There’s some discussion taking place in the blogosphere about the theological appropriateness of the so-called “Hallelujah flash mob” videos that are making their rounds these days. (See others here, here, and here…I’m sure there are lots more).
James K. A. Smith expresses his concern that all that may be accomplished through the Hallelujah flash mob is to reduce Jesus to a commodity of the mall. Perhaps. But let’s not forget that the Church has done this quite well long before the mall ever appeared. At least part of the history of the Church is how it has so often made the Gospel of Jesus a commodity that it disperses as it pleases. So I hardly think that somehow the Hallelujah flash mob will make it any worse than it already is. Whatever the case, Smith concludes, “If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube.” I’m not sure how he knows that in advance. Somehow I think if they would have had phone cams on the day of Pentecost, we would have seen some pretty exciting footage. Indeed, when people heard of the exciting things Jesus was doing in his ministry, people flocked to see the exciting action.
My friend Jon Coutts over at “this side of sunday” is also a bit suspicious of the phenomenon, even if they do make him (and probably Chesterton) smile. His concern is whether these Hallelujah flash mobs are performed so out of context that they are meaningless to those hearing them. But this is not convincing to me because the argument implies that there is a “right and proper” context in which this song ought to be sung. And what context is that? The concert hall? Is that not also a place where many idols hang out? Are highly cultured, wealthy attendees at a benefit concert (the context in which Messiah was often performed originally in Handel’s day) better able to hear the message being sung? Or perhaps the only right context is the Church building? Problem is, the last I noticed, there are probably a one or two consumers making the rounds there, too. C’mon, guys! It is not as if the spirit of consumerism lurking in the mall is somehow a qualitatively different spirit of consumerism from the one that is also at work in the concert halls, universities, and indeed, churches (whether high, low, or non-liturgical!).
I, for one, am less suspicious about the flash mob phenomenon, if for no other reason than I reject the idea that there are more or less appropriate contexts for proclamation of the kingship of Jesus. The implicit assumption, I think, that these critics make is that there are appropriate “sacred” places to sing the liturgies of the King, but that in other “secular” (or more specifically, “consumerist”) contexts, this proclamation ought to be reserved. I humbly disagree.
If there is a place that needs to be invaded with the Gospel, is it not the mall? And let’s not forget that the MAJORITY of people who see these flash mobs are doing so on the internet, not in the mall itself. And are not the mall and internet places where the Lordship of Christ so desperately needs to be proclaimed? Given that the Scriptures declare that the “world is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psa 24:1), I’m not convinced that there is anywhere where public declaration that “He shall reign forever and ever” is out of context. Again, I think of the Psalm 96:3 which says, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”
Of course, the Psalmist had never heard of a North American mall or the internet, but why should such declaration be ruled out of court as nothing more than a commodification of Jesus? Or think of Paul’s declarations in Athens or Ephesus (Acts 17 & 19). He brought the declaration of Jesus to the marketplace, the “mall,” as it were, of the first-century.
Of course, there is the critique that most of these particular Hallelujah flash mobs were used a marketing ploy. Maybe organizers of Hallelujah flash mobs are for the most part doing this for profit. That may well be. Here I think of Paul’s statement that there are indeed some who preach Christ out of false motives (whether for selfish ambition or envy). But Paul does go on to say, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” (Phil. 1:18)
A line of Karl Barth’s that is often quoted goes like this:
God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. (CD I/1, 55).
To be sure, Barth goes on in the same passage to say that this does not give us an excuse to make flute concertos or, for that matter, Hallelujah flash mobs, a replacement for the work of the church to proclaim the Gospel. But I, for one, am apt to reserve judgment about whether or not God could well break through to a 21st century mall shopper (or Youtube viewer) to remind her or him that the King of Kings shall reign forever and ever. And while perhaps for many, the proclamation of the Hallelujah chorus may come across as amusing but empty words, it does not change the truth of that which it proclaims. Yes, some (maybe even most?) ears will not hear. But is it our place to say that God could not cause some to hear precisely what they need to hear in this season? For those who have ears to hear, let them hear the Christmas declaration:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)