ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Abuse Systems and Transformation Tools, Leaving the Church, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Authority, Spiritual Bullies

When “O Holy Night” Becomes a Nightmare to Someone Whose Faith Has Been Harmed

I read the following comment on a friend’s Facebook page and he gave me permission to post it. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard David Phelps sing O Holy Night, but it is phenomenal. The guy’s voice is an amazing instrument. He performs with absolute precision and beauty.

What was interesting to me is that my friend who made this comment is a professional musician. He’s a composer. (I’ve sung his works.) He also is a voice teacher, choral conductor, and adjudicator for choir festivals. He knows good quality singing and trains the best vocalists in our area. But beyond the music and the spectacular voice of David Phelps, something else got him distracted and made the entire video distasteful to him. You see, he is one who has difficulty with Christianity – or at least certain aspects of it. I’ve never heard his story before, but I’ve read his posts long enough to know that something left a very bad taste in his mouth.

Here is my friend’s Facebook post:

TRIGGER WARNING: I am not joking here. The ones after this will be back in the fun/funny zone. “O Holy $#^@&” here we go.

This performance is so sincere and heartfelt, shows a high level of skill, and may be the very one you love best of all. I think it is just awful, the perfect expression of a particular culture that I used to think was just distasteful and now believe to be rotten to the core. It is the most obvious example I know of the “Oh, Cis-Het White Christian Jesus, I’ve been so bad, and you make me feel so good that it gives me the tingles” approach to religion. The lady at 4:29 is the very definition of all of this. I look around this room and would lay a $6.23 bet that these God-fearing, nice (as long as you only exist within the parameters of what they consider acceptable), certain-they-are-“saved” sons and daughters of the Confederacy are ardent Trump supporters and think his presidency is “part of God’s plan.”

(I did warn you.)


I completely get it. The residual effects of spiritual abuse creep up all over the place – in commercials, on Facebook, in the news, in conversation, on YouTube, etc. When you least expect it, something will bring you back to the ugliness, the hypocrisy, the revolting image of abuse and harm parading itself in the business and culture of “Churchianity.” Jesus seems to be lost in the picture.

For my friend, the anger is Republican politics intersecting with Evangelical Christianity. What if you’re a Christian, but don’t care for the policies of Republicans? In some circles, that is not acceptable. Some of you may have no problem with that, but other things might be offensive to you.

Can you relate with my friend? Do you have other things that pop up and remind you of the church experiences you have tried to leave behind? How have you handled those situations?

25 thoughts on “When “O Holy Night” Becomes a Nightmare to Someone Whose Faith Has Been Harmed”

  1. One of the bad church experiences that I’ve had is really bad renderings of “O Holy Night”! There are songs that are OK for people of average vocal ability to sing, but “O Holy Night” is not one of them. For me, it’s either got to be sung by a really good vocalist, or it should not be sung at all, at least not in public. But if it’s in a church setting, we are supposed to sit through any cringingly bad rendition, and pretend to appreciate it. (Just the way we were supposed to appreciate anything that was thrown at us in a church setting, no matter how awful it actually was.)

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  2. I think I can understand your friend, but I think his opinion is heavily coloured not by the song, nor the singer. I think it’s entirely the production that is the cause of his distaste.

    I wonder how he would feel if he was just sent an audio file of the song. The words of O Holy Night are not especially egregious in my opinion. The second verse is, in fact, very politically left of centre.

    But what I do understand is an aversion to the video production/direction. For the strong Christian adherent, this video is inspirational. You want to feel as if you were there and they try to make it that way by showing clips of the audience and the majesty of the surroundings. I assume that the people on stage are “important” people and not just a choir or performers — their presence in the background can reasonably evoke the mood of a political rally.

    But if you’re not fully engrossed in that culture — if you are a skeptic, a doubter, an agnostic or atheist, or if you feel like you wouldn’t fit in at that auditorium, I can see that for some this production has the opposite effect. Instead of wanting to be there, you want no part of it.

    I always cringe a little when I’m shown pictures or video of people worshiping God. Their expressions are surely sincere, but it feels like you’re spying on someone; like you’re keeping your eyes open when “every head is bowed and every eye is closed.” When you’re not in that moment, I can see how it can come across as cultish.

    And although I’ve been a Christian for some 35 years, I personally never watch stuff like this. I can appreciate the quality of signing or the musicality, but I find the visuals so distracting — it’s a gathering of Beautiful People where everything is perfect and controlled. There is a lack of authenticity and vulnerability in high-end productions like this. Nothing is out of place, no one is poorly-dressed, and it is visually opulent. Wealth is on display, and I can see how your friend equates this to the very essence of American Christianity, where 80% of the people voted for a man who is morally bankrupt.

    Put David Phelps on an empty stage with a piano and keep the focus on him and his musician, and I’ll bet your friend would enjoy it without reserve.

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  3. Well, my primary experience with O Holy Night was in a college choir with a phenomenal soprano and tenor duo. Much better than this guy.

    I think because it requires so much skill, it thankfully hasn’t been covered by every CCM artist and their brother, so it still has a bit of a place in my heart, unlike most every other carol.

