". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Praise Chorus?

Today the Church catholic (meaning the Christian church around the world, not just the Roman Catholic Church) celebrated the Second Sunday of Easter by hearing the story of Thomas, who when told by the other disciples that they had seen the Lord, replied, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe" (John 20:25). Because of his insistence on seeing Jesus, for himself, in the flesh, Thomas has long had the adjective "Doubting" attached to his name. But I think Thomas had it right. He wanted to see his Lord, and when he not only saw Him but touched the wounds in Jesus' hands and side, he believed and confessed: "My Lord and my God!" In that short sentence, Thomas models the spiritual life of the Christian who, when called to faith by God and confronted with Law and Gospel in the person of Christ, can do no other but exclaim, "My Lord and my God!" It is one of the best stories in all of Scripture.

Today at my church, a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we heard the choir sing the traditional Tanzanian song "Nimemwona Bwana" (the song was sung by the junior high choir at one service and the adult choir at another). The full text is simple--

Nimemwona Bwana, anapendeza.

Here's the translation:

We have seen the Lord, and He looks good!

(Sometimes instead of "good" the translation is "nice" or "beautiful"--but I really like the word "good." What is the Lord if not Goodness incarnate?)

Anyway, it strikes me that there are those, maybe even some of you reading, who might not appreciate this text being sung for a church service. If you don't like what has come to be known as a "praise chorus" in Christian worship, you might not like this song. It has some of the elements of what some object to in contemporary Christian praise and worship songs: the text is simple, it appears to be light on doctrine, it doesn't tell the full salvation story, and it is repetitive (my friend Susan recently wrote about that last item here). AND it has percussion and swaying bodies!

Yet I think this was a perfect song for this day. Think about it: we hear about Thomas, who wanted to see, and who when he did, believed. And then we hear joyfully proclaimed by the choir the words, "We have seen the Lord, and He looks good!"

I don't like praise choruses in church either. But I loved this song in our liturgy today. So I had to wonder, in light of the similarities listed above, how is it different from a praise chorus? Well, to help answer that question, I have posted a video of our junior high choir singing the song. Please note that there is nothing in the performance that overtly calls attention to the performers or their personal experience of the song. There is no brandishing of microphones (no microphones at all in fact--those young soloists are projecting entirely on their own), no exhorting of the congregation to respond to the "performance" (to show that they are feelin' it, too, donchya' know), no effort to repeat the chorus ad infinitum in order to "prepare hearts" to receive the Word. The song is presented in a completely declamatory way, and I think this is why it does not fit the popular definition of "praise chorus." The goal is not to express the feelings of the singer or manipulate those of the worshiper but rather to proclaim the Word by telling the story.

"Nimemwona Bwana" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

(If you really want to know, the Cantor tried to get them to loosen up a bit more than this, and you can see a few who took his encouragement to heart, but it's not easy to take the suburbs out of suburban Chicago kids!)


Cheryl said...

The arrangement heard here comes from this book:


Elephantschild said...

It's not easy to take the West out of Americans. :)

It's why an aisle full of dancing and processing women seems completely normal in Tanzania and completely bizarre at say, a Catholic conference in the US. (see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh_nqtp3VrU)

I'm fine with limited use of foreign languages in the service (and yes, I include German and Latin). What bothers me though is church choirs who *routinely* use foreign language pieces; in that case, it becomes a "Hey look how great we are" thing. After all, are people Hearing The Word if they're not hearing the word?

As far as the praise chorus comparison: in your church, the music isn't being used to emotionally manipulate people. It's not replacing or supplanting sections of the liturgy. That piece, sung by the children, was hardly the only hymn or sung at the service.

It's more complicated than just "it's repetitive" (Lamb of God, Pure and Holy, anyone?) or it's "light on doctrine" (Holy, Holy, Holy.)

Elephantschild said...

*That piece, sung by the children, was hardly the only hymn or song sung at the service.

Susan said...

EC, but when it's light on doctrine and repetitive and in a foreign language and with dancing which does not fit the culture, then a person does begin to wonder. Is it okay because we are the ones who are doing it, and we are different from them?

Cheryl said...

Susan, I'm a little unclear about who the "them" in your last sentence is. Is it the Tanzanians or the Catholics or the praise chorus? Sorry if I'm being dense.

