Saturday, January 08, 2005

Mind Candy for the Gospel Lover

Happy New Year, Gospel-lovin' Lurkers!

Boy, do we have a lot to talk about. In fact, I'd planned a big ol' Christmas (and, well, Chrismahanukwanzakah) post full of gospelicious goodness. Really, I had. And maybe I still shall. In the meantime, it's good to be back.

I've just made it through the preface and introduction of Dr. Barbara A. Holmes' book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Fortress Press, Minneapolis). Holmes is Associate Professor of Ethics and African American Religious Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary.

I'm not in too far, but the pages I've read so far are already marked up in the margins, full of underlining and highlighting. Go, get your own copy, and you can follow along. I'll be here when you get back.

There's a lot of food for thought here, so I'm going to do a quick, from-the-hip engagement with a few choice tidbits.

So far, Holmes has identified several very intriguing reasons for studying the history of contemplative practices in the "historical black church" (a problematic term, she admits). I'm going to talk here about two:

". . .Those who study contemplation as a practice or religious experience soon find that they are engaging geospiritual spaces that have the potential to ease postmodernity's striving and disassociation. Perhaps through this retrieval of the contemplative practices of the black church, the trans-racial and diversity-based community-called-beloved will come into view."

Stretch out these four syllables aloud: Shiv-er-lic-ious. Y'all, this is Big, Fabulous News, at least to a gospel-grounded, multicultural-minded part-time amateur intellectual like myself.

Here's why: This promises to be meaningful scholarship--it has potential in the academy and on the street. First, Holmes hopes that her exploration of contemplative practices, though grounded within a specific cultural context, will have larger implications--larger, potenially unifying, sense-making implications--on our understanding of postmodernity, which is the Metanarrative of many in my generation. (There are a lot of sly little contradictions in that sentence, and anyone who'd like to count them is welcome to. A "postmodern metanarrative," hee, hee.) That's a big idea, and I'd like to see how well her attempt to do this turns out.

Second, Holmes expects her scholarship to serve the attempt to move toward the community called beloved. I've hyperlinked to a definition of the term "beloved community" that I'm familiar with, and the one I'm using for the purposes of this discussion. Holmes' hope is that her work--again, centered within a specific, limited cultural framework--will have applications that transcend the boundaries of Af-Am religious culture.

I'm excited by this idea, because I find that my study and observation of cultures--most often the set of subcultures of which I'm a member--(American, African-American, female, Christian, evangelical, et cetera (and nooo, I haven't ordered those by importance)) is meaningful as it provides larger insights through which I can understand my fellows in humanity. There's a unifying thread in my engagement with the world that gives it meaning. I believe, for example, that studying/affirming/increasing/ diversity merely for diversity's sake can be interesting and enjoyable. But for me, at least, I want to do so in a way that helps me to better understand the world and its relationship to its Creator. I want to better relate to all of God's people.

More good stuff:

Holmes makes a connection between her experience with a Sunday morning service at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and the distant past:

"Although it appears to be the usual charismatic congregational fare, in fact we are riding the stanzas through time to the hush arbors and swamp meetings, over the dangerous waters to safety. In this ordinary Sunday service, something has happened and we are changed. The worldly resistance to transcendence that we wore into the sanctuary has cracked open, and the contemplative moment carries us toward the very source of our being. . ." beautiful.

She points out that the popular conception of black church worship as "heartfelt, rhythmic and charismatic" keeps us from examing the contemplative, worship-deepening contemplative moments that are also present. Our services may fail to nurture these contemplative moments and value them the way the elders embraced tarrying, prayer and rest. This may be a reason many congregants have a "restless longing," a sense of emptiness and need not met by "unrelenting praise teams modeled after cheerleading squads." Yowwwwwch.

This point is particularly interesting to me, because I truly believe that we (OK, I'm a little hard-pressed to define the we, but roll with me anyway) must value the old and the new. I think the idea of a Praise Team is a good thing (I've even been on some . . .), for a couple of reasons. For some background, check out this interview with praise and worship artist Byron Cage.

First, I believe it is a way of unifying the whole church--I often hear songs written by artists from different cultures being "localized" and sung by churches that are, for better or worse or whatever, largely monocultural. Specifically, I hear "black" songs at "white" churches, and vice versa (I don't mean to neglect my other brethren; just speaking from the cultural perspectives with which I'm most familiar). And I'm almost always moved to tears.

I quote: "Some of my most meaningful moments of personal worship have occurred as I've noticed Christians crossing cultural lines through music. Seeing people who might not visit each other's churches—without hearing catchphrases like "racial reconciliation"—ministering to one another in song fills me with hope. It's progress toward serving our great God together in multiracial churches." Beloved community, y'all.

