Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing combines an old tune—INVITATION NEW from William Walker’s hymnbook Southern Harmony—with a joyous new text by Paul Damico-Carper about the new life we have in Christ. Between washing our masks and watching election news, the Elm Ensemble was able to record (virtually) Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing this fall and to grab some time with Paul to ask about this tremendous addition to Christian hymn texts.
Is there a specific occasion that got this project going or were you just working on these words and found your way to INVITATION NEW?
Paul. In the early days of the pandemic, some friends of mine put together something called the Triduum Project: a continuous YouTube livestream for the entirety of the Three Days. I got to host the last hour of the stream and wrote this hymn for the event. The initial impulses to write this text were to give the church an Easter text free of substitutionary atonement theory and rich with theology of the cross. I started writing it without a tune in mind, but it came to shape alongside a 7/4 tune in my mind with a grunge rock accompaniment using guitar power chords. Afterward, I shared the text in the ALCM Facebook group with a couple of recommended 8787D tunes. Pastor Blake Scalet (Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Summit, NJ) suggested INVITATION, and I loved the marriage of tune and text, especially on words like “cower” and “alleluia.”
What about this old shape-note tune made you think about the Easter message of new life in Christ?
Being a hexatonic tune with an implied modal character, there is enough ambiguity to hold both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And it calls for trochaic feet that fit the proclamatory nature of this text. All in all, it feels like a tune that can convey triumph without triumphalism and access self-giving love without sentimentalizing it.
This is a richly Lutheran text, and you’ve made interesting phrases and word choices. First, this is likely the first time the bully has made his way into a hymn text. Anything interesting to say about that?
Bullies have been empowered in recent US culture and public discourse in a way that grieves the heart of God. But Jesus saves us by taking away the power of the bully—that is, the threat of death or injury. And by juxtaposing “bully” and “cower,” I hoped to hint that the bully problem is rooted in toxic masculinity. (Although neither word appears to be etymologically derived from the gender of the cattle it sounds and looks like.)
“Ransacking hell” is such a fantastically vivid phrase, and theologically not too surprising. What about unlocking heaven to save saints? That’s a cool one. Tell us more.
The old idea of simil justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) is at play here. It is also a commentary on the theological dangers of self-centeredness and overfocus on the afterlife as reward/punishment. I think of it in terms of the story of the prodigal son/s: one son needs redeeming because he has squandered everything, the other son needs redeeming because he resents a mercy that doesn’t seem “fair.” Inasmuch as we are sinners, we need mercy in the form of a hell that cannot hold us in agony. Inasmuch as we are saints, we need mercy in the form of a heaven that cannot hold us away from the world that God loves.
Then those last words of verse 3—gives himself without restraint—sets up the poignancy of verse 4 so acutely. I love your play on the hidden/revealed God idea that’s so central to Luther’s theology and how shame is meant (by human intent?) to be in certain places where it actually has no business being or cannot actually exist.
You bring out such great things in the text with your comments and questions! The whole idea of this stanza is that God dying on a shameful cross to give us true life is not only the great salvific act but also the archetype for how God continues to be at work in the world. Empire and bullies are ashamed of weakness and vulnerability, and they shame entire swathes of people as a means of controlling and dividing them (into races, classes, cultures, identities, abilities, and so on). But outside of the thirst for power, when our inherent mutual vulnerability is acknowledged, there is life that defies zero-sum analyses.
And finally, God’s grace going “where it’s forbidden.” That’s just fantastic. But tell us more. Where are these places, and who’s forbidding God’s grace?
There is a beautiful pair of images whose sources I wish I could cite: (1) that God is pregnant with the cosmos, and so everything is God, and (2) whenever we draw a line around ourselves, God shows up on the other side of that line. It is in this kind of world that it makes sense for me to say that God’s glory is known where we want to see shame, and where we want to keep God’s grace for ourselves, it slips out of our grasp and ends up exactly where we forbid it to go.
Is there anything else about your text or the project overall that you want to share with us?
I think that in the United States, “free” (from the last stanza) is a loaded word. I hope the rest of the hymn makes clear that I mean the freedom for the neighbor rather than a freedom from the neighbor, which so often is worshipped by American “civil religion.” It’s an honor to have so many people come together to bring to life words I’ve prayed over. Thanks!
Life from Death_INVITATION NEW (PDF Download)
The artwork you see above is a graphite on archival paper drawing by Richard Kathmann titled Scrub Apple Blossoms (38″ x 50″, © 2003 Richard Kathmann, richardkathmann.com). Kathmann began the drawing as an artist-in-residence at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, and continued work on it for half a decade. The work on the drawing prepared Kathmann for Apple Blossoms I, a hand-pulled lithograph (limited edition of 10, 22 1/2″ x 30″), which he completed in 2003 as a studio protest against the Iraq War. Kathmann shared this about his inspiration for the drawing: “A scrub apple is a volunteer, a tree that nature and chance have planted. This one had grown at the edge of the forest. The lower skirt of dead branches was a sign of the smaller tree losing the fight for light as a leaf canopy from young, taller trees blocked the tree from the sun.” Both images are shared below, just under the hymn text.
Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing
Life from death is Jesus’ doing when he dies upon the cross
and is risen, hope renewing in the midst of ev’ry loss.
Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, the one who wins our hearts.
Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, in who our new life starts.
Jesus makes the bully cower for he broke the hold of death.
There is no oppressing power that can match his living faith. Refrain
Ransacks hell to save the sinners; unlocks heav’n to save the saints.
Gives us bread and wine for dinner; gives himself without restraint. Refrain
God’s own glory still is hidden where great shame is meant to be.
God’s grace goes where it’s forbidden, gives us life, and sets us free.