Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Gospel According to Van Morrison

Steve Stockman's blog called Soul Surmise purports to be about art and faith.  So many have tried to work out what Van "is".  In some ways he's a spiritual chameleon hinting at things and influences without actually acknowledging full-fledged membership.  He's not willing to die for any cause.  You won't see Van waving a flag, threatening to cut the head off a journalist or burning down a church in the name of peace.  

(What follows is a post about a church event called The Gospel According To... Van Morrison - songs performed and insights drawn - which took place at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast on March 20, 2011)

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 rehumanising of people, his alternative imagining and even the spiritual devotional. 

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, Davy’s Chipper, Sandy Row, Hyndford Street, Cypress Avenue and wait for it... Fitzroy, and make them places of transcendence. The same place that birthed the world beyond through wardrobe in Narnia has given us one of rock’s most iconic records and transcendent visions; Astral Weeks.

There is always a mystical intention about Van Morrison’s work. He told Steve Turner some years ago, “I am a Christian mystic.” Perhaps Tom Petty’s exposition is right and he just wants that “for just one minute everything could be alright.” Maybe there is a more serious religious agenda. Or maybe the religious images are just an instrument added to his muse. Anyway tonight we are going to venture in the slipstream, on the viaducts of his dreams and see what we might glean.

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 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!

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