by Roberta King
Whether in a post-modern setting, a non-Western urban context or among an unreached people group, music serves as a focal point within Christian churches.
Whether in a post-modern setting, a non-Western urban context or among an unreached people group, music serves as a focal point within Christian churches. As Paul Hiebert has rightly recognized, a “lyric theology” is stored in the songs of a people (1985, 162). The study of a people’s music in and as culture, ethnomusicology provides a means for learning about a culture’s way of life. For example, one critical function of music is to integrate life’s joys and struggles, the old and the new. It does this by weaving together various aspects of material, expressive and ritual culture.
Throughout history, music has often subtly dominated Christian communities by accompanying activities in the life of its churches. Missions agencies have recognized significant roles for music in church planting and development. Churches are now embracing the critical roles and functions of music in relation to doing mission. Because many churches have not traditionally addressed cross-cultural differences surrounding the study of music, the role of music in missions has yet to be fully explored.
Contextualization is one means of investigating the relationship between music and culture. Do music and contextualization relate and if so, what is their relationship? How can the two be brought together? What would this do to the task of mission?
Having served with CBInternational as one of the few ethnomusicologists in a mission society, it became my goal to discover how culturally-appropriate ways of employing a people’s musical system could contribute to the kingdom of God. One theory integral to my approach to mission is that of critical contextualization. Hiebert argues for reflecting on traditional rites and cultural forms in communicating the gospel in light of the truths of scripture with local believers (1985, 171-192). For many, Hiebert’s theory of critical contextualization has functioned as a springboard for doing mission from various perspectives. We must also ask whether it is possible to do critical contextualization through music.
Our purpose, then, is to reflect on the application of critical contextualization to music in mission. I hope to demonstrate how Christian ethnomusicology can play a vital role in the missio dei and act as more than simply a tangential addendum to mission. A Senufo New Song workshop in Ferkessedougou, Côte d’Ivoire, will act as the foundation for the discussion. Additional cases will further show how the approach may be applied to multiple contexts.
ABRAHAM GOES SENUFO
The year was 2002 and the place was Ferkessedougou, a town-center and crossroads for northern Côte d’Ivoire. Sitting before me were forty believers, representing four language groups found among the Senufo peoples—Nyarafolo, Shenara, Minyanka and Djimini. Each had come with great anticipation to a New Song workshop, wanting to learn how to use music in the spread of the gospel. Residents from towns and villages of Mali and Côte d’Ivoire participated. Some were able to read and speak French while others were dependent on vernacular languages and non-literate methods. All participants were primary oral learners who used proverbs, stories and songs as the major means of learning and receiving information. Each wanted to understand scripture in a meaningful and enjoyable way and as I observed their passion and eagerness to worship God in their own mother tongues, I asked God for wisdom.
The purpose of the workshop was to use translation and church planting projects in setting the life of Abraham (Gen. 12-22) to song. We wanted to use newly-translated scripture passages in song to provide an oral translation of the scriptures. Several mission and church groups, including CBInternational, the International Mission Board (IMB, Southern Baptist Convention), SIL (formerly known as the Summer Institute for Linguistics), the Baptist churches in Côte d’Ivoire and the Assemblies of God church of Ferké, sent church leaders, translation teams and singers.
Although the approach looked simple, it allowed national believers to set longer passages of scripture to song in their own language and musical styles. The method was developed over thirteen years of regular, intentional interaction with Nyarafolo-Senufo believers. Central to this approach was the importance of both believers and singers-cum-storytellers to learn the scripture passages given to them. As a group, the believers transformed the passages into distinctively Senufo songs which expounded the truth of God’s word.
The goal of the workshop was to make indigenous songs communicate the life of Abraham which would, in turn, be used in Senufo churches. Yet, the focal point became the teaching of scripture passages in the vernacular. As believers from the four Senufo language groups heard Abraham’s story in their own languages, they were amazed at God’s faithfulness. Additionally, Senufo customs and cultural practices share so many similarities with the biblical text that workshop participants wondered at one point whose culture came first—theirs or the Israelites.
