This is an article from the July-August 1996 issue: Worship and Missions

The Batak Heresy

The Struggle to Achieve Meaningful Worship

The Batak Heresy

Rob and Catherine Hodges are missionaries working with Overseas Missionary Fellowship in Indonesia. Rob is an ethnomusicologist and has worked in this field since the mid-1980s. Their experience illustrates some of the struggles related to this ministry and some of the tremendous potential.It was December 1990 in Indonesia, and something new was happening under the late afternoon Sumatran sun. At the Christmas service of the Batak seminary where Rob was teaching as a member of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, choir members had just returned to their seats after singing "Angels We Have Heard on High" translated into the local language. The last notes of the organ died away, and then into the stillness poured the voices of traditional Batak drum and flute.

These were joined by the other components of the traditional Batak ensemble. Students draped in the ceremonial Batak cloth proceeded with poise and dignity toward the altar, in step to a form of music with which they were intimately acquainted--the music of traditional weddings, blessings, funerals and feasts--but had never before experienced in the context of Christian worship. The music and dance forms were familiar bone-deep, heart-deep, to the worshipers, but the actual composition and choreography were new, created for the occasion by a gifted Batak musician and lecturer at the seminary.

As I watched the dancers circle the holy family and bow deeply in homage, I wanted badly to know what was happening in their minds and hearts and in those of the Batak students and lecturers seated around me. I didn't have long to wonder. The lecturer seated next to me, a generation older than the students and old enough to associate the music and dance with animistic worship practices, shifted uncomfortably in his seat and muttered "Heresy!" But as the last of  the drumbeats died and we emerged from the sanctuary into the underwater-green dusk, a student turned to me and said, "Hearing our music and seeing our dance just now, for the first time I truly feel that Jesus came for me, a Batak."

Personally, I was discouraged by the response of the lecturer and delighted by that of the student. But that's neither here nor there. The point is that both responses are valid, both deserve respect, and together they suggest some of the complexities surrounding the use of indigenous music in worship. "Out with the Western, in with the local" may have a politically and even theologically correct ring to it, but it's an oversimplification which may turn out as wrongheaded and paternalistic as insisting that only Western music has a place in worship anywhere in the world. This said, the fact remains that as long as we respect the complexities of the enterprise, there is tremendous room for growth in the realm of fostering the use of local music in the worship of the One who deserves the profoundly authentic devotion of His creatures.

Sounds good. Theory generally does. But what does it look like in practice? In the Indonesian Batak church setting described above, here's what Rob has been doing over the last six years. First, he's been asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening. He's piecing together a picture of the history of worship music in this almost 150 year old church, asking old people (both church leaders and lay people) what they remember and what stories they know from before their own time. He's asking young people what they know about these same things. He's asking people how they feel about church music and about worship in general as they stand now a German liturgy and Western hymns translated into Batak or sometimes into Indonesian, the national language. He's learning all he can about traditional Batak music, asking people what they know and how they feel about it, and observing their behavior in situations where traditional music is performed.

He's also making music. Rob has learned to play a traditional Batak instrument, the sarune--a reed instrument which when practiced indoors sounds like a bagpipe at close range. He utterly terrified his family the first time he tried to coax some silken tones out of the instrument. But he's kept at it and has played in traditional ensembles at festivals and outside-of-the-sanctuary church functions.

Besides earning him a reputation--the white guy with the big nose who can play our music--this has endeared him to keepers of traditional music lore, has communicated his interest and respect better than anything he could have said, and has been a deep source of personal enjoyment.

Last year Rob and some Batak friends--including pastors, choir directors and lay people with an interest in worshipmusic--launched a small quarterly publication by and for Batak church musicians. This is a devotional and educational tool which entertains the possibility of using Batak music in worship. It also covers more general music-in-worship concerns, offers a forum for discussion of issues like the associative meaning tension illustrated above and addresses questions from the readership about, for instance, choral festival criteria, choir rehearsal technique, and so forth. The subscriber list stands at about 150 and response has ranged from curiosity to elation. (One chap wrote in and said, more or less, "I've been waiting for this magazine all my life!") We see this publication as groundwork for worship that is authentically Batak, flowing out of authentic repentance and renewal--both of which are desperately needed in the Batak church.

I realize it would be more than possible to read this and to say, "OK, but that's Rob's 'thing.' Nobody without his background is going to get that involved." It's true that this is his thing, both vocationally and avocationally. Does that mean, though, that only somebody with training in ethnomusicology is equipped to wrestle with these issues and fashion some sort of practical response? Not according to what we learned from a survey Rob conducted of OMF church planters across SE Asia last year. His stated goal was to create a picture of the situations in which the respondents are working and the particular problems they face with regard to church music. More specifically, he was out to ascertain whether and how an ethnomusicologist might be of help in equipping OMF missionaries and their national partners to wrestle with the issues surrounding the use of indigenous music in worship and witness.

The 78% return rate in itself indicated that the survey had hit on a live issue. We were heartened to find our colleagues, with and without background in Western music and none with specific training in ethnomusicology, wrestling energetically with ethnomusicological concerns as they work to proclaim the gospel in culturally relevant ways. The respondents, in turn, were clearly heartened that somebody had thought to ask. Many enclosed a letter when they returned the survey, expanding on their answers to the four pages of questions, expressing their own feelings about the challenges they are facing, and asking for advice. These people are "doing" ethnomusicology.

The second half of the survey story is that, after looking over the recommendations Rob made based on the data from the surveys, OMF leadership agrees that there are "hot spots" where outside, trained help could be a great boon toward the sensitive handling of music issues and the practical aspects of encouraging indigenous music use by the local church. With this in mind, OMF has recently begun working in cooperation with Prairie Bible Institute to establish a program through which Prairie ethnomusicology students can be placed for short term work with OMFers serving in Asia. We hope summer of 1996 will see at least one Prairie ethnomusicology student placed with church planters in a strategic area in the Philippines.

This student will find herself working in an area deeply resistant to the Good News, as well as to the westernization that marks much of Asia in the twentieth century. The missionaries with whom she will be working have taken a close look at the music of the people they are there to reach. They've observed that the traditional music is largely "proclamational" and thus well-suited to evangelism and teaching. And they note one particular style of song reserved exclusively for passing along news. Might this be the perfect vehicle for the News most worth passing along? What would be involved in creating a song in this style to tell the news about God's Son Jesus?

The Prairie student is in for the hands-on experience of her life; the missionaries stand to gain some valuable assistance; but what this is really all about is the glory of God.

And that's the bottom line--not indigenous music, but the glory of God. God is glorified when He receives the authentic response of our deepest being. That's the music we want to encourage each other to make in anticipation of an exuberantly multicultural heaven where the glory of God will be the one light by which we see each other's faces and the one song of every heart.


There are no comments for this entry yet.

Leave A Comment

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.