Black Violins

I have something different this week. It’s a bit of a parable. A friend of mine recently shared a video on her facebook page of two black violinists playing to hip hop beats.

I knew nothing about these artists, but I thought, “How sad if people recognised their talents but insisted they play Mozart.”

At a talk I attended last year by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.  At one stage he made the point that we’ve given the descriptor “classical” to Western European music most popular starting in the 1600’s. All other musical genres from other cultures and times are given different descriptors that often indicate they are something less than “classical”.

What if people looked at these musicians and thought, “How sad they settled into popular music when they could have joined an orchestra and made a name for themselves as classical musicians.”

I have a stereotype in my mind of what violinists look like. And it’s something much more like this video that was shared with me on facebook than the previous duo.

They’re white. They’re women. They’re wearing evening dresses. And even though they’re clowning around and playing popular tunes they more closely fit the image I expect.

But I’m also forced to face my own violin prejudice. Within the predominantly white culture there’s also the decidedly non-classical genre of fiddle playing. No one looks at a fiddler and says, “That guy has talent. What a shame he’s not part of a philharmonic somewhere.” There’s a willingness to accept this folk music style as a distinct genre because we recognise its roots.

We face a couple of challenges when we consider these different styles of violin performances.

1. Can we value each style for its unique traits, or do we feel an urge to rank them?

2. Would it be possible to host a concert with all these artists performing together?  Would the musicians need to make adjustments in order for the concert to appeal to the entire audience? Would they be willing to make adjustments? Would the crowd give each group equal attention and respect?

Sadly, churches often want to make newcomers from other cultures worship and serve in a style preferred by the majority culture. This attitude is most often unthoughtful, but it communicates a lack of respect for the talents and values of the minority culture. This is why it’s so important for congregational worship to reflect the values and preferences of all cultures if the church is to grow. It’s also why it’s so difficult to change the existing pattern of worship.

What do you think? Is this helpful? What are the strengths and weaknesses of comparing these violin genres to multi-ethnic churches?

After a little research, I can share that the duo in the opening video are known as Black Violin. They’re both classically trained musicians who creatively play a variety of styles. They have performed at the US President’s Inauguration Ball in addition to many other high profile gigs. Here’s one of their recent performances:

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A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Sat Down at a Table, Again

I wrote last week about my experience attending an inter-faith round table dialogue hosted by the Turkish Cultural Center and a Jewish synagogue. These are some further observations from that event.

I am a Christian male with white skin.

I recognise that this “accident” of birth gives me advantages that I don’t fully appreciate. For instance, my friend recently pointed out in a blog how eurocentric it is that European scholars get to name the study of God “theology” and every other group needs to hyphenate their perspective of this study: liberation-theology; feminist-theology; African-American-theology; etc. I live in a society that for hundreds of years has largely been developed for guys like me.

When I walk into a room filled with Jews and Muslims I suddenly find myself a minority. Although I’m a foreigner living in the United States, my adjustments still pale compared to those of Turkish immigrants. Unlike the Jews, I haven’t needed to navigate how employer will allow me to practice my observation of Sabbath or other religious holidays.

I’ve been a minority before. I’ve traveled. I’ve sat in Bible studies where I’ve been a minority. I even joined the Malaysian Student Association while at university. This experience instantly puts me in a situation where I don’t have the answers any more. I’m in a social situation where other people are the experts and I need to listen.

As I sat listening to the conversations between these two groups I became aware that many of the conversations revolve around the topic of how they interact with Christians. Christians ignore their religious customs. Christians rudely expect Jews and Muslims to participate in workplace Christmas festivities. Christians insensitively order pizza for a work lunch, but they all have sausage and pepperoni (pig meat) on them. Christians don’t attempt to understand their holidays but expect them to observe Christian holidays.

As the lone Christian in the room this was a fascinating insight. They regarded all Americans that weren’t adherents to another religion as “Christian”. They viewed Christmas and Easter as deeply religious. But not Thanksgiving.

Every negative interaction they had with a “Christian” in the workplace, or school, or government bureaucracy, influenced the way they viewed Christians. This was true even though many people celebrating Christmas would not describe themselves as Christians. This was true even though the person who offended them may have been an atheist.

While their experiences were very real, and regrettable, their interpretation of them wasn’t very accurate. They would use their experiences as a preliminary filter for their interactions with me, and my church, although my beliefs and behaviours might be very different from the other people with whom they’ve interacted.

The experience of sitting at a table with these people reminds me that not everyone sees the world as I do. As someone representing the dominant culture in my community it’s vital that I listen to minority communities and understand their needs and concerns. I cannot presume to know their circumstances simply by interpreting them through the filter of my personal experiences.