Handel’s Young Messiah: Why Christian Culture Can’t Have Nice Things

Handel’s Young Messiah: Why Christian Culture Can’t Have Nice Things December 3, 2018

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, 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 friends.

As someone who has sung Handel’s original work many times, 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.

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 guitar, he would have DEFINITELY used them to show how culturally relevant he was.

These people look happy. That’s good. Because I’m sure George F. is probably turning in his grave. And his wrath shall be reveal-ED. In all seriousness, the blinding reflection of the sequin tops made me give my heart to Jesus six times in 1991.

Comfort ye?!? Comfort ME!

What this recitative needs is some vowels wide enough to drive a 1990 Lincoln Continental through. And nothing says prophecy like affected vocals. Thanks, Matthew Ward, whoever you are. Because even though I listened to a million hours of tacky jesusy radio when I was growing up, I sure don’t remember this dude.

The Voice of Him That Shouldn’t Sing This Recit.

This is a group of former session musicians called “First Call.” They were called this because the were the “first call” (brilliant!) when some jesusy commercial producer needed some nameless, faceless backup singers. It certainly wasn’t because anyone ever called them for fashion advice. Or voice lessons. 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 choreographed head nodding at 2:40.

The Crooked Straight and Rough Voices Quiet

Get Thee Up and Get Off the Stage

The Imperials, ladies and gentlemen, one of the oldest CCM groups in existence. It was about time they added background singers to Messiah. Also, you’re going to update the music, but keep the King James English? That’s weird, bro. And look at the end! The maestro is conducting this 6/8 piece in 3! Edgy choice, dude. Too bad he’s a beat ahead for most of the whole thing.

For Unto Us this One Is Slaughtered

Coloratura is so 18-century. And it’s freaking hard. Let’s make it easier on everyone and just cheat our way through it. Nobody will notice, since they’re too busy watching the awesome mulletted synthesizer player.

And Peace on Earth

Ingenious! Get rid of the stupid soprano soloist, and let the washed-up one hit wonder host narrate his way through one of the recitatives. Again, his fist pump while he says, “Praising God and saying” makes me think we really are on the eve of destruction.

Despised and Rejected By Common Decency

Look, everybody! It’s minor CCM star and my fellow native Houstonian Wayne Watson helping himself to a mezzo aria. It was despis-ed, and let me tell you, I’m now acquainted with grief.

Surely You Shouldn’t Call Him Shirley

You know what would pair really well with the Isaiah text about Christ’s humiliation on our behalf? A rad, bitching electric guitar solo!

Lift Up Your Heads, For the Love

White Heart was awesome. They really brought the young people to the Lord. Who is the king of glory? My money’s on this lead singer guy with the hair. Didn’t he star as one of the girls on The Facts of Life?

The Trumpet Shall Sound Terrible

Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall all be changed after watching this abomination. In his cover of “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Phil Driscoll takes a quick break from drug use and tax evasion to bless us with his patented blend of squeaky high notes and incoherent screaming.

Does Phil Driscoll remind anyone else of that Muppet trumpet player guy? I think they called him Lips.

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Spitting. Freaking. Image. Are they brothers?

Hallelujah, It’s Almost Over

And at last, we arrive at the end of our show. Is it going to end with “Worthy Is the Lamb” and Handel’s masterful Amen? No, of course not. You may not know that this conductor is a respected baroque scholar, who, after careful study and consulting every urtext available, he discovered conclusive evidence that Handel meant to put “Hallelujah” at the very end, since it’s a real worship song.

Conclusion: Just Staahhp, Christian Culture!

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 creating 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.


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