Video Clips

Blog Archive Dec 2007

The most striking programme I saw over Christmas was The Liverpool Nativity on BBC - shown live on BBC 3 and then repeated on BBC 1 on the Sunday before Christmas. It was a modernised nativity play recorded live on the streets of Liverpool, featuring rock and pop music associated with the area. There was some slight controversy beforehand, but I thought the whole affair was entirely respectful of the Christian story.
It was the style rather than the substance that was unorthodox. The narrator was the Angel Gabriel! Soap actor Geoffrey Hughes (ex Coronation St I think) had "Gabriel" printed on his leather jacket, and wings painted on the back of it - subtle and imaginative I thought, rather than tacky. As the Annunciation approached he declared that Mary was a virgin, saving herself for her marriage to the beloved Joseph. Mary was a waitress in a Liverpool café, Joseph an asylum seeker trying to fit into his new country. Herod was transformed into Herodia, a ruthless and power hungry government minister with her own slimy spin-doctor, anxious to crush any messiah that might threaten her position. The Three Wise Men travelled by Rolls Royce, delayed on their way by the rush of last minute shopping on Christmas Eve!
The political subtext was less than subtle, with Herodia eroding civil rights to pursue her "war on terror", and talk of "régime change". She decided to score some political points with a roundup of asylum seekers, causing Joseph to have to be registered. To an extent I felt that a modern political agenda was being imposed on a timeless story, but then the political realities of the time were part of the original Christmas story, and pleas for a compassionate treatment of vulnerable people are still at the heart of that story. This wasn't claiming to be a historical presentation of the nativity, but a revisiting of an crucial event, seeing it through the lens of modern times, not a cheap effort to make it "relevant", but a creative and bold attempt to shake us into looking again at a story whose impact may have been dulled by everything from over familiarity to crass commercialism.
Much of the story was conveyed in song, and instead of opting to write new material for the occasion the producers chose songs associated with Liverpool. Obviously they weren't written with the nativity in mind, and not every word of every line fitted the context, but broadly they captured the spirit of the event, and this reworking gave them a whole new set of meanings. I, for one, won't hear them again without being reminded of this new layer of meaning related to the birth of Jesus. Needless to say, Beatles songs were prominent. Not surprisingly, All You Need is Love was the main anthem for the night, while Let It Be (sung as the shepherds and other visitors approached the crib) and Lady Madonna (sung by the Wise Men in the crib) seemed particularly suitable. Mary got to sing My Sweet Lord, but here it was in reference to her devotion to Joseph - their love story was very tasteful and convincing. I cringed when I heard one of the "shepherds" stating into John Lennon's Imagine. I know it's often seen as a deep meaningful song, but personally I find it bland - "imagine there's no heaven … and no religion too" as if such ideas were too divisive and had to be dumped to achieve world peace! Yet, whether by design or happy accident, the song was placed rather crucially - sung by a shepherd before the angels arrived to announce the good news. No need for such wishy washy and aimless sentiments after that!
Considering that the event was live across several Liverpool venues, with the actors dancing, running and singing, the few bum notes were understandable, and I loved the understated musical accompaniment - most songs were backed by simple guitar, violin and accordion arrangements, busker style, with an orchestra and choir for the big numbers.
On TV and Radio over Christmas there were plenty of carol services, plenty of religious songs on the mainstream music programmes, good coverage of religious services, and all that was welcome and important, but here was an imaginative programme that got thousands of people onto the streets of Liverpool to celebrate the Nativity without diluting the story, that got thousands more watching it on TV, and that blew out of the water any idea that the Christmas story hasn't got something compassionate and challenging to say to a 21st century audience.
Watching the programme I wondered what use I could make of it in religion class - mostly for next year. I normally show the Annunciation clip from Jesus of Nazareth, but this will make for an interesting contrast - Mary gets the news as she works in a café - Gabriel announces it to her in a disembodied voice only she can hear, and how she and Joseph cope with the news is really well done. After Christmas I normally do some classes on The Three Wise Men (more of that soon) and this year I will use some of the clips showing them meeting Herodia, and visiting the crib. When I do classes with Transition Year on religious themes in music and drama, many of the scenes should prove useful.

On St Stephen's Night I watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with Russell Crowe in the lead role - it was set during the Napoleonic Wars, as a British warship tried to track down a French frigate. It was well directed and written (by Peter Weir), with battles at the start and finish and lots of interesting events in between, in many ways an old fashioned epic. The main characters were religious, but not in any overbearing sort of way - and there are some prayers especially as crewmen are buried near the end. Yet it is violent - including amputation flogging for discipline and suicide. There is little questioning of the need for war in the first place though the on-board surgeon does rebel a little.

