Tuesday, August 28, 2012
The Cultural Power of African American Worship
I have been teaching the foundational course in Christian worship at my school, North Park Theological Seminary, for the last two years. Since this is a new course for me I have been doing a good deal of reading, observing and reflecting on this most important aspect of Christian faith. By far the most provocative book I have read is Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide. Marti is a sociologist and did extensive research on worship in multiracial congregations. The results of his research surprised even him. He found that “successful” multiracial congregations were not characterized by a particular approach to music and worship but by a variety of musical and liturgical styles. The real key to their success was not liturgy, music or preaching, but the quality of cross racial relationships formed within the congregation. “The diversification of churches” he writes, “is not about racially accommodating distinct music styles or enacting simplistic notions of leadership intentionality, but rather about stimulating cross-racial interactions through musical worship practices.” It’s the relationships of the people that sing, not the nature of their song that determines the cohesion of the community.
The most disturbing and challenging chapter for me was entitled “African Americans as the Icon of ‘True Worship’”. He observed in his interviews that white, Asian, and African American worship leaders as well as ordinary worshippers assumed that African Americans had a special talent for worship. In fact, African American worship was considered the “gold standard” of Christian worship for many. “A white female choir member said, ‘Black people are very spiritual. They are more spiritual that we are.’ Another white female choir member said, ‘They [blacks] seem closer to God.” (54) Such opinions were expressed by both African American and white worshippers in the churches Marti visited. The clapping, swaying, and shouting characteristic of worship in many African American churches was seen as indicating a greater connection with God and a deeper capacity for worship. For Marti the problem with this is that it was often expressed in old “essentialist” terms. He cites a 19th century writer who argued that “Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness and sensuality. Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality and technical aptitude: the Apollonian gifts.” (58) The obvious racism of such observations should give us pause. Describing African American worship in essentialist terms actually robs it of its power and integrity. African American worship is powerful, not because African Americans have an inherent talent for worship (any more than Asians are better at math or whites at organization), but because it is rooted in a particular culture. In the United States it is a culture of suffering, endurance and victory. According to Pearl Williams-Jones gospel music “performance and practice provides ongoing opportunity to incarnate ‘a clearly defined black identity growing out of black experience,’ which Williams-Jones states ‘is indicative of the indomitability of the African ethos.” (65) It actually trivializes African American worship to declare that its power is derived from an inherent black ability to worship. There is a reason “We Shall Overcome” sounds more authentic being song by a black gospel choir than a white choir—and it has nothing to do with essentialist categories. The glory of African American worship is rooted in the power of suffering, survival, grace and deliverance. It speaks of liberation for the oppressed and perhaps even the hope of liberation for the oppressors. It is the black experience, not the black “essence” that gives African American worship its obvious power and profundity. This worship is a gift to the whole church born out of the crucible of suffering. In the end, the suffering is not celebrated, but transcended by confidence in the God who delivers, judges and sets things right.
John E. Phelan, Jr.