Bob Dylan: Christian Music You Won’t Find in a Christian Bookstore

I’ve written a fair amount about Christian music, and also about the Christian Music Industry (both the positive and the negative). One of the major weaknesses of “Christian Music” as an industry is that it can’t account for all of the solid music being created by solid Christians. It’s essentially a means of marketing one or two specific genres of music to a very specific demographic.

Bob Dylan 3Lately, I’ve been repeatedly listening to an excellent example of the kind of Christian music that has no home within the Christian Music Industry. The song is called “When He Returns,” and it was written by Bob Dylan in 1979. The song is part of Dylan’s “Slow Coming Train” album, which features more explicitly Christian subject matter in its lyrics than most of our modern praise songs.

Take a minute to read through the lyrics (I promise that you’ll be challenged and edified):

The iron hand, it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God

For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears

Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right
When He returns

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through
He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew

How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?

Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask

How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns

Amazing, right? If Christian radio listeners could put up with Dylan’s voice, I could see this little number cruising to the top of the charts. But you’re probably not going to hear Bob Dylan on Christian radio (I’ve heard of only sporadic instances of this happening), nor will you find his albums in a Christian retail store, even his “Christian albums.”

Slow Train Coming Bob DylanBob Dylan’s career took a sharp turn in the late 70s when he converted to Christianity and began writing songs about Jesus, preaching to music executives, and refusing to play his pre-Christian songs. So why isn’t he a prominent part of the Christian Music Industry? The answer is simple: because he never signed with a Christian record label.

On the one hand, this is entirely understandable. Christian record labels, radio stations, and retailers have enough on their plates without scanning every album ever produced for other music to promote. It’s just the nature of the thing.

But I think the lesson for us is that the line demarcating Christian music (to say nothing of God-glorifying music) from the rest cannot be drawn by the record labels, radio stations, or retailers. This task is left to us ordinary music-listeners, and it calls for discernment. I’m not saying that everyone should dig through all of Bob Dylan’s (or anyone else’s) albums. But I’ve been enjoying doing that, and it has turned up some unexpectedly explicit (in the Christian sense) gems.

And, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Do we really think that God’s working is going to be confined to the buildings and industries we create? Shouldn’t we expect to find God moving, prompting, and speaking in unexpected ways? It seems clear that with God, we should be expecting the unexpected. In this case, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find the same man who sang, “everybody must get stoned”—which, by the way, he claims has more to do with the book of Acts than hippie drug culture—singing:

“Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns”

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