Of all the intangible elements contributing to Bob Dylan’s sustaining genius — prodigious recall of the breadth and depth of American song; a restless, creative spirit, and abiding intellectual curiosity — none has been more powerful than his ability to confound expectations.
Pop vocalists on the radio were not supposed to sing through their noses, or sputter and growl from their throats, but Dylan changed that. Not long after establishing himself on the charts, and seemingly overnight for his fans, he swapped lucid, intimate acoustic protest tunes for esoteric electric epics. Radio songs were supposed to be three minutes long, but Dylan changed that rule, too: The second half of “Like a Rolling Stone” served as its own B-side; disc jockeys simply flipped the record over halfway through. A pivotal figure in 1960s counterculture, Dylan all but disappeared from public view as the underground coalesced as a movement: He was a no-show at the Woodstock music festival, even though it was down the road from his house.
“Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again!” a new film written and directed by Joel Gilbert, attempts to explain the most confounding period of Dylan’s career. In the late 1970s, Dylan became, to the shock of many of his fans, a born-again Christian. To add what seemed like insult to injury, his albums “Slow Train Coming” (1979), “Saved” (1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981) — steeped in fundamentalist Christian imagery and with proselytizing intent — anchored a series of revivalist tours.
Dylan’s born-again Christianity was a rebellion too far off for many of his fans. At the heart of the film is the unresolved question of why Dylan did it. Born Robert Zimmerman and raised Jewish (including a bar mitzvah) in Hibbing, Minn., he attended a Zionist summer camp as a kid and then dropped out of a Jewish fraternity house at the University of Minnesota. Dylan had always been the rebel with whom young Jews have identified, now remarkably across three generations. Despite his Jewish roots, his fascination with religion generally and with Christianity specifically has been obvious throughout his career, particularly in the core narratives and myths of American roots music carried by the traditional blues, country and gospel that he loves. Just listen to his weekly radio show, where much of his playlist comes from before 1950 and has the same themes of old-time religion that abound in his own music.
According to his then girlfriend, singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes, even fellow songwriter Leonard Cohen was bewildered: “I don’t get it. Why would [Dylan] go for Jesus at a late time like this?” This is the same Cohen, no stranger to religious syncretism himself, who wrote, “Anyone who says I’m not a Jew is not a Jew/I’m very sorry but this decision is final” while living as a monk in a Zen monastery. You know you are in trouble when the only Jewish performer to compete with Dylan in the realm of rock ’n’ roll gravitas can’t reconcile born-again Bob with the Dylan who had famously sung “Don’t follow leaders/watch the parking meters” in the ’60s.
Gilbert, lead singer of the Dylan cover band Highway 61 Revisited (“Highway 61 Revisited” is also the name of Dylan’s sixth studio album, released in 1965), and director of “Bob Dylan — World Tour 1966, The Home Movies” (2004), tackles this tense period with a series of talking heads interviews. He rarely allows a religious agenda to stilt the construction of the film’s controversial raw material. His weakness, however, is a fan’s naive compulsion to gather the reflections of anyone who knew Dylan during this period without properly parsing the effect of two full hours of rambling comments bridged by stock images.
According to Mitch Glaser and songwriter Al Kasha, who are not only key figures in the Jews for Jesus movement, but also two of the primary talking heads of the film, the “late time like this” of Dylan’s conversion could have been predicted by those paying closer attention to the chaos around him. Glaser, Kasha and other commentators, like the Rev. Bill Dwyer of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, where Dylan studied and prayed, explain how deep pain drives deep “witnessing” in the realm of born-again Christian acolytes; that the tumult of drugs, social and political burnout and the failures of the sexual revolution left many people broken in ways that the Jesus movement — rooted in heady Southern California, where Dylan and many other counterculture heroes lived at the time — exploited to attract vulnerable souls.
In fact, the Jews for Jesus movement continues this work, with centers of worship around the world almost universally regarded by non-messianic Jews as being beyond the margins of organized Jewish life. Much of the 200-member audience at the November 1 premiere screening and concert for the film, held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s auditorium, were among either the hunters or the hunted of Jews for Jesus, as the event was co-sponsored by Glaser’s Chosen People Ministries. Glaser was there, and he spoke on a panel with Gilbert and former members of Dylan’s band, Regina McCrary and Rob Stoner. Volunteers with nametags designating them as staff members roamed the hall, collecting e-mail addresses and questions from the audience on colored note cards. All this action seemed to be interpreted by the moderator as an excuse for asking how or why one might come to accept Jesus as the savior.
Unfortunately for Gilbert — who self-produced and now distributes his work on DVD, and at one point in the panel discussion stated with some defensiveness that he is a Jew and not a Jew for Jesus — the content of the evening was spoiled by the sheepish attempts of representatives of the movement to appear casual about their religious goals despite obvious missionary pitches and ploys. Gilbert’s mere desire may have been to find an audience for his work, but placement of the event by Glaser’s group, as well as messianic Congregation Sha’ar Adonai at the Society for Ethical Culture — founded as a nonsectarian movement by humanist Jew Felix Adler – added an element of irony to the insult of a messianic soft sell throughout.
