The Bible: An Epic Playlist

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Epic bible playlist

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Me’shell Ndegeocello –Leviticus: Faggot
from Peace Beyond Passion (1996; Maverick)

[Leviticus 18:22/20:13] Heavy in its musicality and subject matter, Peace Beyond Passion remains Miss Me’shell’s best-selling album. It holds moments of beauty and humor, but it’s really built on a number of tracks that use Biblical and other periods to shine a light on intolerance. And of those, the centerpiece (and provocative choice for lead single and video) was an intense funk performance with Ndegeocello observing the ostracism, death, and ultimate rise to Heaven of a gay man. While the song has no specific lyrical references to the third book of the Pentateuch, its use in the title is important. Judeo-Christian tradition suggests that the Ten Commandments from Exodus begin a larger series of 613, with the lion’s share codified in Leviticus. For all of the memorable stories in the Bible, this third volume of it is essentially the hefty instruction manual for religious living. However, some of those commandments are unable to be practiced in modern times; others remain open to wide interpretation. The latter includes verses used as justification for recent sociopolitical movements based on hate and discrimination, in particular implications of homosexuality as a sin in 18:22 and 20:13. – AB

U2 – “The Unforgettable Fire
from The Unforgettable Fire (1984; Island)

[Deuteronomy 8:15/Psalms] Bono and the boys are always good for two things: love songs with a nebulous focus, and songwriting that quietly pulls from all aspects of Biblical faith. Seriously, there are entire websites devoted to analyzing the latter in the U2 songbook. One of their more memorable, beautiful intersections of heart and soul was the title track of their world-beating 1984 album. In asking a dark-eyed lady (ostensibly his wife Ali) to rendezvous, Bono proposes meeting in “a dry and waterless place,” such as one God had guided the Israelites through in Deuteronomy 8:15. He also convinces himself and her to not fear taking such a chance even as “the mountains should crumble / or disappear into the sea,” events first suggested in Psalms 46:2. – AB

Regina Spektor – “Samson
from Begin to Hope (2006; Sire)

[Judges 13-16] Samson’s story in Judges 13-16 is a fascinating tale of self-indulgence, superhuman strength, and tragedy. He was first betrayed by his wife Timinah, after she told the Philistines the answer to his riddle at their wedding feast before leaving him for his best man shortly thereafter. Furious, Samson turned into a hulk-like character and went on to kill a thousand Philistines with just the jawbone of a donkey. Samson’s downfall however, was the love for a woman named Delilah. Regina Specktor’s “Samson,” portrays a much different Delilah than the one depicted in the Old Testament. After Delilah cut Samson’s hair (which was the source of his power), he didn’t exactly tell her she’d “done alright, and kissed her till the morning light.” Delilah was paid off by the Philistines, who then captured him and gouged his eyes out. Samson ended up killing three thousand more Philistines in a suicide mission, but Spektor makes him seem like a loving Khal Drogo who’s more interested in cuddling than ruthless murder. – Dan Pritchett

Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah
from Various Positions (1984; CBS)/Grace (1994; Columbia)

[Judges, Samuel] Let’s just start off by acknowledging how incredible a lyricist Leonard Cohen is. The man’s gone through periods where the aesthetics of the time didn’t really do his music any favors, but that said, his words are still timeless. You could possibly look at “Hallelujah” this way — a song that barely made a ripple when it was released, on an album that was met with mixed reviews. But it’s still a damn good song, even if the somewhat dated-sounding ’80s production values paint it in an awkward hue. Its steeped in Old Testament references, from David and Bathsheba (“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ That David played and it pleased the lord“) to Samson and Delilah (“She tied you to a kitchen chair/ She broke your throne and she cut your hair“). A decade later it was given a stripped-down and much more widely celebrated cover by Jeff Buckley — which unfortunately led to overuse in CSI episodes and American Idol competitions. If only the profane could soil something this sacred. – Jeff Terich

U2 – “I Will Follow
from Boy (1980; Island)

[Ruth 1:16] If we wanted to, we could have filled this entire feature with tracks by U2 — the most prolific band in a secular market to extensively reference the Bible in their material. Though there are some instances where the Bible creeps in almost subliminally. “I Will Follow,” a highlight from the band’s anthemic post-punk debut, Boy, was inspired by the death of Bono’s own mother, who died when he was only a teenager. In its chorus, Bono sings of an unbreakable tie between mother and son: “If you walk away, walk away/ I will follow.” It turns out this is remarkably similar to a passage from the book of Ruth: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.” – Jeff Terich

Sufjan Stevens – “Come Thou font of Every Blessing
from Hark! Songs for Christmas Vol. II (2002; Self-released)

