Last Saturday night I was privileged to be at the Shepherds Bush Empire (for readers like me, apparently this is a relatively cool venue for a gig) ostensibly to hear Rend Collective, a Northern Irish worship band from Bangor of whom I’m rather fond. They were supported/front-ended by Guvna B (a Christian rapper whom I’d been privileged to meet in my last job whilst preparing to mark his great little book, Unpopular Culture) and also world vision. I’ve got to be honest, I actually left about half an hour early in order to a) best the queues and b) get over to another friends house to catch the end and results of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest.
For those not in the know, Eurovision is a an annual and totally bonkers event, which is allegedly a musical competition. I say allegedly as it is often a vehicle for identity politics, or even reaction to actual politics. (And I don’t just say the last bit as a bitter Brit, resigned to ‘nil points’). Every country in Europe (for some reason including Australia and Israel) gets the chance to compete, and 23 of the 43 perform in the grand final. The highlight in my view is the commentary by Graham Norton (and Terry Wogan before him) and the bizarre spectacle of the results, as we briefly ‘go to’ various European* capital cities and meet either former Eurovision contestants or apparently famous people.
A few years ago my wife and I watched the first of the Hunger Games films. We enjoyed the premise, the action, and some great performances. The best, in our mind, was also the most unsettling. Stanley Tucci expertly plays Caesar Flickerman, the MC of the Hunger Games. The entire televised spectacle of the Hunger Games, shown in film, is a brilliant mirror into what our culture views as entertainment. Watching Eurovision this year I was reminded of that again. Pyrotechnics, smoke machines, eccentric or scandalous costumes, lights, video, a vast arena and costume changes galore. Presenting in probably not their first language, the four Portuguese hosts particularly clinched this comparison. Immaculately presenter but ultimately serving as announcers, I felt for them particularly as they gamely accepted the same basic platitudes and compliments from the hosts in other countries. ‘You are beautiful and your show was beautiful’ was the expected mantra from around the continent – and it was what we heard.
The Rend Collective and Guvna B had some similarities with Eurovision. There were some smoke machines, a confetti cannon, lights, and good graphic design. An obvious difference in their deployment however was seen in the audience engagement. Whilst there to ‘hear’ Rend Collective, most of us were also there to worship Jesus. The focus was not so entirely on the ‘performers’ as on something or someone else. Blending some of their older classics (Build your Kingdom here) with some new songs (I loved ‘Rescuer’) and throwing in some choruses for good measure, it was a rousing time of worship.
I appreciate the perspective that television/film is a pale fraction of the experience that live music is. My evening confirmed that – but in a deeper way. Whereas the Eurovision crowd whooped and cheered, and everyone on stage and screen claimed to be having the time of their lives, it was also very clear that their engagement and happiness increased massively when the camera was on them. I’m sure I’d be the same – humans love adulation. But the difference between live in person and live on tv runs deeper than that. And the difference between these two musical spectacles runs deeper than that too.
Guvna B got a predominantly white, diversely aged and family-including crowd jumping up and down, fists in the air. He was brilliantly inclusive – in a really fun way. He also led us in a brilliant rendition of the chorus of one of my favourite hymns:
Stood at the bars, on the stairs, or otherwise going about their normal work, I’d love to have known what the Shepherd Bush Empire staff made of that.
Then, between Guvna B and Rend Collective, World Vision popped up on stage. WV is a great charity that, mostly through the mode of child sponsorship, does a great deal of good in the world. Rend Collective have been bringing them on tour for a while – because, as James reminds us ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’
Rend Collective were brilliant. Faithful, Gospel-proclaiming, honest, engaging, musical, and yet ultimately human. The visual difference between the members of Rend and the Eurovision spectacular was really pronounced. I can’t imagine that many, if any, of those on the tv screen would make self-deprecating jokes, lead a room in prayer, or give up platform/screen time to children from the other side of the world. Rend Collective are by no means perfect – but they stirred my shriveled old soul with a blend of loud music, great lyrics, prayer, and an invitation into authentic worship that goes beyond noise.
Ultimately, the dissonance I felt between the two halves of my evening came down to one person: Jesus. Both parts involved worship – the first half directed towards Jesus, away from the self, and our into the world to do good. The second was a fascinating case study in worship – of self. Eurovision is an enjoyable spectacle, I try and watch most of it every year (and will watch back the whole thing over the next week!) but it is also fundamentally sad. Moments of fame, of adulation, are literally fought and clawed over by s vast cast. The entire thing is at once hilarious, enjoyable, and a reminder to pray.
One line that stuck with me, in a great Northern Irish speaking voice, was this:
‘There are no rock stars in the kingdom of God’
This last week saw the launch of Thy Kingdom Come, an invitation to the worldwide church to pray for friends and family to come to know Jesus, rooted in the Lords Prayer. The blend of worship experiences I encountered on Saturday night came as a firm reminder that this is ever necessary, ever urgent, and incredibly important.
I hope this post has piqued your interest in something. I mentioned Guvna B’s book, Unpopular Culture, and you should also check out the Thy Kingdom Come Website and have a search (top right of the screen) of my blog for the posts and book reviews on justice issues.