of the New Left—Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—had its beginnings in the Midwest and continued to have many of its largest chapters in that region. While the New Left was a hodgepodge of political philosophies from liberal to Marxist to anarchist, its defining factor was its anti-authoritarianism, anti-racism and its opposition to the US war in Vietnam. It is these three elements, argue both men, that are also the defining features of Bob Dylan’s politics.

Even though both authors tend to keep their definition of US politics within the Democrat-Republican two-party binary, Israelson places Dylan firmly in the antiwar antiauthoritarian milieu of the early new left, while Taylor calls Dylan’s post-conversion politics Christian anarchism. The similarities between the two labels are much greater than their differences. Unlike his generational compatriots on the barricades and in the streets fighting for social justice, Dylan rarely joined any specific campaign. His role, argue both men, was more that of a prophet crying into the modern media-manipulated wilderness. Skeptical of all authority as a youth, Dylan’s conversion to Christianity changed little. With the exception of his new found faith in Jesus Christ, Dylan’s jeremiads against the masters of war and the purveyors of power and greed changed little. Like those other Christian anarchists Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day, Taylor argues that Dylan uses his faith to strengthen his conviction that the outcasts, refugees, imprisoned and the poor deserved better than that which the powerful begrudgingly let them have. Furthermore, argues Taylor, Dylan sees the greed, corruption, injustice and wars of modern day us capitalism as the devils work. Instead of being merely social injustices, these phenomena are elevated to a status of satanic evil. Like Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, Bob Dylan sees it as his job to call out this evil.

In his investigation of why Bob Dylan’s Christianity took the form it did, Taylor discusses the Falwells and the Robertsons of that realm. He also provides a detailed look at the hippie-inspired Jesus People movement of the 1970s—a movement some folks might be familiar with through the play Godspell. Dylan’s interaction with various leaders in the movement—Larry Norman, Keith Green, and Dave Kelly—is briefly discussed, as are his differences with the movement and other Christian trends. One might argue that while Dylan’s pre-Christian works challenged conventions of the secular world, his post-conversion works challenged conventions of the Christian world.

The Political World of Bob Dylan continues a decades long examination of one of the English language’s greatest poets. By focusing on Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and its meaning as regards is politics, the authors have not only provided insight into this portion of his life and works, they have also given it a value equal to his previous periods. In addition, the arguments they make in these pages creates an needed and useful synthesis of these different times in the poet’s life and work. In his book Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan And the 1960s, the late Mike Marqusee wove together the political thread of Dylan’s early protest songs and his latter 1960s works that seemed to be more personal in nature, thereby creating a whole cloth that explained the continuation of Dylan’s politics of angry hope. Chad Israelson and Jeff Taylor have continued working with the same cloth on the loom that is Dylan’s catalogue. By expanding that cloth to include Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and its aftermath, they have furthered our understanding of that catalogue and its meaning.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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