Carol Story: Hark! It’s The Gospel, Charlie Brown!

This carol is one of 61 on the playlist of “Carol Story,”  a 10-minute play that tells the story of Christ solely through lyrics of Christmas songs as dialogue.  Learn More.


As with Handel’s “Messiah,” discussed in the previous Carol Story essay on songs about the night Jesus was born, the development of “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” exemplifies  the ever-evolving collaboration (some say interference) of artist, patron and theologian.

The original poem which begat the song, written in 1739 by Methodist pastor and song writer Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas Day.”  Wesley’s hymn was an epic with over 10 stanzas. It included words that showed Wesley’s intellect but left listeners scratching their heads.  Wesley’s pastor friend, George Whitfield, pointed this out and suggested revisions, simplifying the text.

Half of the Wesley-Whitfield stanzas survived into the next century and made an impression on English composter  William  Cummings. Cummings liked the lyrics, but not the slower, Easter-season tune Wesley had composed (“Christ  The Lord is Risen Today.”) However, Cummings felt the words were compatible with the tune of the popular “Gutenberg Cantata” recently written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn.  Cummings believed Mendelssohn’s symphonic arrangement captured the implied awe and power of a sky full of “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” the passage in the Gospel of Luke that  inspired Wesley’s hymn.

The “Collaborators”

In 1855 the Wesley-Whitfield-Cummings-Mendelssohn  composition debuted with  the structure changes familiar today, but maintaining the essence of the words first recorded centuries before in the gospel of Luke: 

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace,

good will toward men.” —

 (The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-15)


LEARN MORE:  Comparative lyrics.

Centuries later, these words and music created controversy when used in what is not one of the most iconic annual Christmas television programs, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” the 1965 TV special that almost didn’t occur.

The overt gospel presentation that author Charles Schulz included in the script had CBS network offices and sponsors concerned.  They were okay with the “Peanuts” gang rendering one of the most poignant versions ever of “Hark! The Herald…” as they caroled at Snoopy’s house with Charlie Brown’s revived tree to end the show. 

LEARN MOREGlenn McDonald, CBS & Linus’ security blanket.

What scared the executives was an earlier scene when Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas by reciting the gospel of Luke in the pageant rehearsal. This makes Charlie Brown one of the  few programs that directly speaks the gospel of Christ for a non-church audience.  There was the rub.  Fearing a public backlash about show including the story of Christ in Christmas, CBS wanted the scene cut. Schulz stood firm.  No gospel; no “Peanuts.”  And unto us, a franchise was born.

LEARN MORELinus recites what Christmas is all about.

Many wonder if – or how – the should could be created and aired today.  Nevertheless, the evolution of “Hark! The Herald…” from lengthy, erudite poem, to symphonic anthem, to simple children’s song, to uncomfortable gospel message, point out the enduring strength of the essay researched by Luke the historian.

Poetically, the visuals of the lyrics as presented in #CarolStory starts a sequence of dialogue between the shepherds and the angels.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” another carol more recently associated with a children’s cinema favorite (“Gremlins”), is added to the conversation to  begin the evening’s journey.  First , hearing, then seeing the angels,  the shepherds are moved from fear to comfort as they interpret the angels’ mission and  instructions to begin  a Pied-Piperesque journey to Bethlehem, picking up a drummer boy and others as they go away to the manger.

The videos here — the  majesty of Mendelssohn’s  anthem in  Alan Silvestri’s arrangement of “Hark! The Herald…,” contrasted with its  quiet message to Charlie Brown and connected by the intimacy of Johnny Mathis asking, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” — allow us to experience various ways the Lord speaks:  with herald trumpets and a sweet, still voice.

See December Archives (left) for other “Carol Story” stories.

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” Live


Alan Silvestri

Alan Anthony Silvestri is an American composer and conductor known for his film and television scores. He is best known for his frequent collaboration with Robert Zemeckis.  He is a two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominee, and a three-time Saturn Award and Primetime Emmy Award recipient. 

LEARN MORE: The Film Music of Alan Silvestri.


