Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience





Varieties of Dylan's Religious Experiences
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

On May 29, President Obama awarded Bob Dylan the National Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award. The White House ceremony capped a year of accolades for the 71-year-old songwriter who, in the words of the citation, “had considerable influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has had significant impact on American culture.” 

Wearing dark sunglasses throughout the ceremony, Dylan did not speak. 

Journalists agreed that the appearance fit Dylan’s enigmatic image. After 50 years in the limelight, he was “inscrutable” (Ian Duncan, the Chicago Tribune), “uncomfortable” (Peter Grier, Christian Science Monitor), “stony-faced” (Lucy Madison, CBS News), and “elusive” (Wall Street Journal). The conventional wisdom has long tagged Dylan as unknowable when it comes to music, politics, and, especially, religion.

 But since Dylan’s music continues to speak to spiritual issues, is claimed by competing religious figures, and is pored over for religious meanings by critics and fans, there’s no ignoring the question of his faith.

For those who are neither Baby Boomers nor “Bobologists” obsessed with all the minutia of Dylan’s life, a summary of the varieties of his religious experience (and a few of the songs they inspired) may be useful.

Beginnings: 1941 – 1962. Robert Zimmerman was raised in the small logging town of Hibbing, Minnesota, in an observant Jewish home with Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandparents and parents at the heart of the small Jewish community.

Much of what is known about Dylan’s religious upbringing comes from Seth Rogovoy’s 2009 book Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, a bar mitzvah at Agudath Achim Synagogue, childhood summers at Camp Herzl, and membership in the Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu at the University of Minnesota. Interviewed when the Medal of Freedom Award was announced, Rogovoy opined to the Jewish Journal, “You can take the Dylan out of Hibbing but you can’t take the Jew out of Dylan.”

Secular prophet: 1962 – 1966. When Dylan turned up in the growing folk scene in New York City, he chose the secular, progressive Woody Guthrie as his model and invented a past involving not Jewish summer camps but riding the rails and joining the circus. When asked in 2009 about his name change from Zimmerman to Dylan, he told 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, “Some people—you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parent…You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

In this most influential period of his career, Dylan wrote songs condemning racial bigotry and militarism (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Masters of War”). Although he famously enraged the folk music scene by switching to electric instruments and less topical lyrics in 1966, songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” continued to inspire his rebellious generation.

Other songs of the same era such as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “The Gates of Eden” are full of religious imagery but they do not proclaim belief. When asked if he is religious in Don’t Look Back, the documentary of his 1965 British tour, Dylan practically sneers, “No, why should I believe in anything? I don’t see anything to believe in.”

A return to roots: 1967 – 1978. Follwing a serious motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan stepped back from the celebrity limelight to marry Sara Lownds née Noznisky, raise five children, and investigate his Jewish heritage. He traveled to Israel in 1971, checked out a kibbutz, and was photographed on his 30th birthday at the Western Wall (where he would return for his eldest son’s bar mitzvah). His less skeptical take on the Hebrew Bible was evident in songs like “This Wheel’s on Fire” (Ezekiel) and “All Along the Watchtower” (Isaiah), which includes the lines, “There are many here among us/Who felt that life is but a joke/But you and I we’ve been through that/And this is not our fate.”

Saved: 1979 – 1984. Around the time of his divorce from his first wife, Dylan had an experience in a Tucson hotel room that turned him in a surprising new direction. “There was a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus, he told the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn in 1980. “Jesus put his hand on me.”  He began spending time at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in California, studying the Bible with pastor Kenn Gulliksen.

Post-baptism, Dylan released three religious albums and toured with African-American gospel singers, marrying one of them, Carolyn Dennis, and having a daughter. Many of his fans were not amused by songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “When He Returns,” and “Saved,” which features the testimony: “By His hand I have been delivered/By His spirit I have been sealed./I’ve been saved/By the blood of the lamb.” 

During his 1979/80 tours he refused to sing any secular songs, and at one concert scolded his less than thrilled audience, “I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation.”

Dialing back: 1984 – 2000. Dealing with lukewarm critical reviews, creative floundering, and a second divorce, Dylan backed off from his evangelical fervor. In a long interview with Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone in 1984, he insisted, “I’ve never said I’m born again,” and when asked if the Old and New Testaments are both valid, responded simply, “To me.”

Loder, who unlike many interviewers puts Dylan more in an expansive than defensive mode, asked if he currently belongs to any church or synagogue. “He responds, laughing, ‘Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind.’”

In 1988, Dylan embarked on what was called The Never-Ending Tour, playing a minimum of 100 shows per year to the present day—a grueling schedule that may have led to a near-death experience in 1997, when he was hospitalized for a viral heart infection. During this time Dylan wrote a series of songs (including “Everything is Broken” and “Not Dark Yet”) that expressed a dark and despairing side that suggested a spiritual crisis: “Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer/It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”) 

Chabadnik…or not?: 2000 – 2012. The year 2000 saw the start of a new creative and successful phase for Dylan. He won his first Oscar (for “Things Have Changed,” from the movie Wonder Boys); recorded 100 episodes of the highly regarded radio show Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite Radio; and was nominated for a National Book Award for his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume I (which had barely a word on religion).

