Religious Songs That Secular People Can Love: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash & Your Favorites

There are good rea­sons to find the onslaught of reli­gious music this time of year objec­tion­able. And yet—though I want to do my part in the War on Christmas—I don’t so much object to the con­tent of Christ­mas songs. It’s the music! It’s hack­neyed and tired and gross­ly over­played and a lot of it was nev­er very good to begin with. I’d make the same dis­tinc­tion with any kind of music, reli­gious or oth­er­wise. I grew up in church­es full of Chris­t­ian music, and a lot of it was just ter­ri­ble: the worst of kind of soft rock or adult con­tem­po­rary paired with lyrics so insipid they would make the gospel writers—whoever they were—cringe. Updates with the slick pro­duc­tion of alt-rock, hip-hop, or pop-coun­try styles have only made things worse. On the oth­er hand, some of the most pow­er­ful and mov­ing music I’ve ever heard comes from the church, whether Han­del, The Sta­ples Singers, the Lou­vin Broth­ers, or so many oth­er clas­si­cal and gospel artists and com­posers.

Any­one with a deep affec­tion for West­ern clas­si­cal music prob­a­bly has their share of favorite Chris­t­ian music, what­ev­er their per­son­al beliefs. So, too, do fans of Amer­i­can folk, blues, and coun­try. Some artists have cov­ered the odd reli­gious tune as part of a broad roots reper­toire, like the Byrds’ cov­er of Blue­grass gospel leg­ends the Lou­vin Broth­ers’ corn­ball “The Chris­t­ian Life,” above, from 1968’s Sweet­heart of the Rodeo. Though Gram Par­sons, with the band for the record­ing of this album, had his tra­di­tion­al lean­ings, his musi­cal reli­gion was more “Cos­mic Amer­i­can” than Chris­t­ian. But before Par­sons joined the band and turned ‘em full coun­try rock for a time, the Byrds record­ed anoth­er reli­gious song, one of their biggest hits—Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” (below), which cribs all of its lyrics ver­ba­tim from Chap­ter 3 of the Book of Eccle­si­astes (eas­i­ly the non-reli­gious person’s favorite book of the Bible).

Oth­er Amer­i­can leg­ends have turned to faith in dra­mat­ic con­ver­sions and have writ­ten earnest, orig­i­nal reli­gious music. Most famous­ly, we have the case of Bob Dylan, whose con­ver­sion to evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty saw him pros­e­ly­tiz­ing from the stage. He also wrote some beau­ti­ful songs like “Pre­cious Angel,” at the top of the post, which he claimed was for the woman who brought him to Chris­tian­i­ty (and which sup­pos­ed­ly con­tains a dig at his ex-wife Sara for not con­vert­ing him). Though it fea­tures some of the more dis­turb­ing lyri­cal turns Dylan has tak­en in his career, it’s one of my favorite tunes of his from this strange peri­od, not least because of the bril­liant gui­tar work of Mark Knopfler.

What­ev­er beliefs he’s claimed over the decades, Dylan’s music has always been reli­gious in some sense, part­ly because of the Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tions he draws on. Almost all of the ear­ly R&B and rock and roll artists came from the folk gospel world, from Elvis to Lit­tle Richard to Jer­ry Lee Lewis. Notably, the gold­en-voiced Sam Cooke got his start as a gospel singer with sev­er­al vocal groups, includ­ing his own The Soul Stir­rers. The har­monies in their ren­di­tion of gospel clas­sic “Far­ther Along” (above) give me chills every time I hear it, even though I don’t cred­it the song’s beliefs.

It’s a com­mon feel­ing I get with Amer­i­can soul, blues, and coun­try singers who moved in and out of the pop­u­lar and gospel worlds. Then there are those artists who left gospel for out­law star­dom, then returned to the fold and embraced their church roots lat­er in life. A prime exam­ple of this kind of spir­i­tu­al, and musi­cal, renew­al is that of John­ny Cash. There are many sides of gospel Cash. Per­haps the most poignant of his reli­gious record­ings come from his final years. Though it suf­fers from some com­mer­cial overuse, Cash’s record­ing of blues clas­sic “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (often titled “Run On”), above, is equal parts men­ac­ing and haunt­ing, a Chris­t­ian-themed memen­to mori that caught on big with lots of sec­u­lar music fans.

The list of reli­gious music that non-reli­gious peo­ple love could go on and on. Though the exam­ples here are explic­it­ly Chris­t­ian, they cer­tain­ly don’t have to be. There’s Yusef Islam, for­mer­ly Cat Stevens, who came back to record stir­ring orig­i­nal music after his con­ver­sion to Islam, and whose pow­er­ful “Morn­ing has Bro­ken” moves believ­ers and non-believ­ers alike. There’s Bob Mar­ley, or any num­ber of pop­u­lar Rasta­far­i­an reg­gae artists. Then there are more con­tem­po­rary artists mak­ing reli­gious music for large­ly sec­u­lar audi­ences. One could ref­er­ence indie dar­ling Suf­jan Stevens, whose reli­gious beliefs are cen­tral to his song­writ­ing. And there’s a favorite of mine, Mark Lane­gan, for­mer Scream­ing Trees singer and cur­rent rock and roll jour­ney­man who often works with reli­gious themes and imagery, most notably in the glo­ri­ous “Revival,” above, with the Soul­savers project.

The love many non-reli­gious peo­ple have for some reli­gious music often comes from a reli­gious upbring­ing, some­thing singer/songwriter Iris Dement dis­cussed in a recent inter­view on NPR’s Fresh Air. Dement has record­ed one of the most mov­ing ren­di­tions of a hymn I remem­ber fond­ly from child­hood church days: a pow­er­ful­ly spare ver­sion of “Lean­ing on the Ever­last­ing Arms” from the 2010 True Grit sound­track. She’s also writ­ten what may be one of the best reli­gious songs for sec­u­lar (or non-reli­gious, or post-reli­gious, what­ev­er…) peo­ple. In “Let the Mys­tery Be,” above, Demen­t’s agnos­tic refrain express­es a very sen­si­ble atti­tude, in my view: “But no one knows for cer­tain and so it’s all the same to me / I think I’ll just let the mys­tery be.”

These are but a few of the reli­gious songs that move this most­ly sec­u­lar per­son. Whether you’re reli­gious or not, what are some of your favorite reli­gious songs that have broad crossover appeal? Feel free to name your favorites in the com­ments below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Reli­gions of Bob Dylan: From Deliv­er­ing Evan­gel­i­cal Ser­mons to Singing Hava Nag­i­la With Har­ry Dean Stan­ton

Gui­tar Sto­ries: Mark Knopfler on the Six Gui­tars That Shaped His Career

Athe­ist Ira Glass Believes Chris­tians Get the Short End of the Media Stick

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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