Liturgical Language In African-American Worship And Preaching

Themes: Liturgy, Preaching, Scholar, Worship

Language used in black preaching has a musical ring and rhythm. The spirit and delivery of this language has much to do with the emotional vitality of worship in black churches, a fine example of how the aesthetic qualities of language shape the meaning and experience of worship.

The Pervasiveness of the Idiom

One who observes the black church from within the context of its life as a worshiping community is soon struck by the degree to which the preaching is musical. The spectrum of musical expression ranges from the sonorous delivery, which has a pleasant melodiousness, meter, and cadence, to the full-blown chant or song. To those who are a part of the tradition in which musical delivery is normative, such a form often emerges as the criterion for preaching. This valuation categorizes other styles of delivery as mere speech, address, or lecture, but hardly as preaching. Consequently, the preacher uninitiated in the customs of this segment of the black church may be thanked for his or her “talk” as courteous intimation that “preaching” per se had not occurred. Although few credible preachers and even fewer homileticians would make musical delivery a measure for preaching, it remains a highly treasured aspect of the culture.

The manner in which black preaching speaks to the black experience in America with a divinely inspired word is doubtless its most distinctive feature. To a situation characterized by bleakness, despair, oppression, and frustration, a word of hope is declared, offering to a people the promise of a brighter day and strength to endure the times in which they find themselves. This preaching is not solely “otherworldly” nor simply “protest.” Emerging from the depths of a religious consciousness in which God is trusted against all odds posed by history, black preaching is an affirmation concerning the will and power of God before it is a protest against or a gesture away from this world. It is celebration—that point to which the preacher leads the congregation in moments of thanksgiving and transport—wherein the skills of musical delivery are unsurpassed in attaining the exalted moment. Not only does such celebration enhance the understanding and retention of the gospel; it is, as Henry Mitchell asserts, essential to faithful communication of the gospel, without which there would be a “defacto denial of the good news” (The Recovery of Preaching [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977], 55).

This “celebration” is, of course, distinct from what Mitchell calls “cerebration.” “Celebration” is more affective and emotional than “cerebration,” which is reflective and intellectual. This is not to diminish the significance of the cognitive aspect, for celebration does not stand independent of responsible exegesis, careful penetration of the teachings of the church, and sensitive theological insight. The detail that is supplied by careful and tedious exegesis, analysis, and the application of theology and doctrine supplies the material used in celebration. Musicality expresses that which is beyond the literal word; it takes rational content and fires the imagination. Indeed, at the point of celebration all that has been generated in the cerebral process is offered up in the moment of exaltation.

The persistence and pervasiveness of this form of delivery from one generation of black preachers to the next is astounding when one considers the paucity of reflection on the idiom. Among those who appreciate and practice the art, it is almost as though it were a secret of the guild’s oral culture. Whereas some academicians ignore or disdain the idiom, denoting it a vestige of “folk religion,” black preachers who have come under their tutelage not only maintain the tradition but also practice the art with consummate skill. Restricted neither by denomination nor by educational status, it continues to span the gamut from the preaching of Father Andrew Bryan and Andrew Marshall at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Charles Adams in the twentieth century, from the “cornfield preacher” to the “Harvard Whooper,” from the “No D” to the Ph.D., and “every D in between.” It is no surprise, then, that contemporary black preaching resembles descriptions of preaching within the slave community (see Jon Michael Spencer, Sacred Symphony: The Chanted Sermon of the Black Preacher [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987], 1-16).

This skill of musical delivery is not possessed by all black preachers; neither is it a feature unique to black religion. On occasion it is found among white Pentecostals whose worship style is more closely aligned to that customarily found in the black church. Among these white preachers is television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who (perhaps because of his style of preaching) attracts a substantial black audience. However, the larger American culture greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, offered little support for a genre of preaching that even hinted of the mystical. In African-American culture, the idiom has been highly appreciated as a form of religious expression, and it is in this latter cultural context that insight can be gleaned into its religious meaning. Such a focus eliminates the necessity of having to account for an aberration in larger American culture by reducing the idiom to some modality that is an epiphenomenon of a truly religious expression. (An epiphenomenon is the representation of an event that is regarded as incapable of explanation in terms of itself. A religious experience is regarded as an epiphenomenon, for example, if it is considered explainable solely in terms of nonreligious categories such as psychology or economics.)

Any overlap between black and white cultures (between a Charles Adams and Jimmy Swaggart, for instance) invariably invites inquiry as to who is mimicking whom. Although perhaps valuable for determining the origin of the practice in North America, such questions do little for the description, interpretation, and preservation of the form. Therefore, the concern of this essay is not to validate musicality in preaching by recourse to homiletical canons. Rather, it is to explore the character of this musicality in the context of the culture which sustains it as a normal occurrence.

