Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


Religion and Bob Dylan

posted by Jana Riess

0664232078.jpg

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan? Well, why not? Author Michael J. Gilmour sits down to explain why “Bobheads” continue to find spiritual meaning in Bob Dylan’s music almost 50 years after Dylan’s debut album was released. –JKR

So, why a book about the spiritual significance of Bob Dylan?

I often ask myself the same question. What is it about Bob Dylan’s work that is so engrossing? I listen to a lot of music but few artists spark spiritual contemplation to quite the same degree. (Some of the exceptions on my list are predictable: Yusuf Islam, George Harrison, U2.) There are likely several reasons fans find Dylan’s work spiritually substantive, but I suspect part of the answer lies in the nature of his writing and public persona. Both are simultaneously cryptic yet authoritative. There is a mysterious quality about Dylan’s art that leaves us suspecting he knows things we do not know, understands things we do not understand, and sees things we do not see. Dylan also communicates deep feeling and since we often blur the distinction between strong emotions and spirituality, this music takes on a quasi-prophetic function. Ironically, though Dylan warns us against following leaders, we happily ignore that bit of advice and ask him to fill that role for us. He is the Tambourine Man for countless ragged clowns who trail behind, chasing the shadow he sees.

What is your personal interest in the subject? How long have you been a “Bobhead”?

I started listening to Dylan in my early teens and found a lot in the songs that resonated at that stage of life: resistance to the status quo; a counter-culture attitude; great storytelling; moving depictions of the heights and valleys of romantic love; social justice and compassion; reflections on the divine; and an exuberant playfulness with language. I never grew tired of the old songs and always found something of interest in the new ones as they came along. I certainly can’t say this for every artist or band I listened to back then. (I actually bought the B-52s debut album around that time. What was I thinking?!) When I got to university I started reading about Dylan and this too was a transforming experience. I realized there was a world of fascinating conversations about the artist and his art. Writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin, Stephen Scobie, Michael Gray, and Paul Williams, to name but a few, modelled ways of thinking seriously about the Dylan canon. They gave permission to take this work seriously as a subject worthy of reflection and analysis.

Dylan has been a spiritual seeker throughout his astonishing career, and has experimented with fundamentalist Christianity as well as Judaism and other faiths. What do you make of this?

I increasingly think of Dylan as something of a flâneur, that character described by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin who wanders the streets in order to see and experience all that the city offers. The flâneur does not sit still for long nor does he follow any predetermined route. He often goes places others do not go, allowing his curiosity to drive him forward. Dylan is a bit like this with respect to religious thought and spirituality. He is a sponge, soaking up everything that inspires, illuminates, and nourishes. Putting this in theological terms, he seems to enjoy the search for truth but never actually rests content with answers he finds along the way. There is an appealing honesty about this. We never know all there is to know about the great mysteries of life or the divine, and so the search always continues. Or at least should.

MV5BMTM2NTA0MzAwMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTg0MTYyMQ@@._V1._SY317_.jpg

You have a chapter on how Dylan uses the Bible in his music and in the movie Masked and Anonymous, and I was surprised by the depth and specificity of his interactions with the Bible.

He has an impressive grasp of biblical literature – something evident in all his work, from 1962’s Bob Dylan to 2009’s Together Through Life – and while some uses of this material are theologically traditional (especially in the gospel songs), more often than not his adaptations of the Jewish and Christian Bibles surprise and delight. He aligns characters in songs with biblical heroes and villains, and re-contextualizes familiar turns of phrase, metaphors, and similes. Sometimes he uses the Bible as a moral compass to identify wrongdoing (even Jesus would not forgive the Masters of War) while at other times the songs’ narrators are players in biblical scenes (she took my crown of thorns). Of course, the Bible is just one of many influences on his writing. He is also well acquainted with literature and film, not to mention the rich American musical heritage to which he is heir.

In the end, how is it that Dylan’s music has managed to speak to people for more than five decades? (Five decades!)

This is remarkable, indeed. Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday is just a few months away (May 24, 2011) and yet he continues to draw audiences, and make and sell records. His longevity certainly speaks to his endless creativity and capacity to surprise audiences – not many expected to see a Dylan Christmas record but lo and behold, along came Christmas in the Heart (2009). Another reason for the enduring appeal of his best work lies in its timeless quality. The songs avoid the mire of particular historical moments and so the fear and revulsion expressed in “Masters of War” or “Hurricane,” to pick examples at random, translate easily to new contexts where the scourges of warmongering and racism exist. I don’t know if Dylan has an audience in Egypt but if there are Bobheads marching the streets in Cairo calling for regime change as I type this (January 2011), it would not surprise me to learn “The Times They Are A Changin'” (released fall 1963) sounds powerfully prophetic to them.



