The music of this past Christmas season — on the radio, at church, in shops and even carolers at my apartment complex — turned my thoughts to the subject of music in global faiths.
Whatever it means, no religion of the world even comes close to Christianity in the quantity of music and song it has produced. And that would hold for the secular music produced in cultures influenced by their respective religions. True, India, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Iran and other countries representative of global faiths have their pop singers on the radio, although some of that is inspired by Western groups such as the former Beatles. Singing is a well-nigh universal phenomenon, especially in societies influenced by Christianity.
Different religions have had their chants, which may count as music. Buddhism has its chants, both the chants of Theravada monks that I heard in Sri Lanka, or Mahayana, which I heard in Japan. The Soka Gakkai offshoot of mainline Japanese Buddhism did a very rhythmic beat of the Lotus Sutra, “nam hyo renge kyo.”
Islam too has its chants, recitations they may be called. It is an art form admired by Muslims, slow recitations of the Qur’an, often from memory. I saw and heard it practiced at the American University in Beirut by an older student from Khartoum, Libya, who was listening to tape recordings by virtuosos of such recitation. The call to prayer in Islam could in fact be taken as an instance of music in Islam. We’ve quite possibly heard it many times and I find the Egyptian style much more melodic than what I heard in India.
Music directly related to the church has undergone several transitions. The Protestant churches of the Reformation era sang (or chanted?) Psalms, and the introduction of hymns by people such as Isaac Watts and the Wesleys (chiefly Charles) was met with some resistance. Something similar happened with the advent of gospel songs and their refrains in the 1800s, though these did not eclipse hymns. And most recently, we have witnessed the appearance of praise songs such as now take over the platforms of many evangelical churches across the land.
Such praise bands seem to me to be an unfortunate replacement of the choirs we still see in large traditional congregations. I saw and heard one superb choir performance in the Harlem Abyssinian Baptist Church many years ago, where the pastoral prayer segued into an operatic-quality contralto leading out with, “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know it is the spirit of the Lord.” Made shivers go up and down my spine. Church music has spilled over into secular music, as seen in the work of Johan Sebastian Bach, whose work is still celebrated today in both the church and other venues.
Western music has deep roots in Christianity and Judaism. As Psalm 137 reports, Babylonians asked captive Jews in the exile, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” Even if it was a taunt, it testified to an art Judaism possessed already more than a half-century before the time of Jesus. Up to this day Jewish synagogues have their cantors, most of them with trained voices. And in the epistle to the Ephesians, Paul exhorts that church to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” Paul’s words indicate clearly that church music is an act of worship. It is also entertainment in the best sense of that word, in that it builds community among Christians and gladdens and uplifts the human spirit.
May Christianity long continue to sing.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College.