A few months ago, I did a Bible study with the Conference staff where I shared how I had soundtracked the entire Gospel of John. The requirements for the songs were that they had to come from pop radio (sorry, country and rap fans) and could not be from overtly Christian artists.[i] Since I exposed my love for bringing the Bible into a conversation with pop music, our Center for Communications invited me to prepare this song list to share.
Still, I didn’t want to do a list without some explanation about why I made the choices I did. So, this blog is the companion piece to lead you through this soundtrack of the most important and meaningful week of the Christian year. I also invite you to share your own ideas for songs by emailing me at email@example.com.
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Here we go!
“I Want You to Know” by Zedd, feat. Selena Gomez – Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12: 12-10) Palm Sunday has to be a big song, and this dance number fits that bill. It has to be energetic and positive. But also, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the end, so the fact that it acknowledges that a storm has started brewing is important. Finally, Jesus recognizes that the time has come, “it’s our time” for the full-on challenge of Jerusalem and Roman authority to commence.
“Burn It Down” by Linkin Park – Flipping over tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:1-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19: 45-46) Jesus flips out and flips tables to get people’s attention that he now means business. Some of his disciples would likely be on board with this not-so-kind, not-so-gentle Jesus, and some would be disturbed. I imagine this song in part as a duet sung by Judas and Peter, in which Peter expresses the pieces of discomfort while Judas relishes in the moments of power. The chorus of this song declares the revolution that Jesus is undertaking (“Tear this Temple down and I will rebuild it in three days”).
“Believer” by Imagine Dragons – Challenges to Jesus’ authority (many places, ie. Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11: 27-33, Luke 20:1-8) Jesus came to challenge the dominant authorities of the day, and they did not take kindly to that challenge. I like this song to capture that reality because the believer here is not necessarily believing in the right things. There is tension in what the purpose of the belief is and in whom one is believing. Certainly it catches the reality of sorting through truth in the 1st (and 21st) century.
“Do You Really Want It?” by Nothing More – Jesus’ increasingly difficult teachings (i.e. tenant farmers in Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19) As we get closer and closer to the cross, Jesus’ teachings get more and more difficult to swallow. He is calling for us to radically change ourselves and our society. This song recognizes that people say they want to change, but when it actually involves personal sacrifice, they aren’t so sure.
“Price Tag” by Jessie J – Jesus’ teachings about money (i.e. render unto Caesar and the widow’s offering) No huge surprise, some of the teachings that people most resist have to do with money. Jesus is deconstructing how money is used to preserve the government and also to oppress the poorest among us. We have missed the point about what money could be for us, which is a means to share readily all the resources God has shared with us. “Price Tag” comparably deconstructs where our priorities should be.
“Nothing More” by The Alternate Routes feat. Lily Costner – The Greatest, or Only, Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12: 28-34, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:31-35) I don’t guess I ever noticed that during Holy Week Jesus focused in on teaching us the greatest (or in the case of John, the only) commandment, which is to love one another. Certainly story after story in the Gospel illustrates that love is not just a spoken thing, but a shown and lived thing. As this song puts it, “We are love. We are one. We are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace. We are war. We are how we treat each other, and nothing more.”
“Renegades” by X Ambassadors – The Disciples will be harassed (Matthew 24:3-14, Mark 13:3-13, Luke 21:7-11) Jesus is calling his disciples to a new vision for the world. That will come with a great deal of resistance. But that is the work of world changers: buck the system and live as renegades.
“Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry – Trouble is coming and no one sees it (Matthew 24:15-28, Mark 13:14-23, Luke 21:20-24) This sounds like a soothing dance song, and in many ways it is, lulling us to a comfortable beat. But if you listen to the lyrics, the song itself is pointing out that such a predictable rhythm has caused us to quit noticing all the injustices around us or to quit doing anything about it. Nonetheless, a riot is boiling. In the story of Holy Week, Jesus shares a prophetic warning that the same is happening in Jerusalem.
“Wake Me Up” by Avicii – Stay Alert! (Matthew 24:37-44, Mark 13:35, Luke 21:34-36) Like the prior song, this song sings of wanting to just bury your head in the sand and ignore all the struggle and change around us. Jesus pushed back on such attitudes, insisting that the people around him must instead stay alert for what is coming.
“Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips – Jesus is teaching about his death (John 12:20-36) As the cross looms ever closer, Jesus tries to prepare his followers for his inevitable death. It will be both traumatic and transformative. Resurrection is coming. “Gone, Gone, Gone” deals with the reality of loss and separation, but also with the assurance that it is not the final word.
