“Say the word and you’ll be free”: a theological reflection on “The Word”

April 11, 2013
Here is the original lyric sheet of "The Word," written and illustrated by John and Paul. It's found at Northwestern University's Deering Library.

Here is the original lyric sheet of “The Word,” written and illustrated by John and Paul. It’s found at Northwestern University’s Deering Library.

“It could be a Salvation Army song,” Paul admitted at the time. “The word is ‘love,’ but it could be ‘Jesus.’ It isn’t, mind you, but it could be.”[1]

Paul McCartney’s words refer to a Beatles song he co-wrote with John Lennon (who wrote most of the lyrics) called “The Word,” from the album Rubber Soul. Could Paul—a nominal Catholic who, among the four Beatles, was probably least well-acquainted with the Bible and Christianity—appreciate how close he was to the truth?

After all, the song echoes the writing of another, even more famous, John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This same John identifies the Word as Jesus, who is God. Elsewhere he even says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Therefore, to say that the “word is love,” as this song says repeatedly, is perfectly true—so long as we understand what and, more importantly, who the Word is.

This truth is hard to comprehend, as the singer himself admits: “In the beginning I misunderstood/ But now I’ve got it, the word is good.” The singer harks back to Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning”) and sees that the “word,” like Creation in Genesis 1, is “good.” But like Eve in the garden, the song’s narrator sins, not through willful disobedience but ignorance: As Eve misunderstood word of God in Genesis 3:3, so the narrator misunderstood “the word.” This is the Beatles’ version of the Fall of humanity.

But the song offers salvation: By knowing the truth about “the word,” sinners can be set free, just as the singer was set free. Similarly, Jesus promises—again in John’s gospel—that his disciples will be set free by the truth (John 8:32). We recall that Jesus the Word is also the truth (John 14:6).

Moreover, as in John 14:6, the singer embraces the exclusivity of his revelation: “the word” isn’t simply a way to salvation; it’s the way, in the same way that Jesus says that he’s the way, and no one comes to the Father except through him.

If this word is true, however, and it offers the only way to salvation, what are those of us who believe the word supposed to do with it? Once again, the singer nails it: “Spread the word.” “Now that I know what I feel must be right/ I’m here to show everybody the light.” Having experienced the good news of “the word” for ourselves, how can we not share it with others?

Lennon said that he disliked Christianity’s claims of exclusivity and its emphasis on evangelism. Inasmuch as he believed in any transcendent truth, he was a universalist: there were many paths to enlightenment. But in relation to “the word,” please notice, he embraces both exclusivity and evangelism. And why not? If the first is true, then the second logically follows.

Near the beginning of his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright discusses four signposts that point to God. One of these signposts (alongside justice, spirituality, and beauty) is relationships, by which he means humanity’s desire to give, receive, and assign meaning to love. Even a hardened atheist who believes, along with Richard Dawkins, that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” will have a hard time shaking the feeling that love has universal meaning and value.

It’s no wonder that the narrator of “The Word” finds clues to love’s meaning everywhere: “In the good and the bad books that I have read.” We all see the signpost of love that points to God in literature, music, movies, and television—throughout popular culture.

The problem with us sinners, however, is that we can easily mistake the signpost for the destination itself. N.T. Wright said it’s like when you point to the tennis ball that you want your dog to fetch, only to have the dog watch your finger instead. The dog misses the point of the sign! Given everything else we know about the Beatles in 1965, it’s likely that they couldn’t see the object to which the signpost pointed.

Fortunately, we Christians can see it—or him. And we’ll talk about the God who is love this Sunday by examining the Bible’s most famous passage on love, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. The Vinebranch Band will perform “The Word,” along with a love song by Paul called “I Will.”

The Beatles or their estates are generous enough to let YouTube host these two songs for free. You can listen by clicking below.


 

1. Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 108.

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