Sunday, January 29, 2012

Multilingual Praise-worship as Pentecostal Triumph over Babel

By

Obododimma Oha

A Christian group meeting in our neighbourhood appears particularly sensitive to its multilingual and multicultural membership this afternoon, as these “children” of God sing every one of their songs in two or more languages at the same time – that is, assuming their songs are meant for the ears of members. But if the songs are indirectly addressed to Almighty God (as I suppose they are, pragmatically speaking), then they either assume God needs to be confronted with the confusion he caused at Babel or needs to be entertained with the beauty of that confusion. The myth of Babel, which traces multilingualism back to divine action, remains part of Christian explanation on the role of God in human affairs. But it also serves as a means of re-uniting worshipers and postponing their cultural and linguistic differences.

This following contextual information might be useful to an understanding of the role that language choice is playing in the interactions at the fellowship meeting. First, the meeting is taking place at the residence of one of the professors in a university. The “federal type” of university in which this meeting is taking place in a Nigerian city is inevitably a multicultural setting: its staff and students are drawn from diverse ethnic and linguistic groups. It also has a predominantly Black population. The host is from the Urhobo ethnic group of the Niger Delta. He is giving his daughter away in marriage to a Yoruba suitor tomorrow. And the wedding has two segments – which represent the biculturalism and double-consciousness of both parties: the traditional wedding, which will be held in the professor’s premises tomorrow, and then the “White” wedding or Church/Christian wedding, which will be held at a church downtown. The fellowship group meeting now at my neighbour’s residence is his local fellowship branch of his church, Assemblies of God Church, and the fellowship has membership from various Nigerian ethnic groups such as Urhobo, Yoruba, Edo, Esan, Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, and Ijaw. The group, as his larger “family,” is meeting to provide a stronger spiritual support for the traditional and church weddings coming up. So, discourse in this setting indeed promises to be cross-linguistic and cross-ethnic; it has already started with the multilingual character of the praise-worship.

I listen to the Christian group singing in the neighbourhood and hear them re-unite some competing languages in the Nigerian political space: English, Igbo, and Yoruba in one song, Urhobo, Yoruba and English in another, and then English, Ibibio, and Igbo in yet another. Here are some of the choruses in which many many languages feature:

(a) The Lord is good
The Lord is good
The Lord is good
The Lord is good
Is good, is good to me

Chineke dị mma
Chineke dị mma
Chineke dị mma
Chineke dị mma
Dị mma, dị mma

Oluwa dara
Oluwa dara
Oluwa dara
Oluwa dara
Dara, dara.

(b) The Lord is so good
Is so good
The Lord is so good
Is so excellent

Abasi ayaya oo
Ayaya oo
Abasi ayaya oo
Ayaya nanando oo!

Onyenweanyi dị mma
Ọ dị mma
Onyenweanyi dị mma
Ọ dị ebube ee !

On some previous occasions, I had heard Christian choruses with other combinations of Nigerian languages, as in the following:

(c ) Nagode Allah aa!
Nagode Allah aa!
Allah sariki!
Chineke nna ndeewo oo!
Chineke nna ndeewo oo!
I meela!

Sometimes, choruses from various languages are combined and sung in a stretch, as an option to the singing of the same chorus in its various translations. Such combination of choruses gives an impression that the singers are speakers of those languages. It rouses some feeling of pride that one is finally able to identify with the other linguistically (even if one does not possess balanced competence in these other languages or that one has not pronounced the words in those other languages correctly!) Thus the Yoruba Christian shifting from Yoruba to Igbo and Ibibio choruses is excited with transcending linguistic barriers, thanks to Jesus and Christianity. Same for Igbo and Ibibio speakers shifting from choruses in their local languages to say Yoruba and Urhobo.

The complex language situation in Nigeria is partly played out in this combination of various languages in Nigerian Christian praise worship. In the first place, the praise-worship symbolically locates the religious activity as happening in a multilingual context and accommodates to the demands of multilingual differences even in the context of religious worship. It recognizes the fact that members whose languages are not included in the worship in some ways could feel marginalized, no matter what the leaders of the group have been telling them about oneness in Christ, and not minding, too, that they signify their close relationship in Christ through the metaphorical uses of the kinship terms, “brother” or “brother-in-Christ,” and “sister” or “sister-in-Christ.” Indeed, there have been cases where such feelings of linguistic marginalization have led to the break-up of churches. And so, in recent times, some orthodox Christian churches in Nigeria arrange for language-specific services, for instance Igbo language church service/bible class, Yoruba language church service/bible class, English language church service/bible class, etc. In some cases where there is a large concentration of people from a language group in a geographical area, such a population have been allowed to construct their own church buildings and to have their services solely in their language. The Igbo language Anglican churches in Ibadan are some examples.

