In my handful of posts this month, I want to give some anecdotes from church history to inform us as to how missionaries, attempting to plant indigenous church, should approach the issue of music in the culture in which they minister. My posts will not always touch on music per se, but instead explore the tension of what we today call “contextualization.” The truth is that we as contemporary evangelicals come to the problem of contextualization with a handful of assumptions we have received from a whole host of sources. Sometimes these assumptions are true and worthy of being held, and sometimes they are not. I want to expand our horizon a bit and look at some of the ways past Christians considered these issues.
But I beg the reader’s pardon, in the interest of clarity, to keep in mind several things while reading my posts. First, I have neither the time nor the energy to make this a comprehensive or scholarly investigation. I recognize that I am working with a particular medium, and that medium is blog form. This means I must be brief and cursory. If you are looking for a scholarly paper, you are going to be disappointed. I hope you will not dismiss my limited attempts at discussing this topic despite this medium.
Second, when I observe the beliefs and practices of past Christians, I am not asking us to embrace uncritically these past positions. Their beliefs and assumptions are worthy of as much scrutiny as ours are. Third, and at the same time, we should allow their beliefs and practices to scrutinize our own. By seeing how other Christians viewed differently the things we often take for granted, we allow our own culture to be critiqued.
The truth is that all cultures should be critiqued. If I make so bold a statement, without going into a full-orbed discussion of what culture is and how it is defined, to believe that cultural expressions are always good or even neutral is in essence to deny human depravity. Today, when contemporary theorists assert that cultures should not be critiqued, or that such a critique is a kind of racism, the truth is that even that assertion is a type of cultural critique. Such a position is itself critiquing cultures that flowing out of their view of truth and judgment and beauty believe that some cultures can be superior to others.
One of the reasons we should study church history is that in so doing we allow other Christians to admonish us, even though those other Christians may be dead. I am asking us to do just that. Every once in a while it is good for us to remain silent and listen to voices of the past. It is good for us to listen and consider when our older, wiser uncle explains to us how our generation is spoiled and does not know how to really work. Proverbs says we’re a fool if we do not.
So I am asking, in my posts that will follow over the next several weeks, to listen to voices of the past, and to be actually open to embracing some of their assumptions and beliefs, even if we do so somewhat critically. The missional and cultural sensitivity crowds may automatically be tempted to reject some of the opinions I cite as bigoted or racist. But in such cases, I hope we can at least ask why the individuals believed what they did and consider even accepting their beliefs.
To begin, let me whet your appetite on where I’m headed (and test your ability to hear what I just said in the previous paragraphs) with a snippet from the American Puritan and theologian Jonathan Edwards, speaking of ministering to the Stockbridge Indians:
There are some things give a hopeful prospect with regard to these Mohawk Indians, particularly the forward inclination of the children and their aptness to learn. But that which has evidently been the greatest defect from the beginning in the method of instruction here, is that no more proper and effectual measures have been taken to bring the children that are here taught, to the knowledge of the English tongue . . .
‘Tis on many other accounts of great importance that they [the Mohawks] should be brought to the English language, as this would greatly tend to forward their instruction, their own barbarous languages being exceeding barren and very unfit to express moral and divine things. And their being brought to the English language would open their minds, and bring ’em to acquaintance and conversation with the English, and would tend above all to bring that civility which is to be found among the English.