In the midst of this, God was also working in their hearts to begin singing the grand narrative passages. Group discussions and compositions in each vernacular soon occurred. The groups then sang their new songs for one another. The songs would often come slowly and tentatively at first and then accelerate in a fashion reminiscent of popcorn! As we “harvested” the songs each day, people responded spontaneously to the textually and musically-authentic Senufo pieces. Many would rise up and dance with joyful abandon. They began to understand the significance of God’s word within their own setting and further developed the songs by reflecting on the scripture passages. Believers sought to improve both the content and the musical setting so that relatives and neighbors would come to Christ. Forty-seven new songs were recorded at the end of the two-week workshop. Each group then returned home with compact discs of the newly-composed songs.
CRITICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION PRINCIPLES IN THE CASE STUDY
A successful New Song workshop, like the one in Ferkessedougou, incorporates multiple dynamics of the mission enterprise. Although there are many dynamics, we’ll focus on five essential principles of critical contextualization in the creative process:
1. Bringing the God of Abraham into the Senufo culture. The ultimate goal in contextualization is to help a language group learn how God can be part of everyday life by practicing biblical faith (Gilliland 2000, 227). For example, believers in the workshop discovered that Abraham had such faith and allegiance to God that he refused the spoils of war offered to him by the King of Sodom (Gen. 14:22-24a). Abraham’s maintaining of his oath spoke profoundly to these financially-impoverished people, who rarely, if ever, saw promises kept. Doing critical contextualization through song composition taught the believers about the living God and his commitment to them. God was part of their daily lives—a concept in stark contrast to their cosmology of a distant and angry god.
2. Critically dialoguing within the process. Opportunities to reflect on pre-Christian beliefs and customs in light of the scriptures are abundant. Hiebert calls for people to be led in Bible studies that help them understand and accept biblical teachings (1985, 186). Song-composing allows for critical reflection based on dynamic and repetitive interaction with the biblical text. The creative process fosters continual reflection and development of content and culturally-appropriate resources for church life. It provides a means of theologizing where believers intentionally grapple with the community’s daily struggles and major life events.
3. Using meaningful lyric theology to confront and transform the worldview of a people. Lyric theology is often the story of God in the lives of his people. It arises out of the vagaries, struggles and joys of life. Historically, songs have been written as a particular life event confronted a person. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” expresses the changed life of a former slave-trader who comes to faith in Jesus Christ.
In the Ferkessedougou workshop, the Nyarafolo believers initially did not understand why God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son—and were not sure that they wanted to sing about this. They feared their families would not follow a God who demanded human sacrifice. It came too close to their unspoken traditions. Yet, in struggling through the passage they knew it was God’s word and that they were to tell the whole story. As they continued in their scripture studies, each came to see God’s faithfulness in the story and its symbolic redemptive significance for the coming of Jesus Christ.
The local setting was also particularly poignant at the time of the workshop—the Muslim community was also celebrating the Abrahamic story. Known as the tabaski or the Great Feast, the rite is based on the Islamic version of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Ishmael (rather than Isaac). Sounds of sacrificial, bleating lambs and rams aggregating in the town square served as a backdrop to the workshop. The pathetic cries resounded in the air. This soundscape kept the Muslim practices of Genesis 12-22 present in the minds of the Christian believers. Deeply-held Muslim understandings about Abraham provided additional motivation for the new believers to understand the biblical passages with clarity.
4. Providing a platform for an emerging hermeneutical community. Believers are given space to critically evaluate their “own past customs in the light of their new biblical understandings and to make a decision regarding their use” (Hiebert 1985, 187). The song-composing group is referred to as a New Song Fellowship and takes the critical contextualization process one step further. It serves as a type of hermeneutical community that includes not only believing musicians, but embraces the whole body of Christ. The group is also composed of (1) local pastors; (2) village believers who eagerly come into town to participate; (3) national translators who have a deeper grasp of the scriptures; and (4) missionaries who both foster critical reflection of the scriptures and offer encouragement to believers.
New Song Fellowships also provide a means for critically reflecting on current situations in any given community. In Kampala, Uganda, for example, young urban professionals gather regularly for weekend retreats to compose group songs which will act as authentic and meaningful worship resources for their Anglican liturgy. Western contemporary Christian music groups, such as the British band, Delirious, use a similar method in composing.
