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Voices of Fire





Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Ever since David danced in front of the ark of the covenant, music has been a part of faith—especially Christian faith. From psalms sung in Roman catacombs to Bach’s soaring fugues to Lecrae’s hip-hop confessions, following Jesus often comes with a beat. And to my ear, no musical form feels quite so gloriously godly as gospel music.

Bishop Ezekiel Williams of Faith World Ministries in Norfolk, Virginia, knows the power of music. And not just its power to get people to dance or sing, but its power to change their lives.

“You … have individuals who would not sit down and listen to me preach a sermon,” he says. “But they will listen to gospel music, and then they will hear the same message delivered through music that they would not listen to if I just had a conversation with them.”  

If that’s true, and if Williams has his way, he’ll craft one of the greatest message delivery systems of all time: The world’s greatest gospel choir. And he’s putting that choir together on Netflix, beginning Nov. 20.

Let Us Shout Aloud to the Rock of Our Salvation

Williams knows something about music. As a kid, he could play the piano so well that his nephew—pop star Pharrell Williams—says on Netflix’s Voices of Fire, that “he had an anointing on him.”

But the elder Williams thought God might lead him in a different direction.

“I began to realize that one day I would pastor,” he says on the Netflix reality show. “And I believe it was the plan of God that I would merge the two.”

Netflix’s Voices of Fire, Williams believes, is part of that plan.

The show takes a cue or two from any number of voice-driven reality singing competitions, but this one’s firmly rooted in the church—both narratively and literally. Auditions take place in Faith World’s sanctuary and Fellowship Hall. The choir itself will travel the world, using gospel to spread the Gospel. The aim, Williams says, is to not just create the best gospel choir on the planet, but one that brings singers from all races, backgrounds and walks of life into the same fold. That diversity, Williams hopes, will help the choir reach a more diverse body of listeners, too.

“I have this vision of a multicultural church,” he tells us. “We will come together as this big melting pot. … That’s what Christ is talking about and what He wants. He wants us to be all one body of believers.”

Voices of Fire does contain an “elimination element,” in that not every person we meet will necessarily make the final cut. Williams, local gospel legend Peggy Britt, choir master Patrick Riddick and others—including Pharrell (who serves as the show’s executive producer)—must make some difficult choices. But the focus here is far more on the choir than the competition: It’s about divergent voices coming together to serve one goal, and one God.

I Sing to the Lord a New Song

As you might expect, the auditions feature plenty of great singers. At least one has a background in opera. Others might be regional gospel stars. Some don’t necessarily have a deep background in gospel itself, but they come with their powerhouse voices locked and loaded.

And they come not only with the desire to sing, but with their own stories in hand. One 15-year-old was born without one of her ears. Another lost his arm in a childhood lawnmower accident. Still another talks frankly of his own suicide attempts. Many are people who not only sing about God’s love and mercy, but they have seen it at work in their own lives.

In the second episode, a young woman named Danlie stands up and sings a very simple, very sweet rendition of “Jesus Loves Me.” And as she sings, she begins to cry.

“Those words are so impactful,” she says later. “‘Jesus loves me.’ Even now, talking about it, that’s it. Everybody deserves to be loved.”

It’s a beautiful moment, but it might also one of the few times where some viewers could wonder just how diverse this choir will be. Danlie’s dress and body language feel masculine, and while there’s no mention in the episode of her sexual leanings, the moment could come across to some as a nod to the LBGTQ community.

That’s not the only moment which could potentially raise an eyebrow. Energetic choir director Patrick Riddick admits being attracted to one of the contestants but doesn’t want to “lust in church.” The redemptive stories of the singers can have difficult elements to them. And we’ll occasionally hear a flippant “oh my god” tossed about.

Still, those concerns shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of what this show is … and what it can do.

Williams tells us that he wants this choir to deliver the Good News in a powerful way—to reach people who might never sit down and listen to a sermon. But while the first season indeed concludes with the choir’s uplifting first official concert, Williams knows (of course) that it’s not the choir’s performances that can deliver the gospel goods: It’s the reality show itself.

Every episode is filled with word and song describing God’s goodness. Many stories are peppered with how the Lord impacted the singers’ own lives. This series preaches.

And this series reaches, too. In the third quarter of 2020, Netflix boasted more than 73 million subscribers in the U.S. alone. If even a fraction of those subscribers tuned into watch some really good singers do their thing—or even just because they’d be curious if Pharrell might show up—they’ll witness more talk about God’s love and grace in one episode than some might hear in an entire year.Jesus loves me, the singer tells us. The words are impactful. The words are true. And this show tells us so.

Episode Reviews

Nov. 20, 2020, Episode 1: “A Gospel Project”

Bishop Ezekiel Williams begins his quest to put together a show-stopping, 75-voice gospel choir. But before the choir can truly begin its work, he and his team will need to sort through several hundred auditions.

We meet a number of singers with killer voices and dramatic stories. For instance, 15-year-old Elana Lapetina talks about how she was born without an ear (and the hearing that goes with it, of course), and how she’s undergone five surgeries to help give her a facsimile of one. “Being different isn’t so bad, because differences are beautiful,” she says. “God gave me this gift. Appearances don’t matter.”

Another woman, Sandye Whitfield, tells Williams and his fellow judges that she put her singing dreams on hold to care for her sick father and cancer-ridden husband. Still, she says, “I know that singing is my gift from God.” Damien McDaniel says that his mother was murdered by his stepfather. “I still remember that night as if it happened yesterday,” he says. He acknowledges that he’s attempted to take his own life before, but he pushes on. “I have to be authentically me and pray and that’s good enough,” he says.

We hear a couple of misuses of God’s name, and choir master Patrick Riddick is impressed by one of the would-be singers in more than one way. “She’s fine-fine,” he tells the camera, “and she can sing-sing.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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