The following is an excerpt from Light Come Shining by Andew McCarron
On November 17, 1978, while playing a gig in San Diego, an audience member apparently threw a small silver cross onto the stage, and [Bob] Dylan felt impelled to pick it up and put it into his pocket. The following night, in Tucson, Arizona, he was feeling even worse and reached into his pocket, pulled out the cross, and put it on. That night, while stuck inside his hotel room, he apparently experienced the overwhelming presence of Jesus whose power and majesty he’d heard about through his girlfriends Helena Springs and Mary Alice Artes, in addition to his recently converted band mates Steven Soles, David Mansfield, and T- Bone Burrnett. It was Artes, though, who seems to have influenced him the most. She had recommitted herself to the Christianity of her youth through a Church in Tarzana, California, called the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which Dylan soon joined. Founded by pastor Ken Gulliksen in 1974, it was a small but fast-growing evangelical church that emphasized redemption over judgment. Artes’s recommitment impelled her to live a scripturally pure life by moving out on Dylan, with whom she was living at the time. Through her prompting, two Vineyard pastors, Larry Myers and Paul Emond, were dispatched to Dylan’s home and ministered to him. He apparently received the Lord that day.
Although Dylan’s new faith was a syncretistic amalgam that incorporated elements of the Jews- for- Jesus movement, Southern Californian New Age, and old fashion fire-and-brimstone millennialism, there was no doubt Jesus was smack dab in the middle of it. “Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords …,” he’d later explain. “I believe every knee shall bow one day, and He did die on the cross for all mankind.”
In late January 1980, Dylan’s gospel tour played three nights at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. At some point during these shows, Paul Vitello, a young reporter for the Kansas City Times, managed to coax Dylan into discussing his conversion experience. The brief reflection Dylan shared was a perfect encapsulation of the destiny script. “Let’s just say I had a knee-buckling experience,” he explained. He then proceeded to touch upon the disenchantment of his life leading up to his encounter with Jesus. “Music wasn’t like it used to be. We were filling halls, but I used to walk out on the street afterward and look up in the sky and know there was something else. … A lot of people have died along the way—the Janices and the Jimmys. … People get cynical, or comfortable in their own minds, and that makes you die too, but God has chosen to revive me.” This description contains a familiar constellation of experiences. The sensation of feeling existentially adrift (“I used to walk out on the street afterward and look up in the sky and know there was something else”) intensifies a vague but persistent threat of annihilation (“A lot of people have died along the way”), a threat that Dylan is redeemed from (“but God has chosen to revive me”) through a wholehearted investment in “tradition”—in this case being Christianity—or more specifically, in the reality of Jesus, which Dylan substantiated by appealing to the Bible as a source of moral guidance and theological truth.
“Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the lord knocked me down and picked me up.”
“People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if He was here,” he’d explain in 1985. “That’s my idea of it, anyway. I know people are going to say to themselves, ‘What the fuck is this guy talking about?’ but it’s all there in black and white, the written and unwritten word. I don’t have to defend this. The scriptures back me up.”
The first journalist to interview Dylan at length about his conversion was Karen Hughes, a writer for The Dominion, which was Wellington, New Zealand’s daily newspaper. Unlike the off-the- cuff comments he made to Paul Vitello five months earlier, Dylan didn’t say much to Hughes about his pre-conversion state of mind. Instead, he used vivid language to describe the rawness of the transformation. “Being born again is a hard thing,” he said. “You ever seen a mother give birth to a child? Well it’s painful. We don’t like to lose those old attitudes and hang-ups.”
The physical language he used to characterize the change was reminiscent of his description of his motorcycle crack-up twelve years earlier: “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the lord knocked me down and picked me up.” Compare this language to the description he shared with Sam Shepard in A Short Life of Trouble (1987): “I went blind for a second and I kind of panicked or something, I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.”
Another familiar trope that runs across both events is the new sense of self that the change gradually engenders. “Conversion takes time because you have to learn to crawl before you can walk,” he told Hughes. “You have to learn to drink milk before you can eat meat. You’re reborn, but like a baby. A baby doesn’t know anything about this world and that’s what it’s like when you’re reborn. You’re a stranger. You have to learn all over again. God will show you what you need to know.” It bears mentioning that much of this language is paraphrased from the Pauline Epistles, which Dylan quoted from fairly regularly following his conversion. In the third chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul likens the wayward Corinthians to babies who must learn to drink milk before they can eat meat: “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Corinthians 3:2). Like many of the Born Again Christians studied by anthropologist Peter Stromberg in his book Language and Self-Transformation (1993), the canonical language of fundamentalist Christianity is grafted into the converts’ self-expressions, thus inscribing their fears and hopes with new meanings. In Dylan’s particular case, though, the canonical language of Christianity was joined to a preexisting schema of death and rebirth that can be traced back to his teenage years. The presence of a Messiah figure prompting the change was new, however.
Dylan alluded to a feeling of destiny behind Jesus’ call:
I guess He’s always been calling me. … Of course, how would I have ever known that? That it was Jesus calling me. I always thought it was some voice that would be more identifiable. But Christ is calling everybody; we just turn him off. We just don’t want to hear. We think he’s gonna make our lives miser- able, you know what I mean. We think he’s gonna make us do things we don’t want to do. Or keep us from doing things we want to do.
But God’s got his own purpose and time for everything. He knew when I would respond to his call.
The third and final time Dylan discussed his conversion with a journalist was in November 1980 with The Los Angeles Times music journalist Robert Hilburn. As he had with Karen Hughes, he discussed the physicality of his experience in Tucson, describing a “vision and feeling” that moved the hotel room and that “couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus.” In an interesting revision that may have been a conscious attempt to counteract the generally bad rap that his con- version had been receiving in the press, Dylan claimed that he was neither “down and out,” “miserable,” nor “old and withering away” leading up to his acceptance of Jesus, but, to the contrary, “relatively content.” However, his remarks on stage in San Diego in 1979, to Paul Vitello in 1980, and the claims of his biographers, all paint a somewhat bleaker portrait of his state of mind.
Through the prompting of “a very close friend” (again, presumably Mary Alice Artes), he accepted Jesus into his life—and then, despite some initial resistance, attended most of a three- month Bible course at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Reseda, California, that changed his attitude toward the world. It was during this course that Dylan intensified his relationship to Biblical tradition. “I had always read the Bible,” he explained, “but only looked at it as literature. I was never really instructed in it in a way that was meaningful to me.” Much as he raided Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and other sources of American traditional music at Big Pink, he now searched through the Bible, earmarking pages, underlining key verses, and subsuming Biblical lingo into his song lyrics and everyday vernacular.
He took particular interest in the Book of Revelation, which seems to confirm Howard Alk’s notion that death and destruc- tion were indeed on his mind. When asked by Hilburn to assess whether his conversion made him feel or act differently, Dylan made an oblique reference to things that he was saying on stage be- tween songs the previous year. “I was saying stuff I figured people needed to know. I thought I was giving people an idea of what was behind the songs.” What he was doing was regaling his audiences with fire-and-brimstone prognostications that the end of history was fast approaching, which necessitated immediate repentance.
The brush with death that jolted him after his motorcycle accident in ‘66 had now morphed in scope, becoming more broadly social in focus. The feelings of estrangement and anxiety that rendered him susceptible to death were no longer specific to him, but plagued the entirety of America—and beyond! Accordingly, Dylan made a reference to the “sickness” of society to Hilburn. “When I walk around some of the towns we go, however, I’m totally convinced that people need Jesus,” he said.
Featured image: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, via Wikipedia, CC0 Public Domain.