by Steven Pierson
I had expected the physical poverty of eastern Europe to be accompanied by artistic and spiritual poverty. I found just the opposite to be true.
As I looked over the ship’s railing, the day dawned with a gray hue on the Baltic horizon. As the coastline appeared, I felt a tinge of apprehension in my heart and began wondering why I was making this trip in the first place. The Estonian coast was approaching, I was on my way to what was then part of the Soviet Union.
The port was as I expected, gray and dirty with pushy guards, backed by machine guns and unfriendly dogs. After papers, visas, checks and questions, we were allowed into the port city of Tallinn. As soon as we passed the doorway into the street, everything changed. An Estonian pastor warmly greeted us, inquiring about our trip and if we had enough rest and food. Quite unexpectedly a feeling of warmth and familiarity came over me.
After a brief meal, we went to the church. It was older, quite small and very plain with unfinished wooded floors and pews. The number of people in attendance was again a surprise. I had been led to believe that few people attended church in Estonia, yet this church was filled to capacity. I also had the notion that only the poor and outcasts attended church, but in contrast, most of the people I spoke with were intelligent, articulate and well educated.
I had taken along my French horn to play if the opportunity arose. I remember thinking it would probably be in vain because no one would have the piano skills necessary to accompany the pieces I brought. To my delight nothing was further from the truth.
As I entered the door of the church there stood a pleasant Estonian woman. She introduced herself as the church pianist and I gave her the music. She took a brief look at it and said "no problem." I stood there in shock wondering if she actually realized the difficulties in the piano accompaniment for a Mozart Horn Concerto.
After hearing her play a few notes, It became abundantly clear that she was a highly trained and sensitive pianist- in fact she is still one of the best-trained and most sensitive accompanists I have ever heard. She handled the difficult part at full tempo with ease and elegance, never missing a note on the out-of-tune old upright piano in the sanctuary. Of all the times I had performed this Mozart concerto, this was one of the most special occasions. I also discovered that the Mozart was not the only piece of serious music scheduled for the worship service that morning. A violin-viola duet by Bach and some of the most beautiful and skillful choral singing I had heard were also included. My astonishment grew with each passing note of music. I had come to Estonia to minister in music, instead I was the one being ministered to while I listened with surprise and delight.
On our trip back to Sweden, I began to ponder the significance of this musical atmosphere. I had expected the physical poverty of eastern Europe to be accompanied by artistic and spiritual poverty. I found just the opposite to be true. In Sweden, many people enjoy great material wealth and religious freedom but endure an emotional void and spiritual poverty that defies explanation. In Estonia, youth work was prohibited for over fifty years, Christians were systematically discriminated against and often outright persecuted. Bibles were scarce and Christian literature virtually nonexistent. All of this led my Western trained mind to conclude that without these crucial means for ministry, no real ministry could exist. Christian growth would be stymied if not altogether prevented. Yet my observations in Tallinn supported quite a different conclusion. The Christians in Estonia were filled with a life and spiritual energy not visible in Sweden. My mind began to wonder if my concepts of ministry were too narrow and if there was a connection between the Christian vitality I observed and the depth of the music I experienced.
Years later, while engaged in doctoral studies, these questions once again came to the forefront of my consciousness. Can a firm link be established between participation in music ministry and tangible overall Christian development? Most Christians may intuitively presume such a link exists. However there is little research to confirm this cause-effect relationship in specific terms, particularly in a situation in which Christianity is systematically repressed. One thing was clear in my mind, however. If such a link exists, Estonia would be a place to find it.
After assembling a theoretical base, my doctoral committee created a series of research goals that could potentially answer this overall question. These goals included simply asking Estonian Christians to express their perspective on musical experience as it relates to Christian ministry. We were also particularly interested in how it revealed, illustrated and related to the Estonian cultural and Christian identity. We were also interested in looking at the changes that were occurring in the music of local churches since independence, and the effect these changes were having on Christian development.
I set out for Estonia, armed with these questions, hoping that people would be willing to respond and could give me some basic answers. When I arrived, I was greeted by winter, complete with six inches of ice from a recent storm. Snow-clearing equipment was scarce, so deep ruts scarred the side roads. I stayed with a well-known composer who filled my "free" hours with numerous stories about composers, music and life in the era of the Soviet Union, especially during the war and under Stalin’s rule.
In our quest for information, we constructed a team of translators to help communicate and transcribe the interviews. In all, we conducted twenty-four interviews with pastors and church musicians from various parts of the country over the course of about six weeks. Each interview lasted several hours followed by furious typing to transcribe the material in written form. When we were finished, this written data became the basis for our analysis and conclusions.
After two months of reading and thinking through the mountain of material we had gathered, the broader subject categories became quite obvious. Our interviews revealed highly detailed and well supported opinions about the general history and culture of Estonia and how choral singing contributed to that history over hundreds of years. The interviews also revealed similar values and patterns in local churches, though obviously on a much smaller scale.
FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
Estonians migrated centuries ago from central Asia to their present location on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Our interviews revealed a culture that has traditionally emphasized music participation-even in pre-Christian times. Because of centuries of German and Russian domination, Estonians feel that they are not far removed from Feudalism. In fact, Feudalism was only abolished in the early 19th century. As a result, Estonians describe themselves as a singing, non-Western European peasant culture. This may seem a bit confusing, but Estonians are quite aware that their racial and linguistic heritage is distinctly Finnougric, Central Asian, and not Indo-European. They share this identity with the Finns and the Hungarians as well as some other smaller groups of peoples.
Music, particularly singing, is such a strong ethnic symbol that it is virtually indistinguishable from the culture itself. Even before Christianity came to the Estonian peasants, Estonians were known to the outside world as a singing people. When the gospel first came to the peasants through the Moravians during the 1730s, the message spread primarily through singing, not preaching. This interesting fact was previously verified through others who had researched letters sent from missionaries in Estonia to Herrnhut. One scholar found that the Estonians were so fond of singing during this period that punishment for offenses often included being barred from so-called "singing hours." His research also confirms the unusual musical ability of the peasants. One missionary wrote home: "For singing, they [Estonians] had much skill and could acquire the most difficult melodies" (Poldmae 1988, 68). This movement eventually developed into a revival that has greatly contributed to the modern Estonian nation.
Partly through the gospel and the Enlightenment, partly through singing and partly through a literacy movement inspired by the revival, Estonian peasants slowly began to realize and formulate their unique identity as a people. By the 1860s, a strong enough sense of this identity was present to organize the first Estonian national song festival. The German bureaucratic nobility and the Russian political classes were initially against such an expression of national fervor, but little could be done to prevent the event. The ethnic Estonians held their festival in the summer of 1869. Since then, the national song festival has been held twice each decade, even during the repressive days of the Soviet occupation.
While other peoples have similar festivals, these song festivals constitute some of the largest music festivals in proportion to the population that the world has seen. In the summer of 1989, some observers estimate that nearly one-half the worldwide population of ethnic Estonians was present in Tallinn for the song festival.
In 1990, the "Singing Revolution" began at the song festival grounds. After a long period of corporate singing and political speeches, the Estonians took major political action that severed their bonds with the Soviet Union within one year’s time. It should be noted that this political movement was completely peaceful. One researcher notes that no one died or was even hospitalized as a result of violence during this movement (Taagepera 1993, 1). On September 18, 1991, Estonia had been recognized by the international community as a sovereign state and was accepted into the United Nations.
Churches featured high quality and large quantities of music during the Soviet years. Many traditional forms of ministry were strictly prohibited by the Soviets. Instead, the people sang, and the act of singing kept Christianity alive and flourishing during a time when authorities deliberately attempted to abolish it.
During the Soviet period in Estonia, Christian literature and expository activities were severely limited. Pastors were very careful about their public statements, knowing that informers and representatives of Soviet internal security were always in attendance during meetings. However, choir activities were less restricted and, in many ways, singing fulfilled the function that we in Western Christianity usually associate exclusively with expository preaching and teaching. It is important to point out that the function of singing did not emerge in response to the situation or the need. It had been present for centuries but rose to a level of even greater importance during the Soviet era.
When speaking specifically of Christian ministry, the interviews revealed a direct relationship between musical participation and Christian growth and ministry in areas such as revival, evangelism, personal Christian growth and experience, obedience to scripture, learning theology and youth work. Many people spoke quite freely about Christian music during the Soviet years and how it kept the church vital and growing during a very dark period. In addition, people also mentioned with some concern that changes are taking place in Estonian Christian music due to Western market oriented influences. Still others felt free to speculate with considerable hope about the future of Estonian Christianity and Estonian Christian music.
During the interviews, many of the respondents strongly expressed their commitment to the church and to the music of the church-making special note that singing, for them, was a life-changing ministry. As mentioned previously, most said that they learned theology primarily through singing rather than preaching (preachers also made this point very clearly). Others said that insights into applications of scripture came to them through singing. Virtually all said their personal relationship with the Lord was greatly enhanced and deepened through singing. One pastor summed it up by saying categorically that "singing is the first pulpit in Estonia, preaching is the second." Another professional musician added, "We sang ourselves free, free from the Soviets, free from sin, free to serve the Lord."
THOUGHTS ON MISSIONARY TRAINING
As a missionary trained in North America, these findings were encouraging, and at the same time, disconcerting. On the one hand, stumbling on a phenomenon that was so mightily used by the Lord over many years was a wonderful discovery. On the other hand, I realized from my own training and experience that Christian workers and missionaries educated in North America have been woefully under-equipped to recognize and support such phenomena.
