CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
The Bible and Pop Culture
Regardless of one's religious or philosophical beliefs, it is hard to deny that the Bible is hugely influential. It is hard to dispute its cultural impact. This impact can be seen in different fields of art, and the world of secular music is no exception.
Right now we will consider a list of 10 songs inspired by the Bible. I intentionally avoided music by artists of faith-based music. The songs I chose are performed by those that are generally viewed as secular artists. It includes a diverse group of artists. It also includes songs from what would appear to be unlikely sources.
The list is presented in chronological, not numerical order.
Turn! Turn! Turn! — The Byrds
The song was composed by Pete Seeger in the late ’50s and the lyrics were taken almost directly from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The first recorded version of the song was in 1962 by The Limeliters, under the name "To Everything There Is a Season".
The Byrds' version appeared on the 1965 album of the same name. The song became a huge hit, hitting #1 on the US Hot 100 Billboard Chart. With lyrics that are traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, the song has the distinction of being the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics.
Interestingly, the only lyrics that Pete Seeger added that were not lifted from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes is the line "I swear it is not to late," which appears after the line "a time for peace." This help give the song a strong anti-war message, which made it an appropriate anthem for the 1960s protest movement.
Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds (Video)
Highway 61 Revisited — Bob Dylan
In the late ’70s, Bob Dylan converted to Born Again Christianity and released a couple of Gospel albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But prior to that, Dylan wrote a couple of songs which contained Biblical allusions. "Highway 61 Revisited," from his 1965 album of the same name, is an example of one of these songs.
The opening verse of the song makes reference to a passage in Genesis 22 in which God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac. In this instance, the scriptural reference seems to be more of a poetic and literary inspiration than any kind of religious statement.
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (Video)
Sacrifice of Isaac - Rembrandt
Story of Isaac — Leonard Cohen
"Story of Isaac" is from Leonard Cohen's 1969 album Songs from a Room. It is another song which makes reference to the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As opposed to "Highway 61 Revisited," which addresses the subject from Abraham's perspective, this song addresses the subject from Isaac's perspective.
Leonard Cohen's Jewish background is touched upon in many of his songs, and he commonly makes reference to verses in the Old Testament. In connection with this, I was also seriously considering his modern-day standard, "Hallelujah," from his 1984 album Various Positions.
Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen (Video)
Sacrifice Child Poll
Rivers of Babylon — Melodians
This 1970 reggae classic is adapted from Psalm 137:1-4 and Psalm 19:14. The song was written to reflect the band's Rastafarian beliefs. In the Rastafarian faith, oppressive governmental authorities and Western society are referred to as "Babylon." Initially, the song was banned in Jamaica for its strong anti-authoritarian message.
The song was also included in the groundbreaking soundtrack for the 1972 Jimmy Cliff film The Harder They Come. In 1978, the song became an international hit when it was covered by Boney M. That version modified the lyrics to exclude the Rastafarian references.
Rivers of Babylon by Melodians (Video)
Loose Booty — Sly and the Family Stone
This funky little ditty is from Sly and the Family Stone's 1974 album Small Talk. The song repeats the chant "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego," the three Hebrew boys who are thrown into a fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel. This particular song doesn't really touch upon the details of the Biblical account. The Biblical character names are used more as a divine call to get funky on the dance floor.
The Beastie Boys heavily sampled this song on their song "Shadrach," from their 1989 landmark album Paul's Boutique.
Loose Booty by Sly and the Family Stone (Video)
Bible and Dance Poll
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
Creeping Death — Metallica
"Creeping Death" is from Metallica's 1984 album Ride The Lightning. The song was written from the perspective of the Angel of Death. It contains references to the some of the ten plagues referred to in the Book of Exodus. The band was inspired to write the song after watching the movie The Ten Commandments. The song became a popular live staple partly due to the crowd participation of the "Die!" chant.
Creeping Death by Metallica (Video)
Gouge Away — Pixies
"Gouge Away" is one of three songs from the Pixies classic 1989 album Doolittle that could of qualified for this list. The other songs are "Dead" (David and Bathsheba) and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" (Biblical numerology). "Gouge Away" deals with the Scriptural account of Samson and Delilah. The song makes reference to Samson being blinded and "Chained to the pillars... I break the walls/Kill us all/With holy fingers."
