Dylan's "Tempest" & The Persistence of Religious Memory

Bob Dylan made headlines last week when, in an interview with Rolling Stone about his new album Tempest (download here for only 5 bucks), he seemed to lash out at critics who have accused him of plagiarism.

"In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition," the interviewer said. "But some critics say that you didn't cite your sources clearly. What's your response to those kinds of charges?"

"It's part of the tradition," Dylan replied. "It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified." The aging music legend then threw in a colorful expletive to make his disdain for the critics crystal clear.

Still, the comments left people scratching their heads. One journalist for The Examiner noted that Dylan's interviews are often a form of theater, and concluded: "I feel that Dylan, once again, is putting us on." It's plausible; and I'm sure Dylan relishes how certain folks tirelessly dissect his every smoke-and-mirror explanation about the man and his music. 

While online writers gabbled and jabbered about Dylan's ire, nary a word was spoken about another far-more provocative phrase in that interview: "our Lord."

For years, people have been speculating about Bob Dylan's faith or lack thereof. An article in the Huffington Post provides a neat summary of what we do know: Dylan was raised Jewish, then alienated legions of fans by embracing evangelical Christianity in the early 80s, and has since seemed to return to his Jewish heritage: "he has supported the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement, even studying at one of its yeshivas, and had his sons, Samuel Isaac Abraham and Jakob Luke, bar mitzvahed."

Naturally, as a result Dylan's music has always been inundated with religious imagery. Michael J. Gilmour wrote in The Gospel of Bob Dylan that Dylan that "religious language is everywhere in his songs." But as far as what that religion is, Gilmour is hazy, convinced that Dylan presents God as a "vague Other," and "a semblance of religiosity that does not actually connect the singer to a faith tradition in any way."

Other Dylan fans see a distinct Biblical pattern - both implicit and explicit - running through Dylan's oeuvre. Fr. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest and founder of Word on Fire ministries, makes the case in an online video that, right from the beginning, the best reading of Dylan is through his use of Judeo-Christian language.

"You have to read him as a spiritual poet," Barron says. "You can read him politically, you can read him as a culture commentator, all that is right. But I think ultimately the best way to read him is as a spiritual teacher...All throughout his career, from beginning to right now, the Bible has been the dominant influence." 

He may be onto something. As early as 1968, Dylan's Mom Beatty Zimmerman had this to say about Dylan "rediscovering" the Bible: 

"In his house in Woodstock today, there's a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He's continuously getting up and going over to refer to something."

Indeed, old classics like "All Along the Watchtower" and even as far back as "The Times They Are a-Changin" don't just have a Biblical aroma - they draw explicit inspiration from it. 

Of course, one can hardly blame Gilmour - Dylan is just as evasive about his religiosity as about anything, and despite the explicit turn to Christianity in the 80s, has long since gone back to dodging a direct profession of faith. In a 1997 interview, he had this to say:

"Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light' - that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs." So music is Dylan's religion - and how many would be pleased to have him leave it at that?

So who is right? Is Gilmour right that Dylan's God is a "vague Other" not rooted in any one spiritual tradition, or is Barron right that Dylan is a Biblical thinker? Is his religious "character" as multivalent and elusive as the Bob Dylans of I'm Not There, or is there one particular world view that he prizes?

Recent years have proved illuminating on this question. In a 2008 interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about upholding a bargain with the "chief commander...on this earth and in the world we can't see":

Then, in 2009, Dylan released a Christmas album, with inescapably spiritual songs like "Adeste Fideles" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

The religious "lexicon" of Dylan's songs would not be tempered with the arrival of 2012's Tempest; in addition to referencing "our Lord" in Rolling Stone, Dr. A T Bradford (who penned Dylan, Depression and Faith two years ago) has noted that a handful of lyrics from Dylan's latest album bear witness to a continued reliance on Judeo-Christian ideas:

"Duquesne Whistle": 
I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord

"Soon After Midnight":
I'm searching for phrases to sing your praises, I need to tell someone

"Narrow Way": 
It's a long and narrow way, I can't work up to you, 
You'll surely have to work down to me someday...
Look down angel, from the skies, help my weary soul to rise...
I heard a voice at the dusk of day, saying 'Be gentle, brother, be gentle and pray'...

"Pay in Blood": 
I've sworn to uphold the laws of God...
Man can't live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own

"Tin Angel": 
He renounced his faith, he denied his Lord

He read the book of Revelation

"Roll on John": 
I pray the Lord my soul to keep 

Dylan himself admits that this spiritual tenor of the album is no mistake. "I wanted to make something more religious," he also said in Rolling Stone. "I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with."

Now, of course, this is not Saved or Slow Train Coming - the lyrics stop short of zeal or evangelism. There is no explicit endorsement of faith, or even the mildest suggestion that Dylan buys into a religious program wholesale. In fact, if you look at the album on its own grounds, these lyrics could even be interpreted as mere symbolic vehicles, summoning a secular humanism through the religion of music (although, cozying up to the poetry and power of these images seems like a defeat for a transcendent experience that presumes to move "beyond" classical religiosity).

But seen in the context of a career spanning decades, Tempest builds on a pattern that looks less and less incidental, and more and more central. We're entitled to our own opinions about the meaning of Dylan's music, sure; but are we entitled to our own facts?

The evidence is overwhelming that Fr. Barron is spot on. Judeo-Christianity and the Bible have been - and still are - the epicenter of the whole of Dylan's musical work, the window through which he looks out at the world and rearranges it into political protests or mystical poetics. This isn't an interpretative matter subject to subjective tilt. It isn't the mystery of "Ballad of a Thin Man," which the Black Panthers took to be about "the black struggle in white society," journalist Jeffrey Jones took to be about himself, and Dylan insisted was about everybody's own "Mr. Jones." It isn't a personal opinion: Dylan has consistently been unable to shake the drama of Judeo-Christian thought. And perhaps that's because he doesn't want to.

Is this just a testament to the stranglehold religion has held on the West's imagination for so many centuries? Or does it suggest a conscious return to that wise old portrait of mankind lead by one of our most daring poets? Is it the last gasps of an anachronistic religious system in post-modernity, or the inexhaustible breath of eternity still beckoning?

Whatever its origin or destination, Dylan's religious memory persists. It keeps pressing on. And so does ours.


  1. Dylan is now referring to Jesus as 'our Lord', not just 'the Lord'. Narrow Way is a beautiful song full of Christian imagery. It would seem that 'Dylan, Depression and Faith' was correct, and that 'Christmas in the Heart' is still being celebrated...

    1. An interesting development indeed! I'm surprised more music journalists didn't jump on that phrase rather than the F-bomb Dylan dropped. Or, maybe, not so surprised at all...

  2. Many churches function like a normal business organization with a structure and workers. become ordained online Different churches may adopt slightly different hierarchies of accountability as there are many mainline churches today with an innumerable number of sects sprouting as 'churches'.

  3. An interesting and very recent interview with Robert Hunter reveals that he wrote the lyrics to "Duquesne Whistle."

  4. An interesting and very recent interview with Robert Hunter reveals that he wrote the lyrics to "Duquesne Whistle."