Property of Jesus: an unsuccessful attempt at ascertaining the meaning.

By Tony Attwood

Although the Shot of Love album was less religious than the previous two albums Dylan recorded, it most certainly included a number of very solidly Christian songs – including rather obviously obviously Property of Jesus.

It is a song that appears to have been worked and re-worked, but then having been recorded was not used on the tours, so maybe Dylan never really felt it was finished.  Or maybe he had worked it out of his system.

The title phrase is probably relates to 1 Corinthians 7, 20, which is often presented as “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them,” although obviously different editions of the Bible have different translations.

The passage goes on to say that if you are a slave, be happy to stay a slave, but if you can remove yourself from slavery that’s ok.   It seems to me (as a non-Christian) to be part of the conservative nature of Christianity, allowing social situations no matter how awful (and to me slavery is certainly at the most awful end of the spectrum) to remain because what primarily matters is life hereafter, not life now.  Social revolution, of the type preached in Times they are a changing, it certainly isn’t.  Nor is it Masters of War.

It is, in short, “this is how it is, and that’s all right because salvation comes later.”

The song has been called satirical, but I think I am really failing here because I don’t hear it as satire at all.  It seems to me to be a straightforward message saying you can make fun of this guy because he is now a Christian and you can sneer at the Christian faith and the faithful, but what you think is better is actually a lack of humanity, and a lack of Christian ways, it is in fact a heart of stone.

And therein lies the problem for me.  The Corinthians phrase is for me a perfect example of a heart of stone – just stay in your poverty or desperation, and let the rich stay in their luxury, because God has put each of us in this position and He knows what he is doing, really grates with me.  Of course that is my problem not yours, but I thought I’d just tell you where I am.

And of course as a non-believer I might have got this horribly wrong, but that’s how I see it.  There’s a comment box below for you to put me right.

Musically it is not particularly exciting either: the verse is just sung against the chord of B flat without a particularly significant melody.  The chorus does a bit more work with the descending three chord sequence of G minor, F, E flat repeated three times before it is all resolved back onto the B flat chord for another verse.  And then off we go again.

I suppose I also have problems with the song because of lines like, “Go ahead and talk about him because he makes you doubt,” and it is simply a concept I can’t share.  If Dylan is telling a story such as Rolling Stone, or painting a picture like Johanna, I can enter inside that.   I don’t have to have despised anyone as much as Dylan despised the friend on Fourth Street, to understand the feelings.  I can share what he is thinking.

But I don’t find people make me doubt.  Not at all.

Also I don’t laugh at people who live much simpler lives than me.  The most moving day of my life, apart from the funerals of my mum, my dad, and my aunt, was spent in the company of a Swami who had such overwhelming ease, relaxation, insight, understanding, and just about everything else that is good, that I could not have conceived such oneness with the world around.  I didn’t laugh at that Swami – I marvelled at her peace and tranquillity, and have constantly tried to regain that through meditation in many ways.

Do people laugh at Christians behind their backs?   I don’t see it in England, but maybe it happens.  I can however get very slightly annoyed because the country I live in imposes Christianity upon me to a slight degree (most particularly because along with Iran, the UK has its clergy in the law making assembly – the House of Lords in the UK’s case – and thus they influence the laws).   So we have very odd divorce laws here which still look back to the rules laid down in the Bible – and I wish we didn’t.   But that’s about it.

So whereas “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” rang true with me when I first heard it, and still does today, “Stop your conversation when he passes on the street, Hope he falls upon himself, oh, won’t that be sweet” just doesn’t touch me at all.  I’m not there, I don’t get it.

And yes I know a lot of people are superstitious, but I am not too sure what that has to do with it all and when we get to

Because he can’t be bribed or bought by the things that you adore

I am afraid Bob’s rather lost me.

Of course that is my fault, not Bob’s, but that’s just where I am.  Who wants to bribe a Christian?  Who is bribing me?  I adore my three daughters and my grandchildren.  I care deeply for my close friends and I try to go as far as is required to help them when they need me.  They don’t ask me often but when they do, I really do try to be there.  And although I would never presume I think they would always do the same for me.

I don’t know that I adore physical property, but I do value the piano that I play each day, and which belonged to my late father… but such thoughts seem to have taken me further away from Dylan’s thinking rather than closer.

So what is the whip that is keeping me in line?  What tribute do I pay that he doesn’t?  Are we talking taxes?  Surely not.  Are we talking cigarettes and other habitual substances?  I doubt it, given Bob’s love of the poison.

I suppose the real moment when I utterly lose it with the song is in the penultimate verse.

Say that he’s a loser ’cause he got no common sense
Because he don’t increase his worth at someone else’s expense
Because he’s not afraid of trying, ’cause he don’t look at you and smile
’Cause he doesn’t tell you jokes or fairy tales, say he’s got no style

Common sense is by and large nonsense.  Common sense tells us that gravity doesn’t exist because we can’t see it.  Common sense tells us the earth is flat and the sun moves not the earth.  Common sense tells us that we can understand the world without any theory.

