- consider what constitutes an allusion to the Bible
- be introduced to a fun activity for exploring the Bible in popular music
- consider a few specific examples of popular music’s engagement with the Bible
What Is an Allusion?
One of the activities that is a regular part of my course on the Bible and music is a scavenger hunt in which I ask students to search for allusions (i.e., indirect references) to the Bible in secular popular music. First, however, we have to tackle the question of what constitutes an “allusion.” It isn’t an easy question to answer. Many songs include the word God, for instance, but the fact that the word occurs often in English translations of the Bible doesn’t make it an allusion to the Bible. The same may be said of the title Lord.
What about the word hallelujah? For many people, Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is the first thing to come to mind at the intersection of that word and music (whether performed by him or covered by any number of other artists, such as Pentatonix). The song is full of biblical allusions (and some who have wished to harness the song’s popularity for sacred use have provided new lyrics). We also find hallelujah (and Lord) together in the song “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison of the Beatles. In addition to the word hallelujah, it also features the Hindu mantra (repeated phrase) “hare Krishna.” The song aims to convey that Jewish, Christian, and Hindu mantras are in essence the same.
While undoubtedly biblical in origin, in different translations, the frequency with which the word hallelujah appears differs significantly. Hallelujah only occurs in Revelation in the NIV, where it is found four times. The same goes for alleluia in the NKJV. It occurs in Revelation plus in Tobit and 3 Maccabees in the NRSV. In other translations, such as the International Standard Version, the word also occurs in the Hebrew Bible, where it is found only in the Psalms—or rather, these two words are found, since the word is in fact a transliteration of two Hebrew words meaning “praise Yah,” often rendered as “praise the Lord.” Psalm 104 is the first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible and Psalm 150 the last.
Amy Gordon has set just the word alleluia to music. This makes it more difficult to know whether it should be considered a biblical allusion. The word is sometimes found even in nonreligious contexts as an outburst of joy, relief, and gratitude. Gordon’s setting is intended for liturgical use. Is this sufficient for it to be considered an allusion to the Bible? What do you think?
Another single word that is biblical and yet does not always appear in contexts that have the Bible remotely in mind is amen. The word comes into English from Hebrew and is from a root that is related to truthfulness, faithfulness, and confidence. Christians often define it as “so be it,” yet when Jesus says “Amen I say to you” in the Gospels, it is usually rendered as “Truly I say to you.”
Hosier’s “Take Me to Church” is an example of the word appearing in a song that, however much religious imagery it may contain, is probably to be considered not a biblical allusion but rather an allusion to the use of the word in churches. That use, of course, ultimately derives from the Bible. This makes it challenging to know when one is dealing with a biblical allusion. Phrases like “go the extra mile” and “turn the other cheek” stem from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (5:38–40) but have become part of the English language to such an extent that one can use them without having the Bible in mind or even being aware that that is where they came from.
Here is a setting of just the word amen for choir by Henryk Górecki. How would you decide whether this work is or is not alluding to the Bible? Is it even possible to tell? Does the intention of the composer matter? What do you think?
Still other factors may contribute to ambiguity about whether a piece of music alludes to the Bible. Russian composer Sergei Taneyev wrote a cantata that set the text of a poem, “On the Reading of a Psalm.” The poem takes inspiration from at least one biblical psalm, Psalm 50, but the text of the poem is not derived directly from the Bible. As Frances Maes writes,
Sergei Taneyev based his final choral composition on a poem by Alexey Stepanovich Khomyakov, dating from 1856. The poet was a member of the group of Slavophile philosophers, together with Sergei Aksakov and the brothers Kireyevsky. The poem is a personal meditation following the reading of the fiftieth Psalm. In biblical words, Khomyakov continues the line of thought of the psalm. As He did in the model, God again appears during a storm and speaks directly to his people. In the original psalm, God condemns the burnt offerings brought to Him by His people. Burnt offerings are useless and hypocritical, if they are not combined with the keeping of God’s commandments. In God’s eyes, only the gift of gratitude is valid. Khomyakov then goes on to ruminate on the contrast between the outward appearances of religious “behaviour” and the inner attitude required by God. God does not ask for temples, gold, incense or burnt offerings. They add nothing to what He already possesses in His omnipotence. God requires the deep-down, human qualities: purity of heart, perseverance in work, brotherly love and justice.
Taneyev’s musical treatment of the work makes it clear that the composer’s approach to the text was based on the same two ideas that Beethoven had: on the one side, the greatness of God’s creations and, on the other, human morality.
Taneyev has thus set a text that takes inspiration from the Bible, but a work inspired by a particular text need not necessarily allude to that text—depending on how one defines an allusion. So you can see how complex a question this is. Looking for and thinking about allusions to the Bible in music can help us think about the topic of allusions (and intertextuality more generally).
Many musical works have psalm in the title but are not biblical in character at all. The question of what constitutes a “biblical” psalm is further complicated by the fact that we have ancient manuscripts that contain psalms that are not in most or any modern Bibles, sometimes in a collection that also includes biblical Psalms. Hopefully all of this makes clear that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to define precisely what constitutes an allusion to the Bible. If you think you spot one, make the case for it deserving this label!
