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What does race have to do with worship?

acholi-dancersA few weeks ago I wrote about common straw man arguments that make their way into most debates about worship and music, and I cautioned against using them. As David rightly pointed out last week, worship wars will always be with us and are often necessary, so it is ever the more important that we not give into caricaturing our opponent as we seek to defend rightly ordered worship.

Well, I’ve seen quite a few straw men erected over the past week in an attempt to discredit what we are attempting to accomplish here at Religious Affections Ministries. Apparently it’s easier to call us names than to address the core of our arguments.

One of those straw men, one that is quite commonly used against those who claim that some musical forms are more suited to the worship of God than others, is to play the race card and insist that we are simply white men with a prejudice against the music of other cultures. Because we believe some cultures are better than others, we are racist.

This charge of racism is built on two premises:

  1. The first premise is that we believe some cultural expressions are more suited to worship than others.
  2. The second premise is that there is something inherently ethnic or racial about cultures.

I unapologetically affirm the first premise.

However, this acknowledgement does not make me a racist unless the second premise is also true, and I emphatically deny the second premise. Culture has nothing inherently to do with race.

In order to prove this, I must first define culture, and to do so, I will allow those who first coined the term and developed the definition to do so, namely, anthropologists.

One of the first to use the term “culture” in the way we use it today, to describe the music, customs, clothing, and arts of a people, was British anthropologist Edward Tylor. In 1871, Tylor defined culture this way:

that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.1

In other words, culture is what people do; it is what they produce. This definition of culture continued to influence anthropological discourse and eventually made its way into common speech.

Evangelicals began using the term to describe different behaviors of people groups, mainly in discussions of world missions. Likely one of the most influential definitions of culture resembles Tylors:

the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.2

These definitions define well how we use the term “culture” today: culture is how people live, it is how they act, it is how they behave.

Now, the second premise above is rooted in an understanding that says human behavior is rooted in genetics. What people do–their culture–flows directly from their race–their genetic makeup. Just like an African cannot help the texture of his hair and an Asian cannot change the shape of his eyes, so people can’t help what culture they have; they’re just born with it.

Therefore, the argument goes, if I were to criticize someone’s culture, that would be the same as if I were to speak disparagingly about hair texture or eye shape. It is racism.

Now there are at least two problems with this line of thinking. First, human behavior is always moral and thus must always be judged. It would not matter if our behavior was inherent to us genetically; that doesn’t make sinful behavior any more right. Just because an Irishman is more genetically disposed toward anger or a German to stubbornness (that’s me!), those behaviors are no more justified.

Since culture, as defined by anthropologists, is the collective behavior of a people, culture must always be morally judged. In fact, all people are born with certain cultural propensities, and those propensities are depraved.

But there is a second problem to this line of thinking: there really is nothing genetic or racial about culture. People are  not born with specific cultural characteristics in the same way they are born with the genetic blueprint for eye shape and hair color. Culture is learned behavior.

This is important: most people who equate race with culture make the mistake of defining culture as a group of people rather than what those people do, yet culture as commonly understood by anthropologists and the average person does not describe people, but their behavior. And since behavior is always moral and not tied to genetics, it may be–indeed must be–judged and compared with biblical standards.

So where does culture come from if it does not come from genetics? Very simply, the behavior of a people–their culture–comes from their values, beliefs, and worldview. How people act is directly connected to what they believe and value rather than their racial makeup.

The other ironic point about charges of racism against me and other authors on this site is that we are most critical of our own culture above all others!

Therefore, charges of racism levied against those who criticize particular cultures are simply unfounded. Rather, judgment of culture is an absolute necessity who believe the Word God to be the ultimate standard of all human behavior.

Christians must judge cultures and various cultural expressions based on a biblical standard. Therefore (1) some cultures may indeed be better than others when compared with Scripture, and (2) this is not racism.

To denigrate the physical features of a people is horrendous racism.

To judge the culture of a people is biblical discernment.

