'Why we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land' (Ps. 137:4)
“I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself” [GF Handel, on composing Messiah.]
On September 11th this year  the BBC, organisers of the last night of the Proms, found themselves in a quandary. Normally a rumbustious event in the Albert Hall with a light-hearted feel, they were aware that 3000 miles away in New York there would be a very different atmosphere as that city and its nation remembered the tragedy of the Twin Towers. To respect this moment, they chose Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but with a twist. Following Barbers own rewriting of this in 1967 for voices, and with a fresh new arrangement, they sang to the words of the Latin Mass, Agnus Dei. It seemed the right thing to do.
To sing of the death of Christ, albeit in Latin, gave a profound weight to the concert. Here is the divine Lamb of God entering into our suffering, but also by His act of redemption, giving the only hope available to us at a time of tragedy. In that one moment, beautifully sung by the BBC singers, the pain of loss was met, not by a vague platitude, but by the gospel story of a crucified Saviour. I don’t think anything else would have, to coin a phrase, cut it.
Things have changed since Handel and Bach were composing. Charles Taylor has made the oft quoted observation that 300 years ago people found it impossible not to believe the Christian worldview. Now with the rise of secularism and postmodern pluralism, most people find it impossible to believe in the objective truths and ultimate concerns of the Christian worldview. And yet there remains a need for the Christian story.
Professor Linda Stratford, the art historian from Asbury University, USA, recently made the comment that what we see in Contemporary Art, is not so much the beauty of creation as the rupture within creation. And in that reflection of pain, artists like Chagall have incorporated images of Christ on the cross.
There are recent classical composers who write from the perspective of Christian faith. It was Sir John Taverner’s Song for Athene that was chosen for the final moments of Princess Diana’s funeral, with the lyrics incorporating text from the Orthodox funeral service.
But if the prevailing musical genre is popular music, we see more of an unresolved angst. This month Adele’s long awaited 30 album talks of the pain of a divorce with the agonising plea in the title track to her son and husband to ‘go easy on me, baby – there ain’t no room for our things to change when we are both so deeply stuck in our ways...’ With nearly 19 million views in ten hours and comments like, ‘Just cried my eyes out. This song is therapy’, this modern chanteuse reflects the pain and fragility of a life without a Rock.
Six centuries or more, [in traditional understanding] before the birth of Christ, the seer Daniel found himself as a believer in the pagan world of Babylon. Called to describe and interpret the King’s disturbing dream in chapter 2, he spoke of a huge statue of four different materials, but with feet of iron mixed clay. Its meaning is both historic and symbolic, but it is the symbolism that is to the fore in this chapter. As Tim Keller points out ‘like many since King Nebuchadnezzar, we want to project a dazzling image but are haunted [ as Taylor would put it] with feet of clay.’ Yet in the dream there is a rock which both shatters the image and then goes on to become a mountain that fills the earth. There is One, Christ, who is indestructible, everlasting and will overwhelm every evil we face.
It is that song that must be sung or spoken in our modern world. I am not suggesting chart- topping Christian songwriters for I suspect our message is not that popular in the secularised West. I am proposing that, like Daniel, we are on hand to speak of the One on whom you can depend – whose faithfulness endures through all generations, and whose mercy endures for ever. (Ps. 100) There is still a corporate memory that longs for that steady certainty.
At the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Pepsi unwittingly put out an advert showing the crumbling wall to the music of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. As this symbolic barrier came down we heard the lyrics “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”. Well, it seemed no other words would do.
Steve James was born of Welsh parents, and was ordained at Holy Trinity Norwich before working at St John's Vancouver, St Andrew’s Bebington, Wirral and most recently at Holy Trinity Platt, Manchester until retiring in 2019. He is both a speaker and a musician, leading worship at Keswick and Spring Harvest and producing a number of CD’s . He has been involved in presenting Prom Praise and various BBC services. Platt church is involved in church planting, and the vision is to see the city of Manchester renewed for Christ. He's married to Rachel. They have three adult children. Steve still retains his passion for Welsh rugby!
For biblical centred resources on music try these two books published by the Latimer Trust: Focus on Jesus. A Guide to the Message of Handel's 'Messiah' by Robert Bashford or Come, let us Sing. A call to Musical Reformation by Robert Smith.