Bob Dylan: Man of letters, man of faith

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

When Bob Dylan finally delivered his long-awaited Nobel Prize lecture this week, he set out to show how his songs relate to literature.

In the process, something else became clear as well: The man really knows his Bible, and he said biblical themes from some of his favorite novels worked their way into his songs over the years.

Referring to Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick,” which he said has stuck with him ever since he read it in grammar school, Dylan noted the many biblical names in the book.

“This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience,” he said. “A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire.”

In Dylan’s eyes, “Moby-Dick” is rich in religious and mythical references.

“Everything is mixed in,” he wrote. “All the myths: the Judeo-Christian Bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational.”

Dylan said the theme of “Moby-Dick” and all it implies “would work its way into more than a few of my songs.” One such theme was that of death and resurrection. He saw that theme play out in the climactic moment of the novel.

“Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out,” Dylan recounted. “Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.”

Dylan even pointed out there was a missing ingredient in the resurrection tale of one of the harpooners – and that missing ingredient was Jesus.

“Tashtego says that he died and was reborn,” the singer noted. “His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.”

The incredible spiritual journey of an American icon. You’ll never look at American pop culture – or Christianity – the same way again. Discover the unbelievable true story behind one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. “Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Life” is available now at the WND Superstore.

Another book whose themes showed up in Dylan’s music, according to the man himself, was “All Quiet on the Western Front.” That 1929 German novel is a “horror story” in which the characters are “stuck in a nightmare,” according to Dylan, and he spotted one instance in which the protagonist was tested like Jesus was on the cross, shortly before His death.

“Yesterday, you tried to save a wounded messenger dog, and somebody shouted, ‘Don’t be a fool,’” Dylan recalled about the book. “One Froggy is laying gurgling at your feet. You stuck him with a dagger in his stomach, but the man still lives. You know you should finish the job, but you can’t. You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.”

All of this insight comes from a man whom many people believe left Christianity behind in the 1980s after a brief period of fascination with the faith. But as the brand new book “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life” reveals, there is plenty of evidence Dylan has continued to believe in the God of both the Old and New Testament through the years.

Scott Marshall, the book’s author, notes Dylan’s 1990 composition “God Knows” warned there would be “no more water but fire next time,” an apparent reference to the biblical end of the world. It was in 1999 that Dylan began performing “I Am The Man, Thomas” at his concerts. The song tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the risen Christ’s interaction with Doubting Thomas.


These are only two examples from the singer’s long and winding spiritual journey. Dylan was born a Jew, but he surprised critics by becoming a Christian in the late 1970s. Some thought he left Christianity behind in the early 1980s, but Jewish and Christian references would continue to play a central role in his life and career.

“Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life” explores all the nuances of the legendary singer-songwriter’s spiritual beliefs. Marshall draws on years of research and original interviews to shine a light on a side of Dylan many fans and critics don’t know about. He paints the picture of a man who was preoccupied with God from essentially the start of his music career in the 1960s through the present day.

In fact, that may be one of Dylan’s few consistencies.

“It is ironic that the seemingly inconsistent Bob Dylan – who occupies such hallowed space in the countercultural decade of the 1960s – has been so consistent in assuming that God exists,” Marshall writes. “When asked by Neil Spencer of New Musical Express about the ‘compatibility’ between his interest in Judaism (his visits to Israel in 1969-1971) and his controversial beliefs of 1979-1981, Dylan simply replied, ‘There’s really no difference between any of it in my mind.’

The incredible spiritual journey of an American icon. You’ll never look at American pop culture – or Christianity – the same way again. Discover the unbelievable true story behind one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. “Bob Dylan: The Spiritual Life” is available now at the WND Superstore.


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