What Are We Flying Away From? When the Gospel Meets ‘Gospel’ Music

As someone raised in the church and in the “Bible belt”, I have often heard the famous song “I’ll Fly Away.” It has been the center piece of churches, including my own, as well as secular social gatherings where everyone comes alive to sing that beautiful melody which speaks of freedom from oppression. Although many are likely to have heard this song, the lyrics are as follows (I’ll refrain from rehashing the chorus between every stanza of verses):

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

Chorus:
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away
Oh, how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

Having shared the lyrics, I cannot help but wonder: “What, according to this song, are we flying away from?” It seems fairly obvious that, according to this song, the oppression of which we will be freed is an oppression of our earthly state—more specifically it seems our bodies are the prisons. In this brief article, I will first explore the claims made by this song about the ultimate goal of humanity (specifically referring to its goal after death) and the good news about Jesus (i.e., the gospel), and second, I will provide a more biblical picture of these concepts.

The song speaks of “flying away” from the earth to “that home on God’s celestial shore.” It praises God (i.e., “Hallelujah”) for our flying away once we die, and it speaks of this death and flying away as being freed from the “shadows of this life” and from the “prison walls”, or birdcage of the world. It speaks as if one needs only to leave our earthly bodies and return to our original home in heaven in order to receive the heavenly reward mentioned by Jesus. This flying away is a happy occasion hence the words “how glad and happy when we meet” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet.” Everyday life for the writer is a persistent survival of these “few more weary days” before going to a “land where joy will never end.” All this is expressed with the constant refrain “I’ll fly away.”

The worldview of this song has more in common with ancient Greek philosophy than the Bible. If philosophy reveals truth previously testified to in the Bible then we say “praise God” and “amen”, but when the philosophy does not match the Bible’s claims, then we must remain willing to let it go (here, I clearly display my Protestant leanings on these matters). The philosophy of this song has more in common with Plato than Paul and more in common with Athens than Jerusalem. It provides its listener with the Gospel according to Plato in which “salvation” becomes a matter of escaping the physical word.[1] N.T. Wright describes the Platonic view with extremely similar language to the song “I’ll Fly Away”; he writes, “It [death] is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body.”[2] According to this gospel, our souls need to escape our sinful bodies and evil creation to return to a spiritual realm with God.[3] In contrast, the famed German theologian and minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work Creation and Fall: “The body belongs to a person’s essence. The body is not the prison, the shell, the exterior of a human being instead a human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul.”[4] As I will contend below, it is not our bodies or creation that are inherently sinful and evil, and God wants to save them as much as he wants to save our souls.

The story of being a celestial being in the sky by and by with my harp and colorful robes has always bothered me. As a child, I was scared of death because this did not seem like a fun place. It sounded like eternal boredom. In my daily life, I never desire to sit around and play the harp or anything of the sort. I fill my day with activities, hobbies, projects, worship, friendship, etc. I am thankful that I have since learned that the future described in the Bible sounds more like a continuation of the latter on a far grander scale.

According to the Bible, God creates the world and calls it good (Gen 1). Humans and creation only became sinful and evil once they worshiped the wrong thing by disobeying God and desiring something other than a relationship with him (Gen 3).[5] Therefore, he punishes humanity and creation, but with this punishment, he makes a promise to put the world right-side up again (Gen 3:15). Fulfilling this promise, God takes on humanity (John 1:1-18; Phil 2:7-8; and Col 1:15), and he lives the life and dies the death that we could not for ourselves (Romans 5:8). But the story does not end there because he comes back from the dead, and he comes back in his physical body (Matt 28:5-7; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:24-29). This resurrection is supposed to be the first fruits of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20). The Bible promises that one day Jesus will reappear to fully bring heaven on earth and to bring all the dead followers of Jesus back from the grave, and they will rule and reign over the earth with him continuing the project started in the beginning (1 Pet 2:9-10; Rev 21).[6]

If the previous paragraph is remotely true, then it seems “I’ll Fly Away”, despite its beautiful melody, is false. All Christians should affirm at least three things from the previous paragraph: (1) God created everything, and he called it “good”; (2) God took on physical form as a human called Jesus; and (3) Jesus was resurrected thus becoming physical again and forever (ST III q. 54 a.1).[7] If those three things are affirmed, then “I’ll Fly Away” describes a different gospel than the one proclaimed by Paul or Jesus or any other author of the New Testament.

