From the January 4, 1980, issue of Christianity Today:
Yes, it's true. Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan is professing Jesus Christ as Lord. He is doing it quietly through his new album, Slow Train Coming. Like most of what he does publicly, he is keeping the message foremost, disdaining the subculture's cult of conquered heroes and forsaking the notoriety of the born-again "club." He remains true to the prophetic posture that has earned him the respect and attention of his peers in the popular music arena.
Many of the songs he has written were made popular through the musical talents of others (for example, Stookey notes the significance of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," but it was Stookey's own group, Peter, Paul, and Mary, that propelled that ballad into the ratings).
It is the sage-like message of Dylan's lyrics, the thoughtful, conscious, driven critiques of shallow dehumanizing vogues and bandwagon motifs to which victims and victimizers alike have responded. Dylan's uncompromised sensitivity and courage leave him free to name the self-debasing methods with which Americans have dulled their collective consciences in pursuit of prosperity, power, and the materialistic version of the "American dream."
But before Slow Train Coming, no roots anchored his apocalyptic appraisals of the answers. Dylan could clearly see the light and the human nakedness illuminated by that light, but he was either unable or unwilling to acknowledge its source. While he sang of the rampant frivolity and foolishness of human endeavors, his songs still sought for meaning.
In Slow Train Coming that quest has been satisfied. Rolling Stone magazine, not wanting to disown Dylan, labeled the album "artistically ambiguous," apparently ignoring stanzas like "There's a man on a cross and he they crucified for you. / Believe in his power, that's about all you've got to do." And, to make it personal, he sings, "What you've given me today is worth more than I can pay / And no matter what they say, I believe in you."
The album begins with the only alternatives open to each of us, reciting a litany of personality types and professions set with the refrain, "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody." In the album's love song he reiterates, "Now this spiritual warfare, flesh and blood breakin' down, / You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground." Dylan takes clear cues from Scripture about Satan's active involvement in our depravity: "The enemy is subtle, how be it we're deceived / When the truth is in our hearts and we still don't believe. / Shine your light, shine your light on me. / You know I just can't make it by myself, I'm a little too blind to see."
Throughout the record there runs a theme of "Gonna change my way of thinkin', bring myself a different set of rules, / Gonna put my best foot forward and stop bein' influenced by fools." He identifies the fools as "my so-called friends" who "have fallen under a spell, / They look me squarely in the eye and they say, well, all is well."
The title song previews the coming judgment. "Can't help but wonder what's happening to my companions, are they lost or are they found? / Are there earthly principles they are goin' to have to abandon?" He then alludes to Revelation 9:6: "Can they imagine the dark ages that will fall from on high / When men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die." Slow Train Coming is not only about the end times, nor does it only point to personal judgment; God's judgment and man's sin are keyed to current conditions. "All that foreign oil controlling American soil," and, "Sheiks walkin' around like kings … deciding America's future from Amsterdam and Paris … people starvin' and thirstin', grain elevators are burstin'."
Perhaps the most refreshing quality of this, Dylan's first postconversion album, is that he has not bought into the Christian subculture's status quo. His gift to us remains his once-removed prophetic insight. He is able to see the sticky sweet personalization puffery of some segments of American Christianity: "Spiritual advisers and gurus to guide your every mood. / Instant inner peace in every step you take, got to be a prude … / Do you ever wonder just what God requires? / You think he's just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires" is sung in the context of "adulterers in churches, pornography in schools, / You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers makin' rules. / When you gonna wake up? When you gonna wake up'? / Strengthen the things that remain."
Dylan has packed the album with a plethora of human foibles and fantasies, all cloaked in the latest societal garb (there is at least one with which each of us can identify) and exposed in the searing light of biblical metaphor. He at once shows us who we are and calls us to "the man who died a criminal's death."
The voice and especially the music are in the best Dylan style. But they are only the vehicles to carry a message that goes beyond the searching of an earlier quest for the source of all answers.
This article originally appeared in the January 4, 1980, issue of Christianity Today (we did not have star ratings for album reviews at the time). At the time, David Singer was the magazine's art director. He is now publications director for the American Bible Society.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's other articles on Bob Dylan include:
Watered-Down Love | Bob Dylan encountered Jesus in 1978, and that light has not entirely faded as he turns 60. By Steve Turner (May 24, 2001)
Bob Dylan: Still Blowin' in the Wind | Christianity Today reviews Dylan's work before the singer's conversion to Christianity. By Daniel J. Evearitt (Dec. 3, 1976)
Bob Dylan Finds His Source | A call into the bars, into the streets, into the world, to repentance. By Noel Paul Stookey (Jan. 4, 1980)
Has Born-again Bob Dylan Returned to Judaism? | The singer's response to an Olympics ministry opportunity might settle the matter once for all. (Jan. 13, 1984)
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