I wasn’t sure how to tell them. I could already envision their uncomfortable stares, the way they’d look down at the floor to avoid my eyes or pretend they hadn’t heard. I felt my own embarrassment rise, and then shame at being embarrassed. As I walked to my weekly banjo class, I turned over again and again in my mind how to tell my classmates that the song I’d prepared that week was titled “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”—how to explain that it was one of my favorite hymns to sing at church.

If you’ve ever heard the tune played on a five-string banjo, you know that the old-time melody is perfectly constructed for the instrument. It has a joyful, vibrant quality, bright as June. You’ll find yourself whistling it hours later, straining for the high notes with a smile.

Could there be a starker contrast between music and lyrics?

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins ...

To modern ears—the educated, empathetic New Englanders in my class with me—how can this sound like anything but barbarism? This isn’t some scrape that cauterizes quickly. In this hymn, the amount of blood literally fills a structure; we’re immediately told to picture in our mind’s eye a traditionally quaint park decoration in a horrific incarnation. Worse still, this isn’t merely runoff from a butchery or pig farm. We’re invited to sing out that this overwhelming amount of blood is from a single man, taken from his very veins, an IV gone wrong.

The amount of blood featured throughout the hymn, the dying Lamb, and the open wounds seem to testify to something ancient and dangerous. A thief hangs miserable on a cross. “Sinners,” ...

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