Ethnodoxology and Love: It’s a Match!

As I mentioned in the first article on Ethnodoxology, missions and arts came together onto a single track in my life only a few years ago.  And even though the academic field with this designation is also not very old, Christians have practiced it sporadically through the centuries.  I will try to demonstrate this along the way.

There are a few principles that guide the philosophy and the practice of Ethnodoxology.  Here are four basic ideas, as stated by Dr. Robin Harris of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (Duncanville, TX):

  1. Music, like other art forms, is not a universal language— our responses to music are learned, not intrinsic.
  2. Just as in spoken language, music and other arts must be understood in their historical and cultural contexts to be interpreted correctly.
  3. All peoples should have the opportunity to worship God in their own heart languages, heart musics, and other arts.
  4. Churches that value and encourage heart music and arts in worship, reflecting the various and multiple cultures in their communities, are demonstrating the love of Christ to the world.

If you have not been engaged with this topic up to this point, some of the statements above may sound quite odd.  But perhaps a few lines of explanation may shed enough light on the subject to affirm their validity.

“So, music is not a universal language?” you may be thinking.  Yes, you read it correctly.  Music is, indeed, a universal phenomenon, but it does not follow that a set blend of sounds (whether they are melodies, harmony, rhythm, or combinations of them) represents the same ‘meaning,’ feeling, or idea to every human being.  For starters, the music or art form that one community (or even one single person) considers pleasant and harmonious, may be ugly and dissonant to another.

As the second principle suggests, there are innumerous similarities between spoken language and artistic expressions.  Think of it this way: we often misunderstand spoken language (even a language which we speak and understand fluently) because the context may be missing. In the same way, the meaning or the purpose of a piece of music may be entirely missed if one lacks the cultural-interpretive context in which it was created.  Besides this, the music’s meaning is also frequently determined by the personal connection we have with a piece.  I’ll illustrate.  To my recollection, in the 60s and 70s I watched every single one of the Apollo mission launchings that were broadcast on TV.  Accompanying the program (at least on Brazilian TV which I watched as a child) the beginning of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (I suggest going on YouTube and listening to it right now, if you don’t know it!) embellished the momentous occasion of NASA’s space program.  That connection, even though Strauss probably never had it in mind, is permanently set on my mind.  The introduction of that piece connects emotionally with me, and yet, it may stimulate very different thoughts and feelings in someone else.  Art can ‘speak’ different things to different people, even within the same cultural area.  How much more is that the case when we deal with communities that are ‘isolated’ from what we consider to be the ‘main stream’ of Western culture!

The third principle speaks of the opportunity that a community should be granted the choice to use artistic forms of expression that truly represent the content of the Gospel message for them.  It should not primarily be the privilege of the cross-cultural worker or missionary to make such choices.  It emphasizes the ‘heart’ connection in worship.  The late Dr. Tom Avery, SIL Arts Specialist and Director until his passing in 2005, spoke about the importance of communicating by means of one’s ‘heart music’ in his short article entitled “Music of the Heart,” which I would recommend reading. In essence, artistic forms that truly connect people’s heart with God are to be preferred to foreign and unusual ones.

The fourth principle that Robin Harris states is, in my perception, the very ‘heart’ of the matter.  It’s a match: Ethnodoxology and love!  Respect for another culture, interest in learning and being a part of a different community’s practices of music and art, and encouraging them to value and use their cultural traits (within the limits of moral values, of course) reveal both Christ’s love to them and our love for the community.  

Following these principles, whether stated with the above words or not, hundreds of cross-cultural workers and multiple missions’ agencies today make it a point to encourage local Christian communities to develop their own arts for the Kingdom of God.  I am honored to be a part of this movement today.  But years ago, I still had some preconceived notions about the place of the arts in Christianity.  I invite you to come along my journey of discovery in the next blog article. 

  1. Robin P. Harris, “The Great Misconception: Why Music is not a Universal Language” from James R. Krabill: Worship and Mission for the Global Church (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013). (Kindle Locations 3066-3074). Kindle Edition.
  2. For a deeper consideration of the question of music being a ‘universal language,’ read Robin P. Harris, “The Great Misconception” cited above.
  3. Tom Avery, “Music of the Heart,” in Mission Frontiers, July 1, 1996. https://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/music-of-the-heart#comments (accessed January 16, 2013).

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