I love theology. And I can also be a very critical person. Those two habits sometimes make a difficult combination in worship. Even at home, when I’m sitting in church, I’m often analyzing and judging the message or the worship style while the service goes on. The Calvinist tradition (to which I belong) puts a high emphasis on sound doctrine and on Christian education. I’ve been drilled with theology since kindergarten.
The habit of critiquing has gotten worse since coming to Uganda. To be fair, I’ve only been to a few worship services since coming to Africa, but all of them have left me feeling unfulfilled. I don’t know how much the bad taste in my mouth has to do with the Anglican tradition, the specific services I’ve been to, or maybe just my high expectations for African worship turning out to be unrealistic. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself unable to fully worship God since I’ve gotten to Africa.
The problem, I believe, has to do with what John Taylor calls “the language of myth”.(2) What irks me about the worship here is how the worship leaders and even the pastors just seem to say whatever feels right at the time. Maybe it’s just my analytical self, but it seems like many things that are shouted in the heat of a worship song don’t really make sense, let alone apply to what the song is saying. Similarly, the sermons often seem so scattered and frankly like the pastor is making it up as he goes. Another pillar of Reformed Christianity (this might get old) is the pure preaching of the Word. My ears are always listening for revelation from the Bible, not just from the mind of some preacher. It’s probably obvious that I’m frustrated with the worship so far. I’ll give an example of something from this morning’s sermon to illustrate what I mean. This is a rough quote from what I remember the pastor saying: “When we leave this building, we forget about worshipping Jesus and we rob him of what desires from us.” And then immediately following, “Hallelujah!” and a chorus of amen’s from the congregation. Really? It seems a little somber for a hallelujah- amen, don’t you think?
But, since reading Taylor’s explanations about the difference between the language styles of Africans and Westerners, I’m able to overlook most of the “flaws” that I perceive in African worship. I try not to fall into the category of the European writers that Taylor says attribute Africans’ difference of outlook to “a retarded development of the African consciousness” (page 27).
In our discussion in Faith and Action on Taylor’s book, our lecturer pinpointed the difference between the two ways of perceiving the world which have been revealing themselves in my worship experiences. He said that myth is concerned with reality, while logic is concerned with truth.
It is precisely at this contrasting point that I find myself so often during worship here in Uganda. Here I am, sitting in the pew like a good Calvinist, testing and weighing the logical truth of the doctrine being proclaimed from the pulpit, while everyone around me is immersed in the meaning of the language of myth they receive in the spirit of worship.
At the end of each service, I always feel a little unfulfilled. And looking around during worship and afterward, I start to realize that I’m really the only one. The spiritual language of myth works here, in worship just as much as in regular conversation. As much as I want to critique the way they conduct their worship, the people of Africa are teaching me a valuable lesson about letting go and losing myself before the face of God. By the end of the semester, whether I’m fluent in the language or not, I hope to be able to more fully engage in the reality that is African worship, and learn to find the meaning therein. Hallelujah? Amen.
Joe (Fall 2011)
Taylor, John. The Primal Vision. London: SCM Press, 1963.