Examples from Secular Music
One of my favorite examples of a biblical allusion in popular music is found in the song “We Are the World.” Despite knowing the music of the 1980s rather well, a student in my class pointed out to me something I had never noticed. The lyrics refer to “turning stones to bread.” About this, Gavin Edwards wrote the following in Rolling Stone:
With a squint, Nelson delivers the oddest line in the song: “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.” Actually, there is no Biblical passage where God transforms stone to bread, although He gets a shout-out for bringing forth all food from the Earth in Psalms 104. In Matthew 4, however, the Devil comes to Jesus Christ in the desert after he’s been fasting for 40 days, and trying to tempt him, tells him that he should change the stones into bread. Christ spurns him with the aphorism “Man shall not live on bread alone.” So the Bible seems to be against turning stone into bread (not that it comes up often as an option in most people’s lives). In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus writes about John of Leyden, who in 1535 told the people of Munster, Germany, suffering from a blockade, that God would turn the city’s cobblestones into bread. People tried to eat the cobblestones, and found that they were not feeling groovy. The bottom line: when people are suffering from famine, it seems cruel to bring up the possibility of stones being edible.
Another online article by Mark Tapio Kines suggests that the inclusion of these words is a “factual error” of a kind that is common in song lyrics. There was presumably no intention on the part of Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, who coauthored the lyrics, to link this humanitarian effort with temptation by the devil. After all, if we consider the related example of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” we find blunder after blunder. For instance, people in and from Africa knew it was Christmas long before Christianity reached anyone in or from the English-speaking world. The continent has rivers, vegetation, and yes, even snow. Why should this follow-up fundraising song not also have at least one major blunder in it too? Eric Mataxas has also commented on the lyrics to “We Are the World” and thinks it is evidence of the profound ignorance of the Bible among secular pop stars. In theory, this is not an implausible explanation, since it is definitely true even outside the realm of songwriting that people think they are more familiar with what the Bible says than they actually are. However, given that the main lyricist was Michael Jackson, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I’m not convinced that this was simply a mistake. If we take a look at what that organization has to say about the passage in Matthew 4, we read things like the following: “Knowing that it is wrong to use his miraculous powers to satisfy his personal desires, Jesus rejects that temptation.” I suspect that many would view the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as precisely the same sort of miracle—except aimed at taking care of others and therefore appropriate.
And so I think that the inclusion of the words “turning stones to bread” was most likely not a mistake but something else. Perhaps it is an effort to connect biblical imagery of the provision of an abundance of food with the need to turn stony ground in an area of famine into something else. If so, the words in the song probably express the conviction that, since Jesus said that God is a loving father, and even a human father would not give his child who asks for bread a stone (Matthew 7:9), God can and sometimes does perform this kind of miracle, with the issue in Jesus’s temptation being the timing and motivation rather than the appropriateness of the action per se. Whatever one concludes about this particular example, it is definitely the case that even when popular music contains potentially erroneous or imprecise allusions to the Bible, the song lyrics can still be interesting to examine, perhaps all the more so precisely because of the possible error.
Satan or the devil comes up quite a bit in popular music, in a variety of ways. Once again, not all such references allude to the Bible, since the figure of Satan and ideas about devils and demons are mentioned outside the Bible as well. Satan appears in the video for Lil Nas X’s song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” The lyrics refer to Eve, and the video depicts the Garden of Eden. There is definitely a biblical allusion in the song, and this connection is elaborated further in the video. Yet Satan does not appear in the story in Genesis 3 that is echoed here. The introduction of the figure of Satan into the Garden of Eden story represents a later reinterpretation of the snake or serpent, who is explicitly said to be one of the beasts of the field (rather than a supernatural being) in Genesis 3:1.
Just as the Bible and religious influences make themselves felt in popular music, the reverse also happens, such as when churches have celebrated a Beyoncé Mass or U2charist. Rev. Prof. Yolanda Norton has taught a course called Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible that goes beyond just looking for and at allusions to a deeper consideration of themes shared in common. Also worth exploring is Professor Delvyn Case’s website dedicated to Jesus in popular music. Case writes there, “I’ve been studying this fascinating collection of songs for over 10 years. My goal has been to use them as a lens through which to examine the ways in which our modern secular society views and understands Jesus: his character, identity, message, and meaning. Along the way I’ve learned some fascinating things that have deeply affected not only my understanding of American Christian history but also my own faith.” That website offers musical examples as well as commentary on them, plus a fuller database of all the music that Case has found that fits into this category, a resource that will continue to grow.
There is more than one way to approach the relationship of the Bible to popular music!
Gravelle, Shannon Marie. “A Preliminary Study of the Choral Works and Style of Sergei Taneyev.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2017.
Leng, Simon.. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006.
McGrath, James F. “Creation in American Popular Culture.” In, edited by Dan W. Clanton Jr. and Terry R. Clark, 145–61. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
- Out-of-print recording by the Zemel Choir of Louis Lewandowski’s piece, shared to YouTube on the Salt & Pepper Jewish Music channel. ↵
- Shared by the Zemel Choir on their own YouTube channel. ↵
- The score video was shared by composer Amy Gordon to her own YouTube channel. ↵
- This is performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury; provided to YouTube by Warner Classics; and shared on the choir’s own YouTube channel. ↵
- Whereas this is Taneyev’s last choral composition, his first was a setting of a biblical psalm, Psalm 66. ↵
- Francis Maes, “Sergei Taneyev: At the Reading of a Psalm,” Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 038: Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev 2004. ↵
- I am grateful to Katelyn Kahn for drawing this example to my attention. ↵
- Gavin Edwards, “‘We Are the World’: A Minute-by-Minute Breakdown,” Rolling Stone, March 6, 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/we-are-the-world-a-minute-by-minute-breakdown-54619/. ↵
- For those unfamiliar with the song, the lyrics say, “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time.…Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow, Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” ↵
- The ideas explored here draw from a blog post I wrote in 2018 soon after this detail in “We Are the World” came to my attention. ↵
- Delvyn Case, “Rock of Ages: Jesus in Popular Songs,” accessed September 14, 2022, https://www.delvyncase.com/jesus. ↵