Brief Book Review: Music and Liturgy, Identity and Formation

Music and Liturgy, Identity and Formation:
A Study of Inculturation in Turkey

By Sue Whittaker

Who’s it for? The book was published in the AmericanSociety of Missiology Scholarly Monograph Series, a series is intended to make more widely available dissertations and monographs relating to the area of world mission. 

Why should you read this? Missiological studies are not likely to come to the attention of liturgical scholars in North America, but this study may find a place among recent ethnomusicological studies of contemporary Christian music which are contributing to a more nuanced understanding of worship and music in evangelical Protestant traditions in the US, England, and Australia. 

What’s the main point? Whittaker has several concerns, but two are primary: 1) the effect the inculturation of music has on identity and spiritual formation, and 2) the role “indigenous worship songs” may play in communicating the gospel (3).

Why is this book significant / important? As we well know, resistance to using indigenous music forms in missionary contexts resulted in a “colonialization” of liturgical music and worship in many parts of the world and the continued “foreignness” of Christianity in those contexts. Whittaker’s research in Turkey points us to a consideration of how an acceptance (not just tolerance) of indigenous music forms, especially in non-Western and non-Christian contexts, may create musical bridges between non-Christian and Christian cultures and, in doing so, provide new strategies for the inculturation of Christian worship and for missional outreach.

Why is this book useful? Whittaker’s book is useful for two reasons: 1) She provides an accessible introduction to the musical culture of Turkey, with particular attention to the use of music in Sunni Muslim practices. 2) She invites us to explore the value of “cultural authenticity” for Christian ministry and mission.

What intrigued me the most? Two things invited my interest in reviewing the book. First, Whittaker’s focuses her attention on the adaptation of musical forms largely shaped by Muslim liturgical and devotional practices for use in Christian worship in a Muslim-dominant context. Second, she attempts to explore (but does not quite succeed at) the relationship between liturgical musical practice and identity formation with a community that seeks to be culturally Turkish and religiously Christian.

Kudos. As we might expect in a dissertation, the book excels at describing the ethnomusicological methodology/processes used throughout the study. And, as noted above, it provides an accessible introduction to the musical culture of Turkey.

Quibbles. I have several quibbles with the book and with Whittaker’s argument: 1) It is long on description and short on analysis. While the book excels at describing methodology, we never get the level of analysis we might expect from such a study. 2) Whittaker’s theological lens does not extend beyond North American evangelicalism. This leads her to make claims about the pastor’s “biblical worldview”—assuming that what this means is obvious—and then to describe members of the Turkish Protestant congregation who came from other Christian traditions (especially Armenian and Eastern Orthodox traditions) as “converts”. 3) Her emphasis on providing what she calls an “ethno-doxological” study (a concern for studying “music of the heart”) of this musical tradition frontloads her theological biases in such a way that she is prevented from undertaking a careful analysis of the theology of the music and texts. 4) Finally, while her goal is to explore identity formation through music with a community, the focus of her research and of the book is on the spiritual experience, leadership, musical and liturgical creativity of the founding pastor, who is the author and composer of much of the music used in this congregation.

Suggestions. Whittaker’s thesis about identity and formation requires a longer period of study with and in the community. Here she might take guidance from Mary McGann’s longitudinal work in A Precious Fountain.

Whittaker, Sue. Music and Liturgy, Identity and Formation: A Study of Inculturation in Turkey. American Society of Missiology Scholarly Monograph Series 56. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021. 216 pages. $29.00. ISBN: 9781725297241.

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

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