an excerpt from the new book, New Heart, New Spirit, New Song
One of the temporal pleasures of being a missionary in a country and culture different from one’s own is the chance to experience the unique products of that place: exciting foods, new clothes, interesting architecture, fascinating music. I will never forget the joy of discovering lefse and the great Lutheran choral tradition when I taught and conducted in Minnesota! (For someone who grew up in Miami, Minnesota was a foreign culture!) Ministering in the Philippines and other parts of Asia opened up a far more diverse set of cultural experiences especially fascinating to a musician – imagine being immersed in the acoustic worlds of Filipino folk songs, animistic worship music, Chinese opera, K-pop, Bangladeshi hymns, and Indian classical music! The thrill of the new and the discovery of incredible beauty are a great side benefit to directing a music program overseas.
With regard to music, a serious issue for a missionary to consider is whether or not the music styles he finds in a new culture should be adopted for Christian worship and edification. Two practical responses to this question have largely dominated evangelical missions:
- Rejection – missionaries bring in the worship music of their own ‘sending’ culture, translate the lyrics into the indigenous language and do nothing with the local music culture;
- Adoption – a missionary uncritically takes the indigenous musical styles of the ‘receiving’ culture and uses them with vernacular texts appropriate for sacred usage. Both of these practices, performed by godly people for good reasons, betray schools of thought with significant weaknesses I will briefly discuss.
The rejection practice serves as a good stopgap measure for new churches being established; however, most missionaries enter the church planting process never planning for the indigenization of the music ministry. Strangely, we believe we can develop national Christians so as to entrust to them the winning of souls, the preaching of God’s word, and the oversight of a local church, but not the development of new sacred music. This betrays a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of God’s Word, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the primacy of the local church. At best, such a practice hinders the maturing of ministries; at worst, it encourages an unnatural, continuing dependency on the foreign missionary or sending culture.
Adoption seems, at first, to be a more appropriate and effective model than rejection. After all, we have become very sensitive to the fact that missionaries should not propagate their own culture — they should be proclaiming the gospel. What could be more right than translating God’s Word into the heart language of the people, accompanied by the heart music of the people? Unfortunately, in an effort to avoid the limitations of rejection, the pendulum is swung to a position that is unsupportable by the Scriptures and naïve about the results.
The adoption practice is predicated on at least one of several faulty ideas about non-verbal expression in general, and music expression in particular:
- Music is amoral or non-moral, therefore any musical style may be ‘redeemed’ for Christian worship and edification;
- Only those who are a part of a specific culture are equipped to evaluate its cultural expressions
- Music is just like language, in that it is merely a content carrier or conduit, not a content container; just as the Gospel may be proclaimed in any spoken language, any music style can be used effectively in Christian worship and discipleship.
For the sake of brevity and focus, I will deal primarily with the first misconception: music is amoral or nonmoral. In reality, the issue is one of communication, not morality. Does music, in and of itself, communicate? The Scriptures are clear on this issue – there are numerous examples of music (without words) communicating various emotions and truth. Even in instances where communication through a piece of music is not accepted, the implication is that of a deficiency or resistance in the hearer, not the incommunicability of musical sound.
The Scriptures go so far as to treat speech and music analogously; however, it is important to remember a distinction. Pitches, durations, and timbres are similar to letters – the composer combines them in various ways for a particular effect or because she feels compelled in a certain direction as she writes. Authors do the same thing. In addition, there is a sense in which authors and composers operate within a language, which may or may not be understood by an audience. However, it is at this point that the uniqueness of music communication comes to the fore. Although a person with no knowledge of Tagalog will not be able to understand a Filipino preacher, a listener with no experience in Palawano tribal music will be impacted by hearing it. This is because music is rich in levels and varieties of communication.
Music communicates on at least one level that is completely unrelated to the culture in which any particular piece or style was created. Several ‘universals’ are always at play: the physical nature of musical sounds, the physiological and neurological responses of the human body to sound, and the fallen nature of mankind. Individual demographics have little or no influence on these components of music communication. While people conversant in a particular musical ‘language’ will be most successful at understanding or receiving the ‘message’, all human beings seem to receive or perceive very similar emotions or have similar physiological responses to music.
