Worship Across the Racial Divide:
Religious music and the multiracial congregation
Oxford University Press £18.99
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THE astonishing range of variants of the faith which makes up
American Christianity has always followed the grooves of class,
racial, cultural, and regional divisions. Christianity tumbled in
increasingly populist forms down the whole social ladder and
westward with the frontier, creating a minutely variegated
patchwork of culturally and racially homogeneous churches all the
way from Anglophile Episcopalians to the latest arrival of Hispanic
Pentecostals from south of the Rio Grande. Paradoxically, this
de facto segregation within
the American melting pot secured Christianity's social reach and
underpins the continuing vitality of the Churches.
Yet, since the end of de
jure racial segregation, the multi-cultural congregation has
become the holy grail of American church development. Church
boundaries may have become more porous; yet Gerardo Marti admits
that left to themselves most congregations would remain largely
homogeneous. A movement advocating "multicultural worship music"
as the recipe for congregational diversity inspired Marti to look
at 12 diversified Protestant congregations in southern California.
To his own surprise, his research disproved the mantra "It's the
Marti himself initially believed that it was music's "almost
mystical" acoustic properties and "universal" essence that enabled
congregations to transcend their differences. The pastors and music
directors, as well as the people who write "how to" manuals and run
training courses for diversity, are convinced that music is the
magic bullet. Unfortunately, the evidence showed no common, purely
musical factor associated with congregational diversity.
What actually brings diversity is what Marti calls "racialized
ritual inclusion", a strategy with problematic moral implications.
Virtually everyone takes it for granted that the spiritual nature
of different "races" is innate and expressed through their
distinctive musical styles, and that African-Americans have the
"deepest" capacity for worship. People routinely use three broad
"racial" categories of music-cum-spirituality: African-American
(gospel); Hispanic (salsa or mariachi); and white (popular
Evangelical music from "Vineyard" to rock 'n' roll), with Asians
"assimilated" to the white category, as they have no obvious
Marti shows that these are fluid cultural constructs that
"racialize" differences. An Anglophone, white-majority congregation
seeking diversity first introduces "gospel" into the musical mix,
and recruits at least one African-American musician to the "worship
team". Then it may do the same for Hispanics. (Black churches, it
seems, do not pursue diversification.)
It is the practice of recruiting "visible colour" "on to the
platform" and into the team of "greeters" (even before "colour" is
evident in the body of the congregation) that stimulates diversity.
Most of all, it is interpersonal relationships across "racial"
categories which often develop through working together in choirs.
Co-operating in common tasks does the trick rather than what the
author calls "karaoke" worship with everyone self-consciously
singing along to someone else's musical tradition.
Despite the quest for "sincerity" and "authenticity" which
motivates these well-meaning Californians, they are simply wrong
about what they do that "works", and curiously unembarrassed by the
racial stereotyping that underlies it. Nor is it the first
instance of liturgical reformers deluded by their own conviction
that tinkering with words and music will of itself bring about
greater inclusiveness in the Church. Caveat!
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader
in Sociology at the University of London.