Viewpoint - A Handel on Newton

There are not many items on my bucket list, but one of them is to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I have listened to many superb recordings of the oratorio, and heard an admirable performance by the Stornoway Singers some time back, but it still remains a longing to hear a body of professional singers and musicians perform the work from start to finish.

Quite apart from the power of the music, the attraction of the ‘Messiah’ is the fact that the score is lifted directly from the text of the Bible, including the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Christ, the gospel narratives of his birth, passion, death and resurrection, and the passages of the Bible which deal with the worldwide preaching of the gospel.

It won’t be long before it will be banned from theatres and opera-houses, of course; the fact that the words are direct quotations of the Bible makes it subversive. I am sure that public performances of Handel’s Messiah are fast becoming the last places in the country (churches excepted) where the Bible is publicly read in such quantity and without apology.

As enamoured as I am with the performance of the ‘Messiah’, I have always been equally intrigued by the opportunity of which John Newton made use during an early performance of the work in London.

Newton, author of Amazing Grace, and famous convert from slave-trader to preacher, had become rector of St Mary’s in north London in 1780. The oratorio was then only forty years old, and it was being performed and received to much acclaim in the capital.

So Newton decided that since his church was in the centre of this activity, he should preach a series of sermons on the texts of the ‘Messiah’, in the order in which they appear in Handel’s work.

He was not, apparently, a great lover of the work himself; indeed, he expressed the view that ‘of all our musical compositions, this is the most improper for a public entertainment’.

However, Newton was equally afraid that those who attended the performances simply to be entertained by the fusion of Scripture and classical music would lose sight of the deep meaning of the biblical texts.

He did not want it to dissolve into ‘one of the many fashionable amusements which mark the character of this age of dissipation’. So, in order to present the gospel to those who attended the performances, yet remained ‘unaffected by the Redeemer’s love and uninfluenced by his commands’, Newton preached through the text of the great work.

It was a bold, imaginative and remarkable thing to do. Newton had one great aim: that people ‘may find greater pleasure in the a humble contemplation on the words of the Messiah, than they can derive from the utmost efforts of musical genius’.

In embarking on his preaching plan for 1784 and 1785, he also claimed that to reflect on the words of Scripture regarding the Messiah would give greater harmony, melody and joy than a mere musical performance was capable of.

And, he suggested in the opening sermon, while the oratorio itself was composed to be repeated in continuous performance, the repetition of the great truths of the gospel would also yield something new, pleasant and enjoyable. The music is subject to change, but the words never grow old.

I guess that for Newton, the whole enterprise was a great evangelistic opportunity.

Some fifty sermons took him through the series, and they are still in print, and refreshingly easy to read. We might be tempted to think that Newton had the perfect evangelistic opportunity, but he knew that he was still engaged in the battle for the hearts of men, so easily drawn to the entertainment without seriously considering the subject. And his evangelistic campaign sets a pattern which we do well as churches to consider.

It is still the case that the public require to be entertained. Recent box-office hits have smashed all records in the world of public entertainment.

Some churches have gone to ridiculous lengths in an attempt to bridge the gap between pulpit and cinema screen; some of the most cringeworthy internet posts included the special appearance of Star Wars characters in nativity scenes.

Yet we cannot ignore where people are, and how their worldview is informed by the messages conveyed through the films to which they flock and the shows which they frequent.

We need to find a way to challenge the assumption in most of the public entertainment areas of contemporary culture - that this life is all there is, that anything goes in the area of morality and relationships, that a little bit of escapism is necessary to cope with the trials of everyday living, and that there is no accountability at the end of it all.

The gospel challenges all of this, and gives what the latest entertainment cannot: a sure foundation and an enduring hope, one that will not fade with the dying of the applause.

The challenge for our churches in the coming year is to be as contemporary as Newton was in bringing the gospel to the culture where it was, not where he wished it to be. He is, in that respect at least, the ideal evangelist: in touch with the society around him, but speaking the truth of a higher world.

May you sing your own Hallelujah chorus in 2016.