Finally on holidays! Such a relief. To finish up I did a Christmas themed prayer service with third year students. They were wired, but I struggled on! Used a few Christmas meditations, with some seasonal music – Go Tell It on the Mountain from Jams Taylor’s Christmas album, recently re-released, Angels We Have Heard on High by Kim Hill from her Christmas album and to finish with the upbeat Immanuel from Amy Grant’s first Christmas album. There’s so much more great material at Christmas, I’ll be reluctant to put it away in January. But I’ll get some more mileage out of it – first week back at school I usually do a few classes on the Three Wise Men, interesting characters with a lot to say to 21st Century Christians, and quite a few songs and poems have been written about them. For last class with Transition Years (15/16 year olds) I did a class looking at a little of the artistic side of Christmas – a few Christmas songs, along with T.S. Eliot’s poem The Cultivation of Christmas Trees. Earlier I had used Randy Stonehill’s song Christmas at Denny’s for the Christmas assessment. The answers were insightful, but some found it somewhat depressing for Christmas – it’s about a guy fallen on hard times who is trying to find hope again.

Have been doing the Anointing of the Sick with 6th year students (17-19 year olds). Have to be careful as there have been bereavements in the class. Suggestions for resources would be welcome! Today I used the Hopkins poem Felix Randal - "Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended being anointed and all …". It felt like an English class! To finish I used the song Now is the Time For Tears by Charlie Peacock, which deals with how one might relate to a grieving person - "Cry with me don't try to fix me, friend …" - from the compilation album Coram Deo, which contains many reflective songs. It certainly quitened the students … should have used it at the start of class! Tomorrow might try Healer of My Soul by John Michael Talbot (on albums Signatures and Brother to Brother)

Went to a great concert last week! Beth Nielsen Chapman was playing in Whelans of Dublin, and I’d say it’s not often that venue gets such a spiritual experience. Yet the spiritual content was subtle enough at times. Mainly the concert was a really enjoyable musical treat. Her songs have such beauty and depth, some really serious stuff at times, but she’s a great personality on stage, full of fun. And what a band! Apart from the two great guys in the mini wind section, and a guitarist, it was a family affair - her son Ernest on keyboards, guitar and excellent backing vocals, his cousin Trip on drums, his wife very effective on bass and miscellaneous percussion. She played several songs from her recent album of spiritual songs, Prism, including the playful God Is In, Shine All Your Light, and the haunting That Mystery. The second disc on that album has songs in many different languages from different spiritual traditions, and in this concert she joined them all in a long medley, which I thought worked really well. Of course there were plenty of old favourites, like Sand and Water, All I have (very romantic – a song with a very low divorce rate she said!) and the seasonal Every December Sky. All in all a great night – the icing on the cake was getting to talk to her at the end and get an autograph.

One thing I love about Advent and Christmas is the music. I love digging out the CDs and tapes. The season seems to bring out the best in composers. I like every year to add to the collection, but haven’t come across anything new I want to get this year yet (any suggestions?), though I have ordered a CD to give as a present – Merry Axemas features Christmas songs done as electric guitar instrumentals done by some of the best players, like Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. Check it out on Amazon, there are sound samples, but I doubt if it’s going to have wide appeal!
Had an Advent Prayer service with the third year students a few days ago, and had to whittle music down to three pieces – tough choice! I used Prepare Ye the Way by John Michael Talbot (from his New Earth album) – a great and tough song, what John the Baptist might have sung in the desert! Michael Card’s The Promise is another excellent song for the season, available both on his Christmas album The Promise – A celebration of Christ’s Birth, and on The Final Word, part of his trilogy on the life of Christ. Finally I wanted something on the Immanuel theme – spoiled for choice here! I used Amy Grant’s Immanuel from her second Christmas album Home for Christmas. Later on I’ll flag some songs that deal with the Three Wise Men – suitable for classes immediately after Christmas. Apart from the album’s mentioned I also find the following useful: Kim Hill – Real Christmas; Peter, Paul and Mary – A Holiday Celebration; John Michael Talbot – The Birth of Jesus; Kathy Mattea – Good News; The Roches – We Three Kings; Amy Grant – A Christmas Album; Amy Grant – A Christmas to Remember; The Hutchisons - Christmas. This music is mostly in the folk/acoustic rock/contemporary vein. Most of the albums can be tracked down on Ebay, Amazon, Christian Discs, while the Hutchisons album is available from their own site here.