Musicality as Surplus in Preaching

The very definition of Christian preaching is an attempt to account for its transcendence over ordinary speech. Nearly all homileticians address this dimension wherein the preacher is “outside of self” and speaking in behalf of a divine power. Gardner C. Taylor, one of the most influential black preachers of this generation, correctly argues the awesomeness and presumptuousness of the task undertaken by one who supposes to speak for God:

Measured by almost any gauge, preaching is a presumptuous business. If the undertaking does not have some sanctions beyond human reckoning, then it is, indeed, rash and audacious for one person to dare to stand up before or among other people and declare that he or she brings from the Eternal God a message for those who listen which involves issues nothing less than those of life and death. (Gardner C. Taylor, How Shall They Preach [Elgin, Ill.: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1977], 24)

John R. W. Stott, the Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and one of the foremost evangelists and lecturers of the day, attends to the same dimension of this reality by noting that the preacher can speak only because God has spoken:

No attempt to understand Christianity can succeed which overlooks or denies the truth that the living God has taken the initiative to reveal himself savingly to fallen humanity; or that his self-revelation has been given by the most straight forward means of communication known to us, namely by a word and words; or that he calls upon those who have heard his Word to speak it to others. (John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1982], 15)

Stott illustrates the implication of this insight with a somewhat humorous anecdote from the career of George Whitefield, the eloquent and spellbinding preacher of the eighteenth century. During a preaching campaign in a New Jersey meeting-house, an old man fell asleep during Whitefield’s discourse, provoking him to exhort:

If I had come to speak to you in my own name, you might rest your elbows upon your knees and your heads on your hands, and go to sleep! … But I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of hosts, and (he clapped his hands and stamped his foot) I must and I will be heard. (Ibid, 32–33)

In spite of the keen and penetrating focus on “this world,” preaching through the ages has been uttered as a word coming from another world. Because the order which it assumes as normative does not exist in history, human beings have found it difficult to utter in ordinary speech the extraordinary pronouncements which preaching requires. The ancient prophets often resorted to signs; the apostles of the early church accompanied their words with signs and wonders; the saints were known to retreat into prolonged silent contemplation, only later to emerge with pronouncement; still others have incorporated the enchanting and mystical powers of music in their delivery. Black preaching is an instance of this latter employment.

The very word music is derived from an ancient view of the world which considered the art forms essentially enchanted. Music was a means for evoking and expressing the rapture of the soul. To the present day it has been integral to the cultic life of nearly every culture and, by implication, inseparable from religion. Analysis and reflection by the ablest scholars of religion has revealed further that music, celebration, and ecstasy are crucial ingredients differentiating religion from philosophy. Anthropologist R. R. Marrett, who pondered and explored the threshold of religion, concluded, for instance, that “religion is more danced than thought out” (Handbook on Religion [London: Metheun and Co., 1914], xxi, 175).

Within the comparative framework of religion, black preaching (as human phenomenon) employs music in the delivery of meaning from another world. In a skillful and stalwart way, music is one of the instruments which bridges the chasm between the world of human beings and God who speaks to them through preaching. Establishing a direct link between the spirit within the preacher, the word being uttered, and the worshiping congregation, the surplus of musicality operates beneath the structures of rational discourse, producing a mystical and enchanting effect upon the audience waiting to hear what saith the Lord. There can be no denial of the potency within this form of preaching, which has been a source of untold healing and motivation for the strivings of the people.

Music in the African Tradition

One of the greatest errors that can be made in attempting to understand black culture is to assume that it is but a carbon copy of some monolithic American culture. Invariably when American culture is projected as such a mythical caricature, it is viewed as a reflection of European culture, thus obscuring the rich interpenetration of African and Amerindian civilizations and authenticity of truly American genre. Hence, there is no chance of coming to terms with the musical aspect of black preaching without a backward and sideward glance to Africa, for in African culture we can clearly observe the structures of meaning embedded within the religious consciousness of its people, which has allowed for the sustentation of music as a means of communicating the “surplus.”

In traditional Africa, human life exists in synthesis with other forms of life and in relation to rhythmic patterns observable in the natural order. These patterns—the coming and going of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the periodic varieties of rainfall, planting and harvest—indicate an essentially rhythmic structure to the forces that sustain life. Even biological life has a rhythmic fundament—the conception and bearing of children, the process of reaching puberty and adulthood, and the phase of aging and passing on to join the ancestors. The connection between the rhythm and life is the primal nexus from which the manifold expressions of culture flow. In its unity, rhythm/life surges forth in the multifarious forms through which the world is known: language, art, society, religion, government, and so forth. It is therefore only a short step to the realization that the very force of life that pulsates through individuals and communities is given objective tangible expression in rhythmic motion and music, and that musical rhythm is the aesthetic sanguification of the force of life sustaining the people.

