Originally published in World Net Daily
Bob Dylan’s music has struck a chord with millions over his 50-year career, but a new book discusses a little-known facet of the rock icon’s artistic journey: his deep faith in Jesus Christ.
Scott Marshall, author of Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, has spent years doing research and conducting interviews to shine a light on the little-discussed spiritual side of Bob Dylan’s life. He paints a convincing case that Bob Dylan has been a devout Christian from an encounter with Jesus in the late 1970s all the way to the present day.
Marshall was recently interviewed by WND’s Greg Corombos to discuss the brand-new book.
My guest at this time is Scott Marshall. He is the author of the brand-new book “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.” The book is already widely praised as the most comprehensive look at the faith of one of America’s greatest rock music legends. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.
Scott Marshall: You’re welcome, it’s nice to be here, thanks for having me on.
What drew you to this project specifically? Why does Bob Dylan’s spiritual life perhaps fascinate you more than anyone else’s?
Scott Marshall: Well, what happened with me was I got into Dylan’s music like millions of other people by listening and hearing something pretty unique in his voice and in his words and the way he put his words. And originally I wasn’t interested in his so-called “gospel albums,” and in an experience that I had on my own where the Lord revealed Himself to me, then I became more curious about these “gospel albums” that Dylan put out. And I began to just read anything I could get my hands on in terms of books or magazines or newspaper articles, and then with the advent of the Internet, I just did a number of original interviews as time went on with people who had crossed Dylan’s path, and I was intrigued by this significant part of his art.
The subhead is “A Spiritual Life,” and as you well know, “spiritual” these days can refer to almost anything, from devout faith to vague belief in a higher power to simply the power of positive thinking. What does it mean for Bob Dylan?
Scott Marshall: I can’t answer that 100%, but he certainly has spoken over the decades about what matters in terms of religion and spirituality and what I think it means, my best guess, and it’s based on a lot of reading and thinking and research and talking to others, is that his Jewish roots cannot be denied, and have been significant and are significant in his life as well as his experience with Jesus, which, though it happened around 1979, there certainly was an interest in the New Testament long before 1979, and even Dylan asking Christians from time to time about their faith and about Jesus. So I would say the spirituality here is certainly in the Judeo-Christian framework.
What does he believe about Jesus?
Scott Marshall: He believes, in my view, based on things that he’s written and things that he’s said, and you can trace this thread, it wasn’t just for a few years, decades ago, he has spoken of Jesus as God and Messiah. I just finished telling someone that even on his Saved album of 1980, he included something from the Hebrew scriptures, I believe it was from the Book of Jeremiah, and even during the gospel tours I remember, at one of the songs, he did this long rap about the Passover, and so I think in terms of, when he slips into synagogues, or when he was briefly associated with the Vineyard Church in 1979 and 1980, in terms of attending until the press found out, I think that he’s comfortable in either church or a synagogue, and from what I can tell, from what he’s said and what he’s written, he’s squarely in that biblical tradition, in terms of both Testaments.
Well let’s talk about that a little bit more. Does he effectively believe the bedrock principles of the New Testament, that Christ alone is responsible for his salvation, paying the penalty for his sins and so forth, or is it different than that?
Scott Marshall: That is certainly what the expressions were, his communications in 1979 and 1980. And for those who think that he renounced his faith or returned to Judaism, they haven’t followed the story all that closely, because there’s been faith affirming statements by him from time to time. He put out a Christmas album back in 2009, and the interviewer asked him, after hearing O Little Town of Bethlehem, and there’s a mix of songs in this album by the way. There are some Santa related songs as well, but there’s some sacred songs. Anyway, the interviewer asked him about O Little Town of Bethlehem and said “I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sound like a true believer.” And Dylan said, “Well I am.” That was a more recent statement, and then even in 2014 he talked about how he’s always been drawn to spiritual songs, and he quoted Amazing Grace, and the specific lyric he quoted was ‘That saved a wretch like me’. So that’s pretty explicit, where that can be seen as if one wants to see it, in terms of a man who’s a child of God and has continued on in his own way, whatever his struggles and battles have been with, and his victories. You can see it. It’s a mosaic that emerges if you care to look into it.
You’ve said that no label on this topic will really stick with Bob Dylan. Why is that, and does he give himself any sort of label?
Scott Marshall: Well that’s funny. He’s been definitely resistant, typically resistant of labels since he was a young man, and now he just turned 76. I know he said in one interview in the mid-80s that Jews and Christians tend to separate themselves into labels, but God doesn’t care what you call yourself. I don’t think that he would deny that he is a child of God, created by God, and that his experience with Jesus, again, in the book I go into it in depth, for those who are interested.
So he leaves it quite mysterious, at least compared to what we’re normally used to. Why do you think that is?
