I'll Fly Away

A while back I wrote about how different the bible sounds when read inside a prison. I'm also coming to see how songs sound different as well.

A month or so ago our teaching team at the prison bible study was reduced from three to two. The study is about two hours long. So with one less teacher we have some time to fill.

So we've started to sing a lot more. About halfway through the study, when we transition from Herb to me, we stop, pull out the songbooks, and I take song requests.

I've really enjoyed these times. Our church has pretty much gone over to the modern praise team/band songbook found in many churches. But the songs we are singing in the prison are the songs I grew up with. Amazing Grace. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. There's a Fountain Free. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. I'll Fly Away.

Sometimes the song requests can be pretty weird. Last week one of the guys called for The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Good Lord, I thought. But not wanting to be judgmental, I led it. I don't think I'd ever sung all the verses before. But there I was, singing away...

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
I felt like a Civil War solider camped out at Gettysburg or something.

But back to the old school hymns.

I don't blame my church for moving on from the hymns of my childhood. But I do miss them. Some of them are pretty bad as far as music goes, but some songs, when set to country, folk or blue grass music, just bowl me over with nostalgia. Get me some Alison Krauss or Gillian Welch on one of these old church songs and I'm a happy man.

But these songs aren't just dinged on the basis of musical quality. Over the years I've heard preachers and theologians completely throw songs like I'll Fly Away under the bus. Why? Because it's escapist!
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.

To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away;
when I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
I understand the criticism. Where is the whole "may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Where is the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth in Revelation 21-22? It does seem like I'll Fly Away is pointing us away from this world in anticipation of the next. The song suggests that the whole goal and aim of the Christian life is to "fly away" from this world to the next.

But here's what I found in the prison. I'll Fly Away is one of their favorite songs. We sing it every week. And it's not hard to see why. Particularly if you recall the second verse:
When the shadows of this life have grown,
I'll fly away.

Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away.
And the third verse speaks to the bleakness of prison life as well: "Just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away."

The point is, while I get the theological criticism of I'll Fly Away the song sounds completely different in prison. Just like the bible.

Because here's the deal, does I'll Fly Away make any sense when it's sung by rich people of power and privilege? I mean, what the heck are you flying away from? Life in suburbia? The Caramel Macchiatos at Starbucks? The vacations at the beach? The fact that you have clean water, indoor plumbing, central heating/air, and two cars?

But when I'll Fly Away is sung by people who are, quite literally, imprisoned or oppressed then the song is less about flying off to the Pearly Gates than a commentary about the world around us. I'll Fly Away can be an indictment and lament about the status quo. There is a prophetic aspect to I'll Fly Away that privileged people generally miss. Having never suffered slavery, oppression or imprisonment we can't hear the lament in I'll Fly Away. So of course when the privileged sing the song it sounds theologically shallow. The privleged shouldn't be trying to fly away. They should be worrying about the injustices at the gate.

In sum, I'm back to the realization that Christianity sounds different--theology, hymnody, and the bible itself--when heard from the margins of society. What doesn't make sense at the centers of power, prosperity and privilege often makes a whole lot of sense on the periphery.

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33 thoughts on “I'll Fly Away”

  1. Dr. Beck, I like this piece but I am worried that you make too close of a connection between 'imprisoned' and 'oppressed'. You make it sound like the inmates are simply victims of oppression by 'the centers of power' instead of what they (usually) are, which is thieves, rapists, murderers, drug dealers. I'm not suggesting by any means that they are beyond redemption or that they do not deserve empathy and support, just that they should not be lumped together with 'the downtrodden' and 'the victims'. 

  2. Agreed. What I'm getting is how the song resonates when you're singing from a particular social location and doesn't from other locations and that, generally, those who knock the song tend to be pretty privileged.

  3. Let me also add this as a point of reflection.

    Most of the prison population in the US is comprised of minorities and those from the lower socioeconomic strata. So I don't think we should posit too clean an distinction. We should ponder why the criminal class often comes from the poorer classes. Criminality is just the nadir of poverty. And I am complicit in that system.

    And globally, there's a reason why extremist Islam emerges among poor, jobless young men.

    Yes, people should take moral responsiblity, but its hard to take a full reckoning of "the good guys" and the "the bad guys" without addressing the Principalities and Powers.

