Bob Dylan had a very public Christian conversion at the end of the seventies that most people would say lasted the length of his trilogy of albums based on said faith; Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love. When Infidels kicked in 1983, the Mark Knopfler guitar sound that brought the trilogy in signalled the end of his preachy era and the critics were relieved. So did Dylan lose his faith? Did he return to Judaism as many suggested the time? Personally, and this article is my personally surmising, I don’t see any evidence that Dylan rejected Jesus at this point. A song from the trilogy would feature in most of his concerts through the next decade. A few years later he was introducing In the Garden live in concert as a song about his hero. Much later he would add old spirituals like Somebody Touched Me and I Am The Man, Thomas to the set. Those who reject faith are less likely to continue having any involvement or mention of it. Dylan has never shown disdain to Christianity.
So what might have happened? Well I have no real insight into Dylan’s world, who has! I am, however, well placed to comment on the evangelical world that Dylan found his faith in. My hunch is that Dylan didn’t reject what the Vineyard Church of his conversion taught him but that he started asking questions that the narrowness of evangelical Christianity of the time could not answer the wider questions that an artist like Bob Dylan would be asking. For the vast majority of the 21st century the vast majority of evangelical Christianity had become very narrow and pietistical. I would surmise that when Dylan took that six month of Bible Classes it would have been concentrating on prayer, daily Bible study and personal holiness. This comes out in Dylan’s trilogy. Where Dylan brought some political concerns to Slow Train Coming by the time he got to Saved it was all very personal stuff and the wider agenda of Dylan’s previous career was lost in testimony songs and warnings of apocalypse very rife at a time when Hal Lindsay was then what Harold Camping is now with movies about Christ’s imminent return featuring in cinemas!
Evangelical Christianity had reacted very badly to the dubious theology that Walter Rauschenbusch had added to his brilliant Social Gospel. They had, as so often happens down through Church history, thrown the baby out with the bath water. That had led to what John Stott had declared the greatest heresy of the twentieth century; the lack of social concern among evangelicals. Jim Wallis was starting something different in his fledgling Sojourners that would become a real force in American evangelicalism and indeed wider society by the turn of the century but it was too early to have given Dylan the breadth he needed.
Evangelical Christianity is a great maternity ward for faith. It has birthed so many people in their spiritual lives. For many years though it has been very poor at spiritual growth after the birth. It speaks a lot about being born again, as indeed Bob Dylan did on Saved, but it lacked and maybe still does in many places with growing up again. I am sorry Dylan never got the chance to be nurtured in his faith, to have been able to have taken in the questions, applied them to his faith. I think that we do see hints of how he has attempted that on his own – What Good Am I, I & I, Ring Them Bells and Dignity to name a few – but oh to have had him engage with Christian thinkers like the aforementioned Wallis, Walter Wink, Stanley Hauerwas and Calvin Seerveld. It is a shame!