In general, pastoral and missionary training has centered on a central Reformation emphasis in ministry that may be called "cognitive-linguistic." In other words, ministry centers on the communication of cognitive based concepts (literally "ideas") that can be expressed and communicated through language. In addition to our Reformation roots, the English speaking world in particular exhibits an unusual emphasis on words and ideas, dating back to the Elizabethan era. These patterns are so central that some may even doubt they have truly "ministered" if concepts are not communicated in specific and controlled linguistic ways. While few would argue the value of music, especially in worship, few would be comfortable in allowing music to occupy the central position of ministry in the pattern found in Estonia-that place is reserved for the more cognitive linguistic presentations that we cherish in our traditions.
As a result of these findings I feel that Western training of missionaries needs to broaden its focus to include training in artistic means of expression as a vital source for communicating the gospel and for Christian growth. This suggestion should not be interpreted that cognitive-linguistic training should be in any way restricted, but that it should be augmented to include artistic media. One basic premise of this suggestion is that few non-Westerners relate or respond to art in the manner we do in the broader North American culture. For us, art in general and music in particular often fulfills a role that is more akin to entertainment. Our Western culture mostly treats music as a consumer item. As difficult as it is to admit, our churches often follow the same pattern as the general culture.
For many non-North Americans, art is quite simply much more central and vital to life and experience. Artistic expression can often communicate a truth in ways that are more complete emotionally as well as being rich in content, implication and application. In Estonia, Christians said they have not learned a truth fully until they had sung that truth. After they had sung, they felt that they had come into contact with the true nature of that teaching, both in content and emotionally and were therefore better able to integrate it into their daily lives. Having heard that, I know of no dedicated pastor who would not be overjoyed with the prospect of having such a powerful vehicle of communicating truth at their disposal. However, many pastors and missionaries are simply not equipped to recognize, let alone utilize, such a tool. In some cases, missionaries either consciously or unconsciously reject a host culture’s artistic and musical traditions, sometimes even believing that they are intrinsically evil.
It may, therefore, be desirous to explore the possibility of including the study of the arts in missionary training. At the most basic levels, missionaries should be able to recognize the function of art in a host society in much the same way they are trained to recognize the function of other cultural phenomena. Missionaries may need to become familiar with the host culture’s art forms by utilizing an assistant (much like a language helper) to help decode and understand the symbolic language of the visual and performing arts as well as music. And as in other matters of Western culture, missionaries should always be very careful about introducing Western Christian music or other art forms (either consciously or unconsciously) into host cultures. It would be far better to allow mature local Christians to develop their own hymnology and artistic language apart from Western influence whenever possible.
Estonia has a deep and prophetic music culture. Many Estonian Christians are highly trained professional musicians who perform and compose at very high levels within the general Estonian music culture. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Western Christian groups sought to visit Eastern Europe to minister with good intentions. However, the results were often overwhelming. Estonians began to view their culture as quite small and insignificant in light of powerful, well organized and highly financed Western Christian music groups. From a musician’s point of view, the situation appeared almost ridiculous. Untrained, often over-emotional, Western Christian musicians were communicating either directly or indirectly to highly trained Estonian musicians that Western Christian music was somehow spiritually superior to Estonian Christian music, and by implication, changes were needed in Estonian music. The tragic part is that the message was heard and is being acted on in some circles, resulting in a change in Estonian Christian music to more generic commercial Western forms. Should the music that provided vital energy for Christian witness and growth during 50 years of repression disappear altogether, it would only be described as a deep human tragedy and a negation of a God-given gift. Happily, however, many Estonian Christian musicians are aware of the situation and are working to preserve their valuable heritage.
From my point of view, Westerners should visit other places primarily to listen and learn before entertaining any thought of ministry. Estonian Christians as well as many others have much to teach us. We as missionaries need always to be aware of the fact that the church of the living God is truly international. Our training can equip us to serve in a variety of ways cross-culturally, if we use sensitivity and reasonable intelligence. We Westerners need to keep in mind that we need the perspective of the non-Western church and have much to learn from it. No one group of Christians has a corner on methods for communicating truth or on Christian practice. Scripture can be communicated and applied in a variety of ingenious and unexpected ways with respect to a people’s history, context and needs.
Poldmae, Rudolf. 1988. Vennastekoguduse Muusikalisest Tegevusest Meie Maal. Translated by Margit Sepp. Teater, Muusika, Kino 3: 67-78.
Taagepera, Rein. 1993. Estonia: Return to Independence. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Steven Pierson teaches at the Wheaton College Graduate School and Conservatory of Music as well as the College of DuPage. He and his wife Cheri served at the Nordic Bible Institute in Sweden from 1977 until 1992. He received his Ph.D. from Trinity International University.
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