Bob Dylan's first Christian LP, done with the Muscle Shoals session players who had first excelled in post-Stax soul music.
Gritty, no-frills rock, better than most of Dylan's 70s stuff. The tour
was controversial: those who came for The Hits got, instead, a surly
provocateur singing about Jesus. Dylan's adversarial stance (and zeal)
softened in the next few years; he gradually returned to human-jukebox mode, and began Torah studies with Hasidic rabbis.

I tried to kill myself twice in my life.

The first time was the day after Thanksgiving, 1993. My parents went out to visit some friends, everyone else was gone, and I sat alone in the house. I no longer wanted to live; I felt like my life had no purpose. I did not believe in anything at all, essentially. I proceeded to swallow somewhere between seventy and eighty Advil and then fell asleep, hoping that I wouldn't wake up. I did, of course; I lay there convinced for the first time in a long time that my life had some sort of purpose. I didn't understand it then; I was still quite proudly an atheist.

The second time was at the end of finals after my fourth semester in college. I failed organic chemistry and I also believed I was about to lose my scholarship. I was becoming the failure I had worked and prayed and hoped for years that I wouldn't become. I ate a very large handful of Valium, washed them down with some absinthe, and drifted off to sleep. I didn't move for thirty six hours, but again I lived through it.

This second attempt was a bit different, however. I had a dream that I was in a giant park where there were thousands of children playing as far as I could see in any direction. A clean-shaven German looking fellow came over and sat down next to me, and somehow I had this sense that the man was Jesus Christ. Without looking at me, he said, "You have a gift inside of you. That gift is going to enable you to touch the lives of all of these children during their lifetimes. Don't give it up because the road isn't easy." With that, he got up and walked away, leaving me to my observations of the children.

I woke up not knowing what to believe. I knew a fair amount about Christianity but before that dream I wasn't convinced that there was even a God, let alone that His Son had come to Earth. I spent a few hours by myself, then I went to visit a friend of mine who was a Christian, someone I trusted very much. I told her what had happened, and she just told me I would have to figure things out myself, but that this might help. She gave me a record. On the weathered, brown paper front, there was a sketch of a train in which workers were laying the tracks. Along the top, it said Slow Train Coming and underneath that, Bob Dylan. I took it home for a listen.

S l o w   T r a i n   C o m i n g
Bob Dylan goes... Christian?

Release Date: August 20, 1979
Label: Sony
ASIN: B0000025GW

For music, I would say that Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" is the best Christian album ever recorded. I've certainly never written anything that says as much and I'd be most impressed if he ever surpasses it himself. I wish every Christian who likes modern Gospel music would buy a copy of "Slow Train". Then they'd have an idea of what Christian music is capable to communicating.
- Larry Norman

Track Listing

1.  Gotta Serve Somebody                   5:22
2.  Precious Angel                         6:27
3.  I Believe In You                       5:02
4.  Slow Train                             5:55
5.  Gonna Change My Way of Thinking        5:25
6.  Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)   3:50
7.  When You Gonna Wake Up                 5:25
8.  Man Gave Names To All The Animals      4:23
9.  When He Returns                        4:30

All songs written by Bob Dylan

Gotta Serve Somebody  (5:22)

Bob Dylan has guts, I'll give the man that much. He leads a folk revival in the early 1960s, then almost on a dime switches over to electric guitar based rock tunes, then just as quickly swerves into the Nashville sound. For those fans who managed to hang on through the whiplash, he recorded a gem in the mid 1970s, and then...

Well, he became a Christian, and he wasn't afraid to sing about it.

I wasn't a Dylanphile in 1979, so I can't comment on the impact of this album; I was too busy learning where I was supposed to go to the bathroom. But I have seen his performance on Saturday Night Live from that time where the crowd sat in stunned silence, and I've heard a bootleg in which the crowd spends two hours heckling Dylan while he runs through this entire album and some Christian standards.

Regardless of your religious feelings, you have to give the man credit for an unbelievable amount of courage to be willing to stake his near-legendary reputation on a wide expression of his newfound religious faith.

I remember dropping the needle on this album for the first time and laying down on the bed, face down, trying to figure out where in the hell my life should go from here. I closed my eyes and thought of the vision I had while I lay dying, and how I had somehow reawakened from that darkness.

And then Dylan spoke to me, as he had many times before. He spoke to me through Blonde on Blonde when I was struggling with my political perspectives. He spoke to me through Blood on the Tracks when I didn't know how or what to love. And he spoke to me again.

This opening track is deeply infused with a soul music sound, something that comes as a bit of a change of pace for those raised on 1960s Dylan. The female backing vocals evokes some of the great soul records of the '70s, as Dylan takes the moral choices we make on a daily basis and breaks them down. Breaks them down into a choice between right and wrong. Between the devil and the Lord.