OK, that's one reason I believe the PW "movement" is a good thing. A second: While I wouldn't automatically and unequivocally equate the PW movement with progress and wouldn't even say it's necessarily better than old ways of encouraging worship (do we have to replace the deacon lineup?), I do believe it's done something important for Af-Am Christians. It's moved/is moving us from a need-based approach to God ("He's a doctor to the doctorless, a lawyer to the lawyerless . . .") to one that appreciates our God simply for who he is. I'm excited, because as the black middle class grows (and is increasingly made up of people who are (their own) doctors and lawyers), I think we need to grow in our understanding of God so that it develops beyond that of God, our Provider. Yes, he is that, but as we are less survival-oriented, we need to relate to God in a growing way. After all, if you can provide for yourself (sort of), you have less need for God, right? How relevant is he? And how relevant is his body, the church? And is religion just for the down and out, and those afraid of hell? As you can see, this is a discussion that deserves waaaay more than this little graf. I'm sure it's prone to misunderstanding, as well. But that's what the comments section is for.

Still, in defense of this statement, I have also been in settings where the "Get Up and Praise Him" cheerleading bordered on abusive--and really discounted those of us who are more inclined toward a silent or meditative posture in worship.

Last year, I attended a lecture by a respected music scholar who, in response to a question I asked about all this business, referred to praise teams as "The Praise-ettes." Not only was that hilarious, but I knew exactly what he was talking about--the tendency of praise teams to single out the really good choir members for the All-Star Worshippers Team. As he continued, he explained that part of the problem he sees with praise teams is that they create one less occasion for congregational singing, which is becoming a lost art. In my mind, this can also contribute to the perception of Worship Service As Entertainment rather than Worship Service As Engagement With Other Worshippers in God-Focused Community.

And Now, Our Featured Presentation:

The reason I'm blogging about this (other than that this is my blog, na-na-na-na-na-na), is that Holmes argues that this neglect of contemplative practices and resulting/concurrent perception of Af-Am spirituality as only (not simply) "heartfelt, rhythmic and charismatic" has far-reaching effects on how we and our practices (for example, gospel music) are perceived in the larger culture. . .and thusly, how our concerns are treated.

Holmes' observation:

"Exuberance and social consciousness are only the most obvious contributions that the black church has to offer a history of human spiritual engagement. Moreover, when these charismatic practices [By the way, Holmes self-identifies as a Pentecostal, making me believe she means generally charismatic as well as specifically Pentecostal] are deemed to be the quintessential expression of black worship, our view of the black church is reduced to caricature.

"The myth of unreflective joy is reinforced by the use of black worship to sell commerical products. One sees black church choirs and hears gospel music at political conventions and public gatherings and in advertisements for cars and fast food. Even as I write this chapter, a television commercial is presenting the "Sears Gospel Choir" joyfully extolling holiday cheer. One has to wonder what model of Christianity would allow this incongruous juxtaposition of images, practices, and ultimate goals.

My discomfort with commercialized uses of Africana worship traditions is exacerbated by the implicit respect given to other ethnic traditions. Although I am aware that advertisers have free reign in a consumer-driven culture and that very little is sacrosanct, I also note that I have never seen a Muslim cleric touting the detergent that keeps his robes fresh, orthodox cantors singing antacid ads, or an American Indian emerging from a sweat lodge with a name-brand deodorant in his hand.

Elders in the Africana community understood the value of communal worship traditions. Moses Berry shares his grandmother Dorothy's caution about carelessly offering precious communal wisdom to the wider world:

'If you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try to reduce it to something that they can understand, and miss the sacredness. Therefore . . .don't let them know about your church music because they'll turn it into dance music or look at it like "folk music,"
and miss the point that it's the music of suffering people that lifted them from earth to heaven. It's not merely an art form.'

Grandmother Dorothy may be right. Reductionsim seems to be the preferred hermeneutical lens of dominant cultures when they interrogate ethnic cultural practices. In many ways, Africana worship practices have been "understood" in the simplest of terms.

Holmes gets even deeper, but you just have to go get your own copy. In the meantime, here are a few questions/thinking points:

  • Is reductionism just the way people understand things? For example, I've eaten plenty of "Mexican food" and "Italian food" that natives of Mexico or Italy probably wouldn't recognize. It seems like "reductionism as a hermenutical lens" isn't limited only to the understanding of black worship practices. I wonder: is it a sign of a sort of backhanded acceptance that could be seen as a positive (as could the ads featuring gospel music?)?
  • What are the pros and cons of ads featuring gospel music? How would these arguments apply or not apply to other musical forms, like jazz? (In Jazz 101, John F. Szwed talks about "Jazz" as an idea/cultural influence that one can take part in without necessarily listening to jazz. Whoo. Here's an opportunity for a Do-It-Yourself Extrapolation.)
  • Can something spiritual have a commercial element? (For example, have you ever bought a gospel CD? Ever watched the Dove or Stellar Awards?) Right? Wrong? Good? Bad?
  • From Holmes: What model of Christianity allows sometimes-incongruous juxtapositions of images, practices, and ultimate goals? Is it all-or-nothing?
  • Was Grandmother Dorothy right? Should you never share sacred things with people who won't respect them? What's the role of gospel music as outreach, or as the door (even lure)for people to eventually grow into a deeper understanding of Christ?
  • Is church music as we know it merely an art form? More? Less? Is it OK to assess music made for ministry based on its artistic merits--say, to review gospel music albums? To decide what is "good" music and "bad"? And what are the criteria?

OK, that's all for now. Ready, Set, Think (And Comment)!

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