On the Song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

This Sunday in worship we sang the song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” It’s a short song, only thirteen bars long, which can be repeated as many times as needed. The legend is that the song was written by an anonymous homeless man in the rough part of 1970s London. On the surface, it is deceptively simple. The melody sounds trite, sing-songy, even a bit silly. And yet I have found it to be one of the most profound sacred songs I have ever encountered.

Why? I could say that it might be the musical oddities pulsing under the surface –– the fact that the song is an irregular thirteen bar phrase, or the fact that the full cadence is in the middle of the piece, both of which make the song sound off balance with itself. While these structural things do make the song unfold in interesting ways over time, I wonder if there are other things going on, too.

First, the silliness. If you ever get the chance to listen to the original field recording (as it is captured in composer Gavin Bryars’ 1971 arrangement), you’ll notice right away that the singer has a funny British voice. (Not that British people have a funny voice by default, but his voice sounds like a parody of a drunken British person.) But there he is, singing over and over, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet…” There is something Dostoevskian about the song, the way that it places faith in the mouth of the buffoon, the despised, the silly. It is the gospel as the ultimate carnivalizing of the world’s idolatrous seriousness. I love making people sing this song in church (it’s good for them!) because it slams together the comic and the transcendent in uncomfortably close proximity. What are we singing about? Are we singing about something happy[-go-lucky], –– that Jesus loves me –– or are we singing about something deathly serious –– that the Son of God died a violent death that involved copious amounts of human blood? I believe the answer is yes-to-both, and I love the way that singing this song over and over again turns the two sides of this coin over and over again, depending on the emotional vantage point of the singer. 

Second, the simplicity. The song only contains sixteen words. It’s the opposite of a systematic theology, and yet it contains all of the Christocentric rigor that many systematic theologies lack. But even beyond that, the song has an apophatic quality to it. After you’ve sung it over and over, you may find yourself walking past the place of talking about God, past the place of “knowing” God, to what the Eastern fathers called “the divine darkness,” or what an anonymous 14th-century mystic called “the cloude of unknowyng.” This is the cloud on Mount Sinai that enveloped Moses, the cloud in the gospels that enveloped the disciples during the Transfiguration. It is the intimate embrace of God that C. S. Lewis hints at in his novel ‘Til We Have Faces. It is an experience of the fact that, at the bottom of it all, God is resolutely for us, as when the voice says to Jesus, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” I’m going to play it safe and not say that I’ve had this experience in its fullness, but I will say that this song has brought me close on occasion.

So every couple months we’ll bust out this song and have everybody sing it in church. No one knows who wrote it (sometimes, at my most fanciful, I like to pretend it was an angel). I’m sure some people will be impatient with it, others will feel like their intelligence has been insulted, and others will wish we were singing something with more ‘content.’ But I’m going to keep sneaking it in, in the hopes that through the song, some will encounter God in a deep, rich way.

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Augustine and interpretive pluralism

I was chugging along in the part of Book XI of The City of God where Augustine is talking about the nature and status of fallen angels, when I came across this line:

“The obscurity of the divine discourse actually serves the useful purpose of giving birth to many views of the truth and bringing them into the light of knowledge, one person understanding the divine words in this way and another in that.” (civ. XI.19)

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