Disclaimer: Terms like Race, Ethnicity, and Culture are related, but they are not all the same thing. Sometimes within this article and video it may seem like I am using those terms interchangeably. In this particular case, I think it has to do with music being a complex thing that is relevant to race, ethnicity, and culture at the same time. This is a broad look at a complex topic, and not an exhaustive explanation of any of them
Prejudice In The Worshipping Community
In the book of Galatians, we encounter an intense snapshot of the kinds of ethnic conflicts that plagued the early Christian movement. Peter (also called Cephas), had, for a certain amount of time, been willing to sit at the table and share in a meal and conversation with Gentile (non-Jewish) people who had converted to the Jesus movement. Table fellowship, a central part of the Christian worship experience in the early days, was a pleasant and joy-filled experience to be enjoyed and cherished by all.
But Paul tells us that things at the church in Antioch started to go sour:
11 But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. 12 When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. 13 As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
14 When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?
The issue in Galatians is the practice of circumcision - a form of genital cutting that, since the time of Abraham - had been an indicator of Jewish or Israelite cultural identity. For a certain group of early Christians - whom Paul calls "the circumcision party" - believed that people joining the movement needed to become ethnically Jewish in order to follow Israel's Messiah. This attitude and idea spread around the ancient world and affected the Christian church in multiple places.
Paul wasn't having it. The book of Galatians shows us how he went about addressing the issue.
When it comes to Peter, though, he really ought to have known better. The book of Acts tells the story of how God confronted Peter pretty directly with this issue in a vision. God showed Peter a blanket full of animals that Leviticus 11 would have listed as unclean, told him to eat them, and then explained that this meant he should not consider Gentiles unclean. Immediately after the vision, Peter receives a knock at his door, and ends up baptizing the entire family of a Roman Soldier named Cornelius. To the surprise of the Jewish Christians who had come with Peter, the Holy Spirit filled these Gentiles.
As Paul put it, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28 (ESV)
A Vision of the Future
Quite a while later in the story of the early Church, the Apostle John had a vision on the island of Patmos:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12, ESV)
It is one of the many scenes of praise and worship depicted in the book of Revelation, and it presents us with an interesting picture: the people present in the Kingdom of God are all recognizable to John as members of different nations, tribes, peoples, and language groups. Being saved did not erase their cultural identities; those have stayed intact. And yet, they also share a distinct and significant commonality: they are joined together as worshippers of the One God, and of the Lamb who was slain for their sins.
While not directly addressing the kinds of ethnic issues that were causing strife in churches at the time, John does present a picture of God's ideal for his church: all people are welcomed into the faith regardless of their heritage, and the markers of their identity are not to be stripped away unnecessarily.
Ok, so what?
At this point, the main issue is clear: racial and ethnic prejudice shouldn't create barriers to people living their lives as Jesus followers. And, when people within the church slip back into their learned prejudices, problems inevitably ensue. What does this have to do with worship and music?
First, but possibly less importantly, the people groups we encounter in these New Testament stories are largely from the Mediterranean - including the southern parts of Europe, Northern parts of Africa, and Western parts of Asia. We have already discussed how the musical vocabulary of people (regardless of race categories) would likely differ quite strongly from the kind of music that has become common in churches of the Modern West. The music that today's North American Christians consider "traditional" would have been completely foreign and unrecognizable to the people of the early church - and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Cultural forms change between times and places.
But secondly, and likely more importantly, the ethical implications of the relationships between different people groups in the church form an integral part of offering acceptable worship to God. Loving God is deeply and directly tied to loving one-another in the church. The Apostle John wrote, “If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT). Paul also addressed this in Ephesians 2, where the spiritual growth of both Jewish and Gentile Christians towards closeness with Christ also necessarily implies their growth in closeness and love towards one another.
When we take these concepts and look at the church today in the Western world, we can quickly realize that there is a problem. The history of Christianity in the United States of America is unfortunately tainted by the story of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and other culturally and state-endorsed immoralities.
