K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.
The internet was buzzing last month with the sound of conversion.
Kanye West had declared himself a Christian. News reports told how the 42-year-old rapper had definitively nailed his colors to the mast — or more correctly, to the Cross. And to emphasize the point, last month he released an album entitled: Jesus Is King.
It all sounds very familiar. In fact, it is similar to another conversion 40 years ago from within the world of popular music that also made headlines. On that occasion the name being mentioned was that of Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan and the word “enigmatic” go together. Few pop music acts of the last 60 years have had such resonance as Dylan. Yet Dylan remains a ghostly presence in the consciousness of many of his fans. It is not that he is not a well-known figure — superficially at least. Rather, the little we do know about him makes his presence on the public stage all the more surprising.
Stop for a moment, and, Dylan fan or not, ask yourself what you know of the man — really know, that is. Compare that knowledge with what you know of Elvis Presley or The Beatles — performers whose lives have been dissected and analyzed as few have been in recent history. One suspects that the paucity of facts about Bob Dylan is exactly how he wants it to be.
The thing about Dylan is that he was — and still is — never predictable. Of course, the first thing to remember is that “Bob Dylan” is a stage name. It was a title created for another man, who went, then, by the name of Robert Zimmerman. With Dylan it pays always to look beyond the façade to see the reality that lies behind it. This need to search for the reality behind the façade is true of the man, true of his music, and true of his search for truth — especially his conversion.
In 1979, Dylan, chief troubadour for the counter-cultural revolution that was then sweeping the United States, informed the world that he had become a Christian. Forty years ago Dylan’s Slow Train Coming (1979) was released. It is perhaps the greatest Christian rock album. Music critics tend to dismiss this album, and the other Christian inspired albums that followed, as little more than the compositions of Dylan’s “Christian phase” — music, they say, that expresses little more than the zeal of the convert rather than the true musicianship of its composer.
Obviously, those listening — or not listening — have not listened to Slow Train. And, for that matter, they have not listened to the critically acclaimed Dylan albums that preceded Slow Train. For it is the same Bob Dylan singing as on his previous albums. He has the same preoccupations: a passionate desire for truth and for exposing hypocrisy, whether of people or institutions. There is now a difference, of course.
Whereas, before 1979, there was a slow-burn rage at injustice and lies, after his conversion that rage is filtered through the lens of the Gospel. Previously, Dylan had come across as something of an Old Testament prophet, pointing out what was wrong in society; post-conversion, he had encountered the Messiah: then Dylan was not so much pointing out what was wrong as pointing to the only Person who could make things right.
In the years that have followed his 1979 conversion, Dylan has sometimes said he is Christian, but then said other things that might lead one to suspect that he is no longer a Christian. He has kept us guessing, wondering — this is all hardly surprising in an artist who likes to keep one step ahead of his audience.
Maybe it would be too much to expect Dylan to state his position and beliefs categorically. It is always worth remembering that “Bob Dylan” remains a creation, a fiction even. On the other hand, what Robert Zimmerman thinks, well, therein lies the real interest.
Might it be that Zimmerman has come to realize that faith, although public in its confession, is always the fruit of a personal encounter, and to speak publicly of such intimate matters, of one’s personal faith, is not only often inappropriate but also often difficult to articulate? Faith grows, after all, in the silence of prayer, not on a public stage, as the mystics, such as the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, tell us.
To return to Kanye West. Perhaps, there is something of relevance for him in Dylan’s 40-year trek to the Promised Land. Conversion is one thing, often a single moment, and something to be welcomed — celebrated even — but sanctification is a lifetime’s work and, for that, the glare of publicity and public scrutiny is rarely helpful.
There is one thing that both performers, West and Dylan, seem to agree on, however, and that is that despite fame, adulation and wealth, in life we have to serve somebody. As Dylan put it: “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”