Handel’s Messiah in the Mall: Totalitarian Creepiness or Just a Song for the Holiday Season?

Even though I’m an agnostic, I love Christmas music and Christmas movies. I must, for example, have upward of 300 Christmas songs on my iPod. And every year my family and I watch Alastair Sim as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—and, of course, at the endings of these films we all dab our tears (or even howl). I say this to emphasize that I’m not against Christmas music, Christmas videos, or Christianity as a religion. I like Jesus and see a lot of profound meaning conveyed via the vehicle of the religion that got started in his name.

But the religious right has so politicized Christianity and Christmas in the United States that I find the below video nearly intolerable to sit through, even from a computer. Taken out of church, where Handel’s Messiah is sung among religious believers as an exuberant affirmation of their faith, it is beautiful and moving to witness. But in the mall—where Jews, secularists, and non-Christians are no doubt mixed in the crowd—these Handel singers have weirdly morphed into Rush Limbaugh: they are smug, obnoxious, culturally imperialistic, and preachy. See if your emotional response to these evangelists matches mine:

Would I want the right of these evangelists to do this taken away? No. Of course not. I’d also think it tolerable for Hare Krishnas to come into the food court of a mall with their tambourines and sing a religious song or two. I might be ambivalent about religion, but I’m not at all ambivalent about free expression. But as someone who is not a Christian, I would also say that the stunt is not a terribly good way to market Christianity (at least to a nonbeliever like me).

If, nevertheless, evangelists have latched onto this as a new form of evangelism, might I make a teensy-weensy request? Might they do it in a traffic area where people are up and about, walking somewhere? If you are walking, and such a song starts up—and you don’t want to hear it—you can just keep walking. But when people are sitting, and don’t want to hear you, you’ve basically forced them to relinquish their chairs, gather up their kids and belongings, and leave. As a parent who knows what a management dilemma it is to gather up kids and things abruptly, that’s very uncool.  

And my guess is that some of the evangelists, after singing, moved into the crowd with religious tracts, pressing them around. But if I’m wrong about this, and this wasn’t an evangelistic thing, why that song? And if it’s not just about the music, what, exactly, is it about? Disrespecting non-Christians? As the video proceeds, you halfway expect to see Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck step up on chairs and start singing too.

I mean, seriously. Here’s how to do this right, with a real affirmation of song and beauty qua song and beauty (and without selling an ideology or excluding people):

———-

Update on the Handel’s Messiah rendition above. I asked my agnostic wife to have a looksie and to give her impression.

Her response:

We’ve got you surrounded and our God rules whether you like it or not.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to Handel’s Messiah in the Mall: Totalitarian Creepiness or Just a Song for the Holiday Season?

  1. My emotional response didn’t match yours. I liked it. I checked, and that particular flash mob event was sponsored by Alphabet® Photography as a publicity stunt. I don’t see it as overtly religious at all. I personally like the idea, although it’s obviously a bit more staged than a real flash mob. If I had been there I would have loved it…my kids and all. The truth is that there’s a whole subsection of art, music and such that is religious in nature and you don’t get much more impact from a choir than Handel’s Messiah. Since when are you NOT bombarded by Christian themes at a mall? I think it completely fit with the concept of a flash mob, of a secular Christmas and commercialism of the sponsor.

    I was at a street fair two days ago. On one end was a Christmas Choir; on the other end a one-man Hanukkah band rocked the place. Local members of the synagogue danced in the street. I had a blast but don’t believe in either one and didn’t feel preached to by either one either…

    • santitafarella says:

      This version of a flash mob event felt less open than ones where you might be walking past on your way to somewhere else, as in a train station. Here there was little movement. People were reading, eating, talking privately, sitting. What you describe sounds like an event where people arrive expecting theatrical performance and want to be spectators. This felt colonizing—forcing people to drop what they were doing and train their thought and senses on them.

      —Santi

  2. 300 Christmas songs? Even when I was a christian I detested most of them.

    All it takes is to work in retail during the holiday period with a cassette of those songs on rotate. One will soon come to despise them. ESPECIALLY “Snoopy’s Christmas” 😉

    I haven’t watched the vid, but public performances of the Messiah are de rigeur down here around Christmas. It may not have been evangelistic at all, simply a desire to share good music and do something cool. I live in hope.

    I am astounded and dismayed to look at the USA from the outside. It seems like planet Mars at times.

