Ten Secular Songs with Religious Themes

While preparing songs for our retreats and coffee house ministries this summer, I have come across many by secular artists -- that is, musicians who don't self-categorize as belonging to genres of religious music -- which were nonetheless powerfully spiritual. This is my top ten list from past and present.

1. Along with "Broken Wings", Mr. Mister's song "Kyrie" was the best from their 1985 album Welcome to the Real World. This band disappeared too soon after a string of hits. Their lead singer, Richard Page, was a powerful singer as "Kyrie" demonstrates effectively:

2. Alternative rock band Collective Soul's hit song "Shine" from the 1990s:

3. Oasis "Wonderwall" from 1995 may be about God or a person that will be instrumental in the singer's salvation; in any case, it's a plaintive cry, as eloquent as any psalm. If a prayer, then many lines take on particular poignancy, and the song ends with a hope for being saved. A question: what's a wonderwall?

There is also a very good acoustic cover of "Wonderwall" by Ryan Adams, which was once nominated for a Grammy award.

4. Dave Matthews Band "Where are You Going?" from 2002 has always evoked for me the Gospel scene of the two disciples running after Jesus. It could very well be a song about discipleship, then, the desire to be with the Master:

See also Dave Matthew's "The Christmas Song", for a most unusual but, in my opinion, soulful throwback to the story of Christ's birth.

5. U2 usually ends its concerts with the song "40", a song derived from Psalm 40. In the following video, they finish a concert from their 2005 tour with two of their religious-themed songs, "Yahweh" and "40" -- my favourite being "Yahweh".

The Irish rockers are an established super-band, evidenced by the adulation of the stadium crowd, but they have always given the last word to God the Father. Note Bono hanging his rosary on the mic stand at 8:55 and dedicating it to "Fr. Tim Scully of Notre Dame University":

6. The imagery in Coldplay's anthem "Viva la Vida" is eclectic, but what is clear is that the protagonist recalls his former life in which he was domineering, powerful, reckless and feared, and then, by way of dispossession and poverty, found spiritual redemption. Now he has visions of glory and the hope of eternal life, which he celebrates with great jubilation:

Coldplay's songs "Fix You" and "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" also strike me as having religious overtones.

7. Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will", is here sung live in London in 2009. The Montreal poet-singer digs deep into his heart and sings his availability to the Lord:

Cohen's 2012 album Old Ideas is full of profound songs of a spiritual nature. Listen especially to "Come Healing".

8. The British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons extraordinary "Awake My Soul" from their 2010 album Sigh No More:

9. Paul Simon's "Love is Eternal Sacred Light" from his marvellous 2011 album So Beautiful or So What. A tribute to the eternal origins of love, contrasted with the demonic evil of darkness. The whole album is excellent, his best work since Graceland.

10. Then there's Bob Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody", the opening track from his 1979 album "Slow Train Coming." (check out Etta James's funked-up version, too). Here's a live version, sung at the 1980 Grammy's, believe it or not!

A list like this can only be subjective, of course, but I've seen depth in all of these songs. I may have missed some gems, but these ones stick out.


  1. These are some great songs - I especially like the Mumford and Sons one. I think the link for the Collective Soul song isn't working though. Cheerio.

    PS. You might also like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtp-p7qFI2I

    It's one of my favorites.

    1. Thanks for the notice, Liz: the Collective Soul link is renewed and working.

      "Be Still" by The Fray is a deep and soothing song. Great scriptural overtones. Thanks for pointing me to it - I'm going to add it to our repertoire for the Hearts on Fire retreats.

  2. Thanks for this post! It made my day. What an awesome band U2 is. I've always found their "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to be a profoundly spiritual song, in a world where people too easily settle for ends other than God.