But what is a religion if it is not a theoretical construct to explain the world?  In which case the religious and the scientific person (which is where I put myself) are at one – they both have theories.  It is just that they are different types of theory.  One demands evidence, one demands faith.

Anyway, it’s just me, I’m sure.  But it is not, I would add, because I object to religious music or songs about religion.   I can grasp the almighty edifice and monumental beauty of the B minor mass, but sorry, this song is just a song.  I guess I can see why Bob kept it out of the performance repertoire.

All the songs reviewed

The songs of Dylan in the order they were written.

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14 Responses to Property of Jesus: an unsuccessful attempt at ascertaining the meaning.

  1. hans altena says:

    You put your finger exactly on the spot where my Trouble with the album Shot of Love lies, it’s in simplistic songs like this one, and I say simplistic, not simple, because that aspect can be endearing and moving, as the blues tells us. The melody, the playing, the words, they don’t elevate themselves to a level where you are left with wonder, something a Dylan song mostly does, even if it is seemingly straightforward. This one is just naïve in an annoying way, so that you ask yourself, was he wearing blinkers? No opening of minds here, as elsewhere in his great oeuvre. Shot of Love, the first song on the album makes me feel his religious anguish, Groom’s still waiting at the Altar could have been on Highway 61, Every Grain of Sand communicates the reverence and doubt one may experience in front of a seemingly divine creation, Summertime and Heart of Mine are moving, Dead Man hits you in the stomach, but the rest is just drivel to me, stuff he should have left on the cutting floor, instead of the majestic Carribean Wind and hypnotic Angelina, full of poetry he seemed to start to despise because of a Christian fear for hubris. I considered him lost instead of found by the supposedly loving Christ in those days.

  2. hudson says:

    I disagree. I really love this song. Its not simplistic at all. There are a number of general types of christianity. And they are at war with each other as much as anything. By this time dylan had seen this infighting if you wanna see that. Theyre all worshipping jesus but theyre at loggerheads with each other. Perhaps worshipping different aspects of christ. None worshipping him fully. Perhaps none able to. There are quite different types of people and so its no surprise really that there are different types of christianity. The phrase heart of stone is key for me. If you think of it esoterically or mystically etc then you have different heart of stone than what is usually meant by the phrase. Dylans genius use of ambiguity and abstraction is well illustrated and very poigniant in this song. He had by this time been pretty well versed in the christian scene by this stage. I hope I got my point across. Tell me if I wasnt clear. I do so dig this song.

  3. This song has often pulled me out of a hole that others tried to drag me into, be it bullies, jealous types or corrupt authorities. This song gives hope and independence from all that monkey business. Shot of Love, an essential Dylan album, whether you got faith or unbelief.

  4. Marcus says:

    I think he just needed to get it off his chest. He’d been castigated for a year or two by then.

  5. Kieran says:

    I’m with hans on this, and though I love Bob’s Christian albums, the lyrics on this one seem a bit one-dimensional and cranky. I think Bob was on the move from his call-and-response gospel phase, which ended with Saved, and was moving onto newer songwriting plains, but he wasn’t quite sure what they were. There’s a boot called Between Saved and Shot which contains a bunch of tryouts in the studio, some of them sound great and could have developed into strong album songs, but he abandoned them.

    Not sure why Angelina and Caribbean Wind and so many more were discarded too. I have my own SoL playlist, but I suppose we all have different versions of his 80’s albums…

  6. you really have to know the Old Testament to understand. the Bible and today’s ‘christianity’ are two different animals. Dylan is Bible based.

    it is all so simple…’because he makes you doubt’…who knows where we go after we stop breathing. we can guess but we are never sure. people who understand the message have faith and look forward to the end. many, many people find ‘religion when they are about to die.’ if you have faith that your soul (do you believe in souls?) is righteous, you have no worries. people with questions about the unknown hate people who do not worry. human nature.

    The Bible – your comment on gravity…if you give a barefoot three year old child a brick and tell the child to drop the brick, do you think the child will drop it on their own toes? no, because they accept gravity. even some primates sleep in a position that protects them from possible gravity (falling from tree while asleep)…

    you are taking Dylan songs as literally as a southern baptist takes the word of a preacher…start over and think. if you are going to comment on a book like the Bible, one should read the thing first…otherwise all comments fall into ignorance.

    i love the song and it makes total sense.

  7. David Harper says:

    Property Of Jesus is, to me, a hard and heavy protest song against those who’ve rejected and dismissed some of the best constructed and biblically true Christian songs we’ve heard. Unbelievers can be as rude and lame as any nerdy in your face evangelical.
    Dylan has never pushed religion as much as illuminating it’s mystery and relevance where modern religion is what’s really lost.

  8. Christian says:

    IT’s not written that ALL Dylan songs MUST have depth.He’s allowed to write shallower ones.And yes PROPERTY OF JESUS is just that.But the fact remains it”s ALL ABOUT BELIEF.BELIEF IN J-E-S-U-S. Try H-I-M!! You’ll LOVE H-I-M!!!

