In their song “Sheep Go to Heaven” off their 1998 album Prolonging the Magic, Cake talks about how living the moral life set up by Christianity can actually lead to routine and sadness, while indulgence and less moral tracks can lead to a fulfilled life.
The song begins with the narrator dismissing things that are generally associated with happiness (laughing, smiling, etc.) because “[he’s] not feeling alright”. The narrator says that he just wants to “have a good time” by doing things such as “drink … wine” and “play on [his] panpipes”. The panpipes here are a reference to Satyrs, who were depicted in Greek and Roman myths as creature that were half man/half goat. They were known for drinking wine and playing their pipes. They were also known to partake in physical pleasure. The narrator wishes he were a satyr.
The chorus of the song consists of the repeating lines “Sheep go to Heaven/ Goats go to hell”. This is a reference to the parable that Jesus delivers in Matthew 25:31-34,41, which depicts Jesus coming down on the Day of Judgment and dividing the wholesome from the wicked (the “sheep” from the “goats”). The wholesome (sheep) will be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven, while the wicked (goats) will be banished to Hell. (The connection between the half-goat satyr and the narrator plays in here.) These are basically saying just that, good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell.
The narrator then goes into descriptions of professions that have to do with death (such as the stone mason who makes the gravestone and the grave digger). The line “the grave digger puts on the forceps” is a reference to the second act of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. This line in the play talks about the tortures of routine.
The “carpenter” that is referred to is most likely Jesus. As far as the like that say that he’ll “take you out to lunch”, is referring to Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Captenter. In Carroll’s poem, the walrus and carpenter invite oysters to join them, only to devour them when they do. The carpenter and the walrus can be seen to represent Jesus and Buddha, while the oysters can be seen to represent their followers. This is the narrator’s way of saying that people can become consumed by their religions and never enjoy life.
In Sufjan Stevens’ song “To Be Alone With You” off of his 2004 album Seven Swans, he outlines the sacrifices Jesus made to be with his followers, and for their sins to be resolved.
Stevens begins his outlining of Christ with the lines “I’d give my body to be back again”. This is referring Jesus giving his body by being crucified so that mankind would be relieved of sin. The phrase “to be back again” is an obvious reference to his resurrection. This can also be seen in the line “You went up on a tree/ to be alone with me”. This is talking about the wooden cross that
Stevens delves further into the story of the crucifixion by saying “They took your clothes”. This is referencing John 19:23 describing the Roman soldiers taking his clothes right before he is crucified (“Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments…”).
When Stevens begins to talk about giving up a “wife and a family”, he is referring to Hebrews 4:15 which says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin”. This is talking about Jesus being tempted with an assortment of things (including sex), but remained without any. That is to say Jesus chose a life without the things that many people strive to attain (like a family and spouse).
With the lines “You gave up your ghost”, Stevens is finally connecting how one can “be alone” with Jesus after his crucifixion. The “ghost” Stevens is referring to is the Holy Spirit, which, in Christian mythology, is considered, like Jesus, to be another manifestation of God. To Christians, you are only able to achieve salvation by accepting Jesus. Once that is done, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit resides in them. Thus, they are “alone” with Jesus, and through that connection, they are relieved of suffering and evil.
In their song “Psalms 40:2” of their 2009 album The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats depict a scene of a group of teenagers defacing the front of a chapel to show their frustration with the institution that it represents.
The songs is heavily based off of, you guessed it, Psalms 40:2, which read “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, [and] established my goings.” This is a verse about the redemptive nature of God.
Darnielle, the lead singer and principle songwriter, is singing as a group of teenagers that are heading “for the chapel with some spray paint for all the things we’d held in secret”. This is letting the listener know these kids have, ostensibly, grown up in a religiously overbearing environment and were never allowed to express what they really felt about the Church that they were apart of. The idea of putting messages on the face of the Church is in the tradition of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saint’ Church in Wittenberg to protest what he thought to be the sail of indulgences. In the song however
Darnielle lets us know, though, that these are not children that lack morals and understanding. This is not a random act of vandalism. The teenagers plea to God to “send [them] a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair”. This, again, is like Martin Luther in that he was not denouncing God, just the practices of the people that followed him. They are looking to God to fix something inside of them, and this is the only way they believe they can tell him.
Throughout the song Darnielle repeats the derivative of the verse “He has raised me from the pit”. This is a reflection of the teenagers finally feeling some control in their faith and coming to terms with Christianity.
(This is a cover of the original Bob Dylan version by Jimi Hendrix. I could not find a good video of Dylan’s version. There are only very mild and superficial changes in the lyrics, and whatever little changes there are do not change the message of the song. Also, this version is much more well known.)
In Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower” off of his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, he creates a political parable connecting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the struggles and anguish felt in the heat of the Vietnam War.
Dylan begins the song with dialogue between a Joker and a Thief. This sets up the scenario of the crucifixion. In Tarot when someone draws a Joker, it is said to represent a new life, transformation and rebirth. This parallels the way Jesus Christ is viewed in Christian mythology (baptism by John the Baptist and his resurrection). Because his association with rebirth and transformation, the card of the Joker in Tarot is heavily associated with Jesus.