  4. Are you a fan of the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack?  (Man of Constant Sorrows) is one of my *favorites*!!  I think 'I'll Fly Away' is on the playlist :-)

    You know that I admire your prison ministry so much.  It's the kind of thing I dream of doing, but fear holds me back.

    Meanwhile, I have facilitated a weekly Bible fellowship group in a local nursing home for over 4 years now.  As you might imagine, core members change as death is more of an imminent reality for that segment of society.  But there are a handful of women whom I've known throughout my time there.  I cherish those people and the deep relationships with them.  I learn SO much from them...

    We sing hymns too, and lately, a capella.  I have used hymn requests as a sort of ice breaker, asking, "What is your favorite hymn, and why?"  The lyrics of the old school hymns are so theologically rich and tell something about the particular theology in which one has "grown up" in her faith tradition.  A personal favorite tells something about one's own faith experiences and values, too, I think.

    Anyway, it is becoming a regular "tradition" for us to sing 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds' at the end of our time together.  Yesterday, we talked about the fact that at whatever time we are all reunited on the "other side of eternity," because of our deep spiritual connection, I believe we will *know* one another and have one long, joyous celebration.

    Verse 4 reads, "When we asunder part, It gives us inward pain; But we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again."  That is also the great hope of the Christian faith:  Resurrection Life and a love that is eternal.  :-)  May God continue to bless you, Dr. Beck, in your prison Bible fellowship.  ~Peace~

  5. Hello Richard,

    Good stuff. I think you'd like the re-purposed "Battle Hymn" by a UCC minister named Heidi Blythe. It's called "God's Truth Still Marches On" and here is the link: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/29754924/God%27s%20Truth%20Still%20Marches%20On.pdf


  6. Rich thieves, rich rapists, rich murderers, and rich drug dealers don't go to prison that much.

    Many people in US prisons are non-white drug possessors.  Whites and ethnic minorities use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, but whites are neither arrested, convicted, or imprisoned at the higher rates of ethnic minorities.  The Powers are at work here.

  7. That is SUCH a good point. If we look at the individuals in the population of the imprisoned we can say: "Well he's a thief, and he's a murderer and she's a crack addict, and therefore they are in prison. That's a good thing. All is well." But if we take a wider view and look at the population of the imprisoned as a whole we start seeing some very different things. Some very troubling things. We begin to see some very obvious and inescapable racial and socioeconomic trends.

    Unless we're willing to say that the poor, or this or that race, are genetically predisposed towards crime (which I certainly hope we are NOT willing to say) then we have no choice but to start dealing with the sociological ramifications of what we see. It quickly becomes quite easy to see that the imprisoned (and obviously there are exceptions) are also the oppressed.

  8. There's certainly more punishment for the same crimes among the poorer classes. Political figures, Holleywood A-listers and wealthy/powerful get away with rape, murder, DWI, theft, domestic violence, drug use and other crimes, but always seem to escape accountability or get a softly gloved slap on the wrist. Again, thanks to the Principalities and Powers, and media exposure.

  9. At times you just express my thoughts so perfectly. I have condemned "I'll Fly Away" as escapist exactly as you describe, and I also LOVE "I'll Fly Away" because it is just so catchy and fun to sing. The words sound different from the margins - one of the reasons we are again and again told by Jesus to go to the margins.

  10. Last time I remember singing this in a group was at summer camp as a teen, accompanied by robust silliness and the euphoria of sitting around the campfire under the pine trees. My husband and I have worked overseas for many years with a mission organization that focuses on the marginalized. You so rightly say that Christianity sounds different there.

  11. I'm hearing an argument for diversity in our churches -- socio-economic as well as racial.  We don't hear the whole gospel without hearing it resonating with the experiences of poor and rich, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. We generally don't hear much of either indictment or lament in our worship -- is that just because the songbook is being written (and sung) by privileged people who really don't want to fly away from their comfy lives?

  12. There area lot of hymns which don't go one inch beyond my personal, privatised, ticket to heaven. I get frustrated about it as I - and most of the people at my church - feel there's a lot more to the Gospel than that. But I think it has its place. A lot of our members come from the Caribbean, and when I think of what their foreparents went through there, it's easy to see how that sort of theology gains its appeal. I think it has its place, as long as it's recognised that there's more as well.

    Where it does get seriously dangerous is in the sort of individualised revivalism which fails to go beyong me, my Jesus, and my ticket to heaven. That really is escapism, and it can very easily slide into cheap grace for rich people.