5. Creating new rites that become integrated into the life of the people. Senufo believers have developed a tradition of all-night Christmas celebrations that draw from traditional practices and festivities, yet are still distinctively Christian and appropriate in communicating the gospel. The multi-sensory event includes food, dance and Senufo xylophones and is anticipated by both believers and non-believing Senufo. In fact, the non-believers ask each season when krismasi (Christmas) will be celebrated. Here we observe a convergence of expressive, material and ritual culture—an appropriate means that facilitates a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ and encourages behavioral changes towards maintaining allegiance to him.
THE PROCESS OF CRITICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION VIA NEW SONG FELLOWSHIPS
The formation of New Song Fellowships, where groups of Christian believers set scripture to song in culturally-appropriate ways, provides a platform for developing a hermeneutical community. Although this is a highly dynamic and cyclical process which requires intentional and regular implementation, Figure 1 is a basic overview of the method.
Briefly, the four linguistic groups drawn from the Senufo peoples corresponds to (1) Identify the Cultural Context, while the Abrahamic passages and backdrop of the Muslim tabaski relates to (2) Identify a Specific Life Event. And (3) Genesis Abrahamic passages (Gen. 12-22) provide the required biblical selection. The process is implemented through New Song Fellowships composing culturally-appropriate storytelling songs that the new church plant uses to evangelize, worship, celebrate Christmas and disciple.
BEYOND THE CASE OF THE SENUFO
One could ask if the Senufo case is unique and if not, if it is replicable elsewhere. An example from East Africa demonstrates how the method may be applied to other situations, groups or needs in the body of Christ.
In working with a group of widows in Kigale, Rwanda, who survived the genocide of 1994, forming New Song Fellowships helped the women deal with catastrophes that resulted in extreme trauma. Working with a group of widows and orphans known as Consolata (Solace) in 1999, biblical texts which focused on a believer’s identity in Christ were selected. In a New Song Fellowship workshop these texts were set to song. Although more than twenty passages were used, a song based on Romans 8:39 had the deepest impact. Figure 2 is the passage put into song.
These devastated women learned that nothing could separate them from God’s love and this spoke to their deepest pain and greatest fears. This love met them in the midst of their turmoil of poverty, trouble, hardship, persecution and spiritual powers. It was reflected in both the text and in musical form and elicited genuine response within the Rwandan setting. Additionally, a non-tangible, yet palpable, fruit of the New Song Fellowship was a new level of reconciliation and consolation between Hutus and Tutsis who participated. This was reinforced each time the women sung this particular song throughout the workshop. The hope of the gospel was embedded into their worldviews.
Today’s global context heightens and exacerbates the universal problems of humankind. We must “sing the Lord’s song” in this strange but changing world. Doing critical contextualization through music involves a life process that takes place over a lifetime of walking with God. God continues to speak through culturally-relevant forms. This includes a people’s music, whether in a Western or non-Western setting or among urban or village peoples. Critical contextualization via song contributes to the global scene on multiple levels. Lyric theology helps each community of believers understand the mystery that the God of the universe wants to break into their world. We must recognize that.
The Church is not an aggregate of individuals, each seeking his or her own interpretation of the Bible. It is to be a true community of people seeking to follow Christ and serving one another. Only then will it become… an “authentic Christian community,” a hermeneutical community that strives to understand God’s message to it and bears witness to the world of what it means to be a Christian, not only in beliefs but also in life. The Church as a body is a “new order.” (Hiebert 1985, 192)
Critical contextualization through song, in particular New Song Fellowships, fosters the development of a growing, hermeneutical community. Singing the Lord’s song in a global world in culturally-meaningful ways engenders a holistic gospel. Jesus Christ is honored as the hope of a “new order” becomes a reality.
1. Original text in Kinyarwanda. English adaptation by King. Collected by King, April 1999, in Kitale, Rwanda, on the fifth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.
Gilliland, Dean. 2000. “Contextualization.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Mission. gen. ed., A. Scott Moreau, 227. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Hiebert, Paul. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Roberta King is associate professor of Communication and Ethnomusicology at Fuller Theological Seminary where she directs the program in Global Christian Worship (Ethnomusicology). She served in missions for twenty-two years at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya, and through WorldVenture.
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