In his song Facts, Christian rapper Lecrae says:
I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith
My Messiah died for the world, not just USA
They said Jesus was conservative; tell 'em that's a lie
No he not a liberal either if you think I'll choose a side
They said "'Crae, you're so divisive, [there] shouldn't be a "Black Church,"
I said "Do the math, segregation started that first!"
Because of the historical problems within America, American Christianity has unfortunately created a situation that would have horrified the Apostles: the table fellowship (and entire worship experience) has once again been separated. Paul would be enraged and Peter would be ashamed.
But while some people believe that movements in the mid-to-late 2oth century essentially did away with all the problems that racism caused within the church, it seems that a large handful of things managed to slip by unnoticed. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes seem to forget that we live in a society and that the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, and practices of that society are often interwoven with the practice of religion. Churches are not immune from the ideas circulating in the culture around them, and sadly this has very much been the case in the way Christians have thought about music and worship.
Let's take a look at how this is the case.
Old, Old Arguments
Modern music styles exist because white Europeans enslaved African people, forcibly brought them to the United States of America, and forced them to live alongside their captors. During this time of prolonged exposure, the musical traditions of these people groups began to rub off on each other, and the combination of influences began to create new styles.
It is important to note that this was not a friendly cultural exchange. The minstrel show involved a white performed donning the offensive and stereotyped attire of blackface and performing a mocking, satirical dance meant to dehumanize black people. Black people in turn would mock these performances, reversing the satire, and in doing so, the exchange of the vocabulary of song and dance accelerated. The cultural fusion perhaps reached it's peak in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the early 20th century, with the emergence of one of the most complex and fascinating fusion genres in history: Jazz.
Jazz music took the syncopation that was common in European folk and classical music, as well as the harmonic vocabulary of Western tonal music, and combined it with the polyrhythmic complexity of African traditional rhythms and the partial-tones common in non-Western scales. It was shocking, new, intriguing, and wildly complex. Most importantly, it gave African Americans an artistic outlet for the weight of their traumatic experiences in America.
But resistance was fierce and hostile.
“White phonograph companies refused to record Negro jazz because of the traditionalist opposition to jazz music in the general white population. Traditionalists, usually Protestant middle-class Americans of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, connected jazz to the Negro brothels, where it had first become popular in New Orleans. Milton Mezzrow, a jazz clarinetist, wrote that, in the twenties, Negro jazz "was called '[******] music' and 'whorehouse music' and 'nice' people turned their noses up at it." They refused to accept jazz because they believed it was immoral.” [Source]
“Traditionalists also disapproved of jazz because of supposed origins in "heathen" African spirituals. JA. Rogers wrote in 1925 that, in jazz's "barbaric rhythm and exuberance there is something of the bamboula, a wild, abandoned dance of the West African and Haitian Negro.'' [Same source as above]
Traditionalists, often enough Christians, thought that this new music style was barbaric because they believed that the people who had pioneered it were barbaric, and that because of the roots of this music in African forms of paganism, it was ultimately unfit for consumption among Americans, for fear of widespread immoral influence.
In fact, this prejudice against Black music styles seemed to happen alongside the arguments that such music styles were medically bad for the human brain and/or body. Take for example this quote:
“The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.” [The Ladies Home Journal, 1921]
(I'm willing to bet that close scrutiny of the material in question would reveal that to be an alarmingly loose use of the word "demonstrated.")
Similar prejudices would continue to be used over time. Blues music suffered very similar stereotyping - especially in the case of Robert Johnson, a Blues guitarist who is remembered for an urban legend. The story goes that Johnson went down to an intersection - "the crossroads" - and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for improved guitar skills and thereby a chance at fame. It is unlikely that any such event ever took place, but the mythology of a demonic blues music would stick. The point is, this artificial alternative fact about the Blues being devilish already existed and was being bandied around long before the Blues fathered Rock'n'Roll, or grandfathered Heavy Metal. The same is true with Jazz music, which became the forefather of Hip-Hop and Soul.
