Like many people, I greatly enjoyed the video of the Opera Company of Philadelphia singing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in Macy’s during the last weekend of October. Seeing that music performed outside its normal context of church sanctuaries or concert halls with the choirs either in robes or formal attire reminded me just how beautiful and powerful that piece of art is.
Later I found I could not make up my mind concerning the event and its spiritual implications. I vacillated between two competing views, which I have decided to share here. The first view is that the event was a beautiful in-breaking of good news, a surprising Christian proclamation in the midst of consumerism. The second view is that the event was a further commodification of the gospel, a further example of taking something spiritual and using it for commercial purposes. I’m curious if people agree with one view or the other, or if like me, they find themselves conflicted.
The singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus at Macy’s is a fantastic example of the way in which the gospel works. Here are these people, immersed in the contemporary economic story that their primary identities is that of consumers. They are told over and over again that their worth comes from how much they make, spend, and own. Their value is found only in what they can produce and buy. Our holidays have also been captured by this narrative and thus the season in which we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ has been transformed and reduced to the biggest shopping season of the year. The Macy’s in the video is decorated with Christmas festivity even before November has begun in order to extract more money from their customers. So the people in the video do what they are indoctrinated by our society to do: they shop for better deals for clothing and accessories they, or the ones for whom they are shopping, do not likely need. They are lured to Macy’s by the gospel of discounts and an extra ten percent off their purchases if they open an in-store credit card. Then, an announcement of truly good news overtakes them without warning. As the organ and choir begin the first bars of the “Hallelujah” chorus, everyone in the store stops, puts down the sweaters or perfume, and, like the shepherds shocked by the choir of angels in the Gospel According to Luke, they hear the announcement that God is the Lord. The music ushers the shoppers into a different reality—a reality in which neither Caesar nor Madison Ave. are the rulers of the Earth, but Christ, “shall reign forever and ever.” The chorus confronts the shoppers to no longer see themselves as the servants of profit margins or slaves to gross domestic product. Rather, they are invited to be citizens of the kingdom, a kingdom created by a gracious God who loves them, who loves the world, who does not see the people as a means to an end. The choir wakes the crowd up to the “King of kings! and Lord of lords!” So while Macy’s may think they were only partnering with an Opera Company to give their customers a pleasant surprise, they were unknowingly opening the door to a subversive message to their customers that those shopping in the store are actually a part of a greater reality, a greater Christmas than Madison Ave. could ever imagine.
The singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus at Macy’s, while aesthetically beautiful and surprising—which should not be discounted—is ultimately nothing more than the further attempt to render an already co-opted Christian holiday even more submissive to the whims and desires of the dominant American narrative of consumerism. The obvious gifts of Handel and the singers do not actually confront the shoppers or the selfish desires of Macy’s. If anything, the singing of the chorus further assimilates the shoppers to the kingdom of consumerism. They may be shocked to hear the beauty of Handel’s music, but the shock comes primarily from the context. That is, they are shocked only because they did not expect to hear world-class choral music as they sought a deal on a pair of pants for their loved ones. They are not shocked by a challenge to actually change their behavior, to use their money in ways that genuinely help those in need, or to switch their allegiances from the kingdom of consumerism to the Kingdom of God. Macy’s is far too smart to let something truly subversive infiltrate and undermine their goal to make a profit during the last quarter of the fiscal calendar. The likely effect of the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s flash mob—and the one likely desired by Macy’s when they agreed to the idea—was to put shoppers in a better mood, to give them a better opinion of Macy’s, and thus increase the chance that they would spend money. Imagine someone debating whether to purchase a sweater before the singing started. Maybe they don’t need it or maybe they are uncomfortable with Macy’s starting the Christmas season early just so that the store can increase its bottom line. The music starts and it is surprising and delightful. After the chorus ends, is the shopper more or less likely to purchase that sweater? Does the person hear, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth,” and receive it as a call to live in another kingdom, or do they think, “It is cool that Macy’s would do this”? This was an opportunity for Macy’s to quiet those critics who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” by having perhaps the most Christian-y of all Christmas choral pieces sung in their store. Now those uncomfortable with the commodification of the Church’s celebration of the Incarnation are placated, their guilty consciences mildly assuaged so that they can return to the core practice demanded by the dominant societal narrative: shopping. They can now feel like they support a store trying to do something good during Christmas—i.e., surprising people with beauty and praising their Lord in song—rather than using their money to help others. The glorification of Jesus’ birth is cynically and shrewdly utilized to shape people into better consumers.
Here is another video of a flash mob singing the “Hallelujah” chorus at a foot court in a mall in Niagara Falls, Canada.