Cultural Identity and Expression in Worship

My Covenant Colleague Josef Rasheed‘s recent post about worship and cultural identity beautifully and gracefully articulates the role cultural expression plays in worship as well as its dynamic complexity.  However, I am aware a white pastor saying some of the same things would come off very differently (this isn’t a complaint, there are very legitimate reasons why Whites can’t speak in exactly this way about heritage and cultural identity and worship).  But I wish here to reflect on cultural identity, worship, and contemporaneity in dialogue with Rasheed’s post looking for that place of meeting he articulates so well in his conclusion, which I’d argue is beyond cultural identity or worship as expression, but union in Christ and the Body, the church.

Rasheed’s post has me asking what is my heritage (this is my word not Rasheed’s), what is my cultural identity?  As White this question is full of pitfalls, traps, and possible wrong turns.  Where as Rasheed’s cultural identity and heritage may be labyrinthine (he says it has taken many turns, and he has found it in unexpected moments) as White, for me to speak of cultural identity is mazelike.  Taking a turn may not lead to the way out, can lead to dead ends.  As White I can get lost in this talk of heritage and cultural identity.   Claiming my cultural identify as Swedish or German can simply fall into the realm of facade and kitsch, or worse kitsch as hyper identity. Even this hand wringing over what is my cultural identity is one of those pitfalls: cultural identity, heritage, and the like are what those exotic others have, I’m just White, the default, the measure.  In this pitfall we, who are without “cultural identity”, borrow, appreciate, and identify with what isn’t ours (this can happen in worship in multicultural congregations and worship).  The flip side of that is to attempt to guard against all that isn’t White, to bewail the loss of this or that, that the youth are into other people’s music or culture, etc.

All of this is of course bound up in failing to recognize, at the outset, that part of the heritage of White and European is the oppression of people of color in the process of creating White identity.  It should not be surprising that some of us take refuge in either the worship styles of “contemporary” or “traditional”(really what is familiar from our childhood).

What leads down some of these winding dead ends for Whites is to limit conversation of worship to that one hour (and for Whites it usually is exactly an hour) of worship on a Sunday morning.  When Rasheed talks about worship expressions outside of the Sunday worship service, his example is the funeral.  This resonates with me yet,  I remember in seminary we were taught that we may need to insist to our (White) congregations that funerals were worship.  If it is difficult to talk about worship and cultural identity as whites its in part because everything is so contained, things don’t bleed into each other.  Either worship is an isolated thing with it’s own sets of rules and music and “culture” or it must be seamless with the current culture of the individuals who show up to the worship service.

Through my goth identity I have opted for what is contemporaneous, a cultural identity without heritage. Though Goth now has a history, and may be forming a tradition of sorts. I’ve never been one who felt the need for this my pop culture identity to be expressed in worship.

In college I often spent time with an Armenian friend’s family at Easter.  There was food Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, a wonderful feast, and there was music.  Armenian Apostolic services are chanted and there is no instrumentation, the music sung outside of church and the chant are quite different. Yet in the family celebration was continuous with the Divine Liturgy. The two celebrations were one, yet neither reflected nor reproduced the other.  This resonated with me because I remembered such seamless but differentiated celebrations on the feast days in the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church of my childhood. By the time I was in college that cultural expression of worship (of the congregation in which I, my mother, and grandfather had all been raised) was a memory.  In the several thousand member church with multiple services and a contemporary worship service with rock band, worship was just another discrete thing I did in a week .  Neither “traditional ” nor “contemporary” worship appealed to a “sub-culture” an identity I was forming around alternative and goth music. Whether we sang traditional hymns or the latest worship song neither were current expressions of my identity.

I have long been drawn to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship.  This began when at 8 and 9 when I encountered the Cathedrals of Europe as places of mystery and awe.  Part of the draw is some worshipful connection to my Swedish and German cultural identity. Yet it is a bit complex, as it also alienates me from that cultural identity since most directly that identity is Lutheran and not Catholic.  In some sense often what draws me in worship is a sense of deep historical and cultural connection, liturgies and songs passed down through European Christianity from the Mediterranean. Chant Gregorian and Eastern also relate to childhood encounter of the European cathedral.  Though, I have difficulty except in a most vague and abstract way accounting for chant as an expression of my cultural identity.  To some degree connecting to this ancient worship expression fits with family stories of immigration that also seek to keep some historical and familial memory of Sweden or Germany alive in the foreign context of the U.S.

Where does this meandering in the midst of worship, expression and cultural identity lead?  In part Rasheed and I are talking about recognition and reception. Rasheed recognizes the Body of Chirst  in people singing a hymn in the Bahamas in worship in the Congo: the recognition comes both in discovering something familiar in what was initially thought to be unfamiliar and in finding one’s place in what was simply unknown.  In  the cathedrals in Europe, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship I too find familiarity in what seem unfamiliar and my place in what is unknown.  Our recognitions are bound up in our cultural identities but not entirely accounted for by them: As Rasheed concluded “I was no longer American. They were no longer African. It is moments like these where the cultural expressions which are embedded in the soul of my people say Yes! We are God’s children, privileged to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.”

In these various worship expressions reflective of various cultures we encounter more than our own or others cultural identity in recognizing and receiving that which forms us into the Body of Christ. One may say that another cultural identity is to be formed out of these cultural expressions.  It is then possible that we may discern what forms us and does this work of formation, of knitting us into the living Temple, Christ’s body.

Here I’m brought back to all the pitfalls of saying these things as a White person. Whites have tended to assume that our way of doing things was God’s.  Through White ideology Europeans ceased to be those gathered with others from other nations and people but those to whom others were gathered.  When this heresy goes unrecognized it distorts the ability to recognize and receive, it undermines our ability to come to know the forms of the Body of Christ.

This is turning into the first in series of posts exploring worship, liturgy, culture and the roles of formation and expression in worship that forms us into the Body of Christ. There are two more posts in this unexpected and emerging series: here and here. The connection to these three posts isn’t at the moment self evident.  In part the series is about linking these up. LEK 3/13/15