We need heroes. And sometimes we find them in unexpected places.
Okay, so Bob Dylan is definitely not “unsung”! But how many knew that the iconic master of protest folk and pioneer of raunchy bohemian, satirical rock also went through a hardcore, born-again Christian phase? Hear me out.
Much of Dylan’s career could be read as the search for a coherent self. From his beginnings as poster boy of the folk scene in the ‘60s to his ground-shatteringly sloppy rock, Dylan has constantly reinvented himself, often facing scorn and even violence from his fans.
Dylan has always grappled with the roots of American culture, soaked in biblical Christianity. Remaining ultimately smug, and self-assured, Dylan poked fun at everyone, but is especially good at exposing hypocrisy.
There is perhaps no other song quite as convicting for an American Christian as “With God on Our Side,” which recounts a catalogue of the nation’s least respectable deeds finished with the lines “we did it all, with God on our side.”
So when this defiant smugness and anger combined with a fundamentalist sort of Christianity, the result wasn’t always that pretty.
In this “gospel period,” from 1979-1981, Dylan released Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. Typically Dylan, these albums are impolite and unapologetic, full of his usual strident social commentary and torturous self-absorption, but this time with the jarring background of a loving God.
In “Gotta serve somebody,” and for example, Dylan wheezes, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Columnist John Thompson writes, “smack in the middle of the “me” decade, here was a prophet crying in the wilderness that any of our concepts of personal freedom are ultimately a myth.”
Jon Foreman quotes from Dylan’s lyric and interview of this period, singing “the shadow proves the sunshine,” and “happiness is a yuppie word.” Instead of the yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness, Dylan insisted, “it’s either blessed or unblessed.”
Though these albums were among his least well acclaimed, they also contain one of his best instances of songwriting, and what I consider one of the best “Christian” songs ever written.
Every Grain of Sand is a chillingly honest, Psalm-like exploration of the consequences of sin, a confession of faith, and a yearning for more of a connection with God.
After all his wayward, celebrated and even legendary escapades, Dylan is able to write: In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need when the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed, There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere, Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.
Bob Dylan’s restless quest for a coherent self, his shrewd self-reflection, can inspire us to look honestly at ourselves and our culture, considering how much of it is really god-breathed, how much is rotted out with hypocrisy. And Dylan forces us to listen to the spiritual yearnings of our culture amid the brokenness.