Remembering “Handel’s Young Messiah”: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things!

Remembering “Handel’s Young Messiah”: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things! November 30, 2016

young messiah

Someone asked me the other day if I was planning to check out the new film entitled The Young Messiah. I’m not planning to, because, A) I’m pretty busy right now, and B) I’m fairly certain I know how the plot turns out. If I’m missing something spectacular, please let me know, and I’ll pencil some time in to check it out in, say, June.

But the title reminded me of an unrelated musical work from the genius of late-80s/early 90s CCM, based on Handel’s masterpiece and perennial favorite. Handel’s Young Messiah. It was a pretty big deal, let me tell you. There was a cassette tape, and I’m pretty sure there was a tour that came to my cool contemporary church. There was also a VHS tape, which God in his mercy hath graciously preserved for us on YouTube.

The host (Yes, of course, there has to be a host, since Handel didn’t include a narration or anything…) is the great Barry McGuire. This is appropriate, since Young Messiah may have been the greatest proof yet that Christian culture was, in fact, on the eve of destruction, as I’ve told you over, and over, and over, again, my friend.

As someone who has sung Handel’s original work many times, and who is privileged to sing the bass arias again this weekend, I’ve managed to block this whole thing out of my memory. Even as a small child, I was repulsed by this kind of cheap kitschy knock-off of art music that presents itself as having artistic merit of its own. But revisiting it again over the past couple of days, it’s so very interesting to see a great example of how the evangelical church only makes itself look silly, clueless, and pathetic when it tries to “freshen up” the gospel for a new congregation audience.

If you want to see the whole thing, you can do so here, but allow me to show you a few highlights in all of their culturally-relevant glory.

Seriously, prepare yourself, for you shall all be changed.

In a moment. In the twinkling of an eye.

After McGuire’s optimistic [if historically inaccurate] opening monologue, the whole thing starts rather well. Then comes an explosion of the promised freshness. Because, if Handel had only had access to a trap set and electric bass, he would have DEFINITELY used them to show how culturally relevant he was.

What this recitative needs is some relaxed vowels. And nothing says prophecy like affected vocals. Thanks, Matthew Ward. (Sorry for the poor quality. Adjust the tracking on your VCR as needed.)

This is a group of former session musicians called “First Call.” The fellow in the double-breasted suit and, well, I’m not sure what that is underneath it, is Marty McCall. Nothing says “the crooked straight and rough places plain” like that awesome backbeat and the almost choreographed head nodding at 2:40.

The Imperials, ladies and gentlemen, one of the oldest CCM groups in existence. It was about time they added background singers to Messiah.

Coloratura is so 18-century. And it’s freaking hard. Let’s make it easier on everyone.

White Heart was awesome. They really brought the young people to the Lord.

This is my favorite of Handel’s arias. It’s also my favorite part of Handel’s Young Messiah. Phil Driscoll takes a quick break from drug use and tax evasion to bless us with his patented blend of trumpeted high notes and incoherent screaming.

Check out the end of the full version for convincing proof that Handel meant to put the “Hallelujah” after “Worthy Is the Lamb,” since it’s a better evangelistic worship song.

Okay, that’s probably enough.

Of course, most of these artists have faded into oblivion, their cassette tapes and CDs boxed up and forgotten, and their formerly brilliant shining stars banished to low-budget tours and late-night TBN appearances. So shall it be for Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman in a few short years. So shall it be for any hip, cool, disposable rendering of the gospel. And those who fell for it will either languish in nostalgia, or more likely move on to the next current thing, always looking for a kitschy crown of thorns for a new contemporary Messiah.

But through the church the song of Christ and his kingdom shall go on.

Next time we’re tempted in terms of pseudo-Christian multitudinism, let us remember Handel’s Young Messiah, and instead look toward the gospel that we know will last.


Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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