  13. Thanks for the post.  I laughed out loud on the personal comments about the "Battle Hymn..." and now I can start liking "I'll Fly Away" again.  Great thoughts and comments as usual.  :-)

  14. Dan, you add to the previous good points with some excellent ones of your own.

    To take it one step further, to look beyond the "very obvious and inescapable racial and socioeconomic trends," if we did say that someone IS "genetically predisposed towards crime" we should then admit that their actions are a function of another kind of "bondage" that is beyond their control. We then need to rethink that old, tired theory of "free will" and how it is impossible in light of our "bondage to sin."

    We can never separate the actions from their causes, and in either case (genetic or socioeconomic) there is always a reason beyond the typical religious claim that "they are just EVIL people."  Otherwise we fall prey to demonizing our FELLOW man, which naturally and historically leads to rationalizing that they "deserve" (as in "FULLY responsible for") the consequences of their actions... up to and including eternal hell. I am not in any way advocating that we let criminals run free -- we do have an obligation to protect ourselves and society -- but I must always assume that it is a temporary measure which is necessary only UNTIL they can be "healed." Since there are many that are beyond human intervention we must rely on our faith that God can do what we cannot. Sadly, as always, too many professing Christians are essentially denying any faith in God when they assume that anyone's brokenness now is a permanent condition.

  15. Richard,

    Thank you, Richard, for your post.  And your work in teaching.  I know you are blessed in doing it.  I received a similar blessing over thirty years ago.  In the mid-1970s, I taught history and literature for five years in a state-run maximum security system.  I looked out at the faces of the (mostly) young men (under thirty) in my classes who had been placed there by Texas' justice system.  Three-fourths were African-American, half of the rest were Latino and Caucasian.  Today, a number of those state  (and federal) prisons have been "privatized" and are part of the the "prison industrial complex."  The common response of the "respectable Christians" I knew then was that I was part of the "liberal" effort to turn what ought to be a place of harsh punishment into a "country club."  Such was a waste of taxpayers' money.  The inmates viewed my classes and the classes of the other teachers as a brief time in the "free world."  They were among the best students I've ever had--even though at least twenty of the inmates I taught over a five-year period were clearly mentally ill.  All who were physically able worked the prison farm all day and then came to my evening classes.  Discussion was lively, often humorous (especially when we read Oedipus the King and then talked about Freud's take on sexuality), sometimes brutally honest, and often personal and confessional.  Some of the reading included Solshenytsin's Gulag, Hitler's Mein Kampf, Bonhoeffer's Prison Letters, MLK's Letters from the Birmingham Jail, Shakespeare's "Othello" and "Macbeth," Dante's Purgatorio, portions of Don Quixote, and a number of Psalms and Paul's prison epistles.  After we read Philippians, one inmate stated: "Sometimes you choose prison and sometimes prison chooses you."  That remark says much about the human condition.  No escaping that.


  16. As someone who has, ahem, been the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ these prison posts always fascinate me.
    They also remind me of what many of the people in prison think of the Christians that come in to visit/help them; i.e. that they are weak, lame, society-rejects who want to do good but have no real sense of understanding or relevance to what’s REALLY going on in a prison on a day-to-day basis.
    Saying this, please don’t think I am denigrating either your ministry to these folk, or indeed anyone else’s.
    What I am simply saying is that the reason it is so difficult (at least here in the UK) to get men into Church (and especially manly men!) is that Christianity is so often seen as the resting-ground of the weak, the ineffectual, the effeminate and the inconsequential.
    In many ways this is a GREAT list, when it is taken in the context of a Gospel for the disenfranchised. Instead, however, these descriptors are not so great when linked to people who otherwise have the money, the prestige, the education and the privileges that middle-class society has bestowed upon them.
    I realise that this sounds controversial – it’s truly not meant to be – rather, as someone who’s been there – I am trying to gently point out what might not be obvious to those who merely visit the margins or just reflect upon them.
    The prison chapel, for example, is a great way to get out of your cell for a while. The grinding horror and fear and violence and pain of the other 23 of that day, however, are a beast so far removed from such meetings that the two can hardly be considered to be happening in the same life.
    Good on you Richard for going to this place – Jesus’ love and instruction compels us to do so. They will, in my opinion and experience,  give us insight into a prisoner’s life and reality in much the same way that a visit to the zoo will help us to understand the world and outlook of a lion in the wild...

