by R. LaVerne Morse
One of the greatest challenges today in world evangelism is the fact that Christianity is still considered “the white man’s religion” by hundreds of millions of people. To accept Christ as their Savior, non-whites around the world may think they would have to be disloyal to their people and to their own culture.
One of the greatest challenges today in world evangelism is the fact that Christianity is still considered "the white man’s religion" by hundreds of millions of people. To accept Christ as their Savior, non-whites around the world may think they would have to be disloyal to their people and to their own culture. With nationalism being prominent around the world, it is strategically critical that Christianity be presented as being equally for all peoples, amidst a diversity of cultures under the Lordship of Christ.
A key factor in Christianity’s being considered "the white man’s religion" is the continued use of non-indigenous Western hymnodies in non-Western cultures. In many mission fields, the use of American or European hymn tunes-with only the words translated into the indigenous language-is taken for granted. An example of this is a Japanese hymn book published recently. Out of a total of 734 hymns, only approximately ten have tunes composed by Japanese! This is in spite of the tremendous wealth of Japanese indigenous music as evidenced by the beautiful, popular "Cherry Blossom Song," and many other pieces widely loved by both "Westernized" Japanese as well as by traditionalist Japanese.
MUSIC VITAL PART OF CULTURE
Music is a vital aspect of probably every culture. Christian music is rightly a crucial part of evangelism, church growth, and building up of the Body of Christ in every part of the world. Nevertheless, it is no more true to say that any one kind of music is the universal musical language than to say that English is already the universal verbal language.
To hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa, the hymn tunes of Europe and North America cause culture shock. It may be painful for a Westerner to learn that our beloved music, so important to our aesthetic enjoyment and security, causes culture shock to many non-Westerners, but nevertheless this is demonstrably true. Conversely, of course, some types of non-Western music cause serious culture shock to a vast number of people in America and Europe.
An example of this is my own daughter’s reaction to Chinese music. I was doing some research in my basement, playing recordings of music of East Asia. Soon, my daughter, Cynthia, came and pleaded, "Daddy, please turn that music off. It makes my stomach hurt!" At first I thought she was simply being very expressive, and continued to play the music. In a few moments, her obvious physical pain caused me to realize that she was not just using picturesque language, but expressing an absolute fact.
In many parts of Asia, I have observed that nonWesternized nationals suffer culture shock when they are subjected to long periods of unfamiliar musical systems. This is true in China, Burma, northern Thailand, and Laos according to my personal experiences in these places. There is an immediate psychological reaction of culture shock that makes the Western Christian music a barrier rather than a bridge to the communicating of the message of Christ.
One of the most fascinating case studies in the Christian applications of ethnomusicology would be that of Chinese culture in East Asia. Chinese culture has in past centuries profoundly affected the life-styles of the peoples not only of mainland China, Nationalist China Taiwan), and millions of overseas Chinese around the world, but also the national cultures of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Burma.1 Many of the more primitive tribal groups of South East Asia-such as the Meo, Yao, Kisu, and others– also have a strong background of Chinese culture.2 Along with the rest of Chinese culture in past centuries, Chinese music was also shared. For example, it is intriguing to be listening to a collection of Thai national tunes, and suddenly to come upon a tune that is distinctly the same as a popular folk tune of Yunnan, China.
WHAT THE SUBJECT INCLUDES
Ethnomusicology stresses the need to study in each culture the characteristics of scale systems, rhythmic patterns, melodic patterns, harmony versus non-harmony, and types of musical instruments.3 Also, the use of quality of singing such as vibrato, falsetto, etc.-are important aspects for ethnomusicological analysis. It seems somewhat foolish to insist on carrying an organ over snow-covered mountain passes and through steaming hot jungles to introduce American style music to peoples in the heart of Asia, especially when a guitar-type stringed instrument would be much more portable, and infinitely more in keeping with the instruments that the people love.
Differences of musical scale (model systems) are crucial in many parts of the world. In vast areas of China, as well as among the non-Westernized segments of vast tribal units in mainland South East Asia, pentatonic scales are the main ones used.4 Among the Yao, Meo, and Lisu tribes of Thailand, Laos, North Vietnam, Communist China, and Burma, the pre-Christian people find it almost impossible to sing our diatonic or chromatic scale music. The nonpentatonic notes in our scale-especially fa and ti-are widely unrecognizable and unsingable to them until they have received much specific training. Fa and ti are nonphonemic in their musical language. Fa and ti in music which they hear makes them psychologically uncomfortable!
Several years ago I conferred with a musicologist of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Chad, Africa. Mr. James M. Riccitelli described how an African old man in Chad had said, "I want to become a Christian, but do I have to learn your music?" In the Chad area, music is basically pentatonic in scale, with emphasis upon rhythmic patterns, and antiphonal singing instead of Western-style harmonic signing.