Scott Marshall: Well, a former pastor, a friend of his, who actually played on one of his albums, Larry Myers, once said, even during the gospel tours, he knows Dylan liked stirring up a little bit of dust. I think he just — you know, one time he said he believes in a God of time and space, but if someone asked him about it, he’d point them back toward a song like I Saw the Light, you know, that Hank Williams tune where Jesus was clearly the figure behind the lyrics, and that was in the mid to late 90s when he said that. So there’s been some very overt expressions of his faith in Christ, and some others there for those who know what’s being alluded to when he will occasionally give comments. He’s been such a public figure, to be honest, sometimes he just gets tired of it. I know in terms of having to address, say, his religion, he said one time “why doesn’t anyone ask Billy Joel these kind of questions?” In various seasons of his life, depending on how he’s feeling, he comes forth with statements when asked and when he feels like talking about it.
He ultimately didn’t agree to be interviewed for the book. Did he give you any sort of response as to what he thought about the book or why he wouldn’t agree to a formal interview?
Scott Marshall: I can’t say that he didn’t agree, because I actually did not inquire. I just assumed that he would politely decline through his publicist, and he typically does not — many years ago, with a biographer, he was friendly with, he gave interviews to, but when it comes to in recent decades, the interviews he does typically are connected to his album releases, and when his book came out in 2004, I know he gave an interview when that came out.
We’re talking with Scott Marshall, and the book is “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.” I know you talk to some extent in the book, Scott, about the reaction from quite a few Jewish people at the time when Bob Dylan revealed that he had, in fact, accepted Christ, and I know from my own conversations with some Jewish folks, on the whole they’re pretty respectful towards Christianity, but the idea that a Jew becomes what’s either referred to sometimes as a completed Jew or a Messianic Jew by following Jesus as the Messiah, that reaction inside the Jewish community is usually pretty volatile. What did he experience?
Scott Marshall: Right. I think only he can speak to that, but certainly there’s evidence in the public record that there was a whole lot of him carrying his cross, so to speak, at that time, involved. Even though Slow Train Coming and Saved were co-produced by the late Jerry Wexler who called himself a Jewish atheist, so there’s, to say the least, a little irony with that, but I do know his publicist at the time, who was also Jewish, was just at a loss for what was going on in terms of Dylan coming to faith in Jesus and I know that, for example, when Dylan was on his gospel tours in San Francisco, in the November of 1979, when he embarked on those, I know that Jews for Jesus, the ministry, was out sharing the gospel with people outside, and through an interview with Mitch Glazer, it’s been established that someone on behalf of Dylan contacted them because they were having some frustrations with getting some churches to help out because at least some of these churches in the Bay Area were wanting to be the only church to help out. So at some point Jews for Jesus became involved with these shows at the Warfield. But anyway, Mitch Glazer, like Dylan, my understanding of it anyway is that the number of Jewish people who believe in Jesus is God and Messiah is a very small number, like maybe 5% — I don’t know that for a fact — so very few people know except those who experience what it’s like to be Jewish and also to say I believe Jesus is God and Messiah, because a lot of times it’s as if you were dead, you know, to family and friends. And again, Dylan’s family has not gone on the record, but I’m certain it was a difficult time for him. But again, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes.
Scott, you mentioned your own organic interest in Bob Dylan’s music and how that changed over time as your own spiritual life was changing. What do you think the impact of Dylan’s spiritual life is on his fans as a whole? And given the way that the music industry, and really the entertainment industry, reacts to people who have deep expressive faith, his reputation doesn’t seem to have been affected very much.
Scott Marshall: I think by now that’s true, but I do know at that time of Slow Train Coming and Saved, those albums, there was, even though Slow Train Coming the album sold really well, in terms of reviews at the time of those two albums and some of those concerts there was no small amount of negativity that was involved. And there’s even evidence that Columbia was not thrilled at all with the second album, Saved, with its particular original cover art, and even the guy who did the cover art has gone on record saying that some at the label had a really nasty attitude towards Bob Dylan, not one of respect. And it has been said that as a result of him coming to Christ, that he lost a significant part of his fan base and that some maybe would return years later, some didn’t. But I do know that it was from 1979, Slow Train Coming, til 1997 when he had another hit record. So another 18 years passed. But I think that now so much time has passed that it’s like you said, he pretty much can — well, I guess he’s always done what he’s wanted to do, in terms of artistically, even when it’s cost him audiences and just conflict. That was inevitable when he came up because typically he doesn’t put his personal life out in public in a big way, but this 1979-1980 period was the glowing exception to that rule where he really expressed a lot of things through his songs and on stage, and then in some interviews as well, what went on with him.
Most of all, Scott, what do you hope folks take away after reading this book?
Scott Marshall: I hope they take away that one significant way to look at Bob Dylan is to look at him through the lens of spirituality, as reflected in his lyrics and in interviews over the decades, and that to truly understand Dylan the artist, and not be aware of the biblical influence, is — you’re going to be more impoverished if you’re not aware of that. So I think Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life again just gives the readers another angle, and a significant angle, to look at a man whose — obviously his work has been admired for decades by millions of people the world over.
Over 50 years and still going, absolutely. Scott, thank you very much for your time today. Congratulations again on all the work that went into a book that is being very well-received, and thank you very much for your time with us today.
Scott Marshall: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Scott Marshall is the author of the brand-new book “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.” I’m Greg Corombos of Radio America reporting for WND.com.