At about the same time, his connection to Orthodox Judaism, and specifically the Chabad Lubavitch movement, became generally known. Many credited Dylan’s daughter Maria and her husband Peter Himmelman, both Lubavichers, with this new interest.

In fact, Dylan had performed Hava Nagila with Himmelman on a Lubavich telethon in 1989. In 2007, revealed that Dylan attended Yom Kippur services in Atlanta, and “was called up by his Jewish name Zushe ben Avraham. The singer/songwriter said the blessings in Hebrew without stumbling, like a pro, reported Rabbi Yossi Lew.”

Meanwhile, in 2003 he gladdened the hearts of his Christian fans with his involvement in the release of Gotta Serve Somebody, a CD of his evangelical songs performed by gospel artists. In 2009, he released Christmas in the Heart, a CD of carols ranging from the pop (“Here Comes Santa Claus”) to the traditional (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”). And at a 2011 concert in Tel Aviv, without thousands of enthusiastic Israelis in attendance, Dylan opened with 1979’s “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a song that quotes Jesus from the synoptic Gospels: “He said, ‘He who is not for me is against me’/Just so you know where He’s coming from.” 

In 2012, less-churched fans took solace in Dylan’s September 14 Rolling Stone magazine interview with Mikal Gilmore. While affirming his belief in the Book of Revelation, Dylan added, “There’s truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more.”

Of course, some believers would have liked him to toe their line.

“He has not renounced the Lord and we have every faith, hope and confidence that God is not through with him yet,” Kenn Gulliksen, his former pastor, told Dan Wooding in an April 25, 1999 interview posted on Wooding’s Christian website

Others were less hopeful. “What is clear…is that Dylan has not been walking the talk,” Steve Turner wrote in a 2001 Christianity Today article titled “Watered-Down Love.” “Dylan’s church attendance was sporadic even in his most evangelical days but is now nonexistent.”

Michael Gilmour—whose 2011 book The Gospel According to Bob Dylan; The Old, Old Story for Modern Times finds endless Christian imagery in Dylan’s songs—confessed that when one of his students looked at his picture of Dylan and asked who it was, “the only honest answer I can think of is ‘I don’t know.’” 

Jewish co-religionists seem more confident that Dylan remains within the fold. His every appearance at a synagogue or trip to Israel is greeted with satisfaction, not doubt.

Writing in the Washington Jewish Week in 1999, Larry Yudelson found proof of Dylan’s Jewish identity in albums like Oh Mercy (1989). “The side ends with ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat,’ who comes to town quoting the Bible and takes the narrator’s woman away,” wrote Yudelson. “A Hasid, perhaps?”

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times’ Deborah Solomon, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, claimed Dylan as a friend. “Bob Dylan comes to my house,” Krinsky said. “Did you know that? He was at my house for dinner a couple of times.”

Not that some Jews wouldn’t admit to being a little disappointed. “I worshipped Dylan…as a gateway to the truth,” Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt told Ron Rosenberg, writing in the Jewish Review of Books in 2010. “I always wanted him to be very deeply Jewish, whether or not he was.”

When Dylan was invited to perform in front of 300,000 young Catholics at the 1997 World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna, Pope John Paul II himself got into the act. “You asked me: how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” said the pontiff. “I answer you: just one. One only. It is the road of a man. And this is Jesus Christ, who said ‘I am the way.’”

While skeptics, Christians, and Jews may kvetch over his doctrinal inconstancy, Dylan has always cleaved to one article of faith: salvation through music. Together with walking the walk of a 25-year touring marathon that would make most ’60s icons shudder, he has made this clear to interviewer after interviewer.

“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing,” he told Newsweek’s David Gates after his illness in 1997, “This is the flat-out truth: I find religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else…I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that.” And later in the interview: “I believe the songs.”

When Dylan turned 70 in 2011, David E. Anderson wrote a perceptive article for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly (“Bob Dylan, American Adam”) comparing the singer to Walt Whitman in his ability to embrace multitudes of competing ideas. Noting the scant amount of God talk in Dylan’s autobiography, Anderson argues that the book “like the person”—for good or ill—is mostly about the music and his own highs and lows in it.”

Dylan put it this way to the New York Times after leaving the hospital in 1997: “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon.”

 Still, at age 71, Dylan seems comfortable with a faith journey that studies, embraces, moves on from, and never completely rejects a variety of traditions. If to some he is inscrutable and elusive, he also has not strayed very far from the mainstream in his complicated spiritual path. 

Like many of his peers, he has what Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar in their 2006 book Religion in a Free Market call a fluid religious identity. It is, they write, a particularly American trait: “The lack of constraints on religious activity allows people to explore and celebrate beliefs… when, where, and how they wish.”

What makes the man born Robert Zimmerman spiritually interesting is that for 50 years he has written music—angry, blissful, funny, and despairing—that touches so many others’ search for meaning. As President Obama commented after reading the official Medal of Freedom citation, “I remember in college listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up.”

Or as Dylan himself said in his September Rolling Stone interview, “People listen to my songs and they must think I’m a certain type of way, and maybe I am. But there’s more to it than that. I think they can listen to my songs and figure out who they are, too.”


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