When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.
At least, that’s where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.
Something mysterious about Holly “filled me with conviction,” said Dylan. “He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”
Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of “Cotton Fields” by folk legend Lead Belly. It was “like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me,” said Dylan.
That story probably sounded “rather strange to lots of people,” said Scott Marshall, author of the new book “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.”
“What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don’t know the Bible, then who knows what they’ll think that means? ... Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That’s just the way Dylan talks. That’s who he is.”
For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.
The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” and “Shot of Love.”
One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan’s 1961-78 works, before the “born-again” years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.
Also, Dylan told People magazine in 1975: “I didn’t consciously pursue the Bob Dylan myth. It was given to me -- by God. ... I don’t care what people expect of me. It doesn’t concern me. I’m doing God’s work. That’s all I know.”
What does that mean? Marshall collected material from stacks of published interviews and has concluded that two words perfectly describe Dylan’s approach to answering these questions: “inscrutability” and “irascibility.” Plus, it’s hard to know when Dylan is being “serious, cranky or playful.”
Nevertheless, faith language always plays a central role. Marshall cites waves of examples, including a time when Dylan was asked if his raucous “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” -- with its “everybody must get stoned” chant -- was code for getting high. Dylan wryly noted that many critics “aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts.”
In his Nobel lecture, Dylan also stressed the role great literature has played in his life, dating back to grammar school days. Once again, there were religious themes.
“Moby-Dick,” for example, combined all “the myths: the Judeo-Christian Bible, Hindu myths, British legends, St. George, Perseus, Hercules -- they’re all whalers.”
“All Quiet on the Western Front” mixed politics, nihilism and horror, and Dylan noted that he has never read another war novel. In that book, “You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.”
With “The Odyssey,” he said readers have to live the tale, wrestling with gods and goddesses. “Some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies.”
In the end, said Dylan, a song’s impact on each person is what matters. “I don’t have to know what a song means,” he said. “I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it -- what it all means.”
Marshall believes one thing should be obvious: If Dylanologists want to understand Dylan’s life and art, they will have to wrestle with all of his songs, including those drenched in God-talk. Biblical literacy is an essential skill in that work.
The bottom line is clear, according to Hollywood director Scott Derrickson, writing in the book’s foreword: “Dylan has never recanted a single line from a single song.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)