If the stars were made to worship...


- Stephen Burns

There were a number of notable, and some delightful, things about the 4.30pm Hillsong celebration in central Melbourne at the Atheneum Theatre when I visited on August 19.  


An opening song proclaimed variations on "every little thing will be alright," which may or may not have been an intentional echo of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, but I hope that my Roman Catholic professor of spirituality would approve, given that I remember his own memorable adaption, now 25 years ago when I was at seminary, of Julian's words as a liturgical invitation to repentance: "on one occasion the good Lord said, 'everything will be alright," and on another occasion, 'you will see for yourself that everything will be alright." The confidence of Julian, who received her revelation in Norwich, England, in about 1373, was alive and well in Melbourne this night.


Other songs were more memorable again, including a rendering of John Newton's "Amazing Grace," led gently by a vocal ensemble standing behind a floor to ceiling projection of the lyrics in a "classical" typeface perhaps deemed to be in keeping with this "classic" song. The celebration was mainly comprised of contemporary song more like "everything will be alright," however, and included to my ears one of Hillsong's best, worthy of acclaim both for its lyrics and its mood, at least as it was performed in Melbourne on this occasion. The musicians held back from the "wall of sound" that often marks--and to my ears, mars--Hillsong tunes, obliterating subtleties in dreary guitar fuzz; on this rendering, instead voices and melodies played together to sound out something both more tender and joyful in this song. With "if the stars were made to worship... if the mountains bow in reverence... if the wind goes where you send it... if the rocks cry out in silence... so will I," among its many fine lines--it also spoke of galaxies and burning stars at one pole, every single person as precious at the other, art and science all at once (https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/).


The first song mentioned, with its echoes intentional or otherwise of Julian, "everything will be alright," was also recalled in a testimony told by a woman from Newcastle and shown on the large screens across the front of the stage. Her story was of losing two children and yet through tragedy being sustained by hope in Christ and heaven. Her story was difficult and following it, the pastor make the point that Hillsong was and wanted to be a place where deep celebration and "real life,"  highs and lows, could both be present. 

While the testimony was serious, other aspects of the service were less so, though they did sometimes employ technology--high-tech video especially. The opening of the "message" was presented a travelogue, set on this occasion in India. The attention to the visual arts was nothing less than impressive, with some of the video work reminding me of the black and white portions of The Smith's "Panic": choppy and clipped, jaunty. The narrator spoke of India's magnificent buildings, and the beauty in its culture, but the overall impression was of the place from the perspective of a tourist, a land of playthings, while "othering" its peoples. The emphasis on tourism related to points made later in the sermon, but these references to India were a low point of the service--in fact a pretty deep trough--for me, given that the message made no mention of the country's struggles with massive poverty and inequality, its crucial inter-religious character and conflicts, and, not least, the flood that filled the news on the very day of the service--a flood in which hundreds had been killed and half a million made homeless in Kerala (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kerala-floods-rain-live-updates-rescue-ernakulam-idukki-alappuzha-pinarayi-vijayan-5312746/ ). Presenting India as a foil in the "message" was, if not downright unimpressive, at best deeply ambiguous.  To my ears, this was a terrible shame, as the preacher went on to offer an otherwise admirable evangelistic talk, with notable moments employing images of thistles and sequoias--drawn from The Message's rendering of Isaiah 55 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+55&version=MSG), a quotation (projected onto the screen) from Alain de Botton (given that de Botton writes about "religion for athiests," the preacher's non-polemical use of his writing on travel seemed like a smart touche), and contrasts between "coming and going" to worship and "seeking and finding" the God sung about in worship songs like those mentioned above. Another aspect of the preacher's address that I appreciated was the way he talked about "cathedrals"--accompanied by videos of such buildings, and a massive still image of stained glass windows and recorded choral music piping through this portion of his talk. These were said, like other kinds of buildings, to be able to be engaged as "vacant monuments," when "there is so much more" to discover about God. But in making this (hardly from any Christian point of view uncontestable point) he spoke with respect about the beauty some people find in such buildings, and of how they can enable encounter with God. His own story, he told us, was of a background in a Wesleyan Methodist tradition, of which he spoke with some deep affection, though without account of what had led him out of that to Hillsong. In both instances, I was struck by his care to respect other Christian traditions, albeit it while inviting to his own, and particularly by how commendably he considered them which contrasted disparaging comments I have been so disappointed to hear about the like of Hillsong from some lovers of choral music and of cathedral liturgical style who have presumed their proclivities to be quite superior. The preacher's final points spoke of the experience of grace through which God makes divine presence known to persons, and the "bricks of grace," surpassing any building, that God gives to construct character to bring beauty into human life. Despite finding the opening portion of the talk about India painful to witness, I found what the talk went on to say praiseworthy in its encouragement in "real life" to "seek," "lean towards," "press towards" the loveliness which God loves to give.

One final note on this service, which had used some "traditional" Christian music, images of "venerable" Christian architecture, possibly even knowingly echoed mediaeval Christian mysticism: a striking appropriation of another tradition was Hillsong's making its own the liturgical action familiar in many old-line Christian settings as "the greeting of peace." At Hillsong, this time of greeting those  around one morphed into "the minute mingle." So in various ways this service made some interesting use of "traditional" Christian worship, taking it and turning it rather than jettisoning it, it would seem to me. Just as it opened up new song and contemporary media intending to express its hold on an ancient gospel still found to give life.

Hillsong, "So will I": https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/
Julian of Norwich: https://standingcommissiononliturgyandmusic.org/2011/05/08/may-8-dame-julian-of-norwich-c-1417/ and https://www.paracletepress.com/samples/exc-revelationsondivinelovei-20.pdf

A version of "So Will I":