The Religions of Bob Dylan: From Delivering Evangelical Sermons to Singing Hava Nagila With Harry Dean Stanton

My first reac­tion upon learn­ing about Bob Dylan’s brief con­ver­sion to Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty may have been some­thing like “What in the hell?” It wasn’t a reli­gious Dylan that sur­prised me; it was Dylan embrac­ing a faith that can often seem dogged­ly lit­er­al and, well, just a lit­tle inflex­i­ble. What with his love of ambi­gu­i­ty, of occult sym­bol­ism and sym­bol­ist poet­ry, and his res­olute con­tempt for con­ven­tion, Dylan has always struck me as more of an ancient Gnos­tic than a mod­ern Bible thumper. While Dylan’s immer­sion in the Chris­t­ian world may have been brief, it was deep, and it was confusing—enough so that Andy Greene in Rolling Stone com­ments that his pros­e­ly­tiz­ing from the stage “took audi­ence provo­ca­tion to the next lev­el.”

In his gospel shows of 1979/80, Dylan pre­sent­ed “a night of music devot­ed exclu­sive­ly to selec­tions from his new gospel records, often paus­ing for long, ram­bling ser­mons about Christ’s immi­nent return and the wicked­ness of man.” Hear one of those ser­mons at the top, a sev­en-minute the­o­log­i­cal dis­qui­si­tion, before Dylan and band launch into a pow­er­ful per­for­mance of “Sol­id Rock.” Just above, in anoth­er ser­mon from 1979, Dylan holds forth on the “spir­it of the Antichrist” before an unsym­pa­thet­ic crowd in Tempe, Ari­zona. That same year, he gave an inter­view to Bruce Heiman of KMGX Radio in Tuc­son on the sub­ject of his con­ver­sion (below).

In a cer­tain way, a Dylan obsessed with divine judg­ment and the book of Rev­e­la­tion jibes with his pur­suit of the arcane and the mys­ti­cal, with his con­sis­tent­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic vision, prophet­ic mum­blings, and ten­den­cy to mor­al­ize. But the preach­ing is just…. well, kin­da weird. I mean, not even Dylan’s friend, the deeply devout John­ny Cash, used his musi­cal plat­form to harangue audi­ences about the Bible. Was it a stunt or a gen­uine, if per­haps overzeal­ous, expres­sion of deeply held beliefs? That ques­tion could be asked of almost every move Dylan has ever made. This brief peri­od of very pub­lic reli­gios­i­ty may seem anom­alous, but Dylan’s inter­est in reli­gion is not. Google his name and any faith term, and you’ll see sug­ges­tions for “Dylan and Islam,” “Dylan and Bud­dhism,” “Dylan and Catholi­cism,” and, of course, “Dylan and Judaism,” the reli­gion of his birth. Some con­tend that Dylan still keeps faith with Jesus, and that it doesn’t mutu­al­ly exclude his Jew­ish­ness.

And yet, how Dylan’s Chris­t­ian preach­ing could line up with his lat­er com­mit­ment to Chabad—an Ortho­dox Hasidic move­ment that isn’t exact­ly warm to the idea of the Chris­t­ian mes­si­ah, to put it mildly—is beyond my ken. But log­i­cal con­sis­ten­cy does not rank high­ly on any list of virtues I’m famil­iar with. Dylan seemed to be recon­nect­ing with Judaism when he explic­it­ly expressed sol­i­dar­i­ty with Israel in 1983 in his Zion­ist anthem “Neigh­bor­hood Bul­ly” from Infi­dels, in oth­er respects, a whol­ly sec­u­lar record.

Three years lat­er, Dylan appeared on the Chabad telethon (above), accom­pa­ny­ing his son-in-law Peter Him­mel­man on har­mon­i­ca in a ren­di­tion of “Hava Nag­i­la,” along with, of all peo­ple, Har­ry Dean Stan­ton (whose chill­ing turn as polyg­a­mous Mor­mon sect leader in HBO’s Big Love you may well recall). By this time, at least accord­ing to Jew­ish Jour­nal, “Chabad rab­bis had helped Dylan return to Judaism after the musi­cian embraced Chris­tian­i­ty for a time.” The mid-90s saw Dylan wor­ship­ping with Brook­lyn Lubav­itch­ers, and in 2007, he was sight­ed in Atlanta at Yom Kip­pur ser­vices at the Chabad-Lubav­itch of Geor­gia, say­ing the “bless­ings in Hebrew with­out stum­bling, like a pro.”

