One of thorniest issues facing Christian missions is the propriety and possibility of judging other cultures. Since all cultures are affected by both human depravity and common grace, and since God’s redeeming grace and revealed truth have come to some cultures, it is possible to make judgments regarding cultures.
We cannot judge the idea of culture, but we can judge how particular cultures have turned out. A culture is an amalgamation of ideas, thoughts, gestures, loves, sensibilities. Usually these are shaped, knowingly or unknowingly, by the religious, or as moderns would say, spiritual views of that group. Culture tends to flesh out the transcendent views of a people-group. With this in mind, it is possible to judge if cultures are closer or further from the Bible’s vision of ultimate reality.
Once again, we do this by judging the particular cultural phenomena we encounter. We consider the music and the lyrics, and their uses. We consider the art and sculpture and its uses (they are usually religious, in tribal cultures). We consider the literature (if there is any), and its uses. We consider the wedding, birth, funeral and manhood ceremonies. We consider the jurisprudence, the political structures, the economic practices. We consider the attitudes towards children, women, the weak and sick, the wealthy, and so forth. In other words, we evaluate the various things a culture produces and uses to express its vision of reality.
How do we evaluate these phenomena? We parse their meaning. What does the large wooden mask mean? What did it mean previously? How was it used? Is it still used that way? What associations does it contain for most people in that culture? What does the slaughter of an animal at a family gathering mean? Does it mean an offering to the amadlozi (ancestors)? Is it used in other ways? What are the associations attached to it? How does lobola differ from the European tradition of a dowry? What does it mean in terms of biblical family responsibilities? What does it mean in terms of the financial situation of a new couple just starting out? Where does honoring one’s father and mother begin and end regarding this practice?
These and hundreds of other matters confront us when we evaluate another culture. The process of understanding what something means requires much patient inquiry, and learning from those who know.
This is particularly true of music. A careful missionary is going to arrive armed with an understanding of how music communicates, and how Christian worship music in the West developed. He will know that a culture that has not been exposed to Christianity cannot be expected to have equivalent forms overnight. He will also know the pervasive effects of mass culture are everywhere, and its pop idioms find their way into almost all music.
He will now work to find music in the target culture that communicates in ways that aren’t hostile to Christian affections. He will have to take some time to evaluate the meaning of the music on several levels: what it intrinsically communicates, how it is (and has been) used, what it is associated with, and what the lyrics communicate on a propositional level. Where necessary, he will expose believers to the best of Western forms: both as an example of ordinate affection, and as a means of stimulating equivalent expressions in that culture. Further, Christians of all cultures have a right to share in the heritage that is now theirs, even if it came from the West.
People who are in a hurry to send favorable prayer letters home might want to skip these steps. But doing so will usually result in equal and opposite errors. Either the missionary will plant an American church on foreign soil (like the missionaries who insist that the Zulu and Tswana believers use the KJV), or he will plant a church that will soon descend into syncretism, adopting cultural forms that grew out of animism to supposedly express indigenous Christianity.
When a missionary does all this hard work, he is judging the cultural phenomena, using Scriptural principles, and reliable knowledge gained from both his own culture and the culture in which he serves. He does not do so because he is an arrogant colonialist. He does so because he wants to transmit biblical Christianity to the culture he is going to. He does not want the message lost in translation, either in language, or in music.
The problem he faces is how to overcome his own cultural prejudices in making these judgments. How is he to do that? We’ll consider that in the final post on multiculturalism and music.