Earlier this year, 100 Voices of Gospel – a Christian choir from London – reached the final of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. Their energetic versions of ‘This little light of mine’ and ‘Oh happy day’ brought both the crowd and judges to their feet. Alesha Dixon commented, “It is so powerful; everything about you…is my idea of heaven.” Simon Cowell said, “If ever I could define what happiness feels like, it’s watching you guys.” David Walliams called their performances “just pure, pure joy”. The judges’ comments grabbed my attention. This choir had been unapologetically worshipping God. Could it be that the reason the audience and judges were so elated was not because the choir were merely great performers, but because they were experiencing something we all long for? Was something deeper going on than just a great performance?
The quest for meaning
There is a desire within humanity to make sense of this world and find meaning, purpose and fulfilment. All of the judges on Britain’s Got Talent were attempting to make sense of what they experienced. They used words such as ecstasy, elation, joy, heaven and indescribable.
Whether it is through a choir or a rock band, music has a way of creating an atmosphere in which emotions like this are given an avenue to be expressed. But it is not just about the music; these moments of euphoria are often enhanced by the lyrics being sung.
Take Coldplay, for example. The multi-award-winning band pen lyrics that express the desires we all have: living life to the full, longing to be loved, desire for community, and imagining a better world.
In ‘Viva la vida’, which literally means, ‘Long live life’, the lyrics paint a picture of how governmental systems can oppress the desire to freely live. As a commentary on the French Revolution, this song evokes images of a king whose oppressive regime was toppled by the desire of the people for freedom:
It was a wicked and wild wind Blew down the doors to let me in Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?
In ‘A message’, the lyrics express the desire we all have to be loved.
The song is a proclamation of the importance of love and a sense of feeling wanted:
My song is love Love to the loveless shown
And it goes on You don’t have to be alone
Your heavy heart Is made of stone
And it’s so hard to see you clearly You don’t have to be on your own
A longing for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent, is also captured in the lyrics to hit songs such as ‘Adventure of a lifetime’ (“Everything you want’s a dream away”) and ‘Paradise’:
When she was just a girl She expected the world But it flew away from her reach so She ran away in her sleep And dreamed of Paradise
In these lyrics, Coldplay are capturing our culture’s search for meaning, purpose and community. In the middle of the Super Bowl half-time show, with its worldwide audience of over 100 million people, the band’s frontman, Chris Martin, looked directly into the camera and said, “Whoever you are, wherever you are, we are in this together.” Senses of euphoria, unity, purpose and joy come together in the middle of a musicfilled arena with lights, colour and dancing.
Concert halls and community
Statistics show that membership of Christian churches in the UK has been declining for decades. And yet at the same time, the desire for meaning, purpose and community in our culture has increased.
Common questions such as “Why are we here?”, “What is the point of this life?” and “Where do we find meaning and purpose?” have not gone away. Walk into any bookshop and no doubt you’ll find many books attempting to deal with these questions in a section titled ‘Spirituality’, ‘Self-help’ or ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’. On top of this there are countless spiritual shops, tarot reading evenings, medium interventions…and music festivals. In many ways, these avenues of transcendental experience have replaced what the Church was once known for offering. The desire to experience something ineffable still exists, it’s just our culture is using paths other than the Church to get there.
The Sunday Assembly – an initiative founded by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – is an example of how our culture is seeking to fulfil these desires. As a non-religious gathering which includes music and teaching, the Sunday Assembly (a gathering where people sing songs, hear inspiring talks, and create community together) has offered an alternative approach to fulfilling humanity’s desire for meaning and community.
Explaining the rationale for their project, Jones and Evans say they “wanted to do something that was like church but totally secular and inclusive of all—no matter what they believed”. In answering the question ‘Why do we exist?’ they say, “Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”
The transcendent Trinity
In The Circle of Love: Praying with Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (BRF) Ann Persson writes how she saw this icon for the first time on a trip to Russia, “I had a sense of being arrested by the stillness of the icon. The three figures are painted close to the viewer and there is virtually no foreground space. It is you and them.”
Desire and meaning in a secular age
In many ways, secular people who attend concerts or join in with the Sunday Assembly are participating in a form of worship. In his book Simply Christian (SPCK) Tom Wright defines worship as “acknowledging the worth of something or someone…It means praising someone or something so far superior to oneself that all one can do is to recognise their worth and celebrate it”.
