Celebration of cultural diversity in Christian devotion to God
Philip P. Eapen
Observe several Charismatic church services on a Sunday. It does not matter whether the church is in New York, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Chennai, or Melbourne. Their “praise and worship” sessions are more or less identical—as if every Charismatic church follows a global norm. Music styles, instruments, physical expressions, the order of service, lights, sounds, and even the architecture and layout of sanctuaries are similar.
The power of modern technology, the clout of the “worship industry,” and the influence of “worship leaders” have helped to strengthen the notion that there is just one right way to conduct a charismatic worship service. Even churches that worship God in their vernacular have switched to translations of English songs. Some Christians are not content unless they sing vernacular songs in an English tune or with an English accent.
Spirituality is what an individual or a community does with what they believe, says Alister McGrath. It is the “outworking” of their faith in public and private acts of devotion. Given the plurality of cultures represented in the Christian world, we must talk about spiritualities.
A variety of spiritual expressions and disciplines is delightful to God. I do not think God expects uniformity. God, the author of diversity, celebrates the uniqueness of each individual, tribe, and language group. Why must local languages, music, and art forms be suppressed for the sake of one universal style of spirituality?
Why must local languages, music, and art forms be suppressed for the sake of one universal style of spirituality? Postmodernism affirms local contexts, individual experiences, and the resultant diversity.
In this context, I share the postmodern aversion towards anything promoted globally as the “one right way to do things.” Indeed, postmodernism is a philosophical stance that rejects universal truths and values. However, its rejection of an all-encompassing frame of reference must be understood alongside its acceptance of multiple reference frames. Postmodernism affirms local contexts, individual experiences, and the resultant diversity.
HSBC Bank ran a campaign to project itself as “the world’s local bank.” The bank took great pride in its knowledge of the local customs of each country. A global presence is no excuse for offending local sensibilities. Among Christians, though, only trained theologians know the importance of local cultural contexts. This knowledge is seldom translated into action except when showcased in a seminary as part of an in-house exercise.
I cite examples from India. However, the need to embrace diversity in spirituality applies to all countries.
A few decades ago, most vernacular hymns sung in Anglican congregations in India were translated from English. Indian lyricists, including Narayan Waman Tilak (1861–’19), K. V. Simon (1883–’44), Sadhu Kochukunju (1883–’45), Rev Masilamani (1914–’90), and M. E. Cherian (1917–’93), played a vital role in rooting Christian spirituality in Indian cultures. They were emulated by a new generation of lyricists during the latter half of the twentieth century. The recent boom of Western “praise and worship” (as if songs in other languages do not constitute praise and worship) may be considered a regressive step.
Even if the popularity of Western songs and worship styles per se is no cause for worry, the suppression of local cultures should be viewed with suspicion. Most Western missionaries had taken a stand against local attires and customs. They made their trainee pastors wear Western clothes to give them a “civilized” look. It was as though a change of style – from kurtas to shirts, from the dhoti to a pair of trousers, from sporting a mustache to wearing a “clean-shaven” look – was a part of the gospel package. Spiritual reasons were invented to justify these rules. Surprisingly, churches in the Global South did not perceive this trend as a form of neocolonialism.
Indian missionaries repeated the mistakes of their Western counterparts by imposing their culture on those who believed their message. For instance, churches established in northern Indian states by missionaries from the south sing songs translated from Malayalam or Tamil.
In Kerala, even in the 1970s, many Pentecostal churches did not permit Christian bands – a rarity those days – to play Indian instruments such as the tabla or mridangam. Renowned lyricist-composer Bhaktavalsalan recounted how a preacher once threw a tabla out of his gospel meeting because he believed it was a product of Hindu culture. The stage was then “purified” by prayer for the proclamation of God’s Word!
Sue Harrington, a British Bharatanatyam1 exponent, went to India to master the ancient dance form used exclusively to communicate Hindu religious themes. She intended to use the language of Bharatanatyam to worship the God of the Bible.
Ms. Harrignton offered to conduct a “live” workshop in our church in Parklands, Nairobi, on the significance of using Indian cultural tools to communicate the gospel to people of South Asian origin. The Parklands church had around 1400 members in 2018. Of these, around forty were persons of Indian origin. Still, just two or three of them turned up for the event. The others dismissed the whole concept as avoidable pagan pollution. How could they ever be convinced to use traditional Henna body art as a tool for evangelism among South Asian women?
A couple of weeks later, Sue was gracious enough to repeat the event for the sake of a few repentant Indian Christians!
When I first met Ben Wargis,2 a noted ethnomusicologist,3 he was on his way to record the songs and speech of one of the most isolated tribes in northern Kenya. “Indians in northern states are inclined to dance during celebrations such as weddings or religious festivals. Yet how many Christians in India dance during worship services?” asks Ben. “They were taught that dance has no place in Christian worship, even though the Psalmists encouraged the Hebrews to dance in God’s presence.”
Sheldon Bangera, Vijay Benedict, Anil Kant, and Persis John might agree with him.
Bharatanatyam (/ˌbʌrətəˈnɑːtjəm/) is an Indian classical dance form that originated in the souther state of Tamil Nadu.↩︎
Not his real name.↩︎
An ethnomusicologist is a musicologist who studies the music of different cultures, including both traditional and popular forms. Ethnomusicologists seek to understand the role of music in various cultural contexts, and how it shapes and reflects social, political, and economic structures.↩︎
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
Date: July 27, 2023