  17. I am trying to think of any hymns that operate in the opposite way, that is, resonate outside of a prison but not within. Can't think of any yet. Also, would my dismissal of I'll Fly Away be an indication of a deficiency in my life? Should we be living our lives in such a manner as to resonate with this hymn?

  18. George,

    I always enjoy your responses and reflections on Richard's posts. The Lords's blessings on you!

  19. I'm so glad you rehabilitated this great old song! Depression- era singing.....lots of heaven, lots of yearning. Negro Spirituals......lots of the same. Do we see a pattern here? Inmates.....yep! Paul wanted to "fly away to Jeaus" but felt obligated to and wanted to be there for his brothers and sisters. Death is pretty scary, just to be existentially appropriate. Flying away may be a big cop- out, but when that time comes, and it surely will, I hope to sing that song with as much gusto as possibe. I pray my faith is that strong.

  20. Thank you for that George.  I taught GED and general education courses in a jail myself (as well as in suburban, inner-city, and expensive private high schools before that), and I would also say that my students in jail were the best students I ever had, with some of the mentally ill ones at the top of the list.  The poetry and creative writing that came out of those classrooms was incredible.

  21. There are lots of contemporary worship songs like that.  "His Banner Over Me" by Kevin Prosch comes immediately to mind, but that doesn't work so well for a lot of us outside of prison too.

  22. Thank you for this post - it led me down paths that I had missed before, even though I think of myself as one of those who knows all about "the margins" and what we Christians need to be doing there.

    I also want to say that the comments are fantastic.  I should read this blog more often.  Yes, the margins of society are where the gospel is called to; yes, this is a great argument for more diversity in our churches; and wow, so much good wisdom on the disparities in our society that lead to our prison population being what it is.

  23. In theory I would agree, but in reality, the conditions of our prisons are so *unjust* - so deplorable, dangerous, hopeless, and cruel - that I would include those who have committed crimes as among the oppressed.

  24. I always understood this song (perhaps influenced by its use as the title of a PBS drama?) as being one of many black spirituals that used the language of spiritual freedom to covertly discuss the hope of physical freedom.

  25. I can't help making a few more comments on these great old songs. We all have agendas, some recognized and acknowledged and some not so much. These songs have a place. It just helps to have a place to reflect and respond and interact about them. When they are a part of you from your youth, imbedded with so much emotion and faith affirming liberation...to remember leaving church with the songs still dancing in my heart...I don't think the preacher, God bless him, had nearly as much impact a lot of times. Escapism is not a good thing. Getting involved with our world and trying to see ourselves and others from a much more nuanced and insightful perspective in light of the gospel, is a good thing. Recognizing Platonism's escapist overtones is a good thing as is rational empiricism's being found weighed in the balances and found wanting. The times they are a changing. Some are at the vanguard; some just get along without too much fuss. My 95 year old father-in-law Came over to the C of C from a High Presbreterian liturgical background. When the new styles began coming in, he patiently endured the seeming flippancy and repetition, the pep rally atmosphere, or often almost narcissistic individualism and never laid a mumbling word. He has a few years past "flown away.". In one of our last conversations he almost wistfully asked, "I wonder heat heaven is like.". His deep faith, rarely verbalized, hid quiet dignity and servant's spirit remain with me to this day....as I in turn struggle with and try to understand and appropriately respond to the changes. This blog is a great blessing to many people...all over the board.

  26. I wonder about the next step: if the gospel sounds so different at the margins (and I agree that it does), how can those of us who preach to the powers that be preach it authentically, so that the gospel is heard at the center as well as at the margins? Can it still be heard as Good News?

  27. I saw this and thought of this post, particularly the discussion on discussing how music affects us "Christianly" http://youtu.be/OPYzHFPfAdo 

  28. My husband and I facilitate a Bible study class in the state women's prison. The favorite song by far is "I Can Only Imagine" by Mercy Me. We use their music video which makes the song all the poignant since many of the women has lost family and friends while incarcerated. Since they will have missed the gatherings and memorial services associated with the passing of a loved one, singing this song is a hope and a prayer that comforts.

  29. This post brings up fond memories of Boot Camp Sunday service at Parris Island. I'll Fly Away was a perennial favorite and sung with increasing fervor as the weeks piled up. I am always interested in how time and place influences thought. I love the open handed way you treat theology, acknowledging it is more about us than G*d.

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