Domesticated Transcendence and Tanzanian Christianity

Domesticated Transcendence and Tanzanian Christianity January 6, 2022

A guest post from Michael Dodaro.

“Dignified Protestants now say that truth is relative. Evangelicals only allow that it is relative to current top-40 music charts.”

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

No matter how you analyze worship, the requirements include spiritual involvement and truth, in which understanding is implicit. Involvement in the historic tradition aids both transcendence of the present era and an understanding of doctrines that are based on events in time. To worship is to act out our faith in continuity with a tradition that connects us to the apostles and what they witnessed in the presence of Jesus. Old liturgical forms and music embody the continuity of the church triumphant in the presence of the church militant. 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 more complete meaning into forms that were ancient and beautiful. All beauty is God’s beauty.

Now, apparently, the most moving experiences for many people are rock concerts. There are probably ways that the excitement of these experiences can be salvaged. 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 that describes seventeen years of mission work in Tanzania. Translation of parables and stories from the Bible into the cultural imagery of indigenous people involved many features of the indigenous culture adapted to communicate Christian doctrine and character ideals to new converts. The difficulty was conveying the original meaning in the forms available in the language and imagery of the people.

Now, advocates of postmodern literary theory argue that there is no authoritative meaning in works of literature and all literature is merely 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 a conservative church. In liberal churches, it seems the Bible is like any other book and its truths are thought to be culturally relative. In Evangelical churches it is claimed that the gospel must be contextualized to contemporary modes of expression and that artistic form is neutral. Rock music has been in vogue for thirty years, so rock music seems to be the way to communicate the gospel.

The problems of the liberal approach are evident; without moral absolutes, atonement for sin and salvation are nonsense. But there is also a problem communicating the historic tradition of the apostles in art that has no more history than McDonald’s fast-food. The meaning of the gospel is inextricable from the historic church, which is the spiritual body of believers in its teachings and, even more importantly, its witness to 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 the artifacts of archaeology.

There have been numerous denominations and movements that have tried to get back to original Christianity without the liturgies and organizational frameworks that are connected 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 out of its cultural and historic embodiment, it is more difficult to recognize Christian worship as distinctly Christian. The time interval from fresh upstart movement to oddball sect is usually only a couple of generations. Already we have grey whiskered rock musicians acting like they were nineteen in nostalgia fests among devotees.

The revival era adapted modes of expression in its hymnody that sounded like Victorian era parlor music. CCM churches are rebelling against these old forms to create their equivalent in currently popular music. This seems reasonable enough until you contrast Victorian culture with the libertinism of post 1960s pop culture. In this framework, it’s hard to accept the arguments we hear all the time about cultural forms being neutral—you know, “Arguing over music is like arguing about the color of the carpet.” No missioner in Tanzania would dress and dance like an Tanzanian to attract a crowd, but postmod Americans are now doing roughly the same thing under the spotlights of mega-church auditoriums.

Photo: Flickr, creative commons 2.0


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