The wild diversity of Christianity, part two

This second video in the two part series explores Christian diversity in the U.S. through Christian music, touching on everything from Christian K-pop to Primitive Baptist hymns to Mainline Protestant choral music to an AME Zion hymn choir — and more. The people who write, perform, and listen to this Christian music come from widely divergent religious perspectives, and very different cultures and ethnicities, and the musical diversity covered in this video should challenge anyone who thinks Christianity is a monolith.

(A disclaimer that will be obvious to my Unitarian Universalist readers: I’m looking at Christianity from the outside; Unitarian Universalism can no longer be considered a Christian religion, it is now quite firmly post-Christian — and whatever that means, it definitely isn’t Christian, though it is related historically.)

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

Below is the text I was looking at while making the video (but I deviated from the script more than once). The videos from the associated Youtube playlist are embedded below.

Questions that are implicit in the video: How do you define the boundaries of a religious tradition? What makes a piece of music Christian — Christian text, Christian performers, Christian context, Christian intent behind the music, Christian musical genre, or more than one of the above, or all of the above? What are the boundaries between culture and religion? — or are culture and religion somehow intertwined? How can we listen across religious and cultural boundaries? — what do we have in common, and how do we get past what we don’t have in common?

(1) I’ll start with Primitive Baptists. Generally speaking, Primitive Baptists do not use musical instruments in their worship services, since in their reading of the Bible singing in worship should be unaccompanied. Many Primitive Baptist congregations have become quite adept at singing in four-part harmony without accompaniment. The sample on the Youtube playlist has a group of Primitive Baptist young people singing from the Primitive Baptist Hymnal, second edition, in a historic Primitive Baptist church building in a National Park. Primitive Baptists gives me a strong sense of egalitarianism: there is no traditional choir director. While the voices sound good together, the singers do not attempt to achieve the typical “good blend” of choral art music; you can hear the individuality of the voices. While the singers are singing from printed music, individuals may not sing the music exactly the same way, for example sliding into notes and choosing their own dynamics.

(2) Next is a fairly standard hymn sung by Mainline Protestants, in this case a Presbyterian (USA) church in Austin, Texas. The vocal style of this choir is significantly different from the Primitive Baptist singers we just heard: these singers aim for the rounded choral sound of classical, or Euro-American art music. This particular performance is a lovely instance of music created during the pandemic, and the intent was probably to use this both in their worship service and to offer it online where their congregation and others can use it as a spiritual resource. The music is no doubt written out, and sung as written. We would expect the funding mechanism underlying this performance to be the typical way Mainline Protestant churches fund music: mostly volunteer choir members with a paid choir director.

(3) The third sample of Christian music is the New Home AME Zion Church Hymn Choir in York, South Carolina. This is another volunteer choir, though the leader may be paid. The music has a call-and-response structure: the leader sings a line, the choir responds. While the song is highly structured, there is also lots of room for improvisation. Pay attention, for example, to the percussion — the hand-clapping and foot stomping — which allows for individual interpretation. And of course, the leader is improvising constantly, using his voice to improvise musically and to raise and lower the emotional energy. In terms of a Christian world view, the improvisational nature of the music leaves room for the direct action of God or the Holy Spirit to act on the singers, and through them, on the congregation. This is a very different approach to music, and to theology, than the Mainline Protestant congregation — though both are equally beautiful.

(4) You can’t talk about Christian music in the contemporary Anglophone world without mentioning Hillsong, the Christian music Juggernaut from Australia. Hillsong is both a church and a music empire; a significant source of income from their worldwide network of churches comes from sales of their music. And innumerable praise bands in smaller Christian churches play covers of popular Hillsong songs; there are even instructional videos and Web site on how to make your praise band sound like Hillsong. This is highly accomplished, highly polished pop music. It is meant to be both a performance, and to be participatory — indeed, many people prefer singing along to a loud amplified band because they can sing without restraint, not worrying whether anyone can hear them. Hillsong produces highly polished, singable, catchy music — and it is obvious from this live recording that the audience knows the words to all the songs. It’s really no different from any rock concert, except that the lyrics have some Christian content.

(5) From Hillsong’s arena rock, we turn to Ethiopian mezmur. I really don’t know much about mezmur, since most of the information I can find on the Web is in Amharic. I do know that both Ethiopian Orthodox and Ethiopian Protestants enjoy and perform mezmur, though the video in the playlist is from the Orthodox tradition. I also know, from this video and others like it, that mezmur is wildly popular, attracting crowds of devoted listeners. We could maybe think of it as the Ethiopian equivalent of Hillsong. What I don’t know is whether mezmur is used in worship services, or serves only as a spiritual resource outside of worship. In any case, I’d like you to think of all the immigrant communities living in the United States who, like Ethiopians, have their own versions of mezmur — music that serves as a spiritual resource for them.