(None of these things are terribly difficult to verify. Wikipedia is your friend, although admittedly not an academic source.)
History confirms for us that most modern music forms - Rock, Pop, R&B, EDM, House, Soul, Funk, Rap, Trap, Trip-Hop, Metal, Country, Gospel, and plenty more - all owe their existence to the innovations brought about by Black Americans. At least, this much is true for the musical styles that were pioneered in America. It should be recognized that many other musical styles were born in other contexts outside the USA. We cannot ignore the developments in Reggae and Dancehall in Jamaica, or highlife music in Ghana, or the similarly named Afrobeat and later Afrobeats in Nigeria. And yet, many of these music styles owed a lot to the innovations created in modern Western music styles (considering, for example, the prominence of electric guitars in the music styles just listed).
All of this should lead us to ask this question when we come down to our own moment in history: how many of these prejudicial and racist ideas about music have endured? Is it possible that these ideas still persist?
A Classical Complication
The online music theory community in 2019 and 2020 has erupted with discussion about the implications of racism in the realm of classical music, music education, and music theory. Serious concerns have been raised about the goal that guided the origin of the field of Musicology itself (not to mention the questionable definition of the term Ethnomusicology).
In particular, it has become clear that the way Western people think about musicology, music theory, music history, and even the concept of musical "greatness" or "genius" has been shaped by the efforts of late-19th and early 20th-century German thinkers who were trying to promote a form of nationalism. Composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were indisputably excellent musicians, but the status and prominence afforded to them in academia is not necessarily indicative of their importance in their own time. Bach, for example, wasn't thought of as terribly important until later musicians began reflecting on him more.
The efforts of German musicologists and music theorists ended up enshrining European, and particularly German, musicians as the standard for excellence in music. Composers from other backgrounds (yes they existed) were generally ignored or under-emphasized, and the broad term "Music Theory" - which sounds like it should describe everything that is possible within music - came to mostly refer to the harmonic style of 18th century European composers (to borrow a phrase from one of the sources listed below).
This intensified in the early 20th century with the influence of on Heinrich Schenker, who has become, for better or worse, a kind of focal point in the ongoing discussions about music and racism. Schenker pioneered a form of music analysis that sought to reveal the genius of certain composers as it was revealed in the structure of their musical compositions. His theories are still very important in formal music education, especially at a graduate level. Schenker also believed that the kind of musical greatness and intellectual genius was inherently more likely to emerge among some people groups than others.
The ideas of genius and greatness seem to have laid the foundation for the way people in the West thought about the quality of different musics. Repetition of musical repertoire, the importance assigned to certain composers in schools, and cultural pride seem to have primed many people to think of certain kinds of music (from certain cultures) as being inherently superior, more intellectual, and more ennobling than others.
Pagan Cultural Origins Are Unremarkable
Let's return to the problem haunting the worship experiences of the 1st and 21st- century Christian churches. How can we allow Gentiles to join the Christian church without making sure they get circumcised first - clearly cutting themselves off (no pun intended) from their pagan cultural background and joining the good, pure ethnicity of Israel? Or, how can we allow certain people groups to sing praise songs in a certain way if they happen to have drums and percussion instruments that come from pagan traditions?
There are probably a number of ways to answer these questions, but I think one of the most important answers we can give is this one:
Sorry, who is calling who "pagan" in here?
The book of Romans is another instance where Paul has to address Jew-Gentile conflicts in the nascent Christian movement. In Romans 4, he uses a particularly interesting argument related to his doctrine of Justification by Faith - Abraham, the ancient forefather of the nation of Israel, was justified by faith in God before he was ever circumcised, which is to say that Abraham found favour with God while he was still a Gentile. Abraham would have likely come from a family background that included idolatry and polytheism - these were very common in the ancient world. The Hebrew nation itself has pagan origins of sorts.
