Christ-Centered Music: A Christian Worldview on Global Music-Cultures

Galatians 3:28 says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the kind of Christian viewpoint that can help us while sifting through the mass quantity of cultures (and music-cultures within them) that exist around this world that God created. The emphasis put on equality among cultural diversity that exists throughout scripture gives us as a collective Christian community a basis of faith on which we can lay our knowledge and learning of different cultures through music, even if those music-cultures do not necessarily agree with our beliefs.

image via Britannica.com

A great example of this concept in God’s word is 1 Peter 3:8 which says “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” (NIV) While these are good principles to live by in life, they are also good principles to live by when considering other cultures and their music. Be sympathetic in your understanding of the “why” in a culture and be humble in the idea that those in other music-cultures probably feel the same way about your culture. An understanding that God created all things, including all different peoples and music, should implore you to do analysis of global cultures that is empathic and full of compassion.

The effectiveness of this kind of understanding when dealing with a people’s way of life and their indigenous worship style, along with establishing relationships with different populations of people and spreading the gospel to them in a way that they understand, has been demonstrated through research and data acquired by music missionaries in the field.[i] This idea, however, can sometimes be easier said than done, especially when a particular music-culture conflicts with your own personal beliefs. So let’s discuss how we as Christians can not only use knowledge of other cultures to expand our personal beliefs but also what steps we can take to break down the barriers between us and those whose cultures conflict with our faith.

One specific music-culture I have learned about recently that conflicted with my personal religious beliefs was that of the Ewe people from the Ivory Coast region of Africa. A majority of African religions and the associated music making involve some form of belief in ancestral spirits. The view of the Ewe people and their music are no exception to this fact. A main part of their music-making is based in their religious philosophies of Mawu (the Supreme being), Se (a divine being that controls law, order, and harmony) and the life cycle of a spirit. According to Ewe religion, before a spirit enters its worldly body it tells Se what its life on Earth will be like and how its body will die. In addition to this spiritual belief, many Ewe believe that the spirit inhabiting their body is an ancestral spirit which is why musicians attribute their musical abilities to whichever ancestral spirit they believe has inhabited their body during this lifetime. The spirits also play a large role in the main/most popular music within the Ewe culture known as Agbekor. This music was originally a war dance utilized to gain strength before battle or communicate the results of battles to spirits .[ii] While the combination of Mawu and the divinity Se does encompass some qualities that we as Christians could relate to God, the overall ideas about spirits and their ability to inhabit new bodies, which in turn inherit the abilities of said spirit, are at odds with my faith and the faith of Christians worldwide. So how do I personally deal with this issue?

The Africana Fefeworwor Dance Ensemble performing Agbekor

The key to how I deal with understanding cultures that conflict with my faith is to look at them analytically. As a Christian I like to start with an inquisitive mindset first and simply look at that culture with an analytic eye. “How did this come about?” “How can I relate this back to something I understand?” These are questions I ask myself when first being exposed to something new, especially a new culture. I find that being as open-minded as possible before judging a music-culture, or culture in general, is important when dealing with conflicting faith ideas because I believe it is more important to fully understand something before you start thinking it is wrong. This kind of mindset makes it easier to stay strong in my faith while still being respectful of others in their belief systems and allows me to expand my thoughts on what it looks like to be in the kingdom of God. Different cultures have different viewpoints on what the kingdom of God (or Gods depending on the culture) may be like; however, I personally believe that being able to tap into knowledge about these different cultures is crucial to deepening one’s relationship with God. Understanding what a culture is involved in and what it is that they believe, Christian or not, opens the door to a way of thinking that can help strengthen your own beliefs.

The importance of gaining knowledge and understanding is expressed in Proverbs 4:7 which states “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (NIV) While this scripture originally refers to the necessary nature of understanding Christ’s salvation, I believe that it is an important principle that applies to all aspects of knowledge. The concept of gaining knowledge has its own set of intrinsic values, but it is important to a Christian lifestyle that we consider actions we can take to find a connection between learning about the world and deepening our understanding of the word of God.[iii]

Personally, I follow a process that I feel is helpful in growing my faith in relation to my experience of learning about different music and music-cultures around the world. My personal process is broken up into three different actions, each of which are supplementary to each other and can be built upon gradually to help create a meaningful process to everyone in their own way. The first action is to fully immerse yourself in examples of a culture’s music by listening to as many examples of its music as you can. This helps you feel what inspires these composers and performers of other cultures, which you can then relate to your own inspiration as a Christian.

The second action in my process that I believe can help you deepen your faith through other music-cultures is listening to different styles of music with the understanding that all the sounds you hear are a part of God’s creation. This action can be difficult for some Christians due to an ingrained idea that only certain music qualifies as Christian music. However, I believe that with the right intentions all actions can be acts of worship, and therefore, I believe that all music written with the intent of glorifying God and his kingdom should be included in the realm of Christian music. This is another idea that is demonstrated in scripture, specifically in Psalm 150:3–6, which says

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.” (NIV)

These verses show not only the importance of music and dancing in the process of worship, but also that different aspects of music can go together to create a cohesive worship experience.

The third and final action in the process of expanding your faith through the world’s different music-cultures is finding common ground with your own music-culture. This not only helps bring you closer to the people group involved in the music making you’re immersing yourself into, but it also expands your appreciation to the further expanses of God’s creation. Finding aspects of other cultures that you can relate back to your own makes them seem less foreign and easier to grasp.

With the idea of finding a common ground in mind, let’s explore a hypothetical situation in which I have the opportunity to meet with someone from a different African culture whose beliefs conflict with my own: the Senufo people group of Africa. How do I connect with them on a personal level? How do I as a Christian share the gospel with them? It all goes back to understanding their culture enough that you can find ideas relatable to your own. The Senufo people believe in music and instruments as gifts from spirits and therefore have rituals that connect the instruments to the spirits involved.1 One idea I might bring up to this individual is that we as Christians also believe our music and instruments are gifts from our God. A specific example I might give the individual is the idea presented by American composer Aaron Copland, that to a composer a musical theme is like a gift from heaven that he plucks out of the sky when the inspiration hits him.[iv] This is a concept that the individual quite possibly would relate to and could help ease further Christian beliefs into the conversation in relation to music as a tool of worship.

Hypothetical meetings aside, the main takeaway of this post is to keep in mind that God’s kingdom is not a segregated land but is instead all inclusive. This applies greatly to global music and music-cultures and all aspects of these different cultures, whether that be the music itself or the instruments being used, can all be utilized in the of the Lord to spread the Gospel. This mindset can help us grow as citizens of the world and personally in our relationship with God. So next time you are faced with divisive questions about those with different beliefs from you, just take a step back and analyze it until you gain an understanding and always remember that they too are children of God.

[i] Shubin, Russell G. “Worship That Moves the Soul.” Mission Frontiers 23, no. 2 (June 2001): 10–15.

[ii] Locke, David. “Agbekor, Music and Dance of the Ewe People.” In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s People, 106–26. 6th ed. Cengage Learning, 2017.

[iii] Williams, Clifford. The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

[iv] Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. Penguin Putnam, 2011.

Originally published at https://medium.com on April 23, 2019.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

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