Saturday, March 29, 2008

Pushing the Cultural Divide in Worship

How many true ethnomusicologists are there really? I imagine most who delve into ethnomusicology are either cross-cultural musicians who have merely a passing interest in the anthropological significance of the music or anthropologists who view the music of a culture as just one of many facets of the anthropological analysis of a culture. Between these extremes there are a few who I'm sure strike a balance better fit for the title "ethnomusicologist" (EM).

The Christian EM would be a missionary of sorts vested in going into remote areas where the gospel has only recently been shared with people of a little known culture. The Christian EM would have the ability to analyze the cultural import of different aspects of music and help the first church of the ethnic group develop a meaningful body of musical literature for corporate worship.

People are not very comfortable going outside of their normal worship routine. I've been in two culturally similar western denominations that have their own almost completely separate musical circles. Many of the old hymns differ from one denomination to another or even church to church within a denomination. More often than not I have heard a hymn shared where the question must be asked, "Have you sung that hymn before?" Even within a denomination, the range of musical styles available are a cause for division. It can be challenging to consider the music of another culture, another subculture, or even another generation within a culture.

I saw this video clip on a post over at the Black and Reformed Ministries Blog:

I posted some observations in the meta and I'll expand on them here.

First, I note the intricacies of the meter and rhythm in rap. Most English-speaking Christians I know, whether they favor the King James or not as fruitful for personal study, consider the translation to be a particularly beautiful one considering its rhythm and tempo, especially read by one classically trained who can read the older form of the English language with fluidity and ease. Who hasn't studied poetry and learned something of the metrics and rhyming patterns? These patterns are often rather simple compared to the patterns a rap artist will create. Rhyme, alliteration and rhythm may be loose, but it stays strictly within a larger pattern and one gets an idea of the extensive vocabulary employed by rap artists. While colloquialisms abound, the meaning is clear even to those of the larger culture.

Second, good poetry follows form and function for the purpose of enhancing and preserving meaning. I've recently considered Genesis 1 for it's poetic form. Precisely when writing was developed in the antediluvian times isn't known. (Archeology has found that Abraham's people had sophisticated enough writing a mere few hundred years after the flood to have libraries.) But until writing was developed, the creation account was most certainly developed in poetic form in order to aid in memory and fix the meaning. When rap first became popular, I remember learning a couple. Years later, I still pretty much remember them, and I'm not great at memorization. Most of the hymns I've sung since my childhood I can't recall beyond the first verse - and I'm a musician.

Third, the substance of this piece is impressive. I've heard a valid criticism of many praise and worship songs that their meaning, or lack thereof, leaves something to be desired. They rightly point to old hymns as having more substance. To be fair, there are newer songs of worship with plenty of substance. There's more substance in this rap than some old hymns I know.

Pay attention - we just might have some raps like this around the throne as well as some Oriental or Gregorian chants, Middle Eastern scales, African rhythms, or Latin American beats. Learn to worship unencumbered by mere stylistic biases and preferences.

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