“A Song for Someone” by U2 – Anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8) In the midst of the madness that is Holy Week, there is this quiet, intimate moment when either an unnamed woman, or Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene) anoints either Jesus’ feet or his head. And yet, there is still controversy in this moment, about whether it was proper, and then there is the controversy that Jesus tells people to remember and tell this story, and yet no Gospel tells it the same way. The woman (Mary) seems to understand who Jesus is in the midst of all this noise. “A Song for Someone” also tells the story of a quiet recognition of who Jesus is, in the midst of all kinds of tensions and questions and struggles. It is a song of rest amidst the madness.
“Demons,” and “Natural,” both by Imagine Dragons – Judas prepares to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6, John 13:21-30) Ah, Judas. We don’t know what to make of you. Some will say you were driven by greed and ambition, that your main concern was earthly power and riches, and certainly there is evidence in the Bible to suggest such a reading. For that Judas, “Natural” is a perfect fit. But some will point out that it is almost as if you didn’t have a chance. That you were predestined to be the betrayer, and that, quite literally, the devil made you do it. For that more sympathetic Judas, we turn to “Demons.” In truth, you probably show what we all struggle with: we fail you for both good and bad reasons, in all the roles we play.
“High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco – Disciples argue over greatness (Luke 22:24-30) And speaking of desiring power, this moment when the Disciples, particularly John and James, try to claim a position at your right and left hand in glory, reminds us that none of the disciples are without their problems. I love this song for that moment, especially if we look at the telling of this story in other gospels where it is actually their mom who tries to get them their position. Like “Mama said, ‘Fulfill the prophecy, be something greater, go make a legacy, manifest destiny.’” Snowplow parent, anyone?
“The Last of the Real Ones” by Fall Out Boy – Predictions that the disciples will fall away (Matthew 26:30-35, Mark 14:26-31, Luke 22:31-34, John 13:36-38) Jesus breaks the news to his closest followers that when times get bad, they are all going to fall away. What is their response? No, not us! Peter especially insists that he is ready to die for Jesus. I can imagine Peter singing this song by Fall Out Boy in that moment, a song that praises the object of his affection but also hints at the dysfunction of the relationship.
“Home” by Phillip Phillips – Jesus goes to prepare a home (John 14:15-31) I mean, this song might as well be the sung version of the section of the farewell discourse when Jesus tells his people he will not leave them orphaned and goes to prepare a home for them.
“Hey Brother” by Avicii – Love one another (John 15:9-17) I love this song for this moment (hundreds of other songs would work here) because it captures the responsibility we as the family of faith have for one another. It speaks of a relationship in which you would give your all for your brother or sister. It is also in this farewell discourse that Jesus is steadily moving his disciples from thinking of themselves as his followers to each other’s family.
“Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls – Jesus’ farewell prayer (John 17:1-26) “Iris” is such a heartbreaking song, and this moment in John is such a heartbreaking prayer. Both recognize a love that is worth giving up heaven for, that will be misunderstood by others, but that will necessarily go through significant loss before it is all over.
“Stay” by Rihanna feat. Mikky Ekko – Jesus asks the disciples to stay and pray with him (Matthew 26:36-38, Mark 14:32-34) There is a great deal of tension around the concept of staying at this moment. In John, the disciples have told Jesus they don’t want him to go. They want him to stay. When Jesus moves to the Garden of Gethsemane in the synoptic gospels, Jesus begs his followers to stay and pray with him. Neither group will get their wish: Jesus must go, and the disciples will fail at praying and fall asleep. Rihanna’s heartbreaking duet makes this moment all the more poignant.
“Mercy” by Shawn Mendes – Jesus praying in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-46, Mark 14:35-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 18:1) Luke’s gospel tells us that this moment in the garden was so wrenching for Jesus, he appeared to sweat blood. This is the moment when Jesus’ humanity and divinity might be most at war with one another. The divinity knows the fulfillment to come. The humanity knows the pain it will take to get there. I like to imagine Jesus singing the expanded chorus of “Mercy” to reflect those tensions. You can hear him singing to his disciples, to the human authorities, and perhaps to his own human side, “Please have mercy on me, take it easy on my heart. Even though you don’t mean to hurt me, you keep tearing me apart.” To the divine, to the God whose will will be done, but the one who could take this cup from him, he sings, “Would you please have mercy on me? I’m a puppet on your string. And even though you got good intentions, I need you to set me free.”
“Chains” by Nick Jonas – Jesus gets arrested (Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, John 18:2-12) Okay, you need to make one small adjustment to this song for it to really work. Change the “she” to a “he.” Then imagine, as Judas is coming into the garden with the guards, that Jesus sees him and sings this song under his breath about Judas. Judas’ lips are still wine-stained from the Last Supper, and he comes to kiss Jesus and seal his fate. But remember, Jesus took on these chains as much for Judas as for any of us. He is in chains for our love.
