Taking Bob Dylan at faith value

Film: Bob Dylan's Jesus Years

October 24, 2008

Democratic strategists have racked their brains for a plausible message to attract religious conservatives.
Someone should put filmmaker Joel Gilbert’s “Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born … Again!” in their hands.
The documentary, which comes out Tuesday on DVD, mines a period in Mr. Dylan’s career that is puzzled over, ignored or disdained by many fans: the three years, from 1979 to 1981, during which the rock icon devoted his recording and performing career to evangelical Christianity.
For those who had followed Mr. Dylan since his days as a champion of civil rights and a peace-loving enemy of “masters of war,” as he put it in his one of his classic Vietnam-era acoustic indictments, the move meant either that Mr. Dylan had been manipulated by rank, attention-seeking Jimmy Swaggart types or that the man had taken leave of his senses.
“Jesus Years” makes the perhaps easily overlooked point that Mr. Dylan’s embrace of Christianity was as polarizing as his “Judas!”-eliciting switch from acoustic music to electric rock in the mid-‘60s. It also makes a persuasive case that the music of the period is a worthy, even essential, part of the Dylan catalog. (The hit single “Gotta Serve Somebody” earned him his first Grammy Award.)
“A lot of Dylan fans in that era kind of shunned or felt personally betrayed that the ‘Voice of a Generation’ went so far off what they considered the deep end to conform to an ideology,” Mr. Gilbert says.

The filmmaker, who also performs in a Dylan tribute band and wears his hair in a shocked Dylan-in-‘65-ish ‘do, sought to find out exactly what happened, and why. The result is a revelatory and sympathetic film about one of the oddest chapters in rock history.
“Very few people really know what it was all about on a deep level,” Mr. Gilbert says. “Was it really sincere? How did it inspire his music? So many people want to know the key to his poetry.”
Rather than treat conservative Christians like specimens on a microscope slide, Mr. Gilbert (who is Jewish, by the way) lets those who were close to Mr. Dylan at the time tell their story for the first time – among them pastor Bill Dwyer of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, where Mr. Dylan worshipped, and singer-songwriter Al Kasha, at whose home Mr. Dylan attended Bible studies.
One gets the immediate sense from “Jesus Years” that there’s a reason Mr. Dylan’s conversion took place when (the late ‘70s) and where (Southern California) it did. A professed born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter, was in the White House; an apocalyptic screed like Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth” could become a best-seller; the San Fernando Valley was crawling with ex-hippies and folk singers who felt washed up at 35.
As described by Mr. Dwyer, the milieu at Carter-era Vineyard sounds prescient: a church for those suspicious of money grubbing, allergic to hierarchical authority and untethered to liturgical tradition. That synthesis – orthodoxy of doctrine but presented in a comfortable, “seeker-friendly” atmosphere – has become the norm in many evangelical churches.
For Mr. Dylan, Vineyard was a place where, as Mr. Dwyer amusingly recalls, he could recite the Beatitudes while wearing a leather jacket, sunglasses and beret.
But what drew Mr. Dylan to church in the first place?
“Jesus Years” offers a few not necessarily competing explanations: He had a genuine born-again experience; Christianity helped him kick a heroin habit; he had always been on the spiritual cutting edge – and evangelicalism was an emerging, vital cultural force.
The movie also explores the factor absent which no one would care about Bob Dylan’s personal beliefs – the music.
Mr. Dylan made three Christian albums before reassuming his more tight-lipped secular persona: “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” and “Shot of Love.”
Was his involvement in Christianity about personal salvation, Mr. Gilbert wonders, or about “creative well-being”?
This was a guy who had rebooted his career more than once. Also, hoping to lend authenticity to “Slow Train Coming,” he tapped legendary producer Jerry Wexler to helm recording sessions at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio. “Dylan needed outside inspiration from time to time for his art,” Mr. Gilbert says.
“Jesus Years” surmises that the inspiration factor was crucial but the conversion was real. Mr. Gilbert unearths broadcast TV footage of Mr. Dylan answering critics befuddled by what appeared, for a time, to be a wholesale abandonment of secular music. “The old songs won’t save you,” Mr. Dylan said.
In another archival gem – audio footage of a concert showcasing the new material – Mr. Dylan admonishes (comically, in retrospect) those in the audience that they can follow the band KISS “into the pit” – presumably of hell.
Mr. Dylan eventually laid down the Christian mantle on subsequent albums such as “Infidels” and “Empire Burlesque” and, to some extent, reclaimed his Jewish roots; with lines like “The rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame / Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain” (from the song “Jokerman”) some Dylanologists believe he obliquely repudiated his faith.
Within Protestantism there is a long-running debate about salvation. Calvinists believe in the doctrine of “eternal security”: once saved, always saved; those who stray or turn away were perhaps never truly converted in the first place. Believers inclined to a more expansive notion of free will believe Christians can, in fact, lose their salvation.
As with everything else in human affairs, only God and Bob Dylan know for sure.

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