  9. Johnny D says:

    It’s just a song. He was probably tired of all the rancor and just declared his faith in an easily digest able manner. As for your unbelief, you sound pretty thoughtful-if so, read “Mere Christianity” by C.S.Lewis, that should do the trick for belief vs. unbelief. Also, treat the girl from the red river shore as a metaphor for Christ, and grab your faith while you have time to believe and give it to your grandchildren before it’s against the law! I been to London, and I been to gay Paree…so look up look up and seek your Maker, ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn!

  10. Bob Brodsky says:

    I’ve heard through the years that Bob is singing to Mick, i.e. “You’ve got something better, you got a heart of stone.”

    Years earlier, on a much better song, it is believed that Bob sings about another Stone, Brian Jones. Brian, of course is the “Dancing child with his Chinese flute.”

    Thank you all for your great essay and comments.

    –Bob Brodsky

  11. Kimberly says:

    I will agree with you that the music on this song is not Dylan’s most inspired. But it’s funny you posted about this song today, because I was listening to it on my way to & from work both yesterday AND today, and I can really groove to this song. It’s not melodically interesting, but it’s got that driving rhythm to it and I love Dylan’s vocals.

    As for the lyrics, I’m afraid that maybe this is a song where perhaps one has to be a believer to really *get* the lyrics. This song is absolutely *steeped* in Biblical references, but not in an academic way, like many of Dylan’s songs like, say, All Along the Watchtower, that even a non-believer can look at it and see that it has roots in the Bible. This song has Biblical truths in it that are LIVED. One must live these truths, I think, from the inside out, to really understand them in the song, perhaps.

    I would say that I would use a different scripture, as a believer, for a jumping-off point with this song. I was surprised to see the scripture that you used. The scripture that always makes sense for me as a reference with this song – there are several, actually, and they all pivot with this scripture as a cross-reference – is Romans 6. I will call out the specific verses that I think of when I listen to this song – again, I am speaking as a believer.

    “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. ut now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:16-23

    Those are key verses, I believe, in understanding this song. And particularly in answering some of the questions you raised in your post. Specifically the one you asked about “So what is the whip that is keeping me in line? What tribute do I pay that he doesn’t?” The whip that is keeping you in line is sin. The tribute that you pay for that sin is death. I am not trying to preach or evangelize to you specifically, dear friend, whose posts on Dylan I love. I am interpreting the song, in light of the words of St. Paul, which I do believe influenced this song.

    Much love to you. This really is my favorite Dylan blog. I hope my words have shed some light on this song, which I love & listen to very often indeed.

  12. Kimberly says:

    And here is another verse that cross references to Romans 6:

    John 8:34
    ‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’

    I would add to my post, something I meant to say, in quoting that verse from Romans, in light of the song: when Dylan mentions the whip and he sings, over and over in the chorus, “he’s the PROPERTY of Jesus,” I believe he is making specific references to these verses in the Bible that talk about being in bondage to sin, being redeemed from one’s bondage to sin, and instead become servants to Christ Jesus – “enslaved to God”…a concept that he also expressed in Gotta Serve Somebody…

  13. David says:

    Tony, I mean no offense when I say that I think your reference to the passage about remaining a slave is way off the mark as a starting point to understanding the title or the theme of the song. To me, a far more relevant Bible verse which guides my understanding of the song is this, from 1 Corinthians 6:20: “Or do you not know that your body is a [a]temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from [b]God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” Ultimately, that idea of having been bought by the price of Christ’s blood influences everything, including one’s attitude toward his slave master– or sneering criticism, for that matter.
    There are other points I could respond to, but I think it would remain a song that you won’t connect with, because you don’t react to a person of faith the way people in the song do. It doesn’t appear that you are a person who feels hostility towards a believer who is passionate and convinced of the truth of his path, but there were plenty of people who were quite angry. One review of “Slow Train” I saved said something like this in a livid tone: “You told me not to follow leaders, but now you’re telling me I have to serve somebody. I won’t have it.” Bob himself said to some fans who were booing during a Fox Warfield Theater concert, “You wanted me to give you the answers, and I wouldn’t, but now I’m telling you who is the answer, and you don’t want to hear it.” I think many fans who had long ago written off Christianity and traditional religions felt betrayed, and when fans feel betrayed, they are often resentful and seething. Hence, Bob’s many references to snide things people said. Whether he ought to have been more thick-skinned, or ought to have not written a song that in many ways just accuses his accusers, is another question.

  14. Marco says:

    When you love Jesus you become his by His doing. We are “bought with a price”, by the redemptive work of Christ….on our behalf. Belonging to Jesus is the deepest most satisfying and rewarding reality I have ever experienced. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. To know Him is to love Him because He is amazing in every way.
    Also…..Dylan has been quoted as saying Shot was one of his favorite records….just for the record!
    And thanks for your blog. I enjoy reading it.

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