The Rev. Beth Maynard preaches from the Psalms in the Bible, but she also likes to quote what she considers to be modern-day Psalms — the songs of U2.
As pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Fairhaven, Mass., she has quoted the lyrics of “Tomorrow” when teaching about the life of the apostle Thomas and “God Part II” when teaching about Lent. Mrs. Maynard appreciates the theme of social justice in “Pride (In the Name of Love).” She also relates to the longings associated with earthly life in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
“The Psalms are about praise, lament and confession,” Mrs. Maynard says. “They are not just positive statements about God. They bring a lot of emotional honesty at looking at life. Rather than writing about Christianity, U2 write honestly about life from a Christian worldview.”
U2 is not the only contemporary act whose fans find spiritual insights in its songs. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash also have delivered soulful pleas to God, full of faith and doubt.
While visiting with other clergy, Mrs. Maynard realized that she wasn’t the only one who quoted U2 songs from the pulpit. After consulting with the Rev. Raewynne Whiteley of Trinity Church in Swedesboro, N.J., they advertised for submissions for sermons based on the lyrics of the Irish rockers. The result is “Get Up Off Your Knees, Preaching the U2 Catalog,” which features responses from Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals.
“U2 is unusual because of the very clear theological allusions,” Ms. Whiteley says. “I’ve quoted from other songs, like Frank Sinatra, but they usually don’t have the depth that U2 songs have. I only use pop music two or three times a year in a sermon. I don’t want to artificially stick it in my sermons. Otherwise, my parishioners get very bored, especially because they all probably aren’t U2 fans.”
The psalmists were the rock ‘n’ roll artists of their day, says Brian J. Walsh, campus minister and professor of theology of culture at the University of Toronto. Mr. Walsh contributed two sermons to “Get Up Off Your Knees,” including “Walk On: Biblical Hope and U2.” In his sermon for “Wake Up Dead Man: Singing the Psalms of Lament,” he references Psalm 44, in which the psalmist cries out to God in a moment of despair.
“Psalm 44 is even more abrasive than the U2 song,” Mr. Walsh says. “The psalmist is more radical than Bono.”
People should spend more time looking into the theological implications of all types of modern songs and artwork, says Steve Garber, senior fellow for the C.S. Lewis Institute in Annandale. He is inspired by the apostle Paul, who in his day quoted the poets in the marketplace of Athens.
Mr. Garber wrote two sermons that appear in “Get Up Off Your Knees,” based on the U2 songs “When I Look at the World” and “Grace.”
“Our task is to read the culture around us,” Mr. Garber says. “Be attentive to the important voices. All things that are said aren’t valuable, but some things are very valuable. … You can’t talk to serious people in their teens, 20s or 30s who aren’t very interested in what U2 says.”
The booming voice of Johnny Cash spanned decades, connecting with many generations, says Dave Urbanski, author of “The Man Comes Around.” In fact, on U2’s 1993 album “Zooropa,” Mr. Cash recorded “The Wanderer,” a gospel collaboration, which could be considered his “prodigal son” life story.
“His songs are a lot like Psalms because sometimes he wrote about the spiritual pain he experienced,” Mr. Urbanski says. “Psalms aren’t always bright and sunny. Usually, they are hard and difficult and move into some kind of understanding. … Even in the midst of his drug addiction to speed and painkillers, he always recorded spiritual songs on his albums.”
Bob Dylan also has written a song or two of an otherworldly nature, says Scott M. Marshall, author of “Restless Pilgrim.” In addition to classics, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he also recorded three albums of overtly spiritual nature: “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” and “Shot of Love.”
Mr. Dylan, who is of Jewish heritage, also professed belief in Christ in the late 1970s.
“Many people consider the Psalms from the Bible to be literally inspired by God,” Mr. Marshall says. “Obviously, Dylan’s words aren’t part of the canon, but Dylan is a Jewish poet and that puts him in the same family as those who penned the actual biblical Psalms. His lyrics often have alluded to moral or spiritual issues, whether it’s righteous anger, injustice, or his assumption that God not only exists, but He is working in this world.”
In a 1997 interview with Jon Pareles of the New York Times, Mr. Dylan talked about how a phrase kept traveling through his mind while working on the Grammy-winning album “Time Out of Mind.” The phrase, unknown to Mr. Dylan at the time, is almost exactly the same as John 9:4.
“I get very meditative sometimes, and this one phrase was going through my head: ‘Work while the day lasts, because the night of death cometh when no man can work,’” Mr. Dylan said in the New York Times interview. “I don’t recall where I heard it. I like preaching, I hear a lot of preaching, and I probably just heard it somewhere. Maybe it’s in the Psalms, it beats me. But it wouldn’t let me go. I was, like, what does this phrase mean? But it was at the forefront of my mind, for a long period of time, and I think a lot of that is instilled into this record.”
Among the many lyrics by Mr. Dylan that could elicit sermons, “Gotta Serve Somebody” is one of the most popular, says Jeff Gaskill, producer of “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.”
Mr. Gaskill invited gospel greats, such as Shirley Caesar, Dottie Peoples and Helen Baylor to record Mr. Dylan’s work. In a new rendition of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” Mr. Dylan appears in a duet with Mavis Staples. The recording had received two nominations for the Grammys this year.
“The album is ordered as a spiritual journey, a musical road map,” Mr. Gaskill says. “Each one of those songs could be a sermon unto itself.”