"It's a very real thing for him," says Chris Christian, a gospel music figure and friend of friends. Joining other showbiz faithful (including Debby Boone), Dylan has been meeting Sundays for the past six months in a rented Santa Monica dance studio with a fundamentalist church group known as the Vineyard. One of the Vineyard's pastors, Donn Thomas, explains: "We're interested in seeing him grow, just like any other Christian, so we're not going to expose him to the media right now."
But Dylan did just that, his way and eloquently, with the release of his new LP, Slow Train Coming. His most impassioned work since the early protest years, Slow Train has a gospel swing, and the lyrics glow with biblical allusions. "There's a man on a cross, and he been crucified for you. Believe in his power, that's about all you've got to do," goes a sample line, and the album jacket includes two cross symbols: a pickax and a ship's mast.
That's a radical departure for the former Robert Allen Zimmerman, who was bar mitzvahed at the Agudath Achim Synagogue in Hibbing, Minn. Dylan was silent about his Jewish past during much of the '60s, but in 1971 he visited an Israeli kibbutz with then wife Sara and their children, attended a yeshiva (Hebrew school) and donated funds to Israel and the radical Jewish Defense League.
But back in California, friends like former Byrd Roger McGuinn began introducing Dylan to Jesus ("We sat down and studied the Bible together," says McGuinn). Next, notes Pat Boone, several members of the Alpha Band, who had toured with Dylan, began to gather to "listen to music, write music or pray." Dylan was interested, but the rumor that he was baptized in the Boones' pool is flatly denied by everyone, including Debby. The conversion did happen about six months ago, however, with Dylan (now that he's divorced from Sara after 11½ years) reportedly following the lead of a girlfriend who also recently found Christ.
One fundamentalist who surely approves of Dylan's new morning is Jimmy Carter, who said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention: "We have an America that, in Bob Dylan's phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying"—and sometimes being born again.
Far be it from Bob Dylan, point man for American pop music for nearly two decades, to be out of step—no matter how precipitously the times a-change. Back in the '60s Dylan epitomized the Vietnam-era social upheaval. The introspective '70s took him to Malibu and an inner journey through Buddhism, Hinduism and his own Jewish heritage. Now, as the "Me Decade" closes, Dylan's search seems to be at an end: He has converted, at 38, to Christianity.