In 2001, our family enjoyed study leave in the United Kingdom. Top of the bucket list was Ireland. Arriving in Belfast by ferry, we went looking for a rental car.
The car we hired had a CD player, resulting in a search for Belfast music at a second-hand record shop. With Van Morrison turned up loud, we headed north, seeking links with ancestors and a Giant’s Causeway.
Belfast the movie is filled with Van Morrison songs, from well-known favourites like Bright Side of the Road to new songs specially written, like Down To Joy. For music journalist Stuart Bailie, Van Morrison’s Belfast is a “microcosmos of innocence and child-like visions” (Trouble Songs, 2018, 30).
Apt, given the way Belfast, the movie views the conflicts in Ireland through the eyes of 8-year old Buddy and his Protestant family. All the innocent Buddy wants is to talk with his dying grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and walk to school with Catherine (Olive Tennant), a classroom crush. Instead, he must navigate life by avoiding armed soldiers and dodging religious tribalism.
Belfast is an ode to place. Central is a scene in which Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe) describes her street as a microcosmos. Every person is known, every child looked after by neighbours. It is these bonds of community that are being torn apart by bigotry.
The perverse ways that nationalism and historical grievance can distort Christian faith is seen early in a fire and brimstone sermon. For weeks after, Buddy draws forked roads. But which, he asks his older brother (Lewis McAskie), is the narrow road?
Buddy draws with pencil and paper the existential challenge for his family. One response to violence is to fight and around Buddy and his family circle recruiters and troublemakers. Another is to flee. Buddy’s Da is offered work and accommodation in England. Such is the forked road for Buddy’s family and for all whose micro-cosmoses are disturbed by bigotry and violence.
Fleeing Belfast is a recurring theme in the music of Van Morrison. His Astral Weeks album was released around the time Belfast the movie was set. Madame George is a song about leaving, while Austral Weeks paints visions of another world, another time, another land. Van Morrison uses Christian texts - a home on high, a stranger in this land, going to heaven - to justify a fleeing from reality.
Fleeing this world is a temptation ever present in Christian theology. But what if the home on high that God is preparing is peace and goodwill in the here and now? What if, in the new song Van Morrison crafts for Belfast, faith is about coming down with joy? Such lyrics certainly harmonise with the glad tidings surrounding Christ at Christmas.
I returned to Belfast in 2018 to speak at an academic conference alongside music journalist Stuart Bailie. During my stay, I shared lunch with Presbyterian minister, Rev Steve Stockman. Together with Fr Martin Magill, a Catholic parish priest, Stockman began 4 Corners Festival. Across religious tribes, they chose to neither fight nor flee. Instead, they offered innovative events that celebrate with joy the unique places that are Belfast.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.