Inculturating Liturgical Music

In a delightful scene in Ang Lee’s splendid comic film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, the oldest sister of the Taiwanese family at the center of the story, a recently converted and fervent Christian, witnesses her new husband’s baptism by submersion. As he rises from the water, the large congregation solemnly bursts into song: the Ode to Joy. To be sure, this melody from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become something of an international hymn for all occasions, but does it not seem odd that a completely Taiwanese congregation, in celebration of their own community, would sing a German tune? It is no careless choice on Lee’s part. In earlier scenes in the film, the oldest sister is shown listening to Verdi’s Requiem and high Renaissance polyphony on her headphones as she travels to and from her school. Why should a Taiwanese Christian insist on foreign music to experience her faith?

The inculturation of local customs, music and language for Catholic liturgy has a long history. It goes back to the very beginning. But the matter has come to be particularly urgent in recent years as the church pushes outward from Europe to evangelize non-Western cultures, even as cultural Christianity in Europe and North America continues to decline. Though it did not use the word inculturation, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) proclaimed that even in the liturgy the church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith (No. 38). More recently, the Congregation for Divine Worship’s fourth Instruction for the Right Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (March 29, 1994), clarifies what this might mean in practice. It says inculturation has a beneficial double effect: the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the church. The present climate of multicultural awareness takes inculturation as the natural, effective way to spread the good news, and liturgical music appears to be an easy way to start the process.


The strategy for the inculturation of liturgical music seems simple. Instead of teaching outdated European notions of proper liturgical music, encourage the people to use their own folk or art music as liturgical hymns and even as settings for the ordinary prayers. African-American spirituals provide a textbook example. This is an indigenous congregational hymnody informed by historical experience and the strong spirituality born of that history. Those who grow up with it identify with it and are naturally at home with its style. Its sense of the sacred can prepare them for the great prayer that is the Mass. So why, then, should Beethoven, Palestrina and Verdi be the musical icons of Christianity in Taipei?

The worldwide practice of inculturation is rarely as simple as the history of spirituals might lead one to believe. Indeed, it can be a matter of great delicacy that rewards reflection and expertise. The Roman instruction of 1994 speaks of inculturation with sincere approval, if not enthusiasm, but also with caution; for in liturgy there is much at stake. The document recalls that in the Acts of the Apostles the church did not demand of converts who were uncircumcised anything beyond what was necessary’. It notes the distinct liturgical families, yet also a desire for liturgical uniformity. It quotes the council’s liturgy constitution regarding the worth of indigenous musical traditions, adapting worship to their native genius, but insists that inculturation not [be] marked, even in appearance, by religious syncretism.

Consider the case of a traditional Muslim community. The chant used to call the faithful to prayer is not considered music by serious believers, but of course it has strong spiritual associations specific to Islam. Real music, on the other hand, occurs outside the mosque, in secular celebrations and in some popular Shiite rites that are viewed dimly by juridical Islam. It is difficult to see how inculturating either type of music into Christian liturgy could be effective. The chant has a sacred semantic that inevitably recalls the traditions and faith of Islam. Popular music occupies a semantic space similar to that of pop music in the West, and therefore its use would defeat the transcendent purpose of the divine liturgy from the outset by making it sound the same as the world at large and by evoking inappropriate connotations. This, in fact, is what happens when enervated commercial styles are heard in modern North American and European Christian churches. We need not inflict that mistake on anyone else.

A modernized, secular society like Japan presents similar difficulties. The indigenous music of most Japanese today is entirely Western classical music and the latest popular sounds from America. Advanced programs of traditional Japanese music are rare, and in any case that music no longer resonates with the general population. Neither do Japanese practice religious rituals very often. Shinto music, what little can be found, is confined to special occasions like births, New Year and special anniversaries, while Buddhist chant finds its place at funerals. An evangelizer determined to incorporate local music into the liturgy would have to choose between obvious musical syncretism, Western popwhich in its anemic church Christian idioms has proven a liturgical failureand such Western classical compositions as Ode to Joy.

India presents the case of an intensely Hindu society with a small minority of Catholics who practice the ancient Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar rites, along with the Roman rite. The immensely rich tradition of Hindustani and Karnatic classical music is bound historically, textually and by musical association to Hinduism, as is most Indian art and classical literature. And yet, in A Genre of Hindustani Music (Bhajans) as Used in the Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Stephen F. Duncan documents how the simpler structures of bhajan (involving simple congregational refrains) and kirtan (hymns) may be used in Catholic liturgy. Because these genres have spiritual roots, they seem ideal candidates for inculturation, but nowhere does the author address the issue of syncretism. History has indeed known cases of successful adaptation, notably the Lutheran chorale (hymn), but in general it requires either a long passage of time or a radically different context that discourages the prior meanings.