Gouge Away by Pixies (Video)
Delilah Cuts Samson's Hair
Other Songs That Refer to Samson and/or Delilah
Run Samson Run
Neil Sedaka Sings Little Devil and His Other Hits
Samson and Delilah
Middle of the Road
The Pointer Sisters
Written by Bruce Springsteen, who released it on his album Live 1975-85
Modern day standard, most well known version Jeff Buckley from his 1994 album Grace
All Women Are Bad
Someday We'll Know
Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too
Covered by Hall & Oates, 2003 album Do It For Love
The Dresden Dolls
Modern Day Delilah
Sim Sala Bim
Thin Blue Flames — Josh Ritter
I had to toss a coin between this song and "Girl in the War," both from Josh Ritter's excellent but somewhat overlooked 2006 masterpiece, The Animal Years. Both songs protest the Iraq war and provide poignant commentary on religion's destructive role in war. Both songs are two of the finest protest songs of the 2000s protest movement.
I opted for "Thin Blue Flames" because this nearly 10-minute epic contains more direct Biblical references. Examples include "He bent down and made the world in seven days/And ever since he's been walking away," "If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high/ It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die," and "The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem/ To float like the smoke from a lithium dream."
Thin Blue Flames by Josh Ritter (Video)
A Pillar of Salt — The Thermals
"A Pillar of Salt" is from The Thermals' 2006 album The Body, the Blood, the Machine. This was a punk rock concept album which, according to the band's website, "tells the story of a young couple who must flee a United States governed by fascist faux-Christians."
The song alludes to the Biblical account of the destruction of Sodom of Gomorrah, when Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. In the context of this song, and the album that it is from, the Sodom and Gomorrah that they are escaping from is the fascist regime of faux-Christianity.
A Pillar of Salt by The Thermals (Video)
Lot's Wife Pillar
Mount Sodom, Israel
Matthew 25:21 — The Mountain Goats
"Matthew 25:21" is from The Mountain Goats 2009 album The Life of the World to Come. Every song on the album is named after and inspired by a Bible verse. Some of the songs do allude to aspects of the verse, while other songs (such as this one) use the verse as a jumping-off point for songwriter John Darnielle's compelling narratives. In the case of "Matthew 25:21," that narrative involves someone who is dying from cancer. I can't listen to this song without getting choked up.
Darnielle considers himself to be a non-practicing Catholic who borders on being a non-believer. But he is also interested in the Bible and has cited it as an important inspiration for his creative efforts. This reminded me of a High School English teacher I had who considered herself Agnostic. She felt that everyone should read the Bible and that it was an important part of a well-balanced education. She respected it from a literary standpoint.
Matthew 25:21 by The Mountain Goats (Video)
© 2014 CJ Baker
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 25, 2014:
Teaches, thanks for the read and the comment! I agree that Turn, Turn, Turn is a very thought provoking song. I am also glad that I may of introduced you to some artists and songs that you never heard of before. That is always one of my objectives with these Hubs. I want to offer a diverse selection of musical genres, along with a mix of the well known and obscure.
Dianna Mendez on February 25, 2014:
I remember hearing Turn, Turn, Turn during my high school years. It was quite popular and thought provoking. There are many songs out there today inspired by the Bible as well, and many are very inspiring. I am not familiar with some of the artists and songs, thank you for highlighting their purpose and musical response to Biblical beliefs.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 11, 2014:
Thank for the read and the comment, Beth! The Thermals are pretty solid, and I do recommend their album The Body, the Blood, the Machine.
Beth Perry from Tennesee on February 11, 2014:
Good list! I'll have to check out The Thermals; I don't think I have yet listened to any of their music.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on January 21, 2014:
FatFeddyCat - It really is a fun Biblical inspired chant! Thanks for the read and comment!
WriterJanis - This Hub was really just a small sample of the number of songs that were inspired by the Bible. Many people just connect the Bible's influence to Faith based music, but I thought it would be interesting to examine its impact on secular music. Especially in connection with musical artists that would generally fall under the category of non-believers. I appreciate the read and the comment!
Janis from California on January 21, 2014:
It's amazing how many songs were originally inspired by the Bible.
Keith Abt from The Garden State on January 21, 2014:
I have stood in the crowd at many Metallica shows screaming "DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!" at the top of my lungs during "Creeping Death!"
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on January 21, 2014:
Hi Sheri, thanks for the read and the comment, greatly appreciated!
Sheri Dusseault from Chemainus. BC, Canada on January 20, 2014:
Well who knew....very interesting hub!