January 22, 2007
Musicians in Black Churches
— Martin E. Marty
Political religion is a necessary but not sufficient expression of public religion. Most public faces that religion wears are not directly political. They have much to do with the mall, the university, the market, the media, entertainment, and more. On those terms the music of the African American churches is as potent as any force at exercising the faith beyond sanctuary doors -- though the outdoor, down-the-street, and semi-secular entertainment venues all draw on nurture based in the sanctuary. African American musicians, from the giants of jazz to the opera greats, almost to a person credit "Daddy's church" or "the choir director on Sunday" as the main goad, influence, and inspiration in their past.
I've been to anniversary celebrations of church life in mainly-white cities. I am thinking, for instance, of "Dutch Reformed" and "Italian Catholic" Grand Rapids, Michigan, which climaxed its civic celebration under the Calder sculpture downtown, with an African American Pentecostal choir leading the town in praise. Here in Chicago, the Reverend B. Herbert Martin, through wily actions too complex to revisit, pushed me on stage at the Gospel Fest to mumble and stumble a couple of summers ago. I looked out on tens of thousands of mainly African American audience members, many of them having come as families, as they praised Jesus and celebrated the Power -- in a highly public setting.
Still, what goes on in church is most important, as any frequenter of black churches knows. But, to the surprise of many, leadership there is in crisis. So said Samuel G. Freedman in a recent New York Times article with the subheading: "An essential supply line of ministerial musicians is withering, badly." Why? Competition. Success, Worldliness, Salaries. "The commercial market for gospel musicians, especially those who can cross over into pop, has made the five-figure salaries and 24/7 hours of midsize churches seem unappealing, though many megachurches pay upward of $100,000." (I'll bet some midsize non-black church musicians who can pipe and pedal Bach and lead fine choirs don't even match that, says ironist M.E.M.)
Freedman follows the Rev. Douglas Slaughter around the country in pursuit of an affordable musician for his 600-member Second Baptist Church (with a $700,000 annual budget) in Aiken, South Carolina. In the last paragraph of the article we find that Rev. Slaughter was successful, but he remains uneasy. Anthony Heilbut, expert on gospel and soul and jazz, says that "the oddly parallel evolution of hip-hop, with its materialistic world-view, and evangelical Christianity's increasingly popular strain of 'name it and claim it' theology is a main agent." More Heilbut: "Modern church theology and hip-hop mesh uncomfortably well because both of them place a premium on Jesus and bling."
And then this: "If you want to reach your audience, you have to give them the current sound. What you grew up with is what they'd call Old School," a patronizing term, we learn. We find that there's no place to hide from the marketplace and the reach of the entertainment ethos.
"Black religion" is not necessarily "poor" or "poor folk" religion. Combine Jesus and bling? Are there limits to the reach of "the world" that churches used to keep at a distance?
Samuel G. Freedman's article "Black Churches Hungering for Musical Talent" (New York Times, January 13, 2007) is available to TimesSelect subscribers at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/13/us/13religion.html.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Artaxerxes to Abu Ghraib: On Religion and the Pornography of Imperial Violence" by Bruce Lincoln. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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