(This is the script of one of a series of events we have been running in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast. It is not about Revival Meeting sermons or robust theological teaching. It is a celebration of the arts. It is a gentle way for people to engage with Church and faith. Yet it is a bold declaration that we believe that there is no split between the sacred and the secular and that there is not one inch of the entire Universe which Jesus does not declare Lordship!)
GLORIA – Mud Sunfish
Stockman - INTRODUCTION
How Can a Poor Boy – Radiator Blues Band
If I Ever Needed Someone - Radiator Blues Band
Stockman – The Devotional in Van Morrison’s Work
Read as a Prayer - Give Me My Rapture Prayer
When Will I Ever Learn – Scott Jamison
Stockman – The Sense Of Wonder in Van Morrison’s Work
Into The Mystic – Dave Thompson
Stockman – Hopefulness and Other things in Van Morrison’s Work
Brand New Day – Caroline Orr
Full Force Gale – The Gospel According To... Choir
Encore: Brown Eyed Girl – Radiator Blues Band
We always begin our Gospel According To... evenings by asking why we should be looking at this artist in what is, a least in disguise, a Church service. Van Morrison gives us a wide array of reasons. His upbringing on Hyndford Street in East Belfast meant that he was conditioned in the shadow of all kinds of Churches, Mission Halls, Gospel Halls and Kingdom Halls. It was very unlikely that an artist like Morrison who has paid so much attention to his childhood in his near fifty year career would not find these influencing his art. Later he became an enthusiast of Comparative Religion. He read books and wrote songs about all kinds of religious ideas like Scientology, Roscrucianism and the Tibetan influence of Alice Bailey. Into the middle of this wide ranging mix Morrison’s Christian legacy enters and exits in orthodox and unorthodox ways. Lots of his songs have a deep spirituality as a result.
Many of you will be aware that I am always keen to ask if an artist is a cheap shyster or a visionary and honest artisan. I am always asking if the music on our iPods is healthy for our souls. When you ask about the iPodic obedience of listening to Van Morrison there are many positive traits in his work. His authenticity, his hopefulness, his re-humanising of people, his alternative imagining and even the spiritual devotional. We will look at some of these tonight.
This is all dressed in Morrison’s sense of place which is so absolutely and crucially relevant to us. He is a Belfast boy. Somehow out of the claustrophobic streets of the shipyard end of Belfast a man appeared who would take the very ordinary of his geography, places like Beechy River, Sandy Row, Hyndford Street, Cypress Avenue and wait for it... Fitzroy, and make them places of transcendence. The same place that gave us another world through wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles has given us one of rock’s most iconic records and transcendent visions; Astral Weeks.
As we listen to the songs chosen by our artists tonight we will engage with songs of catharsis, songs of hopefulness, songs of spiritual confession and intention. As in his entire catalogue, from the Astral Weeks to Keep It Simple, God will appear very frequently and even when he doesn’t there is something beyond the horizontal going on. The aforementioned Madame George was described by one commentator as “part blues, part Protestant testifying... with the insistent verve of a Presbyterian minister...” You will get all of that tonight!
THE DEVOTIONAL IN VAN MORRISON’S WORK
As we see in songs tonight many of Van Morrison’s song could be used in a traditional Church service and indeed just as we have introduced Cohen’s If It Be Your Will in ours we might see some Morrison songs appear in our other services.
There was a particular time in the late 80s when Morrison connected with the Wrekin Trust and became involved in a Conference called The Secret Heart Of Music. It was all about the mystical effects of music and at times particularly for me on Poetic Champions Compose Van was getting close to doing with music what King David did in the courts of King Saul in 1 Samuel 16 where we are told that David played the harp to soothe Saul’s depressed soul. Morrison got close to this effect; beautiful music that seemed to have something tangibly spiritual happening within it.
We could talk about many Van Morrison songs that are spiritually devotional... Full Force Gale that we’ll close tonight with, Whenever God Shines His Light, By His Grace, See Me Through Part 2 which incorporates a vibrant Just a Closer Walk With Thee and his version of Be Thou My Vision with The Chieftains could all be used in Christian worship. Spiritual concerns, perhaps a little less clear of source, are found right across his catalogue and it seems to be that no matter how much of his library of comparative religions he reads his core is always that Christianity he imbibed on those early days in East Belfast.
If Mr Morrison was here I am not sure what he would say of his religious faith. He has called himself Christian mystic and that seems a fair description. He has also said of one of his greatest artistic moments In The Garden that it “finally states my position. I’ve never joined any organisation nor plan to.” In the mesmerising ecstatic transcendenct meditation of In The Garden states...
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father and the
Son and the Holy Ghost
In the garden wet with rain”
A PRAYER - GIVE ME YOUR RAPTURE
A SENSE OF WONDER IN THE WORK OF VAN MORRISON
The Christian singer Rich Mullins sang:
“So much beauty around us
For just two eyes to see
But everywhere I go I’m looking”
William Blake put it this way:
“See the Lord in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour”
And the cleric, poet and author Mike Starkey:
“The place you are is full of wonders
Even if that place is a wilderness
Open your eyes wide
Look for long enough and you will see.”
Van Morrison’s most natural gift is that he doesn’t need to look for long. His eyes, indeed his soul seems to have always been open to heaven in a wild flower or a mountainside or a Belfast street. Here is a man who has taken thrupney bits on windowsills and pasty suppers, gravy rings, wagon wheels, barnbracks and snowballs from Davy’d Chipper or jars of muscles and potted herrings in Ardglass on a day out to Coney Island and thrown them into almost a holy light.
From Astral Weeks and Cypress Avenue through Hyndford Street and elsewhere Morrison has had visions and lit up insights into the something more...
As he put it himself:
“Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder
Didn’t I come to lift your firey vision bright.”
That actually might be exactly what his contribution is. Listening to Van Morrison you can be lifted to see the wonder and to catch firey visions.
MEDITATION – On Hyndford Street
HOPEFULNESS AND OTHER THINGS IN THE WORK OF VAN MORRISON
Morrison adds other prophetic stimulants to his opening us up to vision and wonder.
A song like Madame George reveals a preciousness about humanity. Whoever Madame George or Madame Joy is they are given a real sense of dignity. Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs pointed out the “beauty, sensitivity and holiness of this song.” What a vocation for the artist to give people back their beauty, sensitivity and holiness. A younger Belfast favourite Foy Vance recreated such a holiness in his song Gabriel and The Vagabond that we used about the homeless a few weeks ago.
When I heard Iain Archer’s cover of Saint Dominic’s Preview (which I called my University five-a-side soccer team!) it drew out for me some of the social critic in Morrison’s work too. “Everybody feels so determined not to feel anyone else’s pain/No one making no commitments to anybody but themselves.” How prophetic?
There is also a vast quantity of hopefulness in the muse of Van Morrison. Even in Astral Weeks which was so honest. Here was a young man sharing his pain and yet on a journey towards redemption. Everywhere you look there are Beautiful Visions, Dwellers On The Theshold, Full Force Gales and Raptures. As we hear now as Caroline sings us out on Brand New Day and is then joined by the choir to sing Full Force Gale that I started my ministry here in Fitzroy with as it was the introit to my Installation.