Vince Guaraldi


Vincent Anthony Guaraldi was an American jazz pianist noted for his innovative compositions and arrangements and for composing music for animated television adaptations of the “Peanuts” comic strip, as well as his performances on piano as a member of Cal Tjader’s 1950s ensembles and for his own solo career which included the radio hit Cast Your Fate to the Wind. 

LEARN MORE: The Guaraldi-Peanuts Connection.


Johnny Mathis

John Royce “Johnny” Mathis is an American singer of popular music. According to Guiness Music Chart historian Paul Gambacini, Johnny Mathis has sold well over 360 Million Records Worldwide making him the 3rd biggest selling artist of the 20th Century. Mathis has received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for three separate recordings.

LEARN MORE:  Johnny Mathis Biography.

LEARN MORE: Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.

Advertisements

Carol Story: A Handel on Flash Mobs, Hallelujah!

Imagine going about your daily activities of life — school, shopping, work, dining — and suddenly the sky around you bursts into song:  a voice here, a voice there, until the entire sky is filled with powerful harmonies singing repeatedly  the same set of lyrics, delivering a message.

What would you do?  Sit slack-jawed!  Complain?  Hide?   Join in? Call the authorities? Utter a sentence starting with “What the…”?

The shepherds tending flocks on the silent night on the hills above Bethlehem faced this situation.  In their case, “What the…?” may not have been  an unreasonable response, especially since shepherds were considered lower than blue collars, and even though the “authorities” were the chorus of Heavenly Host and voices of angels who announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah and calmed them with messages to not be afraid. 

George Fridrick Handel
Handel created “Messiah” for an Easter concert, not Christmas.

​The composers of the earliest Christmas carols musically captured the range of human emotions, and the majesty of authoritative voices in their fully orchestrated scores.  Two notable composers were Friderik Handel and ​Felix Mendelssohn, each of whom composed while embroiled in classic creative differences with other artists or financiers.

Handel’s now-beloved “Messiah” was controversial when he debuted it in 1741 as part of a commission to help get him out of debt.  “Messiah” ends with “The Hallelujah Chorus.” which Handel simply called  “Hallelujah.” He based the selection, not one the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but on the Book of Revelation which prophesies the Second Christmas, the return of Jesus, for “Messiah” (which means God’s Anointed One, promised in the Old Testament), was created as an Easter presentation, not for Christmas.


LEARN MOREHow Handel’s Messiah Came About


However, over the years, “Hallelujah” has become a Christmas staple, enhanced by traditions which include the audience standing.  This tradition began, not in reverence to the King of Kings, but in deference to King George II of England, who stood at the concert when the chorus began.  Some say he stood to honor Handel, others say because he needed to stretch for health reasons (much like President William Howard Taft begat baseball’s seventh-inning stretch).  With King George and President Taft, protocol was when the head of state stood, everybody stood.

Why we stand when the chorus is sung today isn’t always clear to listening audiences.  But as you’ll see in the video of a flash mob in a Canadian shopping mall, it’s a tradition that has passed on and has meaning today.

Another missing element is understanding the meaning of the word “Hallelujah.”  It’s a compound Hebrew word meaning “Praise” (“Halle”) Yaweh (“lujah”); Yaweh being one of the Old Testament names of God.  (Another derivation is Hall-El-Ujah; “El” being a Hebrew designation for God.)

Of all the video versions of “Hallelujah,” this food court improvisation captures the beautiful vocal harmonies Handel created, the confusion the shepherds must have felt hearing the Heavenly Host,  the spirit of being moved to participate in the moment, then, ultimately, turn to others to share what they say and tell the good news.  In #CarolStory, the chorus emerges from the “Silent Night” Heavenly Host singing, “Hallelujah!” (“Praise Yaweh!”) to establish a conversation between the shepherds and angels that Charles Wesley expresses next with a little help from Mendelsohn.  Sort of.  As we shall see.

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” Live

Viral flash mob post that started as a customer thank you.