But it goes deeper than that.
The Hebrew word “El,” which is the generic word for “god” was a pagan-originated name for God and gods... kind of like the English word “God.” This is not terribly uncommon. In Japanese Christians use the word "Kami" to refer to YHWH, even though that word traditionally refers to the many spirit beings of the Shinto religion. This is similarly the case with the name Oluwa among the Yoruba people of Nigera.
We also notice at various points of the New Testament that the Apostle Paul has a very interesting and flexible relationship with different cultural artifacts of paganism as he engages with the Gentile world. In Acts 17:16-34, Paul famously quotes from pagan philosophers and poets (as he also does in Titus 1:10-16). And we will also return (during the 7th part of this series on the theme of Sacrifice) to his fascinating discussion of meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10.
The point is, it is extremely common to look at the ancient history of any people group in the world and to find some evidence of paganism, polytheism, spiritualism, or animism. It's not terribly surprising when it pops up. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult (even for expert scholars) to differentiate between culture and religion. In countries that have had long Christian histories, it may be easy to forget that there was once a pagan history before that. Is it possible that pagan cultural artifacts could become so inter-mingled with Christian ones that a people group stops being able to identify the difference?
In other words, is it possible that Western Christians in the early 20th century were being hypocritical when accusing Black Americans of expressing parts of a pagan cultural background while ignoring their own pagan heritage? This is precisely what is implied by George Barna and Frank Viola in the book Pagan Christianity - although an extended discussion of this may have to wait for another time.
C.S. Lewis once made this remarkable observation:
“If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake.” - Mere Christianity.
Is it possible that the God who, throughout the Bible, meets and speaks to people where they are at, has much more space for our cultural variations and differences than we judgmental and tribalistic humans do?
For the Christian, it is important to not underestimate the dangers of cultural bigotry. It reinforced some of the most harmful setbacks in the early church, and seems to be attempting to do so still today. Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ has always stood as a beacon of hope in the midst of human conflict, and I believe that if we are willing to confront these difficult topics, God can lead us into a fuller, deeper, and more inclusive worship experience.
- I know that normally I write in a bunch of study questions here, but this article is already very long, and it goes with a very long video, and refers to even more long videos and articles. If you'd like, scroll through this article and take time to read through each of the relevant Bible passages. Reflect on what they say to you about race, ethnicity, identity, and their relationship to the gospel. In what ways do you see the Church of Jesus - as it was originally intended - making a difference against racism, classism, casteism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of bigotry? What situations can you see in the world around you right now where God may be calling you to confront these evils with the truth of his Love and his Gospel?
Please be advised, some of the sources listed below are not intended for a church-based audience and may use language, imagery, and sounds that maybe offensive to some people for various reasons. This probably will not take away from the educational value of these resources, but do be aware of that possibility while you engage with these materials.
- Philip A. Ewell. Music Theory And The White Racial Frame.
- Lynne Seago. From Potent To Popular: The Effects of Racism on Chicago Jazz 1920-1930.
- "Theomusicologist" Alexander Douglas: Seventh-Day Adventist and Nazi Party views on African-American music – Parts One & Two
- Lilianne Doukhan. In Tune With God.
- "Jazz Ruins Marriages" Newspaper clip from 1920.
- Journal of Schenkerian Studies Volume 12 and their angry responses to Philip Ewell. Warning: The entries in this academic journal contain some disappointingly anti-black racist remarks by music scholars.
- Regarding possible pagan origins of some Psalms, see:
- James B. Pritchard, "The Ancient Near East, An anthology of Texts and Pictures", Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 227.
- Eckhard von Nordheim, Die Selbstbehauptung Israels in der Welt des Alten Orients (1992), p. 155.,
- Kapitel Der Große Hymnus des Echnaton und Psalm 104 in Eckhard von Nordheim, Die Selbstbehauptung Israels in der Welt des Alten Orients (1992), 155.