Dylan’s religious stances over the years betray vulnerability to extremes and a profound sense of drama for which a messianic soft sell worked quite well. In the early 70s, after a decade as a musical legend, Dylan, then a young father of four, had thought of joining a kibbutz. He also claims in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One” (Simon and Schuster), that a famous image of him praying at the kotel from this period was posed as a way to disrupt the blind loyalty of cloying fans who would come to dread him as a Zionist and finally leave him alone. But by 1979, exposed to change by his innate spiritual character, the many demons come to roost for his generation after the chaos of the ’60s, and a hard divorce, Dylan plunged headlong into the quest for salvation. Maybe he showed up at Chabad Shabbat programs in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights area a few years later, and at Chabad on both coasts on the High Holy Days ever since, but Dylan’s fans still reflect on this Christian period with dismay — and not just because of Dylan’s religion.
The music from this period is as inconsistent as any Dylan has created — from rote melodies with clichéd images of devils, blood, baptism and unbelievers in tunes like “Property of Jesus,” alongside gorgeous tunes like “I Believe in You” and “Every Grain of Sand.” What weakens the music and Gilbert’s film, and even permeated the atmosphere at the premiere event, is a lack of subtly and nuance that animates Dylan’s best work and is lacking in his worst. From 1963’s “With God on Our Side” to 1997’s “Tryin’ To Get to Heaven” and beyond, Dylan is one of the most committed commentators on the human and divine struggle that popular culture has ever seen. Few artists have had more influence on bringing big questions to the sometimes small-minded world of rock ’n’ roll. The key to understanding what is flat and disturbing about Dylan’s Christian period is exploring what is thick and mysterious about his most compelling work.
Most of the time, Dylan embodies a multilayered approach to his subject — with wordplay, rich cultural allusions, insinuations, irony and clusters of unexplained questions. In his writing and performing, Dylan grasps at defining themes with ferocity and dynamism that allow renowned academics like Milton scholar Christopher Ricks (who dedicated some 500 pages to Dylan in his 2004 book “Dylan’s Vision of Sin”) to compare his canon without reservation to that of Shakespeare and Milton. With a few exceptions, including the aforementioned songs, the Christian period of Dylan’s work remains unconvincingly simplistic, overly literal, humorless and blunt.
One way of understanding Dylan’s religious vision throughout the majority of his career comes from an intriguing passage at the conclusion of Moshe Idel’s “Kabbalah: New Perspectives.” Idel reads Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” as a fable for the contemporary decline of mystical knowledge in religious traditions stunted by allowing passionately flat answers to layered questions. From Jewish orthodoxies to Muslim fundamentalism to evangelical Christianity, communities are being deprived of the complexity that religious systems can express. For Idel, the spiritual paralysis of the “man from the country” is emblematic of an entire world of religious seekers who have lost the keys to the locked gate of the splendor of the palace of faith. On the verge of death, the man discovers that the door at which he had waited a lifetime would have opened for him if only he had entered with broad possibilities of understanding rather than with fixed answers and static expectations.
Dylan at his best is Dylan at his most open. As he sings in 1966’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “To live outside the law you must be honest.” One should not wait for the Law to open the door, direct traffic or guide the journey. So, too, in Dylan’s rereading of the story of “Akedat Yitzhak” (“The Binding of Isaac”), a classic midrash on the irony and irrationality of belief:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, “What?”
God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run’
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
Though he uses it as a mythic trail and template for America’s betrayal of the disempowered, the actual Highway 61 runs right down the center of the United States. Beginning in Minnesota at the Canadian border near Dylan/Zimmerman’s birthplace, and ending in New Orleans at the birthplace of the blues he adopted as his roots, the pavement traces the living narrative of slavery’s betrayal, which today’s America, especially after the recent presidential election, continues to unravel. As it challenges God and temporal authority, the song mixes anger, dismay, humor, accusation and wild celebration.
Consider also “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” from 1978, where the narrator poses a series of cutting questions and memories for a messianic stand-in accompanying Dylan’s version of the man “Before the Law”:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before.
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
*Will there be any comfort there, señor? *
On the cusp of Dylan’s acceptance of Jesus, a soul exposed to a political and theological abyss stubbornly looks for answers. Not long after “Señor,” Dylan submitted fully to the Law that provides a singular answer to plow through doubt, paradox, hurt and unbelief. It results in the oppressive need to gather more troops to ensure that the “good news” remains fresh and unchallenged. It also results in mostly lousy art.
Gilbert’s film is useful for Dylanologists still trying to answer Cohen’s question about what happened to Dylan’s complex, compelling religious commentary during this phase, particularly when some of his deepest spiritual messages would re-emerge in the late ’80s, with “Oh Mercy” and, most recently, with the albums “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times.” To uncover what keeps Dylan’s vision sharp across his career, apply the Talmud’s famous injunction to Dylan’s oeuvre: “Turn it, turn it, for all is within it.” The songs of Dylan’s Christian period — though sincere artifacts of an honest quest by a restless seeker — are often superficial products of his cultural vision. In the end, Dylan’s genius is that, as he sang of one of his favorite outlaws, “no one really knew for sure where he was really at.”
Stephen Hazan Arnoff is a writer and teacher and the executive director of the 14th Street Y of The Educational Alliance, a Jewish community center in Manhattan’s East Village.