In India and Pakistan, a microtonic pitch system with 22 srutis is very widespread.5 To the Westerner who is conditioned to singing only in the 12-tone equal-tempered pitch system, the microtonic scale of South Asia seems impossibly complex. And yet, in India and Pakistan, indigenous Christian music in evangelistic and worship services much of the time makes the difference between communication and non-communication. Non-Christians are attracted by Christian music using indigenous tunes and patterns, but they are repelled by much of our Western hymnody.
The use of ethnomusicology is widespread in the secular world. Governments of Asia – Communist and non communist-both use ethnomusicology for their purposes. Throughout much of East Asia, the Chinese Communists are especially adept in using ethnic music to spread Maoism. With the communications revolution brought on by transistorized radios-and now with cassette recorders-the potentials for using music to influence and to control the minds of men have multiplied at staggering speed throughout the world.
In Africa, many of the syncretistic pseudo-Christian religious movements owe much of their growth to the use of indigenous music. Kimbanguism in Zaire and elsewhere lays great stress upon the use of indigenous Congolese music rather than upon the use of tunes akin to our American and European hymns.
INDIGENOUS MUSIC NOT ENOUGH
A word of caution needs to be inserted, however. Indigenous music per se is not sufficient. Different types of tunes in each culture produce different effects upon the people. Hindu temple music is not appropriate for Christian objectives. Just as a person can "get high" on heroin, it is possible to "get high" on certain types of music. For example, the continued use of "acid rock" music has been found by scientific testing to cause specific brain cell damage, and to cause regular hearers, continued users, to "get high" with results similar to results of some types of narcotics.7 In a Hindu temple in Kanpur, India, I can still remember the feeling of oppression and almost physical assault that I felt when the music pounded for the viewing of the temple idol. Psychoethnomusicology is thus a new word -and a new science-that Bible-believing Christians could well add to their vocabulary for more effective world evangelism.
Ethnomusciology is a new science in the world of evangelical missionary strategists, and yet it is a vital one. Wycliffe Bible Translators have made a commendable beginning in ethnomusicology in New Guinea and Brazil, but realizes the need for much more work in order to communicate the gospel in the "musical language" of the peoples of the world. The South East Asia Evangelizing Mission has done research in applications of ethnomusicology for gospel broadcasting and church growth in South East Asia, but realizes the need for a mighty team of researchers, indigenous composers, and indigenous musicians to reach the long-range goals.
The applications for Christian uses of ethnomusicology are as wide as the extent to which Christianity is to spread. Christian uses of radio and television need to be geared to music that reaches people where they are culturally. Non- Christians, who form the bulk of the listeners we want to reach by radio and television, need to be reached with music that will keep them listening. A radio or -television set is very easily turned off or tuned to another station. Christian broadcasters cannot afford to lean on music that produces culture shock to the target audience.
National Christians in every culture would be much more effective in reaching out to unsaved multitudes around them if unnecessary cultural barriers were removed. Indigenous Christian music is essential to the spreading of the gospel within homogenous units for church growth.
To mobilize forces for the most rapid development of ethnomusicology for worldwide church growth, several suggestions are as follows
1. Publish, in key journals aimed especially for decision makers, motivational and strategy-discussing materials on ethnomusicology.
2. Recruit and make training available for Christians gifted in different phases of ethnomusicology, including research, training others, composing, and applied music (singing, playing, etc.).
3. Conduct workshops and seminars-somewhat like the current church growth seminars-on Christian ethnomusicology. Such workshops should be held overseas as well as fn North America.
4. Through radio broadcasts by Christians in non-Western languages, have contests for composing of new Christian songs and hymns using indigenous musical patterns.
It would seem that ethnomusicology should also be included in the agenda of strategy conferences of mission executives, mission professors, and communications leaders in the evangelical world. For instance, for East Asia, it would be feasible for International Christian Broadcasters to sponsor a strategy conference on ethnomusicology to be conducted in Chiengmai, Thailand.
In 1972, I personally researched the possibility of such a strategy conference, conferring with music and communications leaders in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Viet nam, Laos, and Thailand. Enthusiasm was high for such a conference.
Christian ethnomusicology is indeed a new frontier. May we effectively develop this channel for more effective worldwide church growth, to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. William R. Malm, Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), pp. 130 ff.
2. From personal research of LaVerne Morse in Burma, Thailand, and Laos.
3. Bruno Nettl, Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964 ), pp. 131 ff.
4. William R. Malm, op. cit.
5. Bruno Nettl, op. cit., p. 168.
6. John Hubbard, "What Are We Saying?" International Christian Broadcasters Bulletin, June, 1969, pp. 3,8.
7. Bob Larson, Rock and Roll, the Devil’s Diversion (McCook: Larson, 1968.)
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