3 min read

Don't stop believin'

Yaroslav Walker is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Air is a biopic you can believe in, says Yaroslav Walker, thanks to an awesome soundtrack and the hint of deeper themes.
A woman stands in a kitchen diner hold a phone with a cord.
Viola Davis negotiating down the line.
Warner Bros

Air should not work as a film. A sports biopic that barely has any actual sport in it, but has plenty of shoe design. A plot that revolves around the character of Michael Jordan (considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time, if not the greatest athlete of all time) which goes as far as to show the back of his head until the end credits, when stock footage takes over. A film that drops a number of hints about interesting character development (Matt Damon’s gambling, Jason Bateman’s daughter), and then never follows them up. None of this should add up to much…and yet it does. 

Mark Kermode (very much this reviewer’s lodestar of critique) has often opined that you know a biopic is doing its job when it makes you invested in a field you know nothing about. Senna makes you care about motorsport. Cinderella Man makes you care about boxing. Well, Air genuinely made me care about corporate sponsorship and shoe design…and I certainly wasn’t expecting that! 

The script is fondue levels of cheesiness, Matt Damon gives a climactic speech which simply oozes baked Camembert.

The direction is fine – Affleck has shown that he can be perfectly competent as an actor/director, and he does a fine job. The script is fondue levels of cheesiness, Matt Damon gives a climactic speech which simply oozes baked Camembert, but is also laugh out loud funny on more than one occasion. The performances are all on point: Matt Damon and Viola Davis can pull-off earnest roles in their sleep, and Affleck and Bateman deliver some decent ‘straight-man’ material. Affleck also demonstrates his directorial skills with shrewd and limited use of actors who can over-stay their welcome (Chris Tucker…small doses). 

However, the thing that sells the film to me is the soundtrack. The film is one big nostalgia-trip, and I loved it for that. I have long championed the theory that the 1980s was the best decade for popular music, and this film confirms my theory. The moment the Violent Femmes started to play I was sold. Cindy Lauper, Run-D.M.C, Springsteen, The Alan Parsons Project! BLISS! Throw in a Smiths and a Bowie track and I’d be giving this film an Oscar! 5 stars (but only because I’m listening the soundtrack at this very moment). 

Air hints at some deeper themes (although it does little more than hint) and one of these is the power of belief, the power of having faith in something. Affleck’s shoe-mogul, Phil Knight, has had faith in himself to build up Nike as a successful brand – and now spouts lazy quasi-Buddhist aphorisms. Davis’ Deloris Jordan has absolute faith in her son’s sporting ability, and refuses to allow it to be overlooked. Damon’s Sonny (a talent scout for possible sponsorship opportunities) is a gambler – he has belief in his own luck, his own scrappy attitude. He shoots craps in Vegas and demands his bosses back him because of his gut: ‘This is what I do here, and I really feel it this time!’ He truly believes in the value and power of sport to change his fortunes, and to change the world. 

From a Christian perspective it raises some interesting ideas, but doesn’t raise them quite high enough. The Christian life is one of belief, one of faith, one of ‘taking a chance’. Yet, the chance the Christian takes is not really a gamble, not a roll-of-the-dice, but a relationship. The Christian takes a chance, but it is taking a chance on love. Whereas the characters of Air take a chance on the sporting ability of a yet un-tested Michael Jordan, the Christian finds a certain surety in the loving embrace of Jesus Christ. Having religious faith, having Christian faith, is so often mischaracterised as a blind gamble – rather it is a relationship with one who loves us unconditionally, and so is not as irrational as assuming one can win shooting dice, but is the truest and most sensible thing one can do. 

4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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