    This rendition, I think the arpeggios and the rock destroy the clean simplicity of the song. I would say that is more typical of the white Evangelical narcissistic “Industrial Complex” than just the people in the audience. It’s about showing off the ornate sanctuary, showing off the skill of the musicians and choir, showing off the doting masses and very little about worship and appreciation of one who made it all possible.

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  4. I prefer the original French version of the carol (the words were written in the 19th century by a French wine merchant with socialist leanings):

    The popular English translation does not fully convey the French text – this is a more literal translation:
    ‘Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
    When God as man descended unto us
    To erase the stain of original sin
    And to end the wrath of His Father.
    The entire world thrills with hope
    On this night that gives it a Saviour.
    People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
    Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
    Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

    ‘May the ardent light of our Faith
    Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
    As in ancient times a brilliant star
    Guided the Eastern kings there.
    The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
    O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
    It is to your pride that God preaches.
    Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
    Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

    ‘The Redeemer has broken every bond
    The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
    He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
    Love unites those whom iron had chained.
    Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
    For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
    People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
    Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
    Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!’

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  5. Can you relate with my friend?

    I don’t know if I would have made the same connections, but I found the singers mannerisms off putting nonetheless and only made it a minute in.

    Palate cleanser from the Mariah Carey Album I’ve had since high school?

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  6. I understand exactly what he’s talking about, I can’t stand most Christian musicians at this point. The only exceptions are Glad and The Gaither Vocal Band, because I’ve actually met people from those two groups in person and they’re just remarkable and loving human beings. I also still listen to Keith Green from time to time. And Relient K.

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  7. Maybe I shouldn’t have used a different title. The real issue isn’t about O Holy Night – the song, but about how someone can be reminded of their difficult church experience by everyday mundane things – like videos, conversations, news articles.

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  8. Turning to the French version was actually a way of reclaiming the song to enjoy, as I had become jaded with hearing the carol sung by every superficial popular singer out there and started to associate it with the commercial exploitation of Advent and Christmas. As others have suggested, the setting may be more of a trigger than the song itself. Sometimes, when innocuous things are a trigger, we may need to completely remove those things from the setting which we associate them with in order to see that the thing itself is harmless. I think that is why many younger evangelicals who were burned by the evangelical church but retained their faith turned to more liturgical churches. They needed to change the setting.

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  9. I’m with Mark on the “evangelicalese” innovations to Cantinque de Noel. Lose the arpeggios and frills, get Phelps a black suit and tie his left arm to his side so he stops intruding upon the song like the lead singer to Air Supply. Teach him how to breathe so it’s not audible through the mic.

    Regarding fundagelical church culture, one thing that ought to be noted is that most actual churchgoers either ended up “Never Trump”, or rather reluctantly pulled the lever more against his opponent than for Trump. It’s also worth noting that strong support of the old Confederacy is thankfully going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, even in the states of the South. That also correlates pretty well to “evangelicals who don’t actually attend church”, or what I’ve joked for decades amounts to “country & western Christianity”, where the singer who’s been living with his girlfriend without marrying her and signing about getting drunk and cheating at the honky-tonk praises Jesus for his success.

    So perhaps the first step to overcoming being “triggered” is to come to grips with the fact that he’s incorrect about those Gaither fans. Some are Trump fans, some aren’t, and the same goes for the old Confederacy. What they really have in common are big hair, makeup so thick you can stick a pin in it without feeling anything, and tolerance for cheesy music.

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  10. The Christmas carol that bothers me the most is “Away in a Manger” – not incidentally, we sang it a few days at a relative’s church I suspect is authoritarian.

    “The cattle are lowing, The poor Baby wakes. But little Lord Jesus. No crying He makes”

    So, this is an authoritarian version of a perfect baby. The perfect baby never cries, no matter the circumstances, even when “normal” babies would cry. This is the authoritarian version of the sheeple. “Good” church members never make a fuss, no matter how much they are annoyed or wronged. I’m guessing this version of Jesus would have died malnourished and unloved, unable to communicate his needs.

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  11. “So perhaps the first step to overcoming being “triggered” is to come to grips with the fact that he’s incorrect about those Gaither fans. Some are Trump fans, some aren’t, and the same goes for the old Confederacy.”

    No, I think this makes it worse. They may be against Trump and against the Confederacy, but those who are know to keep their mouths shut about it. Same with spanking, attachment parenting, public school, science and all sorts of other things. It’s an oppressive system for anyone who looks or acts different.

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  12. every superficial popular singer out there

    See, I would ask yourself if that ‘superficial pop singer’ might not have deeper faith than half the people at on that stage we saw above.

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  13. Mark, now I’m going to disagree with you; no doubt there are some churches where it is indeed unsafe to disagree about things like schooling, attachment parenting, and the like, but what we’re talking about here is the notion that at a concert–people there from a whole bunch of churches–that the people there are (original notion) monolithically of a single objectionable opinion or (your modification) afraid to say that they disagree.

