As a general rule, I believe in separation of church and state, and church and pop music. Christian rock always struck me as more evil than Marilyn Manson. If you can’t be bad when you’re rocking out– my God, my God, when can you be bad? Religious references and echoes are a different story. I’m all about allusions. They make me feel smart, and like my English degree was worth something. So here’s my favorite songs that weave in religious themes or references, without falling into that flaccid Jesus-rocks territory:
1. “Like a Prayer,” Madonna. This is a mystic’s song. Most of American religion is about suffering, not the ecstasy of being one with God. Madonna found the idea scandalous, so she sang a great song about it. It wasn’t exactly a new idea– mystics exist in all religious traditions. Read you a little Rumi, or a little Song of Solomon, a few wild and crazy nuns’ visions. It’s out there. Ecstasy, you know, like sex, like the drug, like being so full up of Godishness you radiate it. I do like religious rituals, and they do feel good. I’ve even had feverish, gorgeous experiences of the divine. Sometimes while dancing to this song, real sweaty, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking. So there.
2. “Have a Talk With God,” Stevie Wonder. A lot of Stevie Wonder songs from the ’70s are about sixty seconds too long, I assume because everyone in the studio was stoned. But what do I know? They’re great albums regardless. Stevie sings here in a real mellow way about checking in with the man upstairs. He’s not mean about it, or bossy. It’s a real soft sell. Maybe I find it okay because he’s black. I am much more touchy about being told what to do by white men. Or maybe it’s okay because Stevie’s spent so much time telling you to fall in love and make love and dance that one little mention of prayer is a harmless afterthought by comparison.
3. “Mankind,” Randy Newman. This is a song about how dumb the Jewish people are to stick with Yahweh through all the shitstorms He’s put them through. It’s okay– Randy is Jewish (by birth, anyway). This is the most heartbreaking but also truthful song about God. “I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we/You all must be crazy to put your faith in me/That’s why I love mankind/You really need me.” If you believe (or maybe even if you don’t), God does break your heart. In a western tradition, God is pretty personal. There are a lot of songs about how sad and bitter human relationships can make you, but not so many about how sad and bitter a relationship with a personal God can get. It can get pretty bad, in my experience. But like my sad and bitter human relationships, it’s been, overall, most days, worth it.
4. “Laughing With God,” Regina Spektor. The first time I heard this song, I was like, grim, grim, grim. It is grim. Talking about how some people die looking into “a pair of hateful eyes.” Doing a whole “no atheists in foxholes” thing. Describing how people do laugh about God in jokes, laugh at whomever they consider religious fanatics. And then the whole thing wraps up with “We’re all laughing with God.” Which is so goddamn sweet, I immediately listened to the song ten more times. That’s one solution to the problem of evil: I’m not sure, but I know God isn’t cool with the suffering in the world, and I know God has a sense of humor. I like that solution.
Honorable Mentions: “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones. “God,” Tori Amos. “To Zion,” Lauryn Hill.