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Music

10 great songs inspired by The Bible

The Bible is a brilliant book, even for people like myself who don’t subscribe to organised religion. The work is rife with metaphor and materials, never underestimating the importance of the proverbs and messages in question. In its own way, the book presents a mantra by which society can live.

We decided to choose tracks that honoured the intention of the Bible itself which is why you won’t find any Manic Street Preachers tracks in this listing, precisely because it’s not part of the gospel according to John, Mark, Luke or Matthew.

Instead, we will focus on the songs that made a concerted effort to capture the flavours of the text on which they are based. We pivot from Nick Cave to Bob Dylan, circa Jeff Buckley. In their own idiosyncratic way, the songs pay tribute to the stories that inspired so many for so long.

And we could have gone for more than ten songs, but we decided to whittle it down to a tidy selection of songs that encapsulate many of the facets of the holy text.

The 10 essential tracks about The Holy Bible:

10.’Dig Lazarus Dig – Nick Cave

Now, this is a man who likes to put biblical references in his work, perhaps in an effort to make his work seem worthier and more important than it perhaps needs to be. But ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ is a very strong piece, tying the many strands of life together under one elegy. The tune features one of Nick Cave’s more haunting vocal deliveries, and the backing only accentuates the tune as a whole.

“Ever since I can remember hearing the Lazarus story,” Cave recalled, “when I was a kid, you know, back in church, I was disturbed and worried by it. Traumatized, actually. We are all, of course, in awe of the greatest of Christ’s miracles – raising a man from the dead – but I couldn’t help but wonder how Lazarus felt about it. As a child it gave me the creeps, to be honest. I’ve taken Lazarus and stuck him in New York City, in order to give the song, a hip, contemporary feel.” No wonder the tune continues to give listeners nightmares- it’s a genuinely scary song.

9. ‘Adam Raised A Cain’- Bruce Springsteen

Considering his Irish roots, it should be of no surprise that Bruce Springsteen is well versed in the bible, never underestimating the severity or the jagged edge of the characters within The Bible itself. There’s a lot of violence in the book, particularly The Old Testament, but there’s no shortage of bloodshed in the New Testament either. The fact that Mel Gibson had to tone some elements down in The Passion of The Christ says everything.

This track from Darkness on The Edge of Town shows the temptation to strike a devastating blow against the people you love the most in the world. In his own idiosyncratic way, he implies that the sins of the son are actually the sins of the father, which is interesting when you consider the amount of dead children that die at the hands of their parents in the book itself.

8. ‘Prodigal Son’ – The Rolling Stones

The Prodigal Son refers to the fable Jesus allegedly told his followers, showcasing the importance of love above all else in life. God, he says, is a loving, even forgiving God, but even he was guilty of falling to temptation in the hands of rock’s most notorious child, Mick Jagger. The tune is punchy, but it’s the lyrics that give the song that added sense of edge and responsibility, etching listeners into a world of sanctimony and sincerity, never underestimating the importance of the aphorism itself.

And although they are known for their wackiness, this tune is surprisingly one of the band’s more thoughtful and truthful, especially in the way it is laid out. ‘Prodigal Son’ is still one of the band’s most famous deep cuts, and it goes to reason that the band were all the stronger because they wrote such a gorgeous number. It wasn’t the last time they ventured into the world of scripture, although ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is likely to give any preacher a conniption, due to its fondness for the devil himself.

7. ’40’ – U2

Typical of U2, they don’t write a song based on the bible but adapt some of the words to create an evocative piece of music. This liturgical number can be heard on their third album, War, and proves a tasty respite after what has otherwise been a braggadocious, burling affair for the Dublin quartet. Bassist Adam Clayton had already left the studio when the group decided to record one more track for the album, so The Edge ended up playing the bass himself. Empty of lyrics, Bono adapted the words from the bible that was left open in the studio.

It’s a gorgeous piece, although it is hard to describe the tune as a song per se, as it closes out the album with a sense of dignity and pride. In many ways, the tune is more of a sound collage than an out and out rock number, so the tune works best because it recognises the duty it has to uphold before closing out the tune with some well-earned poise and grace.

6. ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ – Murray Head

From a rock band writing a gospel tune to a gospel singer rocking out to the words the bible laid out for him, this truly is the list of wonders. The centrepiece of Tim Rice’s excellent Jesus Christ Superstar, the tune is sung by Judas Iscariot, who begins to question the sincerity of his faith, as the Roman armies threaten to quash the disciples, despite all the hard work they have built up over the years.

