June 18, 2024

Former Gordon Professor Performs an Original Cantata “The Tidings”: Murder in the Christmas Story

Kate Walker '22

Paul Van Ness, former videography professor and graduate of Gordon College, is performing an original composition centered upon the murder and suffering that exists in the Christmas story. “The Tidings,” a 40-minute cantata, deals with the real presence of grief in one of history’s most celebrated moments. It will be performed live at the Cabot Theatre in Beverly on December 21st at 7:30pm and recorded as a documentary for PBS in 2022.

The six songs follow the story of Herod’s edict to kill all male infants in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. While composing the piece, Van Ness asked himself why this was part of the Christmas story. Regrettably, the coming of the Messiah was not the good news for everybody. But as Van Ness says, “True Christianity, as I see it, involves every aspect of life, and I think from the point of view of telling that story, we need to look at it from all aspects…. It shines an awful light on the incarnation.”

There is a larger human experience to account for than joy. As Van Ness explains, “Americans are famously terrible at dealing with grief, and it’s just a part of our culture that we deny a lot of the bad parts of life. And some of the ramifications are that we deny a lot of the bad results of our decisions and we don’t listen to people who struggle, either because it’s depressing to listen to them, or it makes it feel like struggle is necessary in life… which it is.” We hardly talk about the children slaughtered by government power in Bethlehem, much less those who are marginalized today. The Tidings addresses a tragedy that we cannot justify, but can help us better understand “a God who is with us through every experience in life.”

Van Ness composed this cantata in 1988 for his church’s Christmas service, as he had done for a number of years prior. He wrote The Tidings in a time where he needed to pay more attention to his own mental health and family history, with the times in life that involve more struggle. As he said, “I think art can be an incredibly great way to understand yourself and understand life… to understand God.”

Responses to The Tidings have been almost unanimous from both performers and audience members: this was one of the most meaningful retellings of the Christmas story that they have experienced. The cantata, which began as a composition for a church service, is now being performed in the historic Cabot Theatre and filmed for a PBS documentary. The live performance will include fifteen minutes of carols and story which talk about the theme of loss, and the ways that it draws us closer to God.

Van Ness began composing during his time at Gordon in the 70s. As an English major, he worked for the Tartan as a reporter, photographer, and later, Editor, during the time of the Vietnam War. His involvement with the campus and anti-war demonstrations continued years later, when he became an adjunct videography professor for three different generations of Gordon students. His goal, through teaching, was to help students contribute something to the world that only they can contribute.

Through his work and spare time playing guitar in college, Van Ness realized his talent for both videography and composition. The band he started with his sister won a national record title, and he later began composing for his church. He founded CinemaSalem in 1990 and has been an independent company ever since. He is also one of the owners of the historic Cabot Theatre, and uses the space to host performances from national and local artists.

The performance of The Tidings on December 21st features Paul Van Ness as pianist, former Gordon theology professor Dr. Megan DeFranza as lead soprano, Marshunda Smith as cellist, and seven other singers. Van Ness describes the performance as “unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.” Understanding how comprehensive God’s salvation for us in the present helps us deal with the suffering that exists alongside our faith. “The story comforts us about the worst thing, and that gives anybody hope.”

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