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Review: Focus On Jesus

Posted by Emma Hunter Dunn, 2 Dec 2020

Emma Hunter Dunn reviews this introduction to the gospel message of Handel's Messiah.

What a great idea!  So many Christians and non-Christians sing Messiah in choirs and choral societies up and down the country every year (except this one, of course).  How wonderful if Christians were able to engage with this musical masterpiece on a deeper spiritual level, enhancing their worship of our Lord God.  And how wonderful if Christians were able to use the message of Messiah as a way to engage their non-Christian fellow choral enthusiasts in a conversation about Jesus.

This is rather broader than the stated aim of the book: that through a deeper understanding and appreciation of Handel’s Messiah, people should know Christ better and enjoy Him more.  This is excellent, of course, but I feel the author has too modest a vision for his work!

Would this book help someone reach the author’s goal?  Yes, indeed. One needs to ignore the rather unattractive, academic style of design and plunge in for the enjoyable and informative work that lies within.

Bashford methodically works through the sections of Messiah, considering each strand of Bible text used by Revd Jennens to make up the libretto.  Each strand is put into its Biblical context and the meaning clearly explained, including how the text relates to Jesus.  Each chapter helpfully concludes with ‘what to listen out for in the music’, highlighting particularly the way Handel reflects the meaning of the words in the music.

This is a highly detailed, clearly written work and the theological unpacking of the Biblical texts is thorough.  Bashford gives good, straightforward explanations of theological terms that not all readers would be familiar with (e.g. covenant).  Similarly, he gives generally helpful explanations of musical terms (throughout the book and in an appendix).  This enables him to use technical language on occasion without making the book feel too hard work.  But he is also pastoral (as befits a retired minister), showing how the libretto words, being truth from Scripture, can encourage Christians and shape our view of Jesus (e.g. the words of the Hallelujah chorus).

Rarely, one is left wanting a bit more, regarding the significance of things.  For example, Jennens omits Isaiah 40v2b.  What is the impact of this omission on the listener/singer?  On the message? How could being aware of this omission be useful in talking about the gospel to a neighbouring soprano, alto etc?

Focus on Jesus is gently evangelistic throughout (e.g. regarding the reality of judgment and the need to respond to Jesus in this life).  But it is explicitly so at the end: the conclusion makes direct appeals both to convinced followers of Jesus and to those not yet accepting Him.  Which brings us to what I see as the flaw of the book: it would be great to have a slimmed down and more attractively presented version which could easily be given as a gift to choral singers and classical music lovers who don’t yet know Jesus; or whose love for Jesus is weak and needs to be fanned into flame.  As it stands, the book would be great for a thinking Christian who loves classical music and is ready for a good, solid read. 

Bashford’s enthusiasm for Messiah and for the messiah, Jesus, radiates throughout.  Following Handel and Jennens, he truly does put our focus on Jesus.

Emma Hunter Dunn is a musician and a vicar's wife in Shepton Mallet.

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