Brief Book Review: Songs as Locus for a Lay Theology

Songs as Locus for a Lay Theology:
Moshe Walsalam Sastriyar and Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi
by Philip K. Mathai 

What’s the main point? How do local and regional songs reflect the faith and spirituality of people in the pews, especially when those songs are written by those with little or no theological (or even musical) training? And, what does it mean to privilege song as a medium for articulating and expressing faith experience?

Why does it matter? As much as many of us are inclined to resist it, “popular” religious song has the power to shape the faith of a community and religious tradition.

Why is this book important? Three reasons: First, Mathai provides a concise overview of the history of Christianity and its cultural influences in southwestern India; second, he makes accessible to a western audience the devotional and hymnic traditions of the Mar Thoma churches of South India; and third, he introduces us to the work two Indian hymnwriters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Moshe Walsalam and Sadhu Kochukunju, whose work continues to be sung by diasporic Indian Christian communities.

What intrigued me (the reviewer) the most? The way Mathai describes the Hindu bhakti tradition, which emphasizes faith in a personal God and personal devotion to loving and serving that God, has clear resonances with the piety and theological emphases of western Christian evangelical movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kudos. As Mathai indicates in a concluding discussion focused on postcolonialism, his exploration of the religious songs of Walsalam and Kuchukunju enables us to see how they “intentionally crossed colonial boundaries to claim their own space in which to express their faith” (164) and how, in doing so, they were able to transform something within their own cultural tradition (an understanding of bhakti) in service to Christian faith and belief and to create a “distinct genre of music within Indian’s colonized Christian communities” (165).

Two Quibbles. First, Mathai unfortunately does not really address his key question about the faith of the people in the pews; there is no data representing their perspectives on these songs or how the songs were received. Rather, he demonstrates the power of locally composed song to give expression to and share the faith and its ability to function as a locus theologicus—that is, how such song serves as both a theological loci and as a “local theology” more so than as a “locus for a lay theology”. Second, his chapter on “Doxology and Theology” reviews some well-worn territory, perhaps necessary work in a dissertation; it only comes into its own when he turns his attention to the bhakti tradition. That part of the chapter could have been expanded, both in support of his argument and to our benefit.

One Suggestion. Mathai’s discussions of Walsalam’s and Kuchukunju’s songs have me longing to hear them performed by worshiping communities. While he provides several printed examples pairing text and tune in an appendix, these examples do not do justice to appropriate performance practice. As an accompanying cd would not have been possible, I wonder if there are “standard” or recommended recordings available on YouTube or other websites.

Implications. Mathai’s work is helpful to liturgists and liturgical musicians in two ways. First, while some explorations of global song, such as Michael Hawn’s Gather into One, give some attention to Asia, they tend to ignore the several musical traditions of India. Mathia provides a necessary supplement to this work. Second, he models for us an approach to liturgical theology that gives careful attention to local/contextual cultural, political, and religious influences that often are invisible in official liturgical texts.

Mathai, Philip K. Songs as Locus for a Lay Theology: Moshe Walsalam Sastriyar and Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. 2019. 202 pages.

REVIEWER: E. Byron (Ron) Anderson

E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.

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