Before his death, Jesus once said that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4:23). How can Christians maintain this duality of worship if they knowingly sing untruth? Many people even sing it with the assumption that they are singing the gospel itself! No small number of sermons, blog posts, and books can convince our people that this song is not the gospel truth because the message has been engrained through repetition and melody in a way that propositional truth cannot be communicated. James K.A. Smith writes that “We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love.”[8] If we want to correct this error, we will need to do so through several greater means.

To eliminate the teaching of false doctrine in our churches, we will have to make several difficult decisions. First, we must stop singing songs that falsely portray God, the gospel, and the human condition. The target song for this blog post is “I’ll Fly Away”. Second, we must correct for these erred ways of understanding Christianity by instilling new repetitions into the life of the local church via intentional liturgies. James K.A. Smith writes that liturgy “is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[9] If local congregations would combat the liturgies and narratives of our cultures and intentionally replace them in the worship service with the recitation of creeds and confessions and practices like the Lord’s Supper, then we would have congregations being informed by biblical truth instead of 20th century constructions that have more in common with Phaedo than Scripture. Third and finally, we must specifically teach against these philosophies especially those that cloak themselves in Christianity. We should point out music, literature, films, and other cultural artifacts that claim to present a vision of the world contrary to biblical truth.

Although each Christian has a personal responsibility to act on these issues (not singing false songs, alerting leadership to these issues, and not presenting these songs as good sources of knowledge for young Christians or non-Christians), the primary responsibility lies on the leadership of the church to teach truthfully and avoid letting our people’s hearts and minds be shaped by false doctrine. It can be difficult as a worship pastor or senior pastor or whatever pastor/leader/minister to shirk our responsibility or to assume that someone else takes the blame on this issue, but we must stand up and represent Jesus well to the world. Many will read this and still sing “I’ll Fly Away” on Sunday mornings. I entirely suspect that the habit and the tune will live on despite the contrary evidence (humans are often bad on acting on the knowledge they gain). We still love this song more than we love truth, which is why we need to instill new habits, new songs to replace the ones that we must reject for the sake of the truth of the gospel.

Citations

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 48. For a discussion on competing views of the human person, see Paul R. Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 33-38. In his discussion of human anthropology, Williamson compares the views from Ancient Greek philosophy, such as Plato’s, and from the Bible for the purpose of explaining the post-mortem fate of the dead.
[2] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 48.
[3] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 74.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 76-77.
[5] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 77, 99, 101-103.
[6] This Christian understanding is articulated by the Athanasian Creed wherein it states, “He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead. / At his coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. / Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.” https://www.rca.org/resources/athanasian-creed
For a discussion of how humanity is to rule/reign after Jesus’s death, see N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 160-167.
[7] This citation ought to be read: Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, third part, question 54, article 1.
[8] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 22.
[9] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, 46.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016.

Williamson, Paul R. Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Wright, N.T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016.

_. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

2 thoughts on “What Are We Flying Away From? When the Gospel Meets ‘Gospel’ Music

  1. Nice paper! I always thought the song might be alluding to a slave desiring freedom. Good to see another perspective. I read an online newspaper article about the song’s author: he lived in LeFlore County, Oklahoma at one time!

    It was in 1929 that Brumley actually composed “I’ll Fly Away.” He recalled that he was picking cotton and singing a popular song, “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” Suddenly, he thought about flying away.

    “He later said, “Actually, I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote ‘I’ll Fly Away.'” However, the song took on a spiritual meaning.

    Brumley’s rural background made it natural for him to appeal to the common man. Even as a small lad picking cotton in LeFlore County, Oklahoma, he knew he would much rather be involved in music than in any other occupation.”

    1. Yes, I’m somewhat familiar with the song’s history even though I didn’t include it in the post. And yes, it’s a song birthed (somewhat) from Leflore County! I understand the history and some of the intention behind the song, and I do think it is probably best understood as a folk/gospel song used in church worship, not necessarily a worship song. However, that doesn’t mean, despite good intentions, that the song has good theology. It has also been, correctly, pointed out to me that many people do not have great lives, or comfortable ones, and to them, this song provides a lot of hope. But I think the right and ethical thing to do is to provide them with music that gives them true hope, not false hope. They can look forward to a New Creation which is like ours except without sin, without pain, and without struggle. Their bodies will be healed, and their souls will be freed—but not from their bodies… I hope that helps get at my issue with the song, and what I think the correct remedy is. With grace and peace,
      Chandler

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