(6) Russian Orthodox churches have been in America since the eighteenth century. Russian Orthodox services may include traditional chant, but — like Gregorian chant — recordings of it are also used as a spiritual resource by Russian Orthodox adherents, as well as by people who are simply moved by the music. In this sample of Russian Orthodox chant, the voices are unaccompanied. Though you can hear some call-and-response structuring to the music, the emotional tenor is quite different from the New Home AME Zion Church Hymn Choir. And though the music is sung a capella like the Primitive Baptist singing, in this choir the singers submerge their individuality in the wonderful whole that is created.

(7) I selected the next piece of music because it’s a great example of cross-cultural connection. “Dancing Generation” is a Christian pop song by Matt Redman, The lyrics of the first verse are: “Your mercy taught us how to dance / To celebrate with all we have / And we’ll dance to thank You for mercy.” The Korean K-pop Christian band Light and SalT took this song, translated it into Korean, and made it their own. Frankly, I like Light and SalT’s version better than Matt Redman’s — Redman’s version strikes me as a little too smarmy; or maybe I just like K-pop better; but I think what really makes Light and SalT’s version better, and saves it from smarminess, is that crazy rap segment in the middle.

(8) Leaving behind K-pop Christian music, for the next selection we have Broken Walls, a Native American Christian pow wow band. Much of their music is Christian rock and roll, performed with a Native American inflection. But they also do pow wow music. Pow wow music is a pan-Native American musical form performed at pow wows. Singers sit around a drum and join in a steady drum beat. As you will see in this video, traditionally only men sit around the drum and sing, while the women dance. Because pow wows are intertribal, the lyrics may simply be syllables, not actual words; this would make sense for Broken Walls, since the group includes both Mohawk and Tlingit members. The interesting thing for me in this video is that a Christian band is bringing their musical abilities to an intertribal art from that’s meant to include people with very different spiritual outlooks.

(9) For the next selection, let’s turn to another re-interpretation of a Christian praise song. Kantiko, a Christian Latin band based in Texas, covered a Christian praise song called “In Jesus’ Name,” originally performed by Israel Houghton. Houghton’s original version, which is easy to find on Youtube, is a pretty straight-ahead contemporary gospel number, but Kantiko remakes the feel of that song by adding a sals beat and “traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms.” Here again, we see one ethnic group taking a Christian song and remaking it for their ears. This is an important aspect of Christian diversity, and indeed of religious diversity in all religions: different cultures their own cultural overlay to a religion, and make it something new. Just as the Japanese took Chan Buddhism and made it into something new called Zen Buddhism, Kantiko has made this Christian song into something new. I admit I prefer Kantiko’s version to the original — maybe in part because of that fabulous bass player, who does simply amazing things with his seven-string bass. guitar.

(10) For the last two selections, we’re going to get into some art music. We’ll start off with what some commentators have called African American classical music, better known as jazz. The great Duke Ellington recorded three different suites of music which he called Sacred Concerts; the piece I’d like to look at comes from the Second Sacred Concert, first performed in New York in 1968. Ellington himself played piano and provided narration. Recalling the First Sacred Concert, which preimiered in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, in 1965, Ellington later wrote, “I recognized this as an exceptional opportunity. ‘Now I can say openly,’ I said, ‘what I have been saying to myself on my knees.'” And he says eloquently indeed, though not in a musical genre that we usually associate with Christian music.

(11) And for the last selection, I’ll turn to the European art music tradition, called for marketing purposes “classical” music. The piece of music is “Rejoice in the Lamb,” by British composer Benjamin Britten, performed by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Chamber Choir of New York City. Britten’s life partner Peter Pears described Britten as “an agnostic with a great love for Jesus Christ.” The text for this piece is decidedly unconventional. The first movement begins with the somewhat tame phrase, “Rejoice in God, O ye tongues,” but then the second movement a soloist sings, “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey, … a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God.” The text is poetry by Christopher Smart, a late eighteenth century English poet who spent a number of years confined in an insane asylum. Yet as bizarre as the text sometimes is, the feeling throughout is one of devotion — perhaps the devotion of an agnostic or even an atheist, but devotion nonetheless.

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