Alphabet Flash Mob

 On November 13,  2010, unsuspecting shoppers got a big surprise while enjoying their lunch.   Alphabet Photography Inc. of Niagara Falls, Ont. (Canada) created this video as a virtual ‘Christmas Card’ to its on-line customers and Facebook fans. The customers of Alphabet Photography Inc. passed it along to their friends and family. In a flash,  the video had over 20 million views and was featured on many news and media outlets. Today the video has over 34 million views and has broken all world records to date. 

LEARN MORE:  http://www.AlphabetPhotography.com

Carol Story: The Life of Christ Through Poetry of Songs

There  has been much conversation lately about the meaning of some songs that have become associated with the Christmas season.  That is,  songs song about cold and winter that are sung during the Thanksgiving and New Year’s  holidays then not heard again for another 12 months.

Without assessing a viewpoint on a particular song, admittedly it’s  good to frequently examine what we sing and what we say.  Scripture reminds us to do so, especially teachings, spirits and self.  Re-examination not only yields growth, it also deepens discoveries that yield fruit.  Those who lead music for Christian worship are regularly challenged to test the lyrics of newer songs for theological accuracy as well as singability.

 At the same time, it’s important to frequently revisit beloved “traditional” songs to make certain we know what we’re saying, and not just singing songs because “it’s my favorite.” Grasping the intent or rationale of creator (small C) is essential in evaluating any work of art, be it music, book, film or visual.  This is, perhaps, a reason for some of the conversations about holiday outside of church circles today.

Carol Story Promo
“Carol Story” cast, Michael Edgar Myers, Vikki J. Myers and Garlan

Over a decade ago, Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries, which my wife and I co-founded as an outgrowth of our work in Christian education at our home church, took such a lyrical journey. We took a fresh look at the lyrics and origins of songs associated with Christmas, and discovered fascinating and cathartic messages. 

Exploring the Christmas songs — notably the carols —  enables a careful listener to actually hear the gospel message of Christ:  from birth to death to resurrection to second Christmas yet-to-come.  This discovery enabled us to create a one-act play, “Carol Story,” that consists solely of the lyrics of Christmas carols spoken as dialogue.

Carol Story The Easter Edition
“The Easter Edition” songs & scripture.

“Carol Story” has grown beyond our expectations and is now a requested holiday season presentation.  So much  so, we received a request for a companion piece for Easter.  While our “Carol Story” schedule for this year is filled, the stories associated with the songs are on-going.   So, in this space and in our social media outlets, we’ll share some of the stories behind the 61 songs that are adapted for the scripts of “Carol Story” and “Carol Story: The Easter Edition.”

LEARN MORE:   The Carol Story & Carol Story Easter Edition Playlist

We do so because, just as there are some songs we only hear during the Christmas season then forgot for a year, there are many more whose message should be remembered for eternity.

LEARN MORE:  Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.

From the Other Side of the Pond

Many of the songs we associate as Christmas songs, or as Christmas carols, originated in other nations.  As often occurs today, new songs were created by adapting fresh lyrics to standard tunes.  The process made the new tune singable more quickly. 

LEARN MORESee “Carol Story” Live.

Two well-known non-Christmas examples are “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee),” whose tune is the British national anthem, “God Save The Queen;” and, the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That patriotic poem Francis Scott Key wrote during the War of 1812 was paired with a popular drinking song hailed in American pubs as if to thumb their noses at the British. 

LEARN MORE:  KIT Ministries Ensemble Productions

The prelude to “Carol Story” demonstrates examples of this technique with brief samples of popular Christmas songs whose origins were folk songs on foreign shores.  One from England, one from France, one for Ukraine. As a bonus, we  wish you a Merry Christmas in the spirit of Christmas today — joy in His name — not as the song was originally intended: as a sarcastic response from the poor to the rich, but a heartfelt sign for you to learn and share when the time is appropriate.

Greensleeves (England)

Shchedryk (Ukraine)
Minuit Cretiens (France)
We Wish You A Merry Christmas (signed)

Judas the Scariest

“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” — Ephesians 6:11

A conversation-starter: Ask a group of non-Believers to name 10 people in the Bible other than Jesus. It’s likely you’ll hear Judas more often and more positively than you expect.