People today are looking for something
In Mere Christianity (William Collins) CS Lewis talks about how we as human beings all have desires within us. Some of these desires are natural: the desire to eat or to drink. In order to fulfil these desires, we consume food and beverages. In addition to these natural desires, Lewis argues, are desires which go beyond what we can see in the natural world. We all have a desire for something beyond ourselves, a desire which can only be fulfilled by something beyond this world, something transcendent. For Lewis, the fulfilment of this desire may only be found in God.
Lewis echoes the fifth-century theologian, Augustine, who once said, “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”
For Augustine, it was the recognition of where this desire comes from which led him to the appropriate end of this desire and his conversion to Christianity. He read the Psalms, which say things like, “My soul thirsts for God” (42:2), and “My soul longs for You” (143:6, NKJV). He read Ecclesiastes, where King Solomon says, “He has…set eternity in the human heart” (3:11). After having this revelation, Augustine was able to begin to understand desire and fulfilment.
Building on the work of Augustine, contemporary Christian philosopher, James KA Smith tries to make sense of today’s culture in his book, Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic). He argues that the world views shaped by secular culture emerge from the innate desires we all have. These desires are then formed in our cultural practices: shopping, playing sports, participating in patriotic ceremonies and, of course, going to concerts. All of these practices are what he calls “cultural liturgies”. As Christians, Smith says, “We need to recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people – to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.” Smith offers a way in which we, as Christians, can observe and interpret the world in order that we may know how best to engage culture for the sake of Christ.
Church and the arts
Sunday morning worship is no longer a cultural norm in the UK. The number of worshippers has been decreasing significantly over the past 50 years. This is a fact. We in the Church know this but often don’t know what to do about it. We may be tempted to give up and say we’re fighting a losing battle with culture. But I don’t agree. I think we are living in a time in which the Church has the opportunity to engage culture like never before.
If we can learn to read culture like Lewis, Augustine and Smith have done, we will discover that a desire for God is as prevalent today as it ever was. Look at the lyrics of contemporary music; see the desire for community in concerts and Sunday Assemblies. Notice the books in the bookshop. People today are looking for something. So when a gospel choir performs on Britain’s Got Talent and the response from the crowd and the judges is unfiltered adoration, it makes me wonder: Are we living in a time so pregnant with desire for God, that when a Christian choir sings his praises on national TV, the natural response of the viewers is to join in? As much as we may think the people around us are anti-religious, they are by no means anti-desire. The English novelist Julian Barnes summarised this so clearly when he said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
Through music, lyrics, art and poetry, the Church has the opportunity to touch the lives of those longing for something more, longing for community and a way of expressing desire. It is my desire that we, as the Church, can seek to be a signpost, a glimpse of heaven on earth, engaging our world in new and imaginative ways which ultimately point to the true end of our desire.
So, how can we do this? What are the ways in which we can seek to touch the lives of those around us with a glimpse of heaven? In short, we need to be using our imagination to think creatively about our gathering for worship. The beauty of art (in all its forms) is something deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Just one example of this may be found in the iconography of the Eastern Christian traditions. Described as ‘windows of heaven’, icons/paintings were used in both corporate and private worship in the ancient world. These images of biblical characters and Christian martyrs were used to teach the gospel story as well as give a glimpse of the transcendent life of God revealed in the lives of his people. The iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation eliminated a significant way in which the beauty of art speaks of the beauty of God. A recovery, or new creations, of artwork like this as a part of our worship is a way in which we may evoke the desire for heaven we all have.
Beyond our worship gatherings, it is really important to be creative in how we communicate the message of Jesus throughout the week. One monumental difference between the experience of concerts, shopping and sporting events and the experience of the Church is the fact that the gospel we preach is a whole-life gospel.
The beauty of art is deeply rooted in the Christian faith
Jesus said, “I [came] that [you] may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In other words, experiencing the transcendent God is an everyday experience, not a one-off gathering. A common reason given for why secular concerts fulfil this innate desire we have is the sense that this group of people are ‘all in this together’. The problem with this image, however, is that when we leave the venue, we are no longer ‘all in this together’. We go our separate ways and those feelings we had of togetherness, unity, purpose, dissipates, until the next band takes the stage. The desire we have is a whole-life desire. Recognising this, emphasising the importance of small groups, discipleship, sharing meals together, and meeting each other’s needs in tangible ways, the Church has the opportunity to extend the fulfilment of our desire into our everyday lives.
We are living in a spiritual but not religious world. Let’s take this opportunity to do everything we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to point to the transcendent one, the only one in whom our every desire may be met.
JOSEPH WOOD is a lecturer in Church history at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester