Dylan: “Well, I am a true believer.”

November 27, 2009

Bob Dylan recorded three albums of overtly Christian or gospel songs between 1979 and 1981. He was at that time very public about his conversion to Christianity and, for a while, only performed his new material. Since then, he’s mostly returned to making “secular” music. (The scare quotes indicate my rejection of the distinction between “Christian” and “secular” music: all good music is deeply spiritual and religious, in my opinion.) It has become a cliche for writers and journalists to say that Dylan “renounced” his Christian faith around 1983, in spite of the following evidence: Dylan never stopped performing much of his gospel-era songs; he continues to pepper his songs with biblical allusions; he speaks often about faith in God (here’s one random example), including a 2004 interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes; and several years ago, he recorded a new version of his explicitly Christian Slow Train Coming song “Change My Way of Thinking” with Mavis Staples for a gospel tribute CD.

Still, since most critics and journalists ignore all this evidence and accept the cliche that he abandoned his faith, Dylan’s new Christmas charity album has confounded many people. Does Dylan really mean these words he’s singing? Bill Flanagan, whose interview with Dylan was published this week, elicited this exchange:

BF: You really give a heroic performance of O’ LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.

BD: Well, I am a true believer.

What bothers me is the unspoken presumption that an artist of Dylan’s stature must be putting his listeners on. “He can’t really believe all that, can he?” Why is it so hard to imagine? There are a lot of us “true believers” out here, you know? Read the entire interview, and buy the album if you can. All proceeds support a worthy cause.

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