Domesticated transcendence and Tanzanian Christianity


A guest article by Michael Dodaro.

“Worthy Protestants now say the truth is relative. Evangelicals only allow this compared to the top 40 current music charts. “

In 2005, Mike Dodaro began writing about worship and the liturgy on his blog, Alienated in Church. The result is a treasure trove of honest, straightforward, and lucid arguments that the extremes of the American Church are tragically lost. This is one of my favorite posts. I encourage you to read more of his writings here. You can find the book to which it refers by Vincent Donovan by clicking on the image at the bottom of the article.

Regardless of how you analyze worship, the requirements include spiritual involvement and truth, in which understanding is implied. Involvement in historical tradition helps both to transcend the present day and to understand doctrines based on events in time. To worship is to put our faith into practice in the continuity of a tradition which links us to the apostles and to what they witnessed in the presence of Jesus. The ancient liturgical forms and the music embody the continuity of the triumphant Church in the presence of the militant Church. And the historic liturgical music of the church is still the most universally understood.

Another interesting thing is how the church occupied and transformed the pagan temples and basilicas of the Roman Empire. One way to understand this is to see it as Christianity infusing fuller meaning into forms that were ancient and beautiful. All beauty is the beauty of God.

Now, apparently, the most moving experiences for many people are rock concerts. There are probably ways to save the excitement of these experiences. A lot of good people seem to think so. But it is important to claim the noblest art forms in our culture. These things have been created over many generations.

There is a great old book called “Christianity Rediscovered” by Vincent Donovan which describes seventeen years of missionary work in Tanzania. Translating parables and stories from the Bible into the cultural imagery of Indigenous peoples involved many features of Indigenous culture suitable for communicating Christian doctrine and character ideals to new converts. The difficulty was to convey the original meaning in the forms available in the language and imagery of the people.

Now, proponents of postmodern literary theory argue that there is no authoritative meaning in literary works and that all literature is only rhetoric in a class struggle. In the church we hear different forms of this argument depending on whether one is involved in a liberal or conservative church. In liberal churches, the Bible seems to be like any other book, and its truths are seen as culturally relative. In evangelical churches it is asserted that the gospel must be contextualized to contemporary modes of expression and that the art form is neutral. Rock music has been in vogue for thirty years, so rock music seems to be the vehicle for spreading the gospel.

The problems of the liberal approach are obvious; without moral absolutes, the atonement for sin and salvation is nonsense. But there is also a problem with communicating the historical tradition of the Apostles in art that has no more history than McDonald’s fast food. The meaning of the gospel is inextricably intertwined with the historic church, which is the spiritual body of believers in its teachings and, more importantly, its testimony of the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. If the apostles had not succeeded in establishing the church, there would be no Bible, and Christianity would be like the religions of ancient Egypt, unknowable except through archaeological artifacts.

There have been many denominations and movements that have tried to return to original Christianity without the liturgies and organizational frameworks tied to the apostolic tradition. Protestant traditions have emphasized the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine called sola scriptura. But as these movements try to extract the pure gospel from its cultural and historical embodiment, it is more difficult to recognize Christian worship as distinctly Christian. The time interval between the new movement reaching the eccentric sect is usually only a few generations. We already have mustached gray rock musicians acting like they’re nineteen at nostalgic parties among the devotees.

The Age of Renewal adapted modes of expression in its hymn which resembled Victorian-era salon music. CCM churches are rebelling against these ancient forms to create their equivalent in currently popular music. Sounds pretty reasonable until you pit Victorian culture against post-1960s pop culture debauchery. In this context, it’s hard to accept the arguments we hear all the time about form neutrality. cultural – you know, “Arguing over music is like arguing over the color of the carpet.” It is even more incredible when young people with green hair and rings in the nose sing about Jesus. No missionary in Tanzania would dress and dance like a native Tanzanian to attract a crowd, but postmod Americans are now doing much the same in the spotlight of mega-church auditoriums.

Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0


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