Through venues as the rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the 2006 book and documentary, “The Gospel of Judas,” Judas is viewed with sympathy as a duped victim to advance questionable religious dogma. This is an opposite view, of course, from the belief Judas was the catalyst to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Was Judas a bad man? A conniver? Did Judas — chosen by Jesus to follow him — become a disciple in anticipation of becoming treasurer of a multi-million dollar ministry from which he could embezzle? Should we feel sympathy for him?

Pastor and author Colin Smith brings  more insight into this idea in his book, “Heaven, So Near – So Far: The Story of Judas Iscariot.” However, the question here — as it was when the post was originally written in 2007 — is the contemporary Judas.  The potential one within Christ-followers of the millennium, who, it seems, continues emerging in headlines and social posts.

While Judas may have been the misunderstood, manipulated soul of revisionist history, a closer look at Scriptures notes the source of his manipulation. Luke 22:3 begins: “Then Satan entered Judas….”

This phrase implies Judas failed to do what many of us fail to do when tempted today: We underestimate the subtleties of the Evil One,  don’t put on the full armor of God, and allow our temporary emotions to undermine our witness.   It would be easy to point out celebrities and politicians whose Facebook and Twitter posts seem to express hypocritical Christianity. But what of us? How have we responded to such posts?  What do our posts say about us?

And how do we respond at other times of the year.  Do we uphold Holy Week, ignoring where we are wholly weak?

Do we betray God by not keeping fellowship with Him through prayer and bible study? When we are silent when Jesus’ name is smeared? When we do not act in Christ’s name against injustice — be it social or political? When we don’t call fellow Believers and leaders into account when their words or actions — no matter how well intended — misrepresent the work of God’s kingdom and the meaning of the cross?

How do we minimize our acts of betrayal? By making the tenets of Ephesians 6:10-18 an active part of our daily routine, and remembering how Jesus ended The Lord’s Prayer:

“Deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:13)

Without this protection, any of us can fall as Judas did.  That is the scary reality of what occurred to Judas. Keeping this in mind is an ongoing commemoration of Good Friday.

(Originally published, March 13, 2007)

Something About That Name

God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 (New International Version)

No name in human history has evoked such a range of conversation and emotion as the name Jesus Christ.

Deified, demonized or defied, “Jesus” evokes some sort of response (even curiosity) among the most casual respondent.  You’re likely to hear or see the name Jesus more this week as public observations about his life are presented as Easter approaches – the calendar date that commemorates the morning his followers believe he returned to life, three days after being entombed following his execution by crucifixion.  Crucifixion, nailing a person a cross until he asphyxiated, was the Roman equivalent of lethal injection.  In other words, capital punishment.

jesus multicultural
Jesus Christ — envisioned by artists across cultures.

To those who witnessed and believed then, and who have believed the accounts of that weekend in the centuries since, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is the climactic part of the Christmas story of his birth to Mary, the Virgin. To those believers these collective events prove that God – creator of the universe — was incarnated on earth as a human, lived among mankind, physically died and returned to life to demonstrate that life has eternal qualities; life beyond what we know,  something to which many aspire.  That eternal life, the followers say, starts with belief about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

 

This tome is less about agreeing or disagreeing with the belief than  an encouragement to embrace your curious gene.

MERRY CREASTER

There’s a bevy of research noting that Easter Sunday has the highest attendance of any church services of the year.  More than Christmas.  There are various, ageless running jokes about people who only go to church twice a year, any where from “Chreasters” to “Chriseastians” to CEOs – Christmas & Easter Onlys.  For anti-defamation sake, these designations have been most often heard in these ears from the voices of those who categorize themselves thusly.

So, there’s a question of why?  Why does Easter attendance skyrocket?  Why are there so many Jesus Resurrection-themed programs – films and documentaries – available for our viewing pleasure this week? Why is there such a quandary in many government offices and schools throughout the U.S. about whether or not to be open on Friday – the day Jesus was put to death, the day revered as Good Friday among those who believe his death was the beginning of life?