Christian churches in Nigeria, therefore, try to turn multilingualism that appears to be a challenge to an advantage in its evangelization and accommodation of every culture/language in the family of God. The praise worshipers in our neighbourhood are thus essentially celebrating their linguistic diversity as strength in Christ.

At the wider political level, there has been a competition among the various groups of languages in Nigeria, a competition that has been worsened by the provision in Nigeria’s Constitution that Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba are the “major” languages that could be used for official purposes, in addition to English. At some point too, French was added as one of the official languages of the country. So, then we have some interesting patterns of the competition emerging: first, competition between indigenous languages on the one hand and European languages on the other; second, competition between English and French as European languages seeking stronger presence in Nigeria; third, competition between pidgin and English; fourth, competition between pidgin and indigenous languages; fifth, competition between indigenous languages and foreign languages such as Latin and Arabic that are particular associated with religious worship; sixth, competition English and Latin (in Catholic worship) and between Arabic and English (in the context of Islamic worship), and seventh, which is much more disturbing, is the competition among the indigenous languages that the various ethnic groups in Nigeria use in imagining and consolidating their identities, and by extension (which could be the eighth level), the competition between the so-called "major" Nigerian languages and the so-called "minor" Nigerian languages.

One should quickly point out that what is referred to as “competition” here actually happens as struggles, choices, and actions performed by speakers of those languages, which deepen impressions about discrimination. Some Nigerian sociolinguists, for instance Ayo Bamgbose, Ayo Banjo, and Efurosibina Adegbija, have drawn attention to the fact that attitudes to languages, especially the so-called minority languages, may be extended to their speakers. In that regard, speakers of such languages are not just made to feel inferior, but also denied opportunities in employment, admission into schools, and of course, the governance of Nigeria. It can also not be denied that such language-based discrimination could feature sometimes in the context of religious groups that pretends to neutralize ethnic and linguistic differences. It could be the case that when Jesus, Ethnicity, and Language play cards, Jesus is cheated out, as Ethnicity and Language form an alliance. Since Jesus has no ethnic group, at least in Africa, it becomes difficult to recruit him against himself. Yet, the Ethnicity/Language alliance would turn round and claim to be among the disciples of Jesus the Christ, especially when it could present local prophets that work wonders in the name of Christ.

If there is anything that could make groups to suspend their prejudices against others in the contemporary world of conflict, at least one hopes religion has that potential. Given that a religion like Christianity tells us that we were all created by the same God, shouldn’t such a religion encourage us to treat one another fairly as members of one family? As I listen to the multilingual chorusing in our neighbourhood, it occurs to me that that Christian group is essentially saying so symbolically, even if its members are not immediately conscious of it. Indeed, Christian denominationalism has tended to deny and endanger the very idea of one “sheep-one-shepherd” that signifies our idea of one family of God’s people. Further, presencing the local has been an issue in many churches in Nigeria, and that using local languages, either separately and combined, in a religious worship is part of the doctrinal and political challenges of signifying practices featuring in these churches, and which they try to handle to minimize or discourage internal disaffections.

Musical albums produced by Christian singers in Nigeria, which are sometimes the sources of these choruses performed in Christian fellowship meetings, also exhibit a multilingual character, either in individual songs or in the combination of songs in such albums. The multilingual style of the songs is, in one respect, a tactic for getting a wider, cross-linguistic audience and patronage. In other words, the Christian singer also considers the fact that the album would not sell as much as it should if speakers of other Nigerian languages are not accommodated in the listenership, or the possibility of the musician being classified as being ethno-linguistically oriented. Many Christian singers in Nigeria therefore try to be sensitive to the linguistic diversity of the country and what this means for the marketing of their music and their image as non-ethnocentric musical evangelists.

From multilingual concerns in the interactional situation to the aesthetic blend of the voices of many worshipers: this is what one notices in the singing of the multilingual choruses even in contexts where all the members share one of the languages in use or are from the same linguistic group. Perhaps in singing the choruses in many languages in which the song has been crafted, they identify with the multicultural concerns of their religion as well as try to promote them. In another regard, they may be singing such songs out of sheer fascination that they could now worship God in many languages – something that projects a picture of Pentecost when the Apostles of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, started speaking even in languages other than their own and could understand these languages. In other words, the songs symbolically take them back to Pentecost experience as a triumph over Babel. Once more, Christianity unifies divided peoples under Jesus Christ, emerging as one important driver of globalization. Indeed, the Biblical Pentecost was a linguistic globalization, which suggests that the term “globalization” is just a new name for what started long ago.