Now, you see, there is still a part of me inside that is constantly questioning every aspect of my faith. I hear this, and a part of me screams inside, "Bullshit! Moral issues don't have a black and white! They aren't judged by 'serving the devil' or by 'serving God'!" My response to this is simply one thing: something inside of you tells you what's right or what's wrong. When you consider doing something, you evaluate it: is it the right thing to do, or is it the wrong thing to do? Here, Dylan just poses this question again, putting the devil in the role of the wrong thing, and God in the form of the right thing. By making a choice at all, you're choosing to serve one another.

Leave it up to Dylan to make me start desperately bloviating.

Precious Angel  (6:27)

Dylan continues with the rock-soul sound here, aided by the Muscle Shoals players. The fusion of rock, soul, and gospel sounds that Dylan and his backing players are trying to accomplish are perhaps best presented on this track.

Dylan's fan base didn't like this album, for the most part, and it wasn't aided by the fact that he went on tour playing only hymns and songs from this album. People paid good money to see Dylan to hear the oldies; they wanted to hear Like A Rolling Stone or Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, not an old man raving about his religion. They heckled, they booed, and deservedly so. This was not the Bob Dylan they paid to hear.

One can't help but wonder, however, if any of them actually sat and listened to the lyrics of this song. Sure, the verses are full of Christian apocalyptic imagery, but look past that. What is he saying in the chorus? Shine your light, shine your light on me / You know I just couldn't make it by myself / I'm a little too blind to see

He's spot on, as he usually is. It's a matter of faith, and it takes a leap of faith to get there. You shouldn't believe it if you don't want. He openly states that he didn't just come up with this idea alone, that it took a spiritual leap that he was willing to take. Others might not be.

Dylan sang about the war because of his belief that war was wrong. They cheered him.
Dylan sang about libertarianism because of his belief that people should be free to do what they want. They cheered him.
But when Dylan sang about faith because of his belief, they booed him.
I fail to understand this.

There I was, alone, face down on the bed and I realized that the precious angel had spoken to Dylan just like Jesus had spoken to me in my dying haze. It is up to me to take the hand that is extended, but it's my choice; all someone else can do is advise me.

I Believe In You  (5:02)

This track takes a bit of a different turn, cutting down to little else but the barest instrumentation and Dylan's voice, always his voice, carrying things through to the end.

It's all about conviction here; how strongly can you believe in something? In context, the belief is in Jesus Christ, of course, but let's take this song out of context for a moment. Excepting the vague allusions to Christian stories, this song could be about belief in anything.

What do you value as an individual that is enough to lose friendships? What do you believe in strongly enough that you're willing to challenge every other belief you hold because of it? What is the idea at the core of your being right now?

Dylan sings, Don't let me change my heart / keep me set apart / from all the plans they do pursue. Now, how do you read this? My first reaction, I remember, was that Dylan's completely lost it and he's irrationally sticking to his faith and this turned me off; I turned my head and looked at the wall, feeling empty.

But is that what Dylan's trying to say here? It took me a long time to really understand what he's saying, but it's the farthest thing from irrationality. All he's trying to say with this song is that it is fine if your central beliefs change, just don't lose those central beliefs, whatever they might be. Don't follow whatever drummer comes down the street, he says, but he does not say never follow that drummer.

It's not at all irrational; in fact, it's the most rational way one can have a belief. Be willing to challenge your own beliefs, but don't just toss them aside if you find a chink in the armor that you can't resolve immediately.

Dylan is building his case for faith with this album, painting with brush strokes as delicate as any he's ever used.

Slow Train  (5:55)

Here, we have a Dylan political song with underlying Christian themes; it's probably the most accessible song in terms of the "traditional" Dylan sound, harkening back to his Blonde on Blonde days. This song builds a bridge between his protest years and his modern faith.

The first thing that many people think of when Christianity and politics intersect is strongly conservative beliefs, like those espoused by Jarry Falwell and Pat Robertson and promoted by groups like the Christian Coalition. But, as with many things, the loudest voices often get the most attention. I am a liberal-bending anti-globalization social libertarian, for example, and based on this song, I think it would be fair to describe Dylan's perspective (at the time, at least) as being much the same.

The lyrics bear this to be true: Man's ego is inflated / his laws are outdated / they don't apply no more; or People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting / oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it; or maybe All that foreign oil controlling American soil / ... deciding America's future from Amsterdam to Paris. These aren't what I would call modern conservative perspectives in any way. Dylan's stating here, in the midst of a Christian album, that globalism is terrible, that we should invest resources into fighting world hunger, and opposing outdated laws. Is this the conservativism that you attribute to Christianity?

This album doesn't bastardize Dylan's earlier espoused belief structure; instead, it merely gives the beliefs a Christian context. All of the tales and messages that Dylan delivered in the past are being framed here, framed within a religious faith that others might not agree with. But didn't a lot of people disagree with the many things he's stood for over the years?

As I lay there on the bed, trying to sort through things, everything Dylan stated here agreed with what I felt in my heart. People should always be free to follow their own path, and transnational corporations are at least as restrictive as governments. I closed my eyes and let Dylan keep carrying me onwards on this journey.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking  (5:25)

Here we have something that sounds like a southern fried rock song with horns, something you could almost imagine musically being a Lynyrd Skynyrd b-side. Yet Dylan brings it all back home again; here, he almost comes off like a crazed fire-and-brimstone preacher, something that he's done a time or two in the past and would come to again often in his later career.

Neil Young's Southern Man was probably the defining song of my childhood, even though I wasn't truly from the south (just downstate Illinois, a stone's throw from Missouri). I understood what the man meant; the Klan was somewhat active in my childhood area and the bitter stink of racism was everywhere, even driving one of my closest friends out of town. The biggest workers for the Klan were the loudest singers in church each Sunday, or so I was told.

Dylan opens by addressing this very thing, at least to my fragile mind and ears: Gonna change my way of thinking / make myself a different set of rules / gonna put my good foot forward / and stop being influenced by fools. To this point in my life, I felt that by completely deriding Christianity, I was deriding the Klan and all the hatred and malaise that I witnessed over the years, but by doing that, I was just falling into the same social traps as everyone else. A faith in Jesus Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with the lies and venom spouted by people who choose to drape themselves in the cloth.

It is up to me to figure out my own rules and do what's right inside of me, not blindly following what someone else does and someone else thinks. All of the supposed intellectuals who ridiculed the church for being backward and full of bigotry were in fact no different than the bigots they themselves despised. A truly powerful person would hug the bigot on his way out of the church, then hug the person he was bigoted against without skipping a beat. What is love without the ability to show you care for someone even if they disagree with what you believe to be right? The best thing you can do is be an example, not stand around and taunt.

Yet the moment on this album that got me then, and always gets me now, is when Dylan sings the following: I got a God-fearing woman / one I can easily afford / she can do the Georgia crawl / she can walk in the spirit of the Lord.

You see, I married my best friend after dating her for six years. She was a devout Christian when we started dating; I didn't expect that things would work because I assumed that, by being a Christian, she'd "preach" to me all the time. Well, that's not how she worked. She'd just smile at me and say, "Your heart is in the right place; you'll make up your own mind eventually," and she'd take my hand in hers and not say anything else about it.

She didn't need to. Her example as a human being shot every preconception I had about Christianity right in the foot. She'd go to gay rights rallies; she would storm the stage at anti-racism concerts; she made it a point to find out what people from vastly different cultures and religions actually believed, then share what she thought on equal ground. That's nothing like the Christianity I had previously seen or understood.

It was just like Dylan said: Gonna put my good foot forward / and stop being influenced by fools. She lives that every second of her life; I only hope that I can. She was in my heart and in my mind that day as I lay on the bed listening to this record, confused as I could be.

Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)  (3:50)

This is a very mellow, almost jazzy number that somehow evokes a smoky nightclub in my mind. It doesn't come as a surprise that this was the first song Dylan wrote as he was becoming a Christian, as he performed it during his last tour before Slow Train Coming; it has a very tentative feeling throughout it.

The feeling here is summarized right off the bat: Don't wanna judge nobody, don't wanna be judged / don't wanna touch nobody, don't wanna be touched / don't wanna hurt nobody, don't wanna be hurt / don't wanna treat nobody like they was dirt. In essence, this song is about the Golden Rule, which is explicitly stated in the chorus to the song.

Throughout my life, I remember quite often being seen as an outcast among others my age because I had no interest in Christianity whatsoever and, as I got older, I was quite willing to argue vehemently about my atheist perspective, causing my sociology teacher to weep more than once at the rage-filled arguments people would throw at me as I batted away the Christian beliefs they'd held all their lives. "Show me your God," I would calmly ask, even as their blood began to boil and they repeated yet again that it was all a matter of faith.

If I figured out nothing else laying on the bed, listening to this record, I had figured out that such things were a waste of the gift of life. What use is there in ridiculing the belief structure of others to the point of driving them to tears? It gains me absolutely nothing other than a smug sense of superiority and it makes everyone else feel substantially worse, not only about themselves, but about me. In the end, it's a huge net loss; I don't even gain over the long run, even if I enjoyed making someone else hurt.

The golden rule is as simple as morality gets; it's more than a zero sum game, and in the end, that's the fundamental lesson of Jesus. What do you lose by loving someone?

When You Gonna Wake Up  (5:25)

This is a driving but still mellow little rock number with some horn section flares and an amusing bridge featuring some keyboarding, demonstrating clearly the Muscle Shoals sound that appears on this album.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain? sings Dylan.

I have felt, since I was a young child, that a gift with wordplay exists inside of me. I kept a ridiculously detailed journal through most of my high school years, then when college beckoned, I threw my energy into more creative tasks, like writing short stories and novels. It was this passion that often drove me, and it was also this passion that let me down.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain? sings Dylan.

I spent so much time that semester writing short stories, sticking them in the mailbox, and then later getting back a rejection letter. Each rejection letter was like a bullet to my heart, telling me that I should give up, that I had nothing inside of me truly worth giving or sharing with others.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain? sings Dylan.

That fateful day, I went to my organic chemistry final and wrote some madness on the many blanks on the test, drawing nonsensical hexanes and doodling in the margins. I walked out hoping for points for "creativity," because that's about all I was going to get. I stopped by my mailbox, opened the door, and inside I found nine rejection letters. Nine. Rejection. Letters.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain? sings Dylan.

I read each one over and over. I looked at the pile of them as I gobbled the Valium and drank the absinthe. I thought about them as the warm waves of sleep drifted over me. I went under believing in my heart I had nothing to give to anyone, that I was an empty shell.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain? sings Dylan.

On the bed, it occurred to me that by killing myself, I was tossing away this gift I had. I stared at the ceiling, realizing this; everything I had inside me would just go away if I left this mortal coil. I have something inside that I work with, like a blacksmith at his anvil; since that day, nary a day passes in which I do not write literally thousands of words, practicing the techniques, waiting for that moment when the words I write can reach out to the thousands of people Jesus showed to me.

Man Gave Names To All The Animals  (4:23)

This song sounds like Band on the Run-era Wings and is perhaps the most throwaway song on the record, merely retelling the story of Genesis, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

One of the biggest struggles I've had with Christianity throughout my life, both before and after discovering my faith, was the issue of creation. To put it simply, I don't know how we came about. No one does; it's all before recorded history. Even Moses was merely transcribing what he had been told had come before him.

This used to bother me a lot when I was under the impression that all Christians accepted literal creationism. I didn't understand how people could accept a parable as a true origin story. Even now, I don't really know for sure whether it is a parable or not; I tend to think it's just a simple story to explain something larger than any of us can comprehend.

But in the end, does it matter? It's all about faith in the end.

It was this last struggle that put me over the top and made me willing to accept Christ in my life. It's all faith, anyway; it's all about what we believe. Nothing is absolutely provable; using "proof" as some sort of catch-all criteria doesn't make sense. We can use as much empirical data as we want, but what good is it?

As I write this, I can see my wife sitting on the floor reading a book. I can't really tell what's on the cover, but it is comforting to know that she is there.

When He Returns  (4:30)

This song reminds me of the single version of Let it Be without all of the ridiculous overdubbing that appears on the album version. Just a simple voice with a simple piano expressing a faith, and that's what this entire album is about. Bob Dylan expresses his faith and how it is part of his world; how it is a part of him, and that is inherently beautiful.

When I close my eyes for the final time, I don't really care whether or not I wake up someday when I am to be judged. I don't wonder if I will be Left Behind; it's not really something I worry about at all.

As far as I am concerned, I am judged every night when I drift off to sleep and I think back on the day. Did I make a difference in someone's life today? I don't intend to convert anyone, and I actually rarely speak of my faith to anyone, but my gift isn't evangelism. My gifts are empathy and the written word.

When He returns, all I ask for is that some lives are better for having come into contact with me, and the only way I can do that is by using what gifts I have every day.

I closed my eyes and prayed that day, for the first time in my life.

* * *

I've been a Christian for several years now. I'm not much of an evangelical Christian, to be honest; this is as close to evangelizing you'll ever see from me. Yet, on the other hand, I strongly considered going to seminary. We're all walking contradictions, I guess.

If you're ever going to pick up a Christian album, this is the one you should try (since the true best choice, Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet, is long out of print). It may or may not speak to you, but it does show off some strong musicianship and it is the clear voice of a man expressing his faith.

Interviewer: When you look ahead now, do you still see a Slow Train Coming?
Dylan: When I look ahead now, it's picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it's going like a freight train now.
- Interview, 1991

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