Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bob Dylan’s "Brand" of Christianity

Anne Ream

No Faith in the Market: Part III

To go back to part I, click here >>

In the late seventies, when Dylan turned to evangelical Christianity, outraged fans and critics alike took issue with the music and the man.

Cambridge Companion to Bob DylanThough the so-called Christian albums were deemed by most to be sub-par they were also, not surprisingly for Dylan, rather “on-trend.” As R. Clifton Spargo and I have written in an essay in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, this was music marking a moment in time, in Dylan’s life and the nation’s. The post-Watergate hunger for redemption and institutional rebirth that led to the election of Jimmy Carter, our nation’s first avowedly “Born Again” president, was implicit in Dylan’s restlessness.

And for all of its sometimes ponderous moralizing, Dylan’s “Christian” music, like his sixties-era work, was characterized by an important constant: his critique of the market and its manipulators. The title track on 1979’s “Slow Train Coming” has all of the qualities of classic Dylan narrative, as he sings about a new generation of bureaucrats and business leaders who, much like his “masters of war” from the 1963 classic, are described as “[m]asters of the bluff and masters of the proposition” — a rather apt descriptive of more than a few practitioners of advertising, by the way.

Throughout Slow Train Coming Dylan anticipates the humbling of the hubristic. In its opening track, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he wags his finger at the powerful and self-promoting: ambassadors, heavyweight champions, business men, TV network executives, televangelists … a laundry list of confidence men made modern. Dylan’s subsequent Christian albums, Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981), reliably tell the stories of those without social or economic power — the “meek” of biblical lore — contrasting their economic and spiritual purity to an indifferent corporate establishment.

It all makes sense when one considers that Bob Dylan had “come to Jesus” through California’s Vineyard Church movement, a Christian ministry with a mission statement that reads, in part: “We lean toward the lost, the poor, the outcast and the outsider, believing that compassion should constitute the leading edge of service to God, and unauthorized judgments of others should be avoided.”

What’s more, Dylan’s late seventies conversion to Christianity pre-dated the emergence of America’s “religious right,” and the post-1980s Republican coalition that brought together big-business conservatives and pro-life moral values Christians like Jerry Falwell, Gary Dobson, and John Hagee. This religious right came to publicly embody, for most Americans, the modern Evangelical movement. But it was not the movement that Bob Dylan had joined, and not the brand of faith most often reflected in his music.

Bob Dylan had “come to Jesus” through California’s Vineyard Church movement, a Christian ministry with a mission statement that reads, in part: “We lean toward the lost, the poor, the outcast and the outsider…”

Though Dylan seems to have stepped away from his deep, or at least public, engagement with Christianity prior to the rise of the religious right, the trajectory of his own career from the nineties onward still seems to parallel the pro-business path taken by many American evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

“The Sun is going down upon the sacred cows,” Dylan sang on “Ring Them Bells,” one of the more overtly religious songs on 1994’s “Oh Mercy,” and the singer quickly made good on that musical promise. He licensed his folk classic, “The Times, They are a Changin’” to not one but two major financial institutions: the Bank of Montreal and accounting behemoth Coopers and Lybrand (given the current state of the market, it’s a musical selection that seems, like many things Dylan, rather prophetic). In 1996 a still image of Dylan appeared, alongside the images of other visionaries and leaders, in an Apple Computer Ad that extolled the virtues of “thinking differently.”

About The Author

Anne Ream

Anne Ream is a Chicago-based writer and a contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan (2009). A past finalist for the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Documentary Prize, Ms. Ream...

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