The Thief in this instance refers to Saint Dismas, the penitent thief of the two thieves that were crucified next to Jesus. The lines of this song seems to be a continuation of the dialogue between Jesus and St. Dismas that took place as they were being crucified (Luke 23:40-42).
The Joker begins the conversation with statements derived out of the implications of the Word of Abandonment that Jesus calls out before his death. The song differs from the Word of Abandonment in that, in the song, it is not God who has forsaken Jesus, it is mankind that has forsaken God (morality) and, by extension, humanity as a whole.
Dylan sings that “Businessmen… drink my wine… / None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” This is a reference to the verses concerning the Eucharist in which Jesus offers his blood (in the form of wine) to forgive the sins of his followers. Yet, Dylan is referring to only businessmen drinking this wine (i.e. the wealthy; the powerful). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Dylan is commenting on the how the people in power during the time of the Vietnam War would speak of the cause of eradicating the communist Vietcong, but would go about it in heinous and morally destitute ways. In other words, they would get drunk on their supposed morality when they had no idea of what morality is.
There are many candidates for what the Watchtower is referring to in this song, but Dylan is most likely referencing the Fall of Babylon in Isaiah. Isaiah gives an account of the fall of Babylon, which will occur on when Jesus returns to Earth. Babylon was the center of many pagan religions and, Isaiah says, Lucifer is behind the demonic power behind Babylon. Isaiah says the Babylonians should “watch in the watchtower” for the oncoming onslaught. Dylan is saying, in reference to the US, that they will be judged for their ruthless and barbaric ways by a power greater than them in the same fashion as the Babylonians.
In Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” off of his 1984 album Various Positions, he recounts the story of a failed love through Judeo-Christian imagery of Old Testament stories that center around love’s submissive and dark qualities.
The song begins with the lines “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ That David played and it pleased the Lord/ […]/ It goes like this […]”. This is the first of many connections that Cohen makes between himself and King David. The Bible says that David was a skilled harpist and musician. By drawing a parallel to David, Cohen is both opening himself up to a subject to the will of God as a higher power as well as the faults that David had. The use of the word “secret” is important because it implies that Cohen, like David, had privileged access to the Lord, ostensibly through song.
In the second verse, Cohen draws his second connection the character of David. In the lines “You saw her bathing on the roof/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you” are referring to the story of Batsheva, the women who David saw bathing on balcony and became smitten with her despite her already having a husband. Cohen connects his own destructive love with that of David. Having been taken by her beauty he allows himself to be consumed by her.
The second verse also includes a mention of a “broken throne”. This is another connection that is drawn between Cohen and David. In Kings 9:5, God says to David, “I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.” When David was in old age and close to death, he did not give the throne to his eldest surviving son Adonijah, as one would normally do under such circumstances, but gave it to the son of Batsheva (who was now one of his wives), Solomon, thus breaking the line to his throne. Cohen uses this allusion to convey that his connection to the woman that he loves has taken his life in a new direction, just as Solomon took the Israelites in a new direction.
After every verse, Cohen sings a repeating ‘Hallelujah’. ‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word that means “praise Jah (God)”. Cohen uses the word Hallelujah both juxtapose the pain he feels at the dismantling of his love and with sincerity while thinking of the continued love and hopefulness that the rest of life will bring.
In Josh Ritter’s song “Harrisburg” off of his 2001 album The Golden Age of Radio, he tells the story of a man named Romero who has fallen out of faith and abandons his family to look for a life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
When Romero leaves, he abandons both his belief in God as well as his family. Romero never makes it to Harrisburg; rather, he “dies in a hole in between.” This story follows the folkloric tradition of those who betray being punished to wander and to never reach their destination. The most famous Biblical example of this sort of punishment is the story of Cain and Abel where Cain betrays his family ties and kills his brother. God then punishes him in Genesis 4:16 by forcing him to wander the Land of Nod, which is located East of Eden. This is saying that the depth of separation that Romero feels is something beyond physical detachment, but spiritual as well.
Ritter also makes a connection to Cain and Abel’s parents, Adam and Eve, in the last lines of the song where Ritter sings “Me, I believe that the Garden of Eden/ Was burned to make way for a train”. Ritter is saying here that just as Adam and Eve wanted to more than God would allow them, so to did Romero. Both were looking for a Paradise greater than the one that they inhabited, and because of that want for more, neither got it.
The use of the name Romero is significant in this song. The word “Romero” is steeped in religious significance. During the Crusades, Romero was a name that was used to refer to the Western European (Roman) pilgrims that were making the pilgrimage through the East to the Holy Land. The word “romero” is also Spanish for rosemary, the bush that the Spanish believed helped give shelter to the Virgin Mary to flee to Egypt to escape King Herrod’s wrath. Both of these interpretations set up Romero as a character bound for movement from the very beginning, as a character that is attempting to flee his old life to find a new one in the paradise of Harrisburg.