Reading the Bible with the Damned: Part 4, I'll Fly Away

Reading the Bible with the damned also changed how I think about heaven. 

A great example of this is how I've come to think about the song "I'll Fly Away."

As regular readers know, my favorite thing to do out at the prison, in the middle of our two hour study, is to pull out old church hymnals to sing gospel songs. The men in the study shout out numbers, we flip to that page, and then sing. We've gotten very good at harmonies over the years!

If you grew up singing gospel songs out of hymnals you know that many of these songs are songs about heaven. "When We All Get to Heaven." "To Canaan's Land I'm on My Way." "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder." "In the Sweet By and By." "Blessed Assurance." "Higher Ground." "We're Marching to Zion."

But by far, the most favorite song about heaven that we sing out at the unit is "I'll Fly Away."

Again, when I started leading the Bible study out at the prison my theological sensibilities were progressive. Consequently, I held the standard progressive view about heaven and songs about heaven. Songs about heaven were escapist and triumphalistic. Songs about heaven expressed an "over-realized eschatology." Let me explain these terms and their interrelated concerns.

By "escapist" we mean that a yearning desire for heaven can cause us to ignore pressing moral duties here on earth. An "escapist" view of heaven can also have pernicious moral effects. For example, calls for creation care can fall on deaf ears if you feel that the world is soon about to end in an apocalyptic conflagration. If the earth is a dumpster fire why put it out if you feel the whole show is going up in smoke soon anyway?

By "triumphalistic" and "over-realized eschatology" we mean that the full blessings of heaven are claimed as actual and live today. This is most clearly seen in the Prosperity Gospel, where expectations of "blessing," "victory," and "favor" are very high in a world still characterized by pain, suffering, failure, tragedy and death. A triumphalistic and over-realized eschatology assumes a degree of immunity to misfortune in this life that is inappropriate and unrealistic, an immunity that can only be truly enjoyed in heaven. As Jesus said, in this world we will have trouble. All creation continues to groan.

Such concerns cause progressive Christians to marginalize talk of heaven. The focus is, rather, upon the pressing moral demands of earth, right here and right now, and attending to its locations of harm and brokenness. And I do think this is exactly right.

And yet, when I started singing "I'll Fly Away" out at the unit I began to hear that song differently. "I'll Fly Away" sounds different in a maximum-security prison than it does in the pews of an affluent, middle-class church. Once again, location, location, location.

Inside a prison the line that jumps out at you from "I'll Fly Away" comes from the second verse: "Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I'll fly away." How could that line not hit you with some force inside the walls of a prison? 

Inside a prison, and sung by the incarcerated, "I'll Fly Away" doesn't sound triumphalistic, it sounds like a lament. And if "I'll Fly Away" sounds "escapist," well, that's because you really do want to escape! 

Hearing "I'll Fly Away" sung by the damned caused me to reflect upon the origin of all those old gospel hymns about heaven. The people who sang and loved them. These were poor people living hard lives. These were Black churches facing slavery and segregation. The longing for escape was real and acute. These songs pointed away from today's despair toward future hope. 

These songs reminded them, and remind the damned even today, that there is a balm in Gilead

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