[1 Samuel 7:2-14] “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” is an Anglican hymn penned by Robert Robinson in 1757 and based on a line in the Book of Samuel, which refers to a monument called Eben-Ezer or “stone of help.” Stevens’ version, which appears on a Christmas record and an episode of “Friday Night Lights,” keys in the simple and at times complication notion of helping others. While the original hymn is asks for God’s grace, Stevens’ hushed, warm and soulful take makes it human and familiar. It’s an 18th Century “Lean on Me” for now people. – Stephen Chupaska


Pixies – “Dead
from Doolittle (1989; 4AD)

[2 Samuel 11] When Frank Black was writing the songs that became The Pixies’ breakout 1989 album Doolittle, he frequently sought the Bible as a source of lyrical inspiration. He makes a pretty strong case why in the 33 1/3 volume on the book, but I’ll summarize: All the wildest human drama can be found in The Good Book. It’s better than soap operas; just check the seduction of Bathsheba by David. They have sex while her husband Uriah is on a military campaign, she gets pregnant, David tries to get Uriah to come back home and have sex with Bathsheba so he thinks it’s his baby, and then when that doesn’t work out, David has Uriah killed. Brutal stuff! It pairs nicely with Black’s harsh monotone chants: “You crazy babe Bathsheba, I wantcha” and “Uriah hit the crapper! The crapper!” It’s a Bible story gone noise rock. – Jeff Terich

Pernice Brothers – “Baby In Two
from Yours, Mine and Ours (2003; )

[1 Kings 3:16-28] The Judgment of Solomon is a widely recognized Old Testament fable that finds the King of Israel taking a clever loophole around making a judgment for determining a child’s true mother. His judgment is to cut the baby in half, and give each half to each woman that claims to be the child’s mother — thereby causing the real mother to cry out not to kill the baby, and that she’d rather the other woman have him than see him killed. Clever judge, that Solomon. But the “baby” in Joe Pernice’s melancholy lament is more likely a failing relationship, one that he himself can’t bring himself to end. And so Pernice cites the wisdom of Solomon when he laments, “I’d be the king if I could say to you/ Cut the baby in two.” – Jeff Terich

Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)
from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998; Ruffhouse/Columbia)

[1 Kings] Lauryn Hill begins this 1998 hit by reminding listeners, “Don’t forget about the deen, Sirat al-Mustaqeem”, the Arabic term for the straight path, the way of life which makes God happy. In “Doo Wop,” Hill points her gaze at both men and women for using each other for gain (“Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in/ Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin“). More than anything, Hill is advocating for people to take their own responsibility. Women should be more assertive and not fall through the cracks by returning to shitty relationships, while men on the other hand need to be more proactive in building better unions instead of philandering and focusing on Tims and Rims (you can update those to iPhones and Toms, now). Despite the religious preamble at the beginning, Hill is mostly concerned for people to lead better lives, to make themselves happy for the better of society. – Giovanni Martinez

Pink Floyd – “Sheep
from Animals (1977; Harvest)

[Psalm 23] When the punk movement blew into town, their first business was to deride the most prominent rock artists of the time as “dad rock,” i.e. shills of the entertainment industry. In reaction, dad-rockers Pink Floyd responded with Animals, by far the most polemical, leftist record in their catalog. Just in case their critique of conservative England wasn’t obvious enough, Pink Floyd has Waters deliver a searing parody of the famous Psalm 23 in the middle of “Sheep” — itself an atheistic critique of organized religion. By inverting the image of security (evoked by the original Psalm) into one of slaughter, Pink Floyd highlights the hypocrisy and violence perpetrated by religious institutions, and more than earns their ideological street cred. – Connor Brown

Kanye West – “Jesus Walks
from The College Dropout (2004; Roc-a-fella)

[Psalms 23:4] Music is your shepherd, you shall not want. That’s because there are so many popular music references to Psalm 23, stretching back at least to Duke Ellington in 1958 and on through Patti Smith, U2, Coolio, 2Pac, Marilyn Manson, Lucinda Williams, Megadeth, Jay-Z and more. But early on in a rap that suggests Jesus (and therefore God) walks with all people, good or bad, Yeezy produces an artful twist on verse 4, the well-known line about the valley of the shadow of death. “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is”—West makes a sonic connection between the darkest times and places imagined by King David through which God would guide the faithful, and making it in and through Chicago, his own hometown dangerously shaded by the modern spectre of violence. – Adam Blyweiss

U2 – “’40’
from War (1983; Island)

[Psalm 40] The first verse of Psalm 40 is about seemingly condemned person who is waiting for some salvation from God, is rescued and then a “new song” is put into their mouths. It’s easy to see the appeal of that to a band like U2, who, even in 1983 as they ascended to the heights of rock n roll and so as to complain about the low ceilings, didn’t shy away from advocating music as a way to uplift the most downtrodden. – Stephen Chupaska

Next: Pulled Into Nazareth

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