It’s become a cliché. A famous person discovers faith. Instantly, he, or she, begins traveling the circuit with pastors and preachers, hawking books and giving speeches. Christians rejoice; the mainstream press sneers. And rather than a real testimonial about his or her faith journey, the whole thing comes off like a celebrity marketing effort.
But that’s not what legendary American artist Bob Dylan did after revealing his faith in Jesus Christ. Though Dylan incorporated his faith in his songs, the spiritual life of this American icon remains mysterious even today, as fans and critics continue to ask questions about what the iconic performer does or doesn’t believe.
Author Scott Marshall reveals the truth in his new book “Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Life.” And in a recent interview on “The Drew Marshall Show,” Scott Marshall discussed the rather unique way the fiercely private Dylan reconciled his fame and his faith.
As Marshall points out, Dylan went public about his faith in Jesus Christ at a time when the “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s already had peaked in terms of media attention.
Thus, Dylan never lost his independence by becoming too closely associated with a particular subculture. Marshall said no particular movement or organization was able to “sink their hooks into him.”
“When Dylan embraced Jesus in 1979, the ‘Jesus People’ movement seems to have fizzled out somewhat,” Scott Marshall explained. “There is this tendency for some Christians, I don’t know if it’s an American phenomenon, it certainly happens in America, of trotting somebody out who is a public figure to try to score points and this and that. … And Dylan just did what he normally does which is that he just wrote his songs and went on stage. The first in-depth public interview he gave was nearly two years after his experience, so he had some restraint after this experience of his in terms of going public other than in his songs.”
But Dylan’s involvement in the emerging Christian musical scene was not simply a flirtation. Marshall revealed Dylan contributed to “So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt” from the Christian artist Keith Green. Like Green, Dylan was a Christian believer of Jewish heritage, and Marshall believes it was one reason why Dylan accepted the offer to collaborate.
As Marshall’s book explains, one of the keys to understanding Dylan’s spiritual journey is knowing the importance of his Jewish heritage.
“Whether you’re Jewish or Christian or claim to be a Jewish Christian or even if you don’t give a flip about any of this and just happen to be a fan of Dylan, a lot of people are aware of this religious question in terms of Dylan in terms of where is he or where is he not,” explained Marshall.
“I would just say there is no doubt about it – he’s a Jewish man and he’s got strong Jewish roots and he still is spotted in recent decades in synagogues. I know he was involved with the Vineyard Church in terms of attending and worship until the press found out, but, as I referenced the synagogues, he certainly tries to slip in privately wherever he goes and sometimes he gets found out. I would just say that he was bar mitzvahed at 13 in 1954 in his home state of Minnesota.
“In 1971, someone quoted him in Israel asking him, ‘Why don’t you just proclaim that you’re a Jew, what’s the problem?’ And Dylan’s response was, ‘Why should I have to proclaim something that’s so obvious?’ Dylan was basically saying that his Jewishness has touched his life and his art in ways that he can’t describe. Those Jewish roots were there.”
The incredible spiritual journey of an American icon. You’ll never look at American pop culture the same way again – or Christianity! Discover the unbelievable true story behind one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
According to Marshall, Dylan also spoke publicly about how he saw no contradiction between these “Jewish roots” and his faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles.
“When he came to know Jesus in about 1979, even his album ‘Saved,’ which was released in 1980, included the one Scripture from the so-called Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and it was a passage from Jeremiah.”
The passage Marshall refers to is Jeremiah 31:31, found inside the album’s liner notes. It seems almost explicitly directed to Messianic Jews, as it reads: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.”
Marshall recalled that on one of his tours before one of his songs, Dylan “went on a lengthy rap session about the Passover.”
“A couple years later … someone asked, ‘What’s with your interest in Israel and then this new Gospel stuff, isn’t it incompatible?’ And Dylan’s response was that it was not incompatible in his mind,” Marshall said. “And again, a significant part of the story as well is what it means or what it might mean for a man or a woman or a child who is Jewish to not just believe in Jesus in Messiah or God but to be a public figure and actually speak out.”
Marshall believes Dylan’s Christianity and his willingness to incorporate his faith into his art has made some people take him less seriously. He noted how many Dylan fans saw the singer as something akin to a prophet during the early 1960s, but as soon as Dylan started talking about matters of eternal importance, they tuned out.
“For years people used to say he was a prophet, people would try to convince me I was a prophet and I’d say, ‘No, no, it’s not me,'” Marshall said, paraphrasing Dylan. “And they’d say, ‘Yes, yes.’ And now I come out and say Jesus is the answer, and these people say, ‘Oh Bob Dylan, he’s no prophet.’ A number of his fans turned on him at the time; it wasn’t just commercially and critically.”
Marshall said the damage Dylan took from music critics because of his belief in Jesus was serious, with even some longtime fans having jumped ship after Dylan became a believer. However, understanding Dylan’s faith, as well as his songs, is now considered essential to interpreting Dylan as an artist.
And as “Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Life” shows, Dylan’s art may live forever, but the artist himself understands that only faith is of eternal importance.
“Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Life” is not just another biography. It’s an exposé on the hidden life of a legend and an examination of the interaction between faith and fame. And it might just change your own spiritual life.