The Great Misconception: The “Universal Language” of Worship

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People always say that when they hear what I do. I sigh, knowing the familiar script that will unfold, like one I recently had:

“I’m an ethnodoxologist.”

Eyebrows raised, the quizzical look ensues. “What in the world is that?”

“Well, ethnodoxology studies the way people worship the Lord in cultures around the world.”

The quick shake of the head and slow blink of the eyes demonstrate it was the first time he had thought about how other cultures worship.

“Hmm,” he responded. “What’s the use of knowing that? Don’t they just sing the songs we do?” At least he was being honest. “My job is to encourage and equip Christians in various cultures to express their faith through their own heart musics and other arts.”

His eyes brightened, “Hey, heart music! Is that kind of like heart language? A missionary once told me that people should have access to the Bible in their heart language.” Now it’s my turn to be surprised.

“Yep, that’s right!” I respond, “Just like each person has at least one heart language, we all have our own heart music; it’s like a mother tongue for expressing your heart, and it affects how you worship.”

“Wow, that’s, um… interesting. But isn’t music, like…a universal language?”

Musical Misnomer
“Music is the universal language.” How often have we heard the phrase? It’s amazing—the power of an oft-repeated, unexamined aphorism. This one in particular, it sounds so, romantic—convincing. Yet this notion has had some major effects on the worship practice of the North American church and the mission movement that grew out of it.

The phrase in question first appeared in the writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the early 19th century. Close to two centuries later, it filters into our pop songs and permeates our collective consciousness as one of those unexamined assumptions, which for many shapes their worship theology, their mission practices, and how they speak about music in everyday conversations.

What are the logical outcomes of thinking of music as a “universal language”?

  • What it means to me, it probably means to you.
  • There’s only “good/bad” or “high/low” in this language of music, not different music languages.
  • Since I speak this universal language, I should know what qualifies as a high or low expression.
  • Given a choice, people probably prefer to use Western music.

What is the state of the music debate in your church? Have you seen these assumptions in your context? If so, how have they affected the breadth of styles that your church sings? We’ll address the implications of those statements for the local church in North America soon enough, but for now, let’s take a look at what we exported to other countries.

[quote]Often the Bible was translated into the vernacular, but when it came to the hymnbooks, only the words changed (in translation), not the basic musical language of the songs.[/quote]

We Went, We Sang, We Conquered…
During the 19th and 20th centuries, as Western and European Christians went out around the world, they were influenced by the prevalent philosophies of their home cultures, such as cultural evolutionism, which asserted that Western culture was the most highly developed and placed “tribal” cultures further down the evolutionary scale. These unchallenged ideas resulted in the musical expressions of the newly encountered cultures being labeled with such descriptors as “primitive” and “heathen”—some even tried to “help” the local music-makers by teaching them to sing in unisonand by encouraging the translation of Western Christian songs into local languages. Current practice no longer includes such offensive labels, but neither does it always demonstrate a value for the God-given musical and artistic resources of the host cultures.

Because of the widely accepted view that music is a universal language, it never occurred to most Christian workers that just as they were learning new, complex, and “strange-sounding” languages in order to communicate with local people, they also needed to learn to understand the local music systems. Instead, they brought their Bible in one hand and a hymnbook in the other. Often the Bible was translated into the vernacular, but when it came to the hymnbooks, only the words changed (in translation), not the basic musical language of the songs.

Concerned by the charges of “music colonialism,” a number of missionaries over the last several decades have begun to resist this trend. As they incorporated into their thinking and practice the principles of ethnomusicology (the study of music and culture), missiology (especially biblical contextualization), and the burgeoning field of worship studies, a new breed was born—the ethnodoxologist.

In the late ’90s, profoundly influenced by John Piper’s writing on the connection of worship to missions, worship leader and missionary Dave Hall coined the term ethnodoxology. From the combination of two Greek terms, ethne (peoples) and doxos (praise/glory), Hall defined the term as “the study of the worship of God among diverse cultures” and stressed that worship was “first and foremost a life to be lived, and secondarily an event in which to participate…scripture calls us to both (cf. Ps 95 and Rom 12:1).

How does that apply to us here at home?
Forty years ago Tozer wrote a book in which he described worship as the missing jewel of the evangelical church. If he were alive today, he’d be amazed! At that time, there were no courses or conferences anywhere on the topic of worship. Now it’s a completely different story.

Unfortunately, the popularized “music is a universal language” paradigm has infected our weekly worship gatherings. One of the root causes of the worship wars is that we fail to take into account some basic differences in music languages—and we don’t accept the cultural and biblical values expressed in those differences. We judge one another’s music (and sometimes one another!) for perceived “goodness” and “badness” on the basis of our own cultural values, not allowing room for the validity of other musical cultures.

In the roiling free-for-all of the worship debates, ethnodoxologists are joining hands with the multi-ethnic worship movement to apply the principles of ethnodoxology to our churches here at home. What’s our goal? We want to see expressions of heart worship in the worldwide global church which embrace the various ethne in their communities, not just the majority culture.

The Local Implication
What are the ethnodoxological principles that apply to both the pew and the mission field? I propose that we start with these:

  • Music is not a universal language—our responses to music are learned, not intrinsic.
  • Just like in spoken language, a heart music must be understood to be interpreted correctly.
  • All peoples should have the opportunity to worship God in their own heart languages and music.
  • Churches that value heart music and arts in worship, reflecting the various cultures in their communities, are demonstrating the love of Christ to the world.

An Unstoppable Movement
I realize that in calling myself an ethnodoxologist, I will continue getting quizzical looks. Moreover, the conversation that starts with “Ethno-what?” will continue to be a regular part of my life. But what I love about that conversation is that I get to talk about the four important principles outlined above—principles that are slowly, but surely, infusing the minds and hearts of worship pastors, mission leaders, and laypeople around the world.

If you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself an ethnodoxologist just yet, then at least help us out a little. Next time you hear the phrase “music is a universal language,” do the world a favor and speak up! Point out that music systems, more than any verbal language, are culture specific and must be learned to be understood. Music, although universally found in every culture, is not a universal language!

Robin Harris is co-founder and CEO of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE) and serves with OM’s Heart Sounds International, focusing on music research and ethnodoxology ministry in Siberia while pursuing a Ph.D. in Music (Ethnomusicology). The Harrises have been missionaries for 25 years.

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