Sunday, October 2, 2016

"There Is Power In the Blood" to my #AtheistEar

Like "I'll Fly Away," this is one of those rollicking favorites I remember from revivals in my youth.

I settled on this version by Dolly Parton, because I've always liked her as a performer, and she really captures the spirited delivery of this song.

(Lyrics are available here.)

When I went looking for an example of this song, I listened to a few other versions, but couldn't find one where the bass crams the word "power" into the chorus in a hyperactive flourish. Just imagine someone under the mix singing "There is power-power-power-power-power-power-power-power wonder working power..." and you'll see what I mean. It was that kind of boisterous interpretation that fueled my enjoyment of revivals.

But when we talk about songs that have lost their appeal since losing my religion, there are few that can rival this one for sheer tone-deafness and creepiness in its disregard for anyone who is not a lifelong evangelical Christian.

Even when you are raised from early childhood with stories that rely on the idea of a blood sacrifice being the way to set right one's moral and ethical failings, a song which revels in blood ought to be at least mildly disturbing. I'll be honest; as a kid, I found these lyrics to be downright gross. Even if you are completely comfortable with that concept of sacrifice, and you believe that a man (actually, an incarnate deity) was actually brutally tortured and murdered so that you could be allowed to "Fly Away" someday, you ought to recognize that singing about it is going to seem really bizarre to those who don't believe that and aren't comfortable with it. After all, "Blood" is in the title, and it sloshes through every verse.

Now, I'm not saying that if you are a believer, you don't have a right to enjoy a song like this. I'm just saying that it is jarring to realize that the same adults who freaked out over the on-stage antics of people like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper during the great Satanist Panic of the 1980s were perfectly happy to teach this song of washing in blood to their children.

Being outside of the bubble makes the cognitive dissonance a lot easier to spot.

Also, since I was a Southern Baptist kid, I feel a particular discomfort with verses like this one, now that I know the history of my childhood faith:

Would you be whiter much whiter than snow
There's power in the blood power in the blood
Sin's stains are lost in its life giving flow
There's wonderful power in the blood

The Southern Baptist convention, as is distinct from the main body of Baptist churches, was formed in 1845 after a split over the issue of whether slave owners could serve as missionaries. As a rule, Baptists don't believe in orthodoxy - meaning that there is no central "authority" in a Baptist church. The conscience of the individual is considered to be paramount, and personal revelation is given more weight than in traditions where a leader or council of leaders decides for the followers how to interpret the Will of God. So, for there to have been a "split," there had to have been enough individuals involved whose consciences did not bother them when it came to the question of whether slavery was moral or not.

Throughout the post-Civil War era, and through the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the churches in this Convention tried to thread a needle between avoiding overt racism and avoiding the appearance of siding with progressives in the culture wars. The argument could be made - and I have heard it made - that a verse like this one, equating whiteness with purity and redemption, is not a comment on race. This is not talking about race, but about sin; and yet, every kid I knew who noticed that verse thought the same thing I did. They thought the same thing you probably did - and the thing that you have been bracing yourself for since you read the verse two paragraphs ago.

But I'm not going to accuse fans of this song of racism. I don't believe that was the intent of the hymn's writer, or of the thousands of people who have loved the song over the past 117 years. I'm just going to point out that the discomfort you feel when a song you love is attacked for its subtext and associations with things that you don't even believe is something we have in common.

Because there are a number of songs which evangelicals frequently attack because of the way they interpret them. Songs which they consider to have evil messages, and which contain disturbing themes and imagery, have been a target for moralizing and for "non-believer shaming" if you will.

Since it's October, I'm going to talk about a few songs like that this month and explore their reputation, their imagery, and their messaging. As I talk about how I interpret them through my #AtheistEar, I want you to remember the outsiders' view of songs like "There Is Power In the Blood" and "I'll Fly Away." Think about them and about other songs that you think have a "good message," but which those outside your shared faith tradition might think are shocking, if not outright wrong. Or gross.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that we all find inspiration in different places. Sometimes, you have to accept that something you love will be horrible to someone else. Perhaps if you take the time to examine why, you might find that your core beliefs are closer than you think.

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