What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Racial Tensions

A couple of weekends ago at our Area-wide InterVarsity Emmaus conference, I had two distinctly different conversations.

On Saturday I talked with a man who was struggling with his faith. He is extremely intelligent, a math major, and confesses to be prone to excessive critical analysis about everything. One of his struggles with faith is the feeling over hyper-emotionalism in the Christian sub-culture. This is part his struggle and partly a feeling that the people he is in class with every day would dismiss Christianity if they came to a meeting where people were singing pretty songs and lifting their hands in the dark.

Sixteen hours later I was driving back from the conference with Fred Williams. Fred is an older, wiser man who has ministered to students off and on for many, many years. He is black, and the head of all our regional black campus ministries. He is also currently doing campus work at Shaw University and St. Augustine college, both a part of the HBCU network (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Fred had brought about a dozen Shaw and St. Aug's students to the conference and for many of them it was their first foray into white Christian world.

I'm always interested in getting Fred's perspective on issues of race and culture, so I asked him what the hardest part of the weekend was for the students he brought. He said that the hardest part for his students--and often times for him personally--is that they mostly come from southern, black churches where worship is passionate and vibrant and alive. He said that the hardest thing for a person coming from that background to enter into is the emotionally flat worship experiences of the people around them: hands in their pockets, looking off, looking bored, etc.

Two totally different cultural experiences and expressions and expectations of worship. We're trying to serve both types of students in one experience. Oi.

Clearly, this isn't simply an issue of race--there are white folks who are drawn to a more passionate worship experience and African-American folks who are drawn to a more cerebral worship experience. But in real-life, real-time, here in the South, our IV staff community trying to work through what it means to be reconciled as brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a real issue.

On paper at least, we can see how these two approaches should bless one another: love the Lord with all your mind, love the Lord with all your heart. In reality, however, these tensions are felt and experienced and chalked up to racial and cultural differences that will take a lot of work, sacrifice, and hard and honest conversations--not to mention the anointing of the Holy Spirit--to work through.


Saint Gregory the Melancholic said...

Add to this dilemma that personal tastes may change over time and it gets more tricky! I came from IVCF roots where IV offered a great, passionate alternative to the (as Fred says) "hands in pocket" worship of a traditional church. After IV, I entered back into the church world into a church that had upbeat worship as the purpose of our church was to specifically become inter-racial. This included quite a bit of African American style worship. This style was not my preference, but I could certainly still worship to it because of the overall goal of ALL being one in the body of Christ.

But now, as our (the Church - big "C") worship music has tended to morph into more emotionalism and less substance (theology) due to our trying to accommodate a post-modern culture, I have grown to re-appreciate hymns for the very substance of theology in them. The problem is not the hymns and the "less than upbeat" worship style. The problem is the people's lack of understanding of what they are singing.

I currently cannot worship to a lot of today's contemporary worship as most of the songs are focused on how God makes me feel. When I hear a song and see personal pronouns all over the place ("me", "myslef" and "I") as well as heavy emotionalism, it smacks more of sentamentalism to me than faith.

So I have just muddied the waters more by throwing in the element of post-modern, seeker-sensitive worship. Sorry 'bout that!

Alex said...

Oh wise Saint!

Great thoughts, I wanted to respond with a smattering of my own water-muddying!

1. I think that the interesting thing about music style in secular popular culture is that there is more and more mixing of cultures. Tune into your local Top 40 radio station and there's a pretty wide variety/mix of hip-hop, rock, alternative, etc. Kids these days are growing up in blended music environments much more so than I did when I was a kid.

2. As a part of that, Christian worship music is also more mixed in many more churches than it ever has been before. This, I think, is a good thing, although culturally white music tends to filter more into minority settings than minority music into majority settings.

3. I'm not sure about your take on contemporary worship moving into emotionalism as an accommodation to post-modern culture. I think what's actually happening is that people from the post-modern generations are simply writing the music and songs that spring up organically from their experience...just as Wesley and most every other hymn writer throughout the centuries have.

While it's true that these hymns tend to be more simple and less theologically complex (and certainly often more driven by emotion) I'm not sure that it's a fair characterization of all the contemporary music movement that it's me-focused.

The Passion movement has been heavily influenced in a good way by John Piper's radically God-saturated view of the world and I think we're seeing a maturing of contemporary Christian music.

In fact CCLI (the licensing company that tracks contemporary music) says that "Holy is the Lord" has been the number one song used in contemporary worship settings for something like 45 weeks straight. While this is certainly not a theologically meaty song, it's focus is on the power, majesty and wonder of God.

Certainly there's lots of crap out there that passes as contemporary Christian worship. But there's plenty of crappy hymns as well...and those have been vetted and filtered over sometimes hundreds of years.

I think another issue to look at in terms of hymns is that they, too, are a product of their culture. I mean seriously: do we need all fifty stanzas of some of these hymns? Simplicity and brevity is not their strength. C.S. Lewis argues that every generation has their blind spots...which is why he argues for the reading of old books; these tend to help correct our generational blind spots. So while it's true that we need to not only drink in contemporary worship songs, it's also true that the old hymns have their own limitations, their own blindspots.

I'm a big fan of hymns, so don't get me wrong. I simply appreciate the passion and energy that accompanies much of contemporary worship. I much prefer a blending of old and new (along with songs from various cultures) because I think that each one serves as a corrective to the other. I'm mounting an apologetic for contemporary worship simply because I don't want it to get chucked or unfairly generalized. There's some good stuff here. Post-modernity's over-corrective of 'heart' is in reaction to modernity's hyper-emphasis on reason and 'mind.' There's some good in the move to post-modernity, even and especially in worship

Ashleigh said...

As far as songs being me-centered, I don't think that contemporary worship songs as a whole are focused on self rather than God... but sometimes I do think that especially the white/U.S.-majority-culture songs are quite individualistic (and in that sense "me"-centered instead of "us"-centered) in their discussion of our relationship with the Lord.

HOWEVER, I think (1) that's changing to an extent and (2) that's just that culture. It's got it's blindspots, sure... but it wouldn't be a culture if it didn't. It reminds us of our need for multi-ethnic worship!

Also, as far as genres influencing each other, I think minorities influence majority music more in the secular realm, while the majority culture influences minority worship more in the Christian realm. I don't have a theory as to why that difference exists, but I think it'd be a fascinating question to explore.

Saint Gregory the Melancholic said...

I agree that not all contemporary worship is bad. I tend to overstate my case these days as I constantly find myself on the other side of the scales trying to find balance.

One last thought, I think my main beef with contemporary worship is that I don't always see an "intentional" effort to screen which songs fit worship. There are a lot of contemporary songs I like, but that I think are not a fit for corporate worship. It seems to me that the majority of times the criteria that has to be met is "upbeat/passionate". Whether or not it actually IS "worship" is incidental in those cases. Worship by its very nature should be theological; else we are simply manufacturing emotion.