Also, just curious if you would consider the slight swaying in the video here to be dancing? If so, I would disagree. The point of the swaying was to help the singers interpret the music. It was not anything that was choreographed or presented as dance.

"when it's light on doctrine and repetitive and in a foreign language and with dancing which does not fit the culture"

We sang the Kyrie today. It has three out of four of those traits. By the time we sang it, the procession was completed and the pastors and acolytes were in place. But the Kyrie is part of the larger Entrance Rite and which includes quite a bit of choreographed movement that might not seem like dance to us but really is a kind of liturgical dance. It is the best kind of liturgical dance because it is not concerned with self-expression or entertainment but with the expressing of reverence for presence of God among His people.

Jenny: our choirs do quite a bit of singing in languages, but the point is not to sing in a foreign language but to sing great texts wedded to great music, and often that adds up toe singing in a foreign language. Most texts are best sung in the language in which they were originally written. Something is almost always lost in translation, either textually or musically. When we do sing in a foreign language, we always print the translation in the bulletin. In fact, we usually do that for English texts as well, just so the congregation can better follow and muse on them (since our choral articulation is not perfect). :-)

Elephantschild said...

Susan's "them", I think, refers to "those who have no problems with praise choruses and liturgical dancing"

In other words, are we (or am I) talking myself into saying it's ok because it's you and Cantor and Bethany doing it and not the the LINO mega-church wannabe down the street?

I don't know, Susan.

I do know that while Bethany makes use of much more of *this sort of thing* than you, Susan, would be comfortable with, and slightly more than I am comfortable with, they do not chuck parts of the liturgy to make room for these things. While parts of the liturgy may be set to music that is new to me or Susan, the liturgy is indeed there, and is respected. Congregational singing of solid texts is common at Bethany.

So, I don't know. I guess, when judging, it's important to look at the entire picture over time, and not just at individual instances.

Cheryl said...

Just reread what I wrote last night and saw all the typos. I think I should have gone to bed instead of writing that post!

Anyway, if EC is right, Susan, and you're asking if who does something determines its acceptability, then I would say to a certain extent, yes. It's the same as when you're doing a research paper. You evaluate your sources. Some are more authoritative than others and so you are more likely to trust the material. Same with churches. If you are looking at a church over a period of time and seeing the big picture and know that the pastors and cantors have their heads screwed on right wrt worship and music and liturgy, then there is a greater level of trust.

Having said that, I do not think that at Bethany we do anything in the service, ever, that I would define as a praise chorus or as dance. There may be parallels that can be drawn between the Tanzanian piece or some Taize music and the contemporary praise chorus, but I do not accept that they are the same thing. That's the point of the blog post. The animals that I know as "praise chorus" and "liturgical dance" are not a part of what we do at Bethany.

For the curious, if you had attended worship at Bethany yesterday you would have heard choirs singing not only "Nimemwona Bwan" but at various times William Byrd's "Haec Dies," and Rene Clausen's Psalm 100. There was also Divine Service, Setting One, "All the Earth with Joy Is Sounding" (LSB 462), "Song of Moses and Israel" (LSB 925), "'As Surely As I Live,' God Said" (LSB 614), "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice and Sing" (LSB 475), "This Joyful Eastertide" (LSB 482), and "We Walk By Faith, and Not By Sight" (LSB 720).

IggyAntiochus said...

Well, I did a search for "Salvation Is Created" on this blog, and came across this gem! The kids sounded great, btw!

It's fine to use repetitive song as well as movement in the Divine Service. We see examples in the psalms of the use of repetition and, of course, David danced before the LORD.

The question is, does the text and music and movement draw attention to the performers or do they point to Jesus?

Does the theme of the praise chorus relate to the readings or psalmody?

Is the worship planner trying to elicit an emotional response or is he trying to pull together a cohesive worship experience?

Most praise choruses are based on the Psalms, and as such may be weak on theology but probably don't cross the line into bad theology. They need to be propped up with the lectionary readings, other psalmody, hymnody, etc., so that the praise chorus fits seamlessly into the Divine Service.

Finally, any movement, be that simple hand gestures or a more elaborate liturgical dance, also needs to flow seamlessly within the liturgy. A great example of larger movement is the Procession of Palms at Bethany! The palms are used both to set the stage for the Triumphant Entry and also act as percussion instruments.