Monday, February 28, 2011

What's in a Song?

"Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry..." If I'm late to chapel, my walk is enriched by the sound of voices lifted in song. They are loud enough to be heard several blocks away

Singing here in Zambia is joyful, vigorous, and forceful. Most of the singing is a cappella, at least in chapel and many gatherings. One congregation I visited used discarded American hymnals, but all the others have had songbooks with words only--or nothing at all. Most people know the words to the songs by memory. And, as I noted in a previous blog, hardly anyone here reads music. So all that is required is the written words and someone who knows the melody.

The hymns in Bemba are mostly "call and response" praise songs. The ones in English are traditional hymns brought over by the first missionaries, complete with ancient English terms (like "hath" for "has") and 19th Century sentiments.

This provides a challenge for me. Not only is the language totally male-dominated, but the theology is outdated, or at least out of fashion in the churches I attend at home. We no longer use military imagery in many of our mainline churches, but here we sing, "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross, Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss..." Although we have not sung it often, "Onward Christian Soldiers" is in the book, too.

And then there is the fascination--or at least a full comfort--with blood. "Would you be free from the burden of sin? There's power in the blood, pow'r in the blood, Would you o'er evil a victory win? There's wonderful pow'r in the blood...There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r, in the blood of the Lamb, There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r in the precious blood of the Lamb." I counted seven "blood hymns" in our songbook, including "Are you washed in the blood?" "Nothing but the blood of Jesus" and "Wash me in the fountain of your blood." An American pastor here who teaches in the Theology Education by Extension Program (TEEZ) located on the MEF campus told me that in African-American churches where he has worshipped in America, songs with reference to the blood of Jesus are also popular.

But the biggest area of cultural clash for me comes from the overwhelming popularity here of hymns counseling submissive obedience. The two that we sing over and over when we ask for requests from the songbook are "All to Jesus I Surrender" and "Trust and Obey." The choruses go like this: For the first, "I surrender all, I surrender all, All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all." The other is "Trust and obey, for there's no other way, To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." There is an important message here, and perhaps one we Americans with our self-reliance, skepticism, and challenging questioning need to hear more often. But here it seems to reinforce an orientation toward unquestioning acceptance of authority. It tends to discourage any critical thinking in areas of faith.

No one here seems to have heard my favorite hymn, "Help Us Accept Each Other" (tune: barrownita) or Andy's favorite hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory." One of the verses of mine says "Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some, to love them as we find them, or as they may become." Andy's hymn calls us to have courage and wisdom as we use the power God gives us to confront the world's warring madness, greed, and other social (as well as personal) evils.

We are going to print a supplement to our chapel songbook, so I'm looking for ideas of more contemporary--or at least more diverse--strong hymns to put into the collection. Any suggestions?

Good news: our songbook does include "Lord of the Dance," which we sing with gusto!

No comments:

Post a Comment