“Human” by Christina Perri – Peter’s Denial (Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:56-62, John 18:25-27) For all his bravado that he was going to be willing to die for Jesus, Peter falls away as fast as anyone else. But then, what do we expect? He is only human.
“Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera – Jesus before the High Priest and Pilate (Matthew 26:57-68, 27:11-14; Mark 14:53-65, 15:2-5; Luke 22:54-71, 23:2-5; John 18:13-24, 29-38) Jesus does not offer much of a defense of himself before the High Priest and before Pilate. What defense he offers is mostly circular. All the people who had followed him up to this point probably expect him to lower the boom now, and yet he doesn’t. They are probably desperate. Desperate for him to “Say something! I’m giving up on you!”
“Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence – Judas’ Death (Matthew 27:3-10) However we think of Judas, at least in Matthew’s gospel, we learn he had great regrets for what he did. Regrets big enough to cause him to return the silver and take his own life. This song by Evanescence is a cry of desperation to be saved from such despair.
“A Light that Never Comes” by Linkin Park x Steve Aoki – Jesus making his way to the cross (Matthew 27:24-37, Mark 15:15-26, Luke 23:17-34, John 19:1-27) We are accustomed to hearing sad, slow, mournful songs for the procession to the cross. Certainly that fits an understandable perspective of that moment. But remember, in the moment, what was happening was that a rebel was being executed. More likely the crowd, which has just chanted for Jesus’ death, is riled up. Add to that a defiant savior, who knows where all this leads, and I think a dubstep, furiously rapped song may actually fit the moment better. Imagine the people who had followed Jesus, who have now lost all hope in him as the Messiah, singing the chorus. They are again finding themselves, “Waiting for the light that never comes.” Then imagine Jesus proclaiming the verses. The first verse takes place as he is dragged around and tormented by soldiers. The slow moving then rapid fire beats that lead into the chorus correspond with whip thrashes. Then the second verse is sung before Pilate, as Jesus describes what kind of king he is. The slow moving then rapid fire beats are steps down the road to the cross, as Jesus is helped along by Simon. The last set of beats, then corresponds to the nails driving through his wrists and ankles. Jesus is defiant, knowing he will defeat death; the crowd who followed him, on the other hand, is losing all hope.
“Consequences” by Camila Cabello – Jesus is mocked and deserted (Matthew 27:38-43, Mark 15:27-32, Luke 23:35-38) The crowd has turned, and now most of the disciples have fled as well. I can imagine the disciples singing this song as they walk away. Loving Jesus had once been all they lived for. Now it seems “dumb, and dark, and cheap.”
“Rise” by Katy Perry – Jesus dies (Matthew 27:45-54, Mark 15:33-39, Luke 23:44-48, John 19:28-30) Jesus is going to defy the power of death, even as it looks like the nail is in and the vultures are circling. “Rise” was written for this moment on the cross.
“Wide Awake” by Katy Perry– Joseph and Nicodemus bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42) Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were almost disciples. Both of them hovered around, almost at times coming to Jesus’ defense, but never making the full public commitment. Perhaps, as they came to collect his body, maybe out of respect, maybe out of loss, they figured they dodged a bullet. “Wide Awake” speaks of a sudden realization that the hopes you had were dashed, but now you know better and can move on. I can imagine Joseph and Nicodemus feeling that way.
“What Now?” by Rihanna – Holy Saturday There is no real gospel account of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I always think of all the people who lost Jesus. What was that day like for them? How desolate and lost must they have felt? I wonder if they were both in deep mourning, and also afraid to expose such grief. Rihanna almost screams such anguish in this song, sharing the trauma of depression that has to be covered up.
“Love Don’t Die” by The Fray – The empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-13) Love doesn’t die. Jesus lives! No matter if you bury love “six feet underground,” love will rise again!
“This is the New Year” by A Great Big World – Jesus hands us his ministry (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:9-20, Luke 24:44-49, John 21:1-19) When Jesus comes to his disciples, wherever and however he does at the end of each of the Gospels, he gives them a mission. It is a mission to share his story and his love with the whole world. He hands us that mission, empowers us through the Spirit, and he “will give the world to” us. Now let’s go get it!
[i] Okay, so arguably U2 is the world’s most successful Christian rock band. Also, Katy Perry got her start as a Christian singer. Every Imagine Dragons song that gets released fits into the soundtrack of the Bible for me. Many of these options here might as well be Christian bands, but they are not overtly so; thus, I keep them on this list.