Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dylan Redeemed

BB NOTE: "Dylan Redeemed," a new book by Stephen Webb, professor on religion and philosophy at Wabash College, is on its way right now from But in the meantime, here is an interview with Wade Coggeshall of the Journal Review with the book's author entitled "Bob Dylan: Another side of the rock legend."

Few living figures enjoy as much mythical status as Bob Dylan.

The celebrated troubadour, who's released dozens of influential albums spanning five decades, serves as a generational icon to those whose formative years were during the turbulent '60s and early '70s. His mastery of several musical genres - from folk to rock - has all but defined much of popular music. Over the years, his befuddling and often contradictory statements in interviews has only added to his mystique.

Stephen Webb, a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, thinks he has Dylan figured out. He lays it out in his latest book, "Dylan Redeemed," out now from Continuum Publishing and available in the Wabash College Bookstore.

Dylan is almost universally known as this radical protest singer and poetic champion of liberal causes. Webb thinks otherwise, writing that Dylan's body of work is more reflective of Christian thought, and cites several examples in his book.

It was at the end of a 1978 tour when Dylan announced he was a born-again Christian. In 1979 he issued the gospel-steeped "Slow Train Coming." For Webb, that was the record that changed his life.

"It was so powerful, and I still think it's just the most powerful album," he says.

Dylan subsequently released two more Christian records, 1980's "Saved" and 1981's "Shot of Love," before returning to his secular roots. Because they predate contemporary Christian music and are considered out of step with the rest of Dylan's canon, Webb says these three albums "kind of disappeared down this rabbit hole."

"Many of his albums since those three have had a lot of Christian content," Webb says. "But those were certainly the three that stood out. And all three still stand up pretty well today."

Webb rediscovered Dylan and his music with 1997's "Time Out of Mind."

"That got me interested in his career again," he says. "I hadn't been able to listen to those three Christian albums for some years, because they are so powerful. They took me back too quickly to my evangelical religious roots."

He started listening to Dylan's earlier work.

"What surprised me was how many continuities there were between his earlier music and his Christian period," Webb says. "(His) Christian period was always portrayed as this blip on the charts, this detour, as if Dylan lost his wits for a few years. I became intrigued with the way he was always drawn to the Bible and to very explicit theological themes."

What he found was that Dylan doesn't really fit the reformist, iconoclastic labels so many commentators have given him over the years.

"I'm always amazed by how homogenized our view of radicals is," Webb says. "People can be radical without being liberal. You challenge status quo from the right as well as the left. But somehow, beginning in the '70s and '80s, cultural and political liberals began monopolizing this idea that conservatives are bland, supporters of everything in the past. It's only liberals who are forward-thinking and willing to question things. So you have people like Dylan being put in a liberal box because people can't imagine that a conservative could be challenging. People just assumed since he was a provocative and challenging figure, and very much a kind of moralistic poet, that he must've been liberal and progressive on social and political issues. But he wasn't. He was always out of time, someone who lived in the past. And always someone who was very skeptical of social/political progress. Very skeptical of Utopian solutions to intractable social problems. So on all the major political issues, it seemed to me he could be more accurately labeled conservative than liberal. Although in the book I try not to take him out of one box just to put him in another.

"And he's someone who doesn't think human nature changes much. That's a conservative position. If you think human nature stays the same - that we can't solve the problems of human nature; we have to endure them, live with them, and politics aren't going to save us from human sin - in general terms that's what it means to be conservative."

If you think of Dylan this way, it's easier to understand his religious conversion.

"If you begin with that image of Dylan as a man on the left, then you're inevitably going to say what happened when he became a Christian. Why would a man on the political left become a devout Christian?" Webb says. "But if you begin with Dylan as someone who was always immersed in the religious music of America, (particularly) gospel, and someone who was always quoting from the Bible, always thinking about the end of the world in religious terms, then it makes more sense that he finally reached the end of his road and converted to Christianity."

In his autobiography, "Chronicles, Volume One," Dylan wrote that Barry Goldwater - the 1964 Republican nominee for president who railed against New Deal social engineering - was his favorite politician. It's one of his many quirky and unexpected insights that Webb says most people don't take seriously.

"Even to this day I'll read reviews or books or articles about him, and they'll acknowledge he sounds like a conservative. But they'll say, 'Well, he couldn't have really meant that,' " he says. "It's this condescending, disdainful attitude about Dylan. It's like people have so firmly put him in this category as a lefty, that they're blinded to what he actually says about himself. That kind of contradiction between the image of Dylan as a man of the left and his reality just seems so glaring to me."

To seemingly out one of the left's deified mouthpieces could be considered brazen. But Webb doubts that side of the aisle will even read "Dylan Redeemed."

"I find in general liberals do not read what I write, even my liberal friends," Webb says. "Conservatives will read what liberals write, but the compliment doesn't go both ways. Liberals in this day and age are nervous and angry, and kind of drawing up the bridges. They're in a siege mode, where they rightly feel liberalism is in decline and under attack. But rather than trying to learn from conservatives and understand why (it's) becoming so popular, they do the opposite."

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