    • santitafarella says:

      Elvis, Sinatra, Berle Ives, the Mormon Tabernacle, Handel, and Catholics singing “Ave Maria.” For one month a year they all enter the iPod shuffle rotation. Oh, and don’t forget Adam Sandler’s “Happy Hannukah” song.

      —Santi

    • Janet M. says:

      Exactly!! It’s simply good music. A lot of those people may have never experience hearing the quality voices of a good concert choir. They looked happy to me!

  3. Janet M. says:

    It appears that the people in the food court were thoroughly enjoying that performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. I saw nothing but smiling faces. I’d bet anything that there were agnostics, and non-Christians among them. I have been singer with a concert chorus for 25+ years, have performed this and the entire Messiah with a 150-member chorus every year. I don’t see how anyone could not just appreciate the works of a great composer and the quality voices of a good chorus, which I’m sure many had never experienced before. I can’t say I feel sorry for the parents with children who were imprissoned because they were sitting (instead of in position to escape on foot) as they were stuffing their faces with bad food. I’m MUCH more disturbed seeing parents allowing their children to eat such unhealthy food. Now that I find worthy of outrage!

    • santitafarella says:

      Janet,

      What role does respect for conscience play in your analysis? I’m not denying the right of the evangelists to sing what they did. I’m raising the issue of callousness. I’m asking about respect for the life rhythm that the people sitting there were already in, and their desire to eat in peace, and not be disturbed. At minimum, couldn’t a religiously neutral song have been picked?

      —Santi

  4. concerned christian says:

    Santi
    callousness! Wow, is that your true feeling about entertaining people having lunch with one of the most moving performance of a great hymn. Or you are just pulling our legs. Anyway I got used to PC people who ignore all the bad things committed by other religions while screaming bloody murder when a Christian dare to share an uplifting moment with other people, because they don’t want to annoy those who don’t believe in Jesus. I believe while liberals are working hard to remove that remaining influence of Christianity in the West, they are in fact removing the foundation on which the Western Civilization was built. Wait for the crash.

    • santitafarella says:

      Concerned:

      In the realm of the uninvited, tax time is obviously far more coercive, as are laws that tax cigarettes or don’t respect an individual’s right not to buy compact flourescent light bulbs. And, of course, the local newspaper, trying to drum up business, throws newspapers on some people’s lawns who emphatically don’t want them. And then there is junk mail (which keeps the post office financially afloat). Society balances interests, obviously. And so I’m not saying that evangelists shouldn’t be able to do it. I’m asking why they would want to trap people while they are clearly in a position not to easily escape. Would you be cool with the Krishnas entering a sit down area and doing a similar gesture for a few minutes?

      And as for the song, if Western civilization is built on the intellectual content of the song then, obviously, there is no difference between our civilization and the one that you fear (Islamic civilization). The song is an absolutist proclamation based in monarchy, force, and absolute submission. Of course it’s part of Western culture, but it’s a part of Western culture to which we would do well to modify our sentiments for. And why is God always a dude in these songs?

      —Santi

      • concerned christian says:

        Santi
        I was trying to avoid getting into the nasty argument you made. You said “these Handel singers have weirdly morphed into Rush Limbaugh: they are smug, obnoxious, culturally imperialistic, and preachy.” If you can say all of that about a group of people sharing the joy of Christmas with the crowd in a mall, what would you call the Somali who want to blow up a crowd celebrating lighting a Christmas tree? If you have written about that other subject, please tell me because I can’t find any reference to it in your blog.
        It is not only a song and a tree and a manger, all these are just a part of a great culture that made the West what it is today. This culture is now under attack by those who find it easier to criticize Christians and attack Christianity because Christians are in general peace loving and civilized.

      • santitafarella says:

        I frequently will write a quick draft or impression on a subject, but before posting it, I might let it stew for a couple of days (or even a week or two), then, if I’m happy with it, I’ll tart it up a bit before “officially” sending it into the world. It’s the old, “write it and put it in a drawer and forget about it” advice. I actually did write a piece on the Somali. You’ve reminded me that it’s in my line to post. I wanted to make sure I put it up before Christmas. But you’re right; I’m making a petty complaint compared to the Somali incident (obviously).

        —Santi

  5. hotrod41mag says:

    your wife is right—-thank GOD !!

  6. concerned christian says:

    Thanks Santi, I know you are fair and honest.

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