Bob Dylan’s relationship with faith is a complicated one. He was born into a Jewish family, and he then famously converted to evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s for a confusing yet brief period before returning to Judaism.
One thing that cannot be denied is that Dylan is a spiritual man who has consistently sought peace from a higher power, and in 1997, he even got to perform for The Pope in a strange clashing of 20th Century iconoclasts. Despite not being a Catholic, the opportunity to perform for someone of eternal holy stature was irresistible to Dylan. Nevertheless, his presence was met with resistance from the Church, including Pope Benedict, who tried to cancel the occasion.
Around this period, Dylan clarified his religious beliefs to Newsweek: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing,” he said. “This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.
“Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’ — that’s my religion,” continued the singer. “I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
Despite claiming not to be a religious man in the traditional sense, he understood the privilege and prestige which came from performing for The Pope on September 27th, 1997.
300,000 young Catholics turned out in their droves to witness Dylan deliver a spellbinding set that saw him play classic songs such as ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Forever Young‘.
The Pope made an emotive speech to a rousing reception following the performance, making you think he was the rockstar rather than Dylan. “You say the answer is blowing in the wind, my friend,” he said. “So it is: but it is not the wind that blows things away, it is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says, ‘Come!'”.
He added: “You ask me how many roads a man must walk down before he becomes a man. I answer: there is only one road for man, and it is the road of Jesus Christ, who said, ‘I am the Way and the Life’.”
Inviting a controversial character like Dylan to perform for The Pope upset many in the conservative religious sect. Pope Benedict later admitted that he tried to stop the concert to no avail. At the time, he was just a cardinal and thankfully didn’t hold the sufficient pulling power to prevent Dylan from taking to the stage in Bologna.
Benedict described Dylan in his book, John Paul II, My Beloved Predecessor, as a “type of ‘prophet” before making it abundantly clear he didn’t agree with the singer’s message.
“There was reason to be sceptical, and I was. Indeed, in a certain sense, I still am today,” he wrote. Benedict even admitted in the 2007 book that he still held “doubts to this day whether it was right to let this kind of so-called prophet take the stage.”
Dylan is a voice of reason in the secular modern Western world, and looking down on him shows why the influence of religion continues to decay as the years go on. He isn’t perfect, but then again, he doesn’t proclaim to be. The singer’s transparency is why his lyrics resonate with millions on such a visceral level and make him a modern-day messiah.