    1. Yes, they are awesome indeed. ISHFWILF used to be sung on this young adult retreat tour, and one of the speakers would use it to illustrate "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee"... Although there's the verse referring to Jesus' redemptive sacrifice, followed by "but I still haven't found what I'm looking for" refrain, which implied to my ear that knowing Jesus hadn't fulfilled the protagonist. Yet others have said this simply illustrates that head knowledge of Jesus is inadequate, as well as that we will always in this life be searching for the God who is always "greater".

    2. Yes, I incline towards something like the second interpretation. The lines: "You broke the bonds / And you loosed the chains / Carried the cross / Of my shame" clearly do refer to Jesus' redemptive sacrifice, as you say. But even if we accept that sacrifice, that's only the beginning, isn't it? Christ removed the barrier between us and God -- something negative. But to grow in love with Him, to have a positive relationship, that's the work of a lifetime. And of course that loving union is only completely achieved in the hereafter.

    3. Yes, this is true. It's also the focus of our Hearts on Fire retreats this summer -- helping young people, by way of simple spiritual tools, learn about the love of God for them, knowledge of which is necessary before we can really love God back!

  3. Wonderwall is from 1995, not 2002.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. I was going with the Ryan Adam's cover, I believe when I first posted that. Date amended.

  4. Music lifts the soul..... and even the Gregorian chants have been great hits in the secular world. Many atheists admit to loving these chants.
    Thanks for sharing Fr. John.

  5. Fr. John,

    Some good choices, I agree with your number one. How about something older, England Dan and John Ford Coley's Love is the Answer?

  6. "Jesus: Bigger Than the Beatles" or "Pop Go Songs of Faith" 1963-2016


    Thought you might be interested in my eclectic YouTube playlist of songs of faith, written and/or recorded by artists who appeal primarily to secular audiences. These songs comprise the spiritual soundtrack of my own faith journey during the past half century or so, and my choices undoubtedly betray my age (61) as well as my musical tastes.

    The culture and social consciousness of my generation--the tail end of the Baby Boom, was profoundedly influenced by popular songs of faith. In my youth, Jesus was cool: I just assumed at the time that would always be the case.

    But times and attitudes were a-changin. For example, socially influential Beatle John Lennon would morph, from the activist who implored people of faith and goodwill to "give peace a chance," into a "dreamer" who wished us to "imagine" a world with "no religion."

    Thus, when his hero, Bob Dylan, embraced Christianity and declared his faith on his 1979 album "Slow Train Running," Lennon was horrified, and indignant. How could Dylan be so "stupid" as to declare each of us has a choice to "serve somebody ... whether that be the Devil or the Lord." Lennon's response: "Serve Yourself!"

    Dylan's song won a Grammy and would be widely covered by other artists (including the great Etta James on this playlist). Lennon's record stiffed, but his admonition to "Serve Yourself" would become THE pop culture ethos of 80s, and beyond.

    Dylan's "Slow Train Running" was, in retrospect, something of a high-water mark for faith-based popular music. During the '80s, pop radio stations ceased to add any "religious" songs to their playlists. Likewise, insular "Contemporary Christian Radio" programmers would only play songs from thoroughly vetted artists on approved "Christian" recording labels. Obviously faith-based songs by otherwise "worldly" pop artists were thus scorned by all radio formats.

    That's a shame, because some of the most compelling songs of faith have been those written and recorded by prodigal sons and daughters from the rock and pop world. Folks who had once blindly embraced Lennon's ethic, and found their way back home, to the Truth.

    1. Thanks for your incisive report and the sharing of your personal set list. Lots of great songs to mine there, from the looks of it, and I look forward to that.

  7. I should also note that I have a follow-up blogpost with more songs, here: http://johnobrien.blogspot.ca/2016/05/ten-popular-songs-pointing-to.html

  8. A Song called "Throwing Things" by an indie band called Superchunk sounds, to me, like a song about our relationship to God. My kids disagreed with me but a line from the lyrics is... "... the sky is orange, the trees bow down against it" and "...I see you up in the tallest tree, you're throwing things down at me. I'm starting to climb, I'm starting on my knees."


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