The musical proved controversial for the 1970s, particularly in countries like Ireland and Italy, where the Catholic faith remained as strong as ever, but Rice’s operetta of a messiah questioning the importance of the crusade he has set for himself was strangely intellectual and helped create a sense of journey for those audience members who wanted to relate with the pain of the man who died for their sins.

5. ‘Hallelujah’ – Jeff Buckley

No, he didn’t write the song, but Jeff Buckley sure as hell made this spiritual elegy his own. And unlike the synth flavours of the Leonard Cohen original, this sparse rendition is soaked in yearning and sincere responsibility to the book that it is supposed to represent. The tune is littered with characters from the book itself, which is strange, considering that Cohen himself grew up in a Jewish household.But the lyrics are gorgeous, showcasing the writer’s ability to spin a yarn out of any scenario that he put his mind to.

The recording is among the most impassioned in the genre of rock, not least because it represents something of a spiritual journey for the singer in question, who returns from the edges of the precipice to create one of the most illustrative metamorphosises yet heard on tape. It all began with Cohen, and then Buckley carried on the narrative.

4. ‘Judas’ – The Verve

Out of all the songs to make this list, this is the one that will likely cause eyebrows to raise, but in Richard Ashcroft‘s defence, the song was meant to typify the rise of unease in the modern world. Rather than stick to the milieu in question, he cleverly used the template to showcase the failings of the modern world. He likened Judas Iscariot to the Hitler of the Biblical times.

“There’s not been many Adolf Hitlers born post the Second World War,” Ashcroft admitted, “and there’s also not been many Judases, perhaps none. It’s a name that’s been vilified, so when I was in this coffee shop I decided that I was going to order a latte, double shot and she said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘Judas,’ because it was packed and I wanted to see the reaction when she said, ‘Latte, double shot for Judas,’ which she did and it does and it causes this like, ‘Who on earth would be called that?”

3. ‘The Power of Love’ – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Be warned, I am going to include two tunes that are traditionally played at the time of Santa Claus, elves and the birth of the Messiah. And although ‘The Power of Love’ doesn’t explicitly describe the nativity in words, the song was born from the band’s fascination with the workings of love and forgiveness above all other things in life.

The video spells out the nativity scene, as a family gathers in a stable to await the coming of the presents and spiritual presence from the lands far, far away from them. Caught in the humility of their settings the band liken their lives, and the lives of their listeners, to the patience and persuasion of the coming of the messiah. Like all of us, we can have untapped potential from anywhere, even a stable.

2. ‘When A Child Is Born’ – Johnny Mathis

The tune is rich with Biblical imagery, creating a homely tune that knits itself around the ear of the listener, as only an earworm of this magnitude could possibly get away with. Rather than focus on the Crucifixion, Johnny Mathis uses the birth of Christ as a way of uniting the world under a banner of peace and love. This was the sound of a gay man of colour begging the world to reject hatred for the guidance of a child born without gender, race or creed. It’s a gorgeous tune, and only the hideous jumpers worn during the promotional videos date the sentiment of the song.

For a spell or two, no one seems forlorn. Out of all of the songs on this list, this is definitely the most hopeful, which likely explains why Mathis takes this chance to reject speculations as to what the child will look like. It’s the message that stands up all these years later, not the person in question. Maybe we can all learn from Mathis’ example in building a better world for the next generation?

1. ‘All Along The Watchtower’- Bob Dylan

I bet you didn’t think this song was about the Bible, but it stems from the Book of Isaiah, which cements the sincerity of the track in a greater manner than the otherwise facile entry points of the characters that flit in and out of the vortex with great abandon and trepidation. Although Jewish by birth, Bob Dylan spent a great deal of time reading Christian texts, following a motorcycle accident. Having abandoned the journey of the motorways, he was pivoting on a quest for absolution, through the mouthpieces of the central characters that make up the Bible.

The song was later covered by Jimi Hendrix, although he made a mess of the song, brandishing his guitar unwisely on a song that was supposed to be about internal dialogue and meditation. As it happens, Hendrix made the song more obvious, but if there’s a cover worth listening to, it’s U2’s startling rendition, heard on the Rattle & Hum album.