So is Bob Dylan a fire­breath­ing Chris­t­ian or an Ortho­dox Jew? Or, some­how… both? Only Dylan knows, and frankly, only Dylan needs to. His beliefs are his busi­ness, but his pub­lic expres­sions of faith have giv­en his fans much to puz­zle over, read­ing the lyri­cal tea leaves for evi­dence of a sol­id rock cen­ter amidst the shift­ing sands of Dylanol­o­gy. Let ‘em sift. Some peo­ple obsess over Dylan’s reli­gious com­mit­ments, oth­ers over his “secret” wife and daugh­ter, his cor­po­rate sell­outs, or his some­times inscrutable per­son­al pol­i­tics. It’s all part of the busi­ness of fame. What I find fas­ci­nat­ing about the many lay­ers of Bob Dylan is not how much they tell me about the man, who has the right to change his mind, or not, as often as he likes, but how much they reveal about his strange lyri­cal themes. After all, Dylan’s seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry alle­giances and ambiva­lent iden­ti­ties as an artist may in in fact make him all the more the arche­typ­al Amer­i­can song­writer he’s always said to be.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Dylanol­o­gy, or How to Under­stand Bob Dylan by Dig­ging Through His Garbage

The Times They Are a‑Changin’: 1964 Broad­cast Gives a Rare Glimpse of the Ear­ly Bob Dylan

Ani­mat­ed Video: John­ny Cash Explains Why Music Became a Reli­gious Call­ing

John­ny Cash Reads the Entire New Tes­ta­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Lee Marc Stein says:

    Cer­tain­ly, a high num­ber of Dylan’s songs reflect Old Tes­ta­ment mean­ing and tonal­i­ty, none more­so than “For­ev­er Young.”
    Lawrence J. Epstein’s book “Polit­i­cal Folk Music in Amer­i­ca…” address­es this well, as does “Dylan’s Visions of Sin” by Christo­pher Ricks. Sev­er­al friends of mine here on Long Island have seen Dylan at Lubav­itch tem­ples more recent­ly than 2007.

  • Andrew says:

    Kin­da “like a rolling stone”, it seems.

  • rufus_g says:

    Infi­dels a “sec­u­lar” album except for “Neigh­bor­hood Bul­ly?” Wow. Maybe the author should lis­ten to “Jokerman,”“I and I,”“License to Kill” & “Man of Peace” a lit­tle more close­ly. If he does­n’t get it, he should not even be writ­ing about Dylan. Clue­less.

  • Sven Bengtsson says:

    “Brief con­ver­sion”. No he still hold­ing on to those beliefs, he just keep­ing it more pri­vate.

  • MIKAL GILMORE: Clear­ly, the lan­guage of the Bible still pro­vides imagery in your songs.
    BOB DYLAN: Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Rev­e­la­tion. I believe in dis­clo­sure, you know?
    Rolling Stone 2012

  • When Bob says “What else could there be?” you’d think you’d want to go there very care­ful­ly.
    MIKAL GILMORE: Clear­ly, the lan­guage of the Bible still pro­vides imagery in your songs.
    BOB DYLAN: Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Rev­e­la­tion. I believe in dis­clo­sure, you know?
    Rolling Stone 2012

  • Richard says:

    As Soren­son says above; when Bob says “I believe in the Book of Rev­e­la­tion”, there is NO doubt, NONE, that he is a Christ believ­er. Like­ly a Mes­sian­ic Jew, but HIS Mes­si­ah is clear­ly JC. Case closed.

  • Henry Spencer says:

    Nice to see you as a mem­ber of big­ots r us

  • The Apos­tle Paul, on his trav­els, would often go to the syn­a­gogues first. The Gospel must still be seen as pri­or­i­ty to the Jews. A num­ber of those ear­ly syn­a­gogues then became places where Jesus was wor­shipped as Mes­si­ah; the proph­e­sied Son of Man, as in Daniel. This dual deity out of the god­head is seen more than once in the Tanakh (Old Tes­ta­ment).

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