We cannot overlook answers such as “because Jesus programs make money,” or “church on Easter seems to be the right thing.” (Akin to when avowed atheist W.C. Fields purportedly was caught reading a Bible during his final days and when asked why purported intoned,  “Looking for loopholes.”  He died Christmas Day, 1946.)

It’s likely that many people are drawn to Jesus more than they’ll admit, and that even more are willing to confess that Jesus is who he said he is, The Son of God, who said, “No one comes to the Father but through me.”

ALLURE AND ASSAULT

That the person of Jesus is attractive in many circles is widely admitted.   That the life of Jesus – his commands, his examples, his teachings – has been sullied and misappropriated by poorly educated humans “in the name of Jesus” for centuries is undeniable.  Mahatma Ghandi was impressed by Christ, but not Christians.  Muslims recognize Jesus as a revered prophet, noting so in the Koran, but a revered prophet among many. Dan Kimball, pastor and author, created a popular curriculum of writings and interviews with a title that best summarizes the two-faced Christian image among those who may be CEOs.  Kimball’s curriculum:  “They Like Jesus, But Not  the Church.”

At the same time, Jesus is cursed – as in loathed – in many circles for the very reasons that made him attractive.  Cursed so much so that even saying his name is likely to invoke serious injury, or death.  His name is so despised among many who share his Jewish lineage that “Jesus Christ” may be used as a purposeful pejorative, particularly in his homeland.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that existed in the last days he walked the earth – noted this week.  Holy Week was the start of Passover and began with Jesus’ kingly entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, a coronation of sorts  that subsequently dissipated into Jesus’ tantrum over commercialization in the temple, a political  murder conspiracy,  and a fateful yet hopeful final meal before his mid-night trial, conviction and gruesome killing by week’s end.

Still…after he was resurrected, say his followers… the name of Jesus and reference to these events would land someone in jail, or worse.  One of those men Was the apostle Paul, an early supervisor of Christ-followers killings, who wrote the quote at the top of this article while he was imprisoned for teaching that Jesus was God Incarnate as he claimed.  The verse cited is a lesson learned.  Paul contended that ultimately mankind would discover what he experienced while en route to slay more Christ-followers.  Walking on the road, Paul wrote, he was blinded by a light, knocked to his knees and had a personal conversation with the slain-but-not-dead Jesus. This encounter changed Paul’s life – saving him, he says, from spiritual separation from the God in whom he believed.  To Paul separation from God was eternal death, while embracing God because he believed Jesus was eternal life.  He continued preaching this belief until he was beheaded some 30 years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

SYRIA: FOREVER IN THE NEWS

This meeting between Paul and Jesus has taken added significance to this Holy Week, for the encounter occurred on the road to Damascus, Syria…the latest locale of recent political upheaval that has resurrected interest in end-times scriptures as “wars and rumors of wars” and other passages in Revelation pointing toward the Second Christmas – the prophesied return of Jesus.

Is that return true?  That’s why people search.  And write songs. Of the countless numbers of songs that have been written about Jesus, perhaps the one that best encapsulates the multi-faceted impact of “Jesus Christ” is “There’s Something About That Name” written by Gloria Gaither.  While Gaither’s lyrics embrace the attributes of Christ as Savior, at the same time they infer the irritating quality of “Jesus” that leads to its use as a profanity, rash reactions when mentioned in non-religious public discourse, requests to not pray in “Jesus’ name,” or his followers to be  bombed while worshipping him in a church — overseas and stateside.

There’s also something about that name that draws the CEOs to learn more about him in such seasons as this.

For the reader who is curious about the life of Christ – for spiritual, academic or just cultural curiosity – the bevy of Holy Week  programs – on television, at church, in theaters – provides ample opportunity to have that curiosity sated.  For those who already believe, these opportunities provide a challenge to re-examine why you believe what you believe…perhaps to converse with those unbelievers why the name of Jesus is a special something.