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Through the 1960s, Bob Dylan was hailed as a prophet, first of folk music, then of rock 'n' roll—at least by those who forgave him the heresy of having "gone electric."

But when rock's best-known Jew famously declared Jesus to be the answer, many fans turned on him. For five decades, Robert Allen Zimmerman, who turns 70 today, has shocked, mystified, baffled and intrigued fans with songs rife with biblical references, both Jewish and Christian, and no shortage of religious imagery.

For Michael J. Gilmour, an associate professor of New Testament and English literature at Providence College in Manitoba, Canada, Dylan proves an irresistible subject for theological analysis.

Some fans gladly embrace the idea of Dylan as a secular prophet, a term vague enough to permit "a semblance of religiosity that does not actually connect the singer to a faith tradition in any way," Gilmour writes in The Gospel According to Bob Dylan. And while some might bristle at linking the word "gospel" to Dylan, Gilmour calls the famous songster a "serious religious thinker," even a "musical theologian."

Dylan often mentions God in his songs, "and though he rarely attempts to define what the term means, he still points us toward that vague Other," Gilmour writes.

The author, 44, said he experienced something of a religious awakening at age 13 while attending a church camp, where he heard Dylan's "Slow Train Coming," a song born of the singer's embrace of evangelical Christianity in 1979.

"It was the first time I listened to anything with sustained reflection on spiritual themes," Gilmour said in an interview. "And the idea that a well-known celebrity actually took religion seriously struck me as rather important."

Raised Jewish, Dylan had a bar mitzvah ...

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