Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Inculturation: A Wrong Turn - Part 4: The Zaire Usage and False Africanism in the Liturgy

We continue with the fourth part of this guest essay by a Nigerian Catholic on the problems of liturgical inculturation. The first two parts were published earlier this month (part 1; part 2; part 3).

Returning to the Zaire Usage and drawing from our discussions above, we are compelled to admit that the excited singing and dancing at the Vatican on the First Sunday of Advent in 2019 that made such glowing headlines in the global media were neither a unique African religious/cultural expression nor were they the most dignified actions at the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass. Dancing as a liturgical or devotional exercise has existed in many societies, African and non-African, and in several of these communities, including traditional Jewish and Christian communities, reverence for the divine has meant that such expression of excitement was kept away from the most sacred action of religion or the principal cultus. Many traditional African religions extensively employ the emotion of fear to elicit and maintain religious fervor. [74] Practitioners are strictly obliged to offer sacrifice and libation or suffer grave consequences. [75] Such stringent obligation requires for compliance, and confers on the associated religious service, a stern and terrifying outlook. Hence, the attitude of “respectful distance” in dealing with the sacred that is practiced in traditional African societies. [76]
This fact was graphically related by Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart [77], from which it is evident that nothing could be more out-of-place, even downright “sacrilegious”, than a smiling and swaying worshipper, dancing to the tune of rhythmic joyful music, at a sacrifice or divination service in the shrine of Agbala or Amadioha or any of the other Alusi or deity of traditional Igbo religion.
The cover of the first edition of Things Fall Apart. (Fair use file from Wikimedia Commons)
But how then did the notion of lively singing and joyous dancing become so intimately connected with the religious expressions of Africans in modern times if such behaviors, in that context, are alien to the indigenous religion? We must look for the root of the rhythmic dance music not in the cultus of the African people but in their secular cultures or social tradition. In marked contrast to the petrifying scene of divination painted by Achebe, his description of a village wrestling contest showcase the delightful and lively atmosphere we have come to associate with African religious sentiments. [78]
Thus, rhythm, excitement, and frenzy, those supposed iconic marks of African religious expressions, are in fact “the unmistakable wrestling dance – quick, light and gay [79], ” or the overriding sentiments of other social functions that are only tangentially related to the traditional religion rather than typifying it. Interpreting Achebe in Things Fall Apart, one readily comes to the conclusion that while Africans may be extravagant in their joy when at play, they have the tendency, or rather intuition, of assuming a more or less severe and somber air when they pray. Africans understand that prayer is not, and should not be a joke. Furthermore, Achebe contrasted the gravity of the pre-colonial Igbo people in religious matters with the jovial mood of evangelical Protestantism as follows:
“Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an l[g]bo man.” [80]
Protestantism is an attempt to demystify and popularize the Catholic Faith. It is the removal of elements which offend contemporary sensibility, and the injection of accessible and “respectable” notions. Such popularization amounts to secularization, the turning away from the divine to the human. This is why the Protestantization of Europe was only a step away from its secularization. Similarly, the identification of native African cultus with secular African cultures in the popular psyche, the identification of how indigenous Africans pray with how they play, and the transfer of these playful ethos (rather than the prayerful) into Catholic liturgy as inculturation constitute genuine liturgical popularization and secularization. It is the direct parallel of introducing rock music or operatic singing into the liturgy in the United States or in Italy in the name of inculturation. Such actions merely trivialize and secularize the liturgy, stripping it of its mystery and solemnity.
The world-acclaimed Missa Luba, “an African setting of the Mass sung in Latin,” [81]  originally performed by a Congolese choir under the direction and inspiration of Belgian priest Guido Haazen, was developed entirely from tunes drawn from the Congolese repertoire of traditional folk music rather than from the stock of religious music. Why? Maybe this is because the religious music is largely unpopular or largely undeveloped. These two possibilities are derivatives, I think, of the extreme austerity of native African religious disposition. We do not thereby inculturate the Mass in the Congo when we ask the Congolese to pray as they would play. We merely trivialize and secularize the sacred function. Missa Luba was a huge success in several concert halls in Europe and across the world, and rightly so, because it was an innovative composition for concerts, a novel exhibition of African rich secular music tradition. It was not intended, nor was it suitable, for use as prayer at Mass, just as operatic settings of the Mass are unsuitable in Italy or in any part of the Catholic world. This thought was more fully developed in St. Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini, which declared:
“Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music.” [82]
To maintain the effective and necessary demarcation between the playground and the sacred ground, St. Pius X insisted that musical compositions “which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.” [83]
There is hardly any doubt that Missa Luba and other African musical compositions of the Mass contributed to the development of the Zaire Usage. [84] Today, whether in a Mass celebrated according to the Zaire Usage or any other inculturated forms of the Roman Rite celebrated in Africa, music in the Missa Luba style, or forms much more unrestrained and theatrical, have become normative. While it is true that in some instances such inculturated liturgical services do afford some opportunity for prayer and union with the Sacrifice, I have many experiences in several parishes across Nigeria in which the sacred function was reduced to almost a mere jamboree, especially during fundraisers such as Uka bia nara Ngozi, Harvest Thanksgiving or Seed Sowing, etc. Unfortunately, such fundraisers within the Mass are increasing in frequency and excesses in many parts of Nigeria.
The disturbing secularization of the liturgy that goes with inculturation bridges the gap Achebe noted in Things Fall Apart between native African stern approach to religion and the happy-clappy mood of Protestantism, especially the Pentecostal camp. It should be noted that the popularization introduced into the Mass under the guise of inculturation is often behind the latest trends in Pentecostalism, whose raison d’être is religious secularization or rapprochement with the zeitgeist. One result of this state of things is that Catholics unsatisfied with half-measure popularization in their parishes stream into one of the up-to-date Protestant congregation. Hence, inculturation is arguably the main reason why Catholics in Nigeria defect to Pentecostal or Evangelical groups.
NOTES (numeration continued from previous article):

[74] Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 43
[75] Onyewuenyi, I. C., 1982, 123, p. 63-78; Okwu, A. S. O., 1979, 9, 3, p. 19-24
[76] Ekwunife, A. N. O. “African Traditional Values and Formation in Catholic Seminaries of Nigeria,” Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 1996, p. 49-65
[77] “The Oracle was called Agbala, and people came from far and near to consult it. They came when misfortune dogged their steps or when they had a dispute with their neighbors. They came to discover what the future held for them or to consult the spirits of their departed fathers. The way into the shrine was a round hole at the side of a hill, just a little bigger than the round opening into a henhouse. Worshippers and those who came to seek knowledge from the god crawled on their belly through the hole and found themselves in a dark, endless space in the presence of Agbala. No one had ever beheld Agbala, except his priestess. But no one who had ever crawled into his awful shrine had come out without the fear of his power. His priestess stood by the sacred fire which she built in the heart of the cave and proclaimed the will of the god. The fire did not burn with a flame. The glowing logs only served to light up vaguely the dark figure of the priestess.” Achebe, C., 1994, p. 16-17
[78] “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement…There were seven drums and they were arranged according to their sizes in a long wooden basket. Three men beat them with sticks, working feverishly from one drum to another. They were possessed by the spirit of the drums… Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm.” Achebe, C., 1994, p. 44, 46, 47
[79] Ibid., p. 42
[80] Ibid., p. 146
[81] McDaniel, D. A., “Analysis of the Missa Luba,” Master’s Thesis, University of Rochester, 1973, p. ii
[82] Pope Pius X, Tra Le Sollecitudini, 1903
[83] ibid.
[84] Chase N. P., 2013, 6, 1, p. 28-36.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: