Bob Dylan's Soulful Christian Phase: Even Atheists Appreciate His Haunting Religiosity

By Masciotra, David | The American Conservative, January-February 2018 | Go to article overview

Bob Dylan's Soulful Christian Phase: Even Atheists Appreciate His Haunting Religiosity


Masciotra, David, The American Conservative


I had realized I was an atheist by the age of 21, before my great aunt died. She was a kind and sensitive woman, but I barely knew her. I accompanied my mother to the funeral service at a Serbian Orthodox church. The entire ceremony took place in Serbian and culminated in the priest chanting prayers while spreading incense on the coffin in front of the altar. A choir sang Serbian hymns. The sun cascaded into the cathedral, making the Byzantine art shine with blinding luminosity. I wept.

Aristotle argued that tragic art cleanses the soul of pity and terror through means of pity and terror. "So tragedy is an imitation not of people," he wrote, "but of action, life, and happiness or unhappiness." Beauty and wonder were essential to the Athenian philosopher. The soul, he believed, recognizes what is beautiful at first glance.

The Serbian Orthodox funeral for my great aunt possessed beauty, placed the mourner in a state of wonder, and through means of pity and terror imitated the trauma and triumph of human life. It was religion, but it was also art. Art without Aristotle's elements, as the frivolous nature of American pop culture demonstrates, is useless.

Bob Dylan has released a new box set, Trouble No More, chronicling the period of his career most controversial to critics--the three years, beginning in the late 1970s, during which he made exclusively Christian music. To anger secular listeners with great severity, Dylan's gospel was not of the "Jesus is just alright" hippie variety. It was fire and brimstone, "sinners in the hands of an angry God" exhortation. In live performances, his introductions to songs such as "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody" and "Are You Ready" included end-of-days prophecy and warnings of hellfire for nonbelievers.

Discovering Dylan's Christian music decades after its release, I was prepared to hate it. But it became the stage of Dylan's chameleon-like career to which I most return. The rock-gospel trilogy of Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love boasts of some of Dylan's most powerful and impactful music.

I am not alone among the secular in my appreciation of Dylan's "born again" evangelization put to song. Christopher Hitchens once said that Dylan "never sang so beautifully" as during his Christian era. Robbie Fulks, a Grammy-nominated folk singer-songwriter whose songs include perhaps the first country anthem for atheism, "God Isn't Real," regularly hosts impassioned tribute performances to Dylan's gospel in Chicago. Fulks was a Christian teenager when he first fell in love with the gospel trilogy of Dylan's career, but even as an atheist he "cannot shake the music" because he can't "hold the beliefs of a musician, even if they are against my beliefs, against the music"

Another of Dylan's secular supporters was the late Jerry Wexler, Dylan's producer for Slow Train Coming. Wexler noted the irony that he, "a Jewish atheist," produced two of the most popular Christian records of the 20th century--Dylan's gospel debut and the majestic Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. During the recording session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, Dylan attempted to convert Wexler, who left little room for discussion. He told the songwriter, "I'm hopeless. Let's just a make a good record."

Dylan and Wexler organized a band that could recapture the big and blistering blues and funk of the Muscle Shoals sound, perfected by Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and Franklin. The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd had already incorporated the fiery soul of the Swampers into several of their best songs, but Dylan had a different mission than pure rock 'n' roll. He wanted pity and terror.

Wexler insisted that they recruit Mark Knopfler to play lead guitar. His soulful but restrained licks emerge out of the large and heavy arrangements like flickers of candlelight in the catacombs of Dylan's spiritual rage. The Memphis Horns and a large enlistment of singers, including Carolyn Dennis, whom Dylan eventually would marry and later divorce, make the music as fit for a smoky blues club as it is for a Pentecostal church. …

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