  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqvvOD4bdRs rod

    bob dylan is a low life satanic peice of trash.
    search youtube for, “bob dylan admits he sold his souls to satan”
    it was in a 60 minutes interveiw.

  • Debbie

    aw yanno im not sure this is something we should get so angry about :)
    God Bless him..and may he reach the highest heights of Heaven

  • Mea

    Bob Dylan is probably one of the greatest influences in music of the 20th century. It is the timelessness of most of his messages, but there is a poetic, lyrical quality to many of his songs that, when coupled with his rather grainy voice, that is very addictive. Once you start to love Dylan’s music you just want to hear more.
    He has had his ups and downs in life, just like anyone, but his music still surprises us.

  • walt

    Rod, watch 60 minutes again. Then open your Bible. Bob Dylan said he made a deal with the great commander. That would be Jsesus Christ, not Satan. Read, learn THEN comment.

  • desmond.john@gmail.com

    Hi Rod. Bob Dylan NEVER said he sold his soul to the devil. That is absurd. I’ve seen him in church in CA. I’ve also seen him in a synagogue in Brooklyn. Be careful what you say about others. On 60 minutes he was speaking about God. He was raised in a religious family. His kids are all observant Jews. He put out a wonderful Christmas record and he sings, Christ the King. Watch your step.

  • Brian Lowe

    This doesn’t sit well with me; Bob Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman is Jewish, then supposedly became a Born Again Christian, and then went back. I’m a Messianic Jew myself; but I know this 44 year old that only thinks of Dylan. He believes that Bob prophecies about him in his songs, that Dylan prays to him, that Dylan once set a special place for him in one of his concerts and everyone, including Dylan, had their eyes on him; probably because he was a threat of the stalking kind. This 44 year old has Schizoaffective Disorder and is BAD; Jumped off of a ferry in the Alaskan Sound in 1986, 25 minutes to bring him back to life; claims to believe in the Gospel and also believe in Smudge parlors, where he once wanted to get a, not a tattoo, but BRANDED, a Star of David on one thigh & a Cross on the other to ward off the demons of gambling; and claiming to be a Christian Dylan lover, also believes in a Native American rendition of the fall in the Bible, but his rendition is that the forbidden fruit story is that Eve talked Adam into surrendering one of his testicles, and when Adam agreed, they cut it out, roasted it, and ate it together; to this day, he is violent, psychotic, and a danger to himself & the public; he lives in Lake Nebagamon Wisconsin, and the courts just let him out back onto the street.
    Did Dylan have anything to do with this? I don’t believe he did, other than being the focal point of this 44 year old’s hallucinations.
    No; it was said of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” that it was Mel’s Gospel but not in the Bible; that is wrong; Mel got it right and I can prove it. But Dylan’s Gospel? Count me out; I don’t intend to read it, and I’m not going to roast anything either; not for me.

  • Maoz

    If Abraham Zimmerman offered his son, Robert (now Dylan), to God when he was bar mitzva age in Hibbing, then youthful Bob hasn’t ceased to journey in obedience down highway 61. And with visions of Johanna, his message has remained true to his code. But then, as we know from recent lyrics, he still ain’t talkin’ – though one thing for certain, he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more (did he ever?).

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment tarzan760

    he said he made a ” bargain” in that clip on youtube.. not sold. Study Dylan and religions you narrow minded prick. He’s a musical genius and in has a definite place in history for a reason. Don’t be naive because you saw a clip on youtube, if you listen to his work you’d see he’s far from a “low life satanic piece of trash”.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Wyn

    I think he is a man who really doesnt understand his own beliefs I hope one day he does, certainly gifted possibly spiritually. Certainly musically poetically. By his fruits…… and perhaps thats where the problem lies we rebel and fight so we ourselves are confused.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Wyn

    Rod, if he sold his sole surely it can be redeemed hope Bob has understood this too.

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!!

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many different kinds of people who are reading and talking

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being in the news every single day and all, Randy Balmer and I

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, but the place where I am going doesn't have email access

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a teaser. There really aren't any fun moments in the Book of

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.