By Kate Bowler
‘Tis the season for behemoth core courses and this teacher finds her heart (or ears) inexorably turned to song. There is something about teaching American Christianity to 150 divinity school students in a 75-minute slot that gives me pause about barreling through with my regular lectures and wild hand gestures. As instructors, we seem to obsess over finding provocative prose for students to digest or non-copyrighted visual images to appreciate. So why not historicize the most common ritual of congregations of every stripe: music? After all, the sociologist Mark Chaves and his 1998 National Congregations Study found worship and the arts to be more important to church life than either politics or social services. (Chaves, Congregations in America, 5)
This semester I decided to experiment with a musical element in every lecture. In discussing Jesuit Jean Brébeuf and his indigenizing efforts with the Hurons, we sang the Huron Carol where “chiefs” and “hunter braves” visit the swaddled babe. While the Puritans bemoaned the Catholic vestiges of Mother England, we called out the bare unison sounds of psalmody. When a German Bible became the first holy book published on these shores, we put Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” to shame.
Which brings me to these preliminary conclusions. Why not include music? Well, Augustine may have opined that music was theology in the form of love, but some musical acts do not come off as loving. Music requires performance, and this, in turn, requires a certain willingness to tolerate a number of missteps. Systems fail and might leave you wailing alone. Sometimes the pitch is too high or low and—given that you are not a professional musician—you can do nothing but stand there and bear it.
Further, it can be difficult to historicize music at all. Recreating a sound from a colonial moment, for example, requires particular instruments that may not be available. Sheet music is frequently updated for ease of use. Original language—and the historical distance it creates—may be lost as communities try to keep their worship current.