Music, as a mode of human communication, is a created aural expression. We can think of that creative process this way:
song ⇐ from a creator ((Perhaps a composer, or a well-trained performer/improviser.)) (who considers the text and desired emotional impact, working within his musical knowledge, experience, exposure, and music culture) ⇐ within a music culture or specific style (cultural music practices, instruments available, accepted uses of various elements of music, ideas of beauty in sound) ⇐ developed within a world view, belief system or theology (beliefs about the existence and nature of deity, worship, mankind, the world, etc.)
Since fallen human beings communicate through music they create, and since the foundation of a music style is grounded in the worldview of its creators, it is legitimate and even vital that a missionary establishing churches in a foreign culture evaluate the musical expressions of that culture, before adoption. Let’s think about the process in reverse:
World view/belief system/theology (a complex amalgamation) ⇒ aesthetics/music culture/music style (which will communicate or reflect some aspect(s) of the underlying worldview ⇒ creator (either believing the worldview, or choosing to be guided by it) ⇒music creation
We can expect that if a worldview were largely unbiblical, the kinds of music developed within such a world-view would contain elements problematic for Christian worship. At the same time, non-Christian world-views are usually not monolithically devoid of all truth, therefore, some aspects of a music culture, or music styles developed in such a culture, would be appropriate for adoption. Perhaps it will be certain melodic styles, song forms, or combinations of timbres, which might be useful. The real challenge is discerning what can be kept and what should be avoided.
The uncritical adoption or undiscerning rejection of music cultures does not take into account the nature of music, as we see it in the Scriptures, nor the efficacy of the God’s Word and Spirit in a local church. It is incredibly exciting to see believers and local churches around the world discern what of their own cultures is useful for Christian worship and discipleship. Believers taking their theology as the basis and inspiration for new lyrics and musical sounds that effectively speak to fellow believers are the responsibilities of every local body of Christ. Such music will both communicate and reinforce sound doctrine. Adopting musical forms of communication that engender emotions or ideas inappropriate for Christians in general, or, in response to a particular truth, will only undermine the preaching of the Word. Foreign missionaries must encourage the former. Domestic missionaries, i.e., national pastors and musicians, need to do just the same thing.
All believers live in a culture different from their own, whether they live in their country of birth or not. We are in this world, but not of this world. May God give us the knowledge, the wisdom, and the grace to be discerning about the spiritually foreign music cultures in which we all live.
Douglas Bachorik is director of music studies, Bob Jones Memorial Bible College, Quezon City, Philippines
- By the term music I mean musical sound, with or without text. [↩]
- Communication may not be the best word. The issue could be discussed in terms of perception, engendering, prompt, or other similar terms. My use of the term communication is rather broad in this article. [↩]
- Truths and emotions: I Cor. 14.7-8; I Sam. 16.23; I Chron. 25.1-3; Job 21.12; Psa. 33.2; Isa. 23.16; Isa. 24.8. Signaling: Ex. 19.13; Lev. 23.24; Num. 10.2-10; I Sam. 13.3; Rev. 8. [↩]
- I Sam. 18.10-11. [↩]
- The analogies found in I Cor. 13. 1 and 14.7-8 compare music and speech sound, not merely language. [↩]
- This in no way minimizes the many cultural and individual filters through which we hear music. Every listener hears or receives music through individualistic filters and ubiquitous physiological filters at the same time. [↩]
- Please see the results of personal research into this topic at the following website: www.biblicalmusicology.com. In addition, I would be glad to send bibliographic information regarding a variety of studies that have explored a universal level of musical impact, as well as limitations, to interested readers. [↩]
- There are numerous examples of ‘communal’ communication in the Scriptures. Throughout the books of the prophets and poetry, Israel is spoken of communally as communicating lies, praises, and worship. We also see scriptural examples of belief systems impacting musical creation. The clearest example of this is where Israel worshipped the golden calf at Mt. Sinai – the musical sounds incorporated to express pagan worship were so different from the music used to truly worship Jehovah, that Joshua did not even recognize the sounds (Ex. 32:17). [↩]
- II Thess. 5:21-22 and I John 4:1 make abundantly clear that the believer must put all that is communicated to the test for truth, before acceptance. [↩]
- There is not room here to include a rubric for such a critique, but a rough rubric is available at www.biblicalmusicology.com. [↩]
- Heb. 11:13; John 15:19. [↩]