The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a national establishment dedicated to artistic excellence, funding local arts projects that engage communities in collective cultural experiences. With the assistance of the ever- and omni- potent YouTube, they have put themselves on the map in recent years with an initiative they are calling “Random Acts of Culture.” Call it a cultural experiment in the transformational power of the arts, Mozart in the mall, tango in the airport terminal, or Puccini at the farmers’ market—the result is art in unusual places, wide-eyed children and startled shoppers, culture interrupted by culture.
The idea is simple. They gather a group of talented artists in a particular city—a string quartet from the Charlotte Symphony, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, or two very gifted dancers—and they set them loose from the concert halls to stage a performance in the street. Or, as it were, in the shoe department. Shoppers at a very crowded shoe sale in Miami were startled as one by one their salespeople suddenly turned into characters from the French opera Carmen—shoe boxes in hand.
Yet one of these intruding bursts of creativity has caused the most commotion by far. On Saturday, October 30 of last year, the Opera Company of Philadelphia brought together over 650 choristers from 28 participating organizations to perform a Random Act of Culture in the heart of a busy Macy’s store in Philadelphia. Accompanied by the Wanamaker Organ—the largest pipe organ in the world—the Opera Company and throngs of singers from the community infiltrated the store as shoppers, and burst into a pop-up rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at high noon.
The reactions on the faces of singers, shoppers, and salespeople are worth the YouTube visit alone—which has been replayed over 7.5 million times: people with shopping bags in tow stop to raise their hands, gadgets and phones are pulled out of pockets and purses to record the moment, the busywork of a crowded mall in action otherwise stopped in its tracks by words that make it all seem so small.
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of his Christ, and of his Christ;
And He shall reign forever and ever,
And then come the tears. The most posted comment after the replaying of this random act of culture is the presence of tearing eyes and tingling spines. Some of the comments indeed belong to people who identify themselves as Christian. But many others come from people who claim they are pagan, atheist, or just thoroughly unreligious. But all have similar reactions: “Just beautiful!” said one. “[M]oving beyond words.” “One of the greatest things to happen in Philadelphia in a long time.” “[It] brought tears to my eyes.” “[It] gave me goosebumps.” “I can’t stop crying. So beautiful…” Another musician describes a little boy with tears running down his face. After everything was over, she walked up to the mother to ask if he was okay. She said, “‘Oh no, he was just so surprised and moved.’”
With the utmost of respect to Puccini’s La Boheme, there were no reports of any four year olds crying in awe thereafter. Some have attributed the difference in audience reaction to the sheer scope of this particular random act of culture—it was certainly the biggest; combining the world’s largest pipe organ with enough choristers to transform the already striking three-story Italian and Greek marble historic Macy’s Grand Court into a stunning concert hall. Others attribute the heightened reactions simply to the power of the classical arts, the surprise of long forgotten memories, or the beauty and influence of great music. Noticeably absent from all this commentary was reaction from those who seem to find something wrong with anything Christian in the public arena. “I’m an atheist, and I approve of this random act,” writes one responder with a smiley face. “I’m a pantheist and I tearily agree!” another replied. “It’s the beauty that counts.”
Certainly, the story of a God who comes near is exactly that. Beautiful. Remarkable. Show stopping. And our intense reaction to beauty is nothing if not an inherent recognition of a Giver of beauty, a creator of the things that bring chills to our spines and tears to our eyes—the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in Spirit, embodied, in Person.
In contrast, and I think illustrating this point, comedian Steve Martin sang a song last year at the New Orleans Jazz fest that he called “the entire atheist hymnal” (on one page of paper). He called it: “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”
Christians have their hymns and pages,
Hava Nagila’s for the Jews,
Baptists have the rock of ages,
Atheists just sing the blues.
Romantics play Claire de Lune,
Born agains sing “He is risen,”
But no one ever wrote a tune,
For godless existentialism.
For Atheists there’s no good news. They’ll never sing a song of faith.
In their songs they have one rule: the “he” is always lowercase.
Some folks sing a Bach cantata,
Lutherans get Christmas trees,
Atheist songs add up to nada,
But they do have Sundays free.
Of course, his humor is meant to entertain us—and does. But what a contrast to a piece of music that moves hearts and masses across the board. Handel’s Messiah is arguably one of the strongest expressions of Christian doctrine ever produced, and yet it’s called a masterpiece of beauty by everyone—without so much as flinching as to whether our philosophies really allow room for it in the first place.
In fact, I think it makes all the sense in the world that both inexplicable tears and profound joy accompany the words and sounds of Handel’s Messiah. For this Messiah brings with him an invitation unlike any other: Come and see the Father, the Creator, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Come and see the Light, and the Overcomer of darkness, the One who wept at the grave of a friend, and the one who collects our tears in his bottle even before he will dry every eye. Indeed, hallelujah!
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.