It’s Easter season, and that means I’ll get to sing and to hear one of my favorite Easter-season hymns, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”
That title comes, surprisingly, from the book of Job — not a part of the Bible we usually turn to for Easter thoughts. The particular passage, Job 19:25-26, is one I don’t ever remember encountering in all the Bible-memorization classes, programs and contests of my fundie youth, but it will be familiar to anyone who has studied classical music.
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though … worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
Handel used that passage for a soprano aria in Part III of his Messiah, and it’s a gorgeous thing.
But the hymn I mean is the Samuel Medley one from 1775. (Warning: That’s a CyberHymnal link with midi music — the button to turn off the sound is in the top left corner.) It’s usually sung to a tune that came later, in 1793, from John Hatton. That tune was originally called “Duke Street” — a name that just begs for a jazz arrangement.
My favorite rendition of the Medley/Hatton hymn is “My Redeemer Lives” by Mark Heard and Kate Miner on the lovely Easter album At the Foot of the Cross Vol. 1. Heard arranges Medley’s folk theology as something like folk-rock, which seems appropriate. He also skips several verses and rearranges the couplets of Medley’s lyrics to put more of the focus on “my Redeemer” and less of the focus on the I-me-mine at the center of the original lyrics.
I’ve read dozens of essays, articles, books and sermons criticizing modern American evangelical Christians for our shallow, individualistic, me-centered, “therapeutic” spirituality. While I tend to agree with those critiques, mostly, Medley’s lyrics from more than two centuries ago show that this problem isn’t actually a recent development unique to contemporary Christians.
He lives to grant me rich supply;
He lives to guide me with his eye;
He lives to comfort me when faint;
He lives to hear my soul’s complaint.
He lives to silence all my fears;
He lives to wipe away my tears;
He lives to calm my troubled heart;
He lives all blessings to impart.
He lives to bless me with his love;
He lives to plead for me above;
He lives my hungry soul to feed;
He lives to help in time of need.
That’s a stark summary of what it looks like when we reduce Jesus Christ to our “personal Lord and Savior.” The emphasis always ends up on the “personal” part, and for all the talk of “my Redeemer” the song winds up sounding more like it’s about my valet. Those verses above read like they should be Bertie Wooster’s hymn to Jeeves — a psalm in praise of the divine butler who attends our every need.
This individualistic, therapeutic, etc., spirituality is far removed from the defiant demand for justice in the passage that gives the hymn its title. “I call aloud, but there is no justice,” Job wails. Job wasn’t inclined toward the comfort-the-comfortable evangelical spirituality embodied by Medley’s hymn because Job was no longer pampered and thus could not imagine God as the divine pamperer.
Here, again, we see the daunting problem facing people like me when we try to read a book like the Bible. The Bible was not written by people like me, and it was not written for people like me, and people like me will never be able to understand it until we come to grips with that.
Even worse, it’s very hard for people like me to realize that we’re people like me. The “invisible knapsack” is invisible, after all — privilege means never having to think about being privileged. And because it’s hard for us to see that the Bible is going to be such a challenge for us, we tend to miss that challenge and thus to fail it. We misunderstand it without even realizing we’re doing so.
So let’s consider another song — a song written by just such a person. As much as I love to sing that Medley hymn, this is a far better Easter song.
That’s Bob Marley singing “Redemption Song,” and that first verse cuts to the heart of what it means to be “redeemed.” The etymology of that word, the biblical roots of it, involve liberation and Jubilee — being set free from slavery, debt, oppression and exile. Marley understands those things in a way that Medley could not, and so Marley’s song of redemption tells us more than Medley’s song of a redeemer.
If people like me, or like Medley, are going to try to understand what it means to sing that “my Redeemer lives,” we would do well to study the first verse of Marley’s song:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever have:
The Jamaican grammar of Marley’s lyric defies translation into any more formal form of English. In the usual grammar, “I” is the subjective first-person pronoun, while “me” should be used as the objective first-person pronoun. The middle-school grammar teacher wants to “correct” Marley’s patois: The old pirates did not rob “I.” The old pirates robbed “me.”
Methinks Marley knew that, but also knew that this “correction” would change the meaning of what he was singing. He’s not saying “the pirates robbed me” — that would mean they had stolen property from him. He’s saying the pirates robbed I — they stole him, treating him as property. He rejects the objective pronoun because he is not an object. He is a subject. The pirates and the merchants may say otherwise, but he has the strength of the Almighty on his side and he will triumph. This is what redemption means.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that we turn to Bob Marley for our systematic theology. He was no theologian, and much of what he at times believed was, frankly, flat-out wrong. (Haile Selassie was, alas, nothing more than Haile Selassie.)
But when I turn to many of the best theologians writing today — at least among those theologians who are people like me — I can’t help but notice that the broad outlines of the story they are telling is remarkably similar to the story Bob Marley sang for us. I’m thinking of theologians like N.T. Wright. I can’t keep pace with Wright, who writes books faster than I can read them. But if you look at the grand sweep of everything Wright is teaching us about the story of the Bible, you’ll find it is remarkably familiar to the story at the heart of Marley’s music.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The Bible was written by exiles and the Bible was written for exiles. People like me, who have never been exiles, cannot understand such a book on our own. If we want to understand our redemption song, we need to turn to those who can say it’s all they’ve ever had.
Anyway, here’s the Playing for Change version of “Redemption Song.” And here’s Matisyahu. John Legend. Muntu Valdo. Pink. Jackson Browne. Sinead O’Connor. Cassandra Wilson. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer. Stevie Wonder. And Angelique Kidjo.