This is because the obstacle in each case is semantic, not technical. The simple strategy of musical inculturation fails to recognize how music’s power to carry meaning even apart from its lyrics, its semantic range, could cause serious harm. This power is not related to a musical composition’s popularity or the fact that it can have unpredictable, private meanings for individual hearers in the culture.

Imagine that we were evangelizing the American South and had set the Glory to God from the ordinary of the Mass to the tune Dixie. All the cultural associations of that easy tunethe Confederacy, slavery, etc.survive despite the new words, and are in fact continually reinforced as long as the tune continues to be sung elsewhere, outside of the liturgy. This is a shocking, extreme and fortunately hypothetical example, but the fact is that traditional music of any kind has accumulated cultural meanings that must be faced. When the formation of liturgical sensibilities is at stake, especially those of converts, subtle overtones in the musical semantics of indigenous music can undermine the best intentions. Fidelity to traditional usages must be accompanied by purification and, if necessary, a break with the past.

The Vatican instruction describes four different cultural situations an evangelizer may encounterChristian, foreign, mixed and religiously indifferentthat are quite reminiscent of the musical situations just described, and it counsels careful evaluation. One strategy will not fit all. The success of spirituals in America is not a good model, because it depends on historical circumstances that seldom recur: Christian roots, a popular and easy musical language, and musical qualities suitable for the Roman liturgy. So what if indigenous music proves impossible to inculturate?

The American experience, especially recently, has made us rightly uncomfortable with the exportation, or worse, imposition of our cultural artifacts and practices arbitrarily on others. At the same time, the all-important matter of liturgy may require an even deeper, more radically mature understanding of the relation between liturgy and culture. We remember that Christianity is a historical religion, that one of our most fundamental beliefs is that he was made mannot a generic man, but a particular one who lived and died in first-century Palestine. This means that by a kind of providential accident, certain cultural artifacts of that time and place take on significances that resist inculturation of any kind.

Consider the elements of unleavened bread and grape wine, chosen by Christ as the vessels to contain himself. For Jews, these things have associations and resonances that many non-Jews will never appreciate fully, because they operate at a certain remove from our formative cultural experiences. For Japanese, living in the home of rice and sake, that remove is much greater. The pre-eminence of the psalms in liturgy, with their abundant Jewish references and desert metaphors, is another example. There is nothing to be done about these things except to teach ourselves. Our conversion exhorts us to put on certain strangenesses and learn their significances, now immeasurably greater than any cultural one, through their participation in the divine liturgy.

This is a kind of denial of culture that contradicts postmodern thinking, no doubt, but that also resonates with the self-denial that all Christians are called to practice. If we are enjoined to give up father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and [our] own life, too, then giving up some artifacts of culture and learning new ones seems by comparison a minor sacrifice. After all, how often has it been preached that Christians must be countercultural? In the sense that we all give up the hindering elements of our own culturesand every culture, being of the fallen world, has themwe accomplish this dictum in sacrifice for the universality that Christ himself desired.

Incorporation of local music into liturgy may indeed be the proper thing to do if conditions are just right, as they probably are in African-American neighborhoods and perhaps Russian and Slavic nations, which are also heirs to a rich tradition of Christian music that meets all the criteria for sacred music. In other places, evangelizers can offer nothing better than to bring with them traditional liturgical music to teach along with the Gospel. The treasury of Christian music is over a millennium old, stocked with pieces of priceless quality and variety learned over the centuries to fit many situations. It may comfort those who are still squeamish about the Western origins of this treasury that American culture and much of its religious music have become so commercialized that Gregorian chant and the rest hardly connote the West to anyone anymore. Most American Catholics, hearing a work by Palestrina performed in a cathedral, would at first listen with as much wonder and bewilderment as a newly converted Hindu or Japanese. Traditional Catholic music has become something alien to all, and therefore potentially universal for all.

The oldest sister in Ang Lee’s film certainly has no quarrel with the music of her new faith. On the contrary, she embraces it as a spiritual support, an aural icon. Though it may seem strange to her, it should seem no stranger, no more wonderful than her encounter with Christ. This very strangeness of the music symbolizes the radical nature of conversion: the newness of life in him.

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14 years 4 months ago
I have some concern about the author's dismissal of the adaptablity of the music of an Islamic culture to Catholic liturgy. I am a Maronite Catholic. Most Maronites speak Arabic and live immersed in Islamic cultures. Maronite Masses are acommpanied by liturgical music that is not obviously of European origen. This example seems to cast doubt on his assumptions and conclusions.

14 years 4 months ago
I have some concern about the author's dismissal of the adaptablity of the music of an Islamic culture to Catholic liturgy. I am a Maronite Catholic. Most Maronites speak Arabic and live immersed in Islamic cultures. Maronite Masses are acommpanied by liturgical music that is not obviously of European origen. This example seems to cast doubt on his assumptions and conclusions.


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