In traditional Africa, one can find this principle of structural unity from one tribal group to another. Among the Fon of Dahomey it is Da, represented by a serpent coiled under the world. Among the Dogan it is the nommo pair, which signifies a word full of power. Among the Bantu it is ntu, the root from which all categories of life are derived. This principle of motion graphically illustrates the pulsating force of life that connects all living things (including plants and animals) and establishes the tie between them and the cosmos. During moments of ecstatic dancing in the cultic shrine, the powers of the universe coalesced and surged through the living being in question. Rhythm, which undergirded trance possession and the resultant “preaching” gave extensity to the African soul and in turn to those Africans who were taken as slaves to North America. Every conceivable effort was made by the enslaved to preserve the primal connection between the noumenal world of deities, ancestors, and spirits and the objective world in which they found themselves. This consciousness, which Gayraud Wilmore calls “hierophantic nature of historical reality” (Black Religion and Black Radicalism [New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973], 4), preserved within Africans and their descendants an openness to spiritual power. However, the surplus of deep stirrings, intensity, and zeal within the African spirit, easily expressed in African languages by means of rhythm, tone, and pitch, found little correspondence with the vocabulary of the strange land. And drumming, a precise means of communicating with human beings and the deities, was strictly forbidden in the slave regime. But rhythm and musicality were sustained within the worship of the slave community, a portion of its residue being deposited in black preaching.

The presence of rhythm within the African and African-American worldview corresponds to the oppugnancy slaves felt toward the world. To them, rhythm was essentially numinous: it was the property of the deities, and it moved the community backward away from present reality into the time of the deities. The same atavistic influence operated upon the adherents of Afro-Christian faith: rhythm and music in preaching, operating beneath the structures of rational and discursive communication, moved the hearers away from the history that unleashed terror upon them (Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982], 19; Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return [New York: Harper and Row, 1959], 139). Only through perpetuating their quarrel with history while simultaneously sidestepping its terror could they forge a positive identity for themselves.

That the direction of black preaching has ever been “a gesture away from history” has understandably given rise to the charge that it is otherworldly. However, because there has never been a historical epoch in which blacks could behold their dreams fulfilled, the rhythm and music in Afro-Christian preaching, correlative to the content of the message, is an affirmation of the atavistic and the primal—the world that God has truly willed.

Preaching as Kratophany

Within the tradition of the black church, preaching is truly a manifestation of power, or (in a word used by Eliade) a kratophany. As in a “theophany,” which is a manifestation of deity, some object is present which opens to the transcendent while simultaneously being rooted in the world of tangible, historical reality. With a theophany, the object may be a tree or a stone, as in African traditional religions, while with preaching the kratophany is spoken word and rendered gesture. Further, within the context of the culture that sustains black preaching, there is no modality more indicative of the presence of deity, power and intrusion from another order than that of the preached word entrenched in musicality.

As kratophany, more must accompany the preached word than the claim that it has power or a theory of preaching. Because the Word is like “fire shut up in the bones” (Heb. 4:12; Jer. 20:9, 23:29), something special is supposed to happen in preaching. Replete with drama and musicality, its performative power is expected to move people and to cause reaction. Nodding the head, shedding a tear, holy dancing, speaking in tongues, singing, humming aloud, and saying “amen” are responses to the power manifested in effective black preaching.

Words thusly preached are akin to ancient Hebrew tradition, wherein words were believed to have accomplished and performed the action contained in them, especially when spoken on behalf of God. Moreover, the spoken word could by no means be retracted. When, for instance, Balaam, the Mesopotamian diviner, was summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites as they came up from Egypt, Balaam instead blessed Israel, declaring that he could not retract the spoken word under some circumstances (Num. 22:12–18, Jer. 23:29). Again, when Jacob surreptitiously received the blessing that should have gone to his brother Esau, their father Isaac insisted that once the word bestowing inheritance had been spoken reversal was impossible (Gen. 27:36–38). The prophets declared too that the word they spoke for the Lord would not return without doing what it was sent to do, and the that word was like “a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces” (Isa. 55:11). When caught up in the more intense musical phases of speaking the word, the trance-like state of the black preacher parallels that of the early Old Testament prophets, the nabiim, who claimed no responsibility for their speech under the conditions caused by the Spirit of the Lord upon them. They spoke what “thus saith the Lord” without fear of punishment or death (George T. Montague, The Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition [New York: Paulist Press, 1976], 17-33; see also Amos 1). The preacher who genuinely enters this state of spirituality is able to deliver discourse far exceeding that which had been prepared.

Down through the ages music has provided the added dimension of communication through which one spirit could reach another. This non-discursive level of communication is apparent in the way listeners experience musical performance. On the one hand, there is the objective dimension that can be set on the bar and governed by the scale, whereby a musician correctly executing the score will produce the expected sound. Technical correctness aside, there still remains the subjective element—the surplus. The exceptional artist is able to “touch the spirit” for the sake of the audience. Similarly, the music of black preaching can be understood as a sort of “singing in the spirit” (1 Cor. 14, 15), for there is surplus (glossa) expressed in music which accompanies a rational content (logos) expressed in words. The rational portion is contained in the formal structure of the sermon which reflects the homiletical soundness and the doctrinal tradition in which the preacher stands. For the glossal portion, the preacher becomes an instrument of musical afflatus: a flute through which divine air is blown, a harp upon which eternal strings vibrate. For the sake of the audience, the preacher becomes an oracle through which a divinely inspired message flows.

When preaching attains the level wherein rhythm and musicality are unrestrained—wherein the preacher “lets the Lord have his way”—it is customarily said that the preacher is “under the anointing” and is “being used of God.” In the vernacular of the culture, we say, “the preacher has come.”

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