When Bob Dylan sang for the Pope a week ago today, it did not seem a meeting of equals: one of the two men can draw huge crowds of young people wherever he goes and still releases best-selling albums of dense poetry; the other is widely seen as the clapped-out old relic of an outmoded belief system even though he is only 56 and has just released a very good record himself.
But I still like to believe that Dylan will be remembered as long as the Pope, at least by those who care about religious poetry. For the songs he wrote in his Christian period in the early Eighties seem to me as fine as any hymns I know. Of course they're not George Herbert or even John Bunyan. They derive a great part of their power from the music - but that is not a crime in hymnody; and they are infinitely better than happy-clappy drivel like "Shine, Jesus, Shine", named in a moment of regrettable spontaneity by George Carey as one of his favourite hymns.
Unless you visit the churches where they are perpetrated, it is difficult to grasp just how bad the "worship song" can be. Not even Dylan at his most bathetic can match such things as "Lord, you put a tongue in my mouth" or "Lord, I can feel you changing me" - this last known for obvious reasons as the nappy song. And Dylan's songs to God are not his most bathetic. For one thing, they are not mushy. Whether as a Jew or a Christian, he has always been apocalyptically interested: one of the songs he performed for the Pope was "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", written for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when it seemed the world might be blown up at any moment. But its imagery is not nuclear: it is a descent into the valley of the shadow of death, all right, but the route taken is nowhere specified.
As a Christian, however, he was a Calvinist. He studied under John Wimber, once the drummer in the Righteous Brothers, who founded one of the most successful fundamentalist church groupings of the last 30 years. Wimber's Vineyard Fellowship has specialised in miracles and apocalyptic excitements. First it was healings, then prophecies, and most recently the Toronto Blessing; yet all these have been anchored in a rigorous Calvinism.
There are so many things wrong with a system that holds that a just God will condemn millions to eternal, unimaginable suffering, that it is easy to overlook the merits of Calvinism, and chief among these is beauty. It is a beautiful system of thought in the way that engineering, chess, or even software can be beautiful: all the vast forces within it are perfectly arranged and balanced. It brings to life Dylan's phrase about "the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone". God's justice and his mercy between them account for all the varieties of human experience; and if most of these varieties turn out to be unpleasant, that conforms the close fit of the theory to experience. Everything exists within a perfect finished plan.
Dylan has always thrown fragments of religious texts into his songs, but they usually come from the Bible. "Perfect finished plan", which comes in the chorus of "Every Grain of Sand" is a rare exception: a piece of secondary dogma, which he manages, however, to integrate completely into the argument and passion of the song. It is only crabbed old religious freaks who notice it in the hoarse torrent of conviction with which he sings. For the real triumph of Dylan as a religious singer is the way that he manages to inject fierce personal anguish into the cold certainties of Calvinism. Dylan can sing like a man with the Last Things right before his eyes.
Some form of this is traditional among rock stars: many have sung as if the last overdose were in front of them. But just as Dylan sings about deeper hells than that, he also sings wonderfully of joy. I don't think anything written this century can beat the leaping, bounding joy of "You Shall Be Changed" with its chorus in which the dead arise - and burst out of their clothes. Bursting is the verb to make the resurrection of the body mean something. And while other journalists may pacify their children on long car journeys with tapes of Pope John Paul reciting the rosary, I will continue to inflame mine with great blasts of "Slow Train Coming".
`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul VallelyReuse content