So what does race have to do with worship? Revelation 5:9 tells us that people from every tribe, kindred, people, and nation will be present in heavenly worship, praising the Lamb for his redemption. What a glorious sight that will be!

But none of the terms mentioned in Revelation 5:9 refer to the culture–the behavior–of those people. Every race will be in heaven, but not every culture.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), 1. []
  2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 5. []

10 Responses to What does race have to do with worship?

  1. Another thing I find interesting is when certain people bring Music from Africa into the whole debate. Apparently everyone has this thought that traditional tribal African music is more similar to Rock 'n Roll then then more western forms of music. Therefore they make the argument that due to the high emotional level of African worship that they have "real" worship and more contemporary styles fit perfectly with that culture. Yet that is ridiculous. Traditional African music was chant, yes they had primitive percussion instruments, but it really in no way compares to our modern pop styles of music. It is really just similar to many ancient styles of music from any other part of the world. (we all started at the same place with music by the way.) Any rockish music in Africa is just as much from Western influence as traditional hymns. Actually the closest thing we have to traditional African music is our Negro Spirituals and Folk songs (written by early American Slaves), which for a long time in our country has been considered boring classical music by the Pop Rock lovers of our day.

  2. Scott, I wonder if I could pose a question. Let's say that a certain worship congregation claims to be a "diverse" one. Isn't it very likely, then, that its form(s) and-or style(s) of worship will be culturally different from a "non-diverse" one? Or, if a certain worship congregation has certain form(s) or style(s) of worship that are different from that of other churches, wouldn't it be likely in actuality that its population will be found to be ethnically different (or diverse) than that of those other churches?

  3. Hi, Todd. To your first question, it depends on what "diverse" means. If they mean "diverse" culturally, then of course they will have a variety of forms, which may or may not be acceptable according to biblical guidelines.

    If the mean "diverse" in terms of races, then, no, that does not necessarily mean their worship forms will be diverse.

    The other false assumption here is that worship rooted in the traditions of the historic church is not already diverse culturally. It indeed is. In our worship, for example, we use worship forms from Africa, Turkey, Spain, France, German, Great Britain, and America that span hundreds of years. I'd say that's pretty diverse.

    As to your second question, I would say absolutely not, at least in America. Those churches that pioneered worship tailored to "diverse" tastes are usually white, middle class Americans with a preference for pop music.

  4. IMHO, the only reason that the racism charge is brought is to distract attention from the real questions, which are, "Does the culture mesh with Biblical principles?" and "Are there elements of the culture that mesh with Biblical principles?"

  5. Scott,

    Excellent job. Huge help to me personally in terms of clarity. I haven't been on your site that much over the past year or two, but I've been more drawn to it recently with the well-reasoned, clear-thinking posts. Keep up the good work brother.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for a forum on this subject, and dealing with it. Racism is a lazy, cheap, insulting argument. I can appreciate your calmness, because it's hard not to feel anger about it. The ones using it try to posture themselves as somehow caring more about other people than you do, as if you're more loving if you accept a music that harms people. It's the symbol over substance of the left, keeping people in actual slavery. And it does harm them. I've seen the actual harm that it does, where I live. Generally, I see the people touting it as pandering, essentially using people, making merchandise of them.

    I would wonder if some of the ones making it even have multi-racial churches, not that it would matter. Whites are literally in a small minority in our school, about 50-50 in the church. Do you think they would tolerate us if we were racists? None of our people see our music as "white." They understand the principles. My opinion, and it's only an opinion, because people won't admit it, but I think that these people know what they're saying is wrong about the music. They know that there is an inherent wrongness to their music. They don't want to lose it, because it appeals to their flesh and other's flesh, whom they depend upon for faux success, so they take up whatever trashy argument they can grab hold of to keep it. It has nothing to do with race. Race is just being used, again, like in so many different arguments, to get their way.

    Here's something just written this weekend related to this subject, which shows how it was used in another area to great damage.

  7. Brad, good example.

    Chuck, I almost referred to that passage in this post; thanks for linking to it. I regularly use that as an example when I speak on culture, and I always credit you for bringing it to my attention!

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