    What’s being said there is that if you take all the residents for the surrounding 5-10 counties who might be induced to attend a “Southern Gospel” concert, all of them are going to be from churches with the same disfunctions. The trouble with that is that even in the “Dirty South”, about a third of voters voted for Hillary, and even more held their noses to vote against her or voted third party. Society simply isn’t as monolithic as we’d have been led to believe. Down south, Methodists have certain evangelical habits and will indeed listen to southern Gospel–I know this from experience. (my stepdad winters near Mobile and my wife and I got to visit him last year)

    For that matter, if indeed it is unsafe to voice opposition to or dissatisfaction with Trump or the Confederacy at a Gaithers concert…..um, shouldn’t there be some, say, record of this? Don’t you think that if I Googled it, I’d find it? (for the record, I did Google both and found nothing)

    Again, in this case, it appears that step 1 to overcoming “triggering” is to realize that Gaither fans are not as monolithic as he thinks, and to stop working off stereotypes.

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  14. “Again, in this case, it appears that step 1 to overcoming “triggering” is to realize that Gaither fans are not as monolithic as he thinks, and to stop working off stereotypes.”

    I heartily agree Bike Bubba, and I would put it stronger terms.
    This whole idea and worn out meme of blaming evangelical white people for all that’s wrong in the world is a load of horseshit.
    I’m a humanist and I believe in accepting or not accepting people based on their own merits apart from religious and political affiliation.

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  15. There is an excellent version of this song in Swedish sung by Jussi Byörling – who can really manage the high note at the end, unlike many others. O helge natt on YT. Someone has posted the words, and it’s interesting to see how much you can understand from related English words.

    Incidentally, am I the only one whose thoughts have drifted over to the family of the late Rachel Evans? Couldn’t have disagreed with her more strongly, but … for them the first Christmas without her, as will be the case for many unknown others for whom Christmas cannot be the usual family get together and children buried in wrapping paper. Sobering in comparison with so much banality surrounding modern Christmas.

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  16. Muff, I’m honored at my little role in introducing equine scat to this august discussion board, so thank you. :^)

    That said, I should be fair and clear here; fundgelicalism does have its tendencies of which I am not proud, and in certain circles, that does include unthinking support of Trump., and in places it will also include a degree of support for the old Confederacy. My only point here is that it’s hasty to suggest that a concert that would draw from many churches would be monolithic in this regard, or in the regard of support for the old Confederacy.

    Blessings and fertilizer to all this Christmas!

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  17. @BB @Muff Potter- I was assuming that this was some sort of Christmas program at a single church, not a gathering of multiple churches, so I understand your point.

    I generally flip by TBN, etc., but the older guy in the chair reminded me of TBN broadcasts where the hosts all sit in these throne-looking chairs being entertained by whatever is going on, or sitting there doing their religious thing – I confess I don’t really get the meaning of sitting there and just making religious sounding babble in front of millions of people – but that is somewhat the image I was stuck with.

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  18. Looks like a Gaither video to me. The people standing behind are other known singers. The old man is George Younce of the Cathedrals who died a number of years ago.

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  19. Mark, I’ve been to a southern Gospel concert or two, albeit north of the Mason-Dixon, and the general reality is that while it will often be hosted by a church (a big one if it’s the Gaithers), you will get a bunch of people from a variety of churches from a few counties around. It’s a big draw in the culture. Blessings (and fertilizer) for Christmas!

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  20. Muff wrote “load of horseshit.”
    Oh My! Some of the recent articles here have been triggering me to cuss as well. I almost typed OMG but that’d be taking the Lord’s name in vain. Oh no I just did! So the guy looks at people in the audience like the lady at 4:29 and from their outward appearance concludes they’re confederacy loving trumpites. In my day we’d call this bigotry and prejudice. Then there’s “Oh, Cis-Het White Christian Jesus“. Is he cussing? Speaking in tongues? Dang! I don’t even know WTH “Cis-Het” is. Must be really really bad. Is he trying to make religious people mad by insulting Jesus? Dagnabbit! Ya know, the thing that really triggered me most was JA’s tweets about the Bethel jokers proclaiming the dead girl would wake up. Then they gave up after only a week! Shoot, why not keep praying, chanting, declaring, prophesying and collecting gofundme funds til Xmas at least? Or New Years? Blast! This stuff will have me cussing like my former friend the cussing pastor before long. He got the gospel right, but —— all that cussing! oh My!

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  21. someone mentioned RHE. No, you’re not alone. My daughter pointed me to the NYT podcast and I listened there.

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  22. Don’t think it’s meant to be insulting. Cis = Cisgendered and Het = Heterosexual, if I recall correctly. Cisgender is basically someone whose anatomy matches what their brain tells them in terms of gender.

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  23. Actually, I find this friend to be snobbish and unfairly judgmental here. The people are well dressed and mostly white and somehow therefore fair game for him to make unfounded assumptions about them. (He had to bring Trump into this? I don’t like Trump, but.really?)
    He decided a woman raising her hands in worship is phony while knowing nothing about her heart or behavior. His review was very jaded. Maybe he would be better served to pray that if anyone there is hypocritical that the Lord would bring them to repentance, while searching his own heart for any sin or hypocrisy.

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