Lady Gaga sings about Mary Magdalene, the friend and disciple of Jesus. Katy Perry refers to the biblical hero Esther and writes about being called and chosen. The Clash refers to the floods of God, the walls of Jericho and believing in Jesus. Coldplay sings about St. Peter at heaven’s gate (and uses many other biblical or religious allusions).
Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which John Legend called “as near perfect as you can get”) is full of biblical allusions from start to finish. Amos Lee sings, “Oh Jesus, can you help me now, ’cause I’ve never felt so alone,” and elsewhere prays, “Oh please Lord, deliver me to love.” U2’s “40” quotes Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry.”
Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” begins with a reference to Psalm 23. It is a reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” which refers to “the day when the Savior of love will come to stay.” The fascination with all things spiritual has been around for a long time.
Bob Dylan’s lyrics are full of biblical allusions. “Highway 61 Revisted” references the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In “Pay in Blood” he repeats, again and again “I pay in blood, but not my own.” According to Dylan, even his famous line, “everybody must get stoned” was not a reference to drugs but to the biblical book of Acts and the stoning of St. Stephen.
Johnny Cash is another artist who often referenced biblical passages or doctrines. “Ain’t No Grave” is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:55. “The Man Comes Around” calls to mind the four horseman of the Apocalypse. On “Redemption” Cash sang, “The blood gave life to the branches of the tree / And the blood was the price that set the captives free.”
Tommy James and the Shondells had “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The Byrds made a giant hit of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which comes directly from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Jackson Browne, in “Song for Adam,” alludes to the story of the Fall from Genesis with this line: “Now the story’s told that Adam jumped, but I’m thinking that he fell.”
Some of these artists (Cash, James and Dylan) claimed faith in Jesus at some point. Most have not. So why this fascination with the Bible and with spiritual ideas and themes?
The cynic might answer that spiritual allusions are an easy way to add depth to an otherwise shallow song. And the cynic might be right. Songwriters desperately want to be thought deep. But that doesn’t explain some artists continuing fascination with, and inquiry into, biblical and spiritual themes.
A more comprehensive answer might be that humans are fascinated and frightened by the transcendent. As a race, we cannot help but search for our origins and our destiny, and we sense that both lie outside ourselves, that we are coming from and are going to God. In every age, the search for human purpose and dignity has led serious searchers back to God.
The question might (and should) be asked, “From where does this relentless longing for God come?” Numerous answers have been suggested, including the materialist’s: the idea of God was useful in the early evolutionary stages of humanity, and as a race we (with the exception of the materialist) have not yet grown up enough to dispense with it.
But there is another answer I think more credible. God created humanity with a “homing instinct.” That was St. Paul’s answer: “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Why do we seek God? Because we were made that way.
The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal described human emptiness as a hole, an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Songwriters, like all the rest of us, are just trying to fill that hole.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/25/2015