Incidentally, these multilingual choruses and other types of Christian choruses were originally composed and sung in Pentecostal churches. Their singing in orthodox Christian churches were initially resisted by some conservative members of these churches, especially the clergy, who saw the songs and clapping of hands as signifying rebellion against the existing order of worship. They were worried about how the freedom exercised in spontaneous mode of worship generally constituted a threat to the idea of someone being in charge. They also criticized the choruses as being noisy and lacking in the type of humbling potential that the traditional church hymns held for worshipers. Some of the songs, some believed, said things that amounted to a corruption of Christian values. I recall one occasion when at St. Bernard’s Catholic church, Calabar, in the 80s, the then Bishop of Calabar, Bryant Usanga, who was concelebrating the Mass, stood up and silenced the choir that had started the following chorus:

Darling Jesus
Darling Jesus
Oh my darling Jesus
You are a wonderful Lord
I love you so
Oh my darling Jesus
Oh my darling Jesus
You are a wonderful Lord

His Lordship Usanga must have felt scandalized that the choir was singing a song that had amorous meanings and which, especially with the use of the word “darling” was capable of rousing deep feelings only associated with love affairs. He wasn’t going to tolerate a kind of signification that might cause some spiritual distraction in the celebration of the Holy Mass. His worries are understandable, but one wonders what His Lordship would have done if the choir had sung some choruses with strong sexual connotations, as found these days in Christian chorus performance in Nigeria. One of such choruses in Igbo performed by an Igbo gospel musician says:

Jizos, Ọ bụ otu a ka I dị e e?
Onweghi onye dị ka gi
Ihe gi atọgbue m oo
Ọ dị ka mmanụ aṅụ

Literally, the song says:

Jesus, is this how you are?
There is no one like you
The sweetness of your thing drives me crazy
It is like honey.

The Igbo expression “ihe gi” is used vaguely in referring to not only to someone’s possession (or thing, as in the literal meaning) but also to someone’s acts, ways, behaviour, etc. Obviously, it is not the literal meaning that is intended in the chorus, but the acts of Jesus as recognized by Christians and recorded in the Holy Bible too, in word, his "goodness". However, the appropriation of the context of discourse associated with love affair and other figurative associations, for instance the analogy “O dị ka mmanụ aṅụ” (It is like (the sweetness of) honey), conveys emotive meanings that make the chorus particularly unsettling. It is doubtful that listeners would process the meaning of the chorus without referring to situations in which this kind of expression features in actual human relationships. Perhaps this is where a pastor would argue that it is a matter of "as a man thinketh," that a thought life "touched" by the blood of Christ would not allow a corruption from sexual connotations! Well, well, well...men-of-God are not only in charge of biblical truths, they are also in charge of our minds and how our minds process experience. They also teach us how to take charge of our minds and their readings of the world.

Not that similar amorous expressions or associations are strange to Christian re/constructions of relationship with God. Songs of Solomon particularly features strong sexual images which have been viewed as extreme a representations of affection for the Almighty.The expression of love for Jesus Christ in some Christian songs may have started going beyond what many church leaders would be comfortable with. A conservative moralist may ask: even if the songs do not convey literal meanings, how can one be sure that some worshipers in singing them would not make some associations with actual reference situations and end up having their thought lives contaminated in the context of worship.

Such Christian choruses with amorous outlook are performed in many Nigerian languages too. One finds that Christian worshipers, at the spur of the moment, could translate the songs they are singing to provide some greater mix and reduce the redundancy of repetitiveness of the choruses. They may also find the need to provide such translations for choruses originally in their own languages, for the benefit of other worshipers who do not speak such languages. This, as explained earlier, is part of the Christian pursuit of being one’s brother’s keeper and design to include the ethno-linguistic other. As the amorous chorus travels from one language to another, it is capable of acquiring meanings and interpretations that might not have been originally intended by their composers. That, to some extent, suggests that the triumph over Babel is still incomplete, in fact, it could be a mere illusion that only temporarily supports an invention of Christian togetherness.

Christian accommodation to multilingualism in the singing of choruses in Nigeria demonstrates sensitivity to its Babelized membership and patronage, particularly the differences in the perception of language choice. In this case, the group does not want to take the collective acceptance of just any language for granted. Although it is not possible to render the choruses in all the languages spoken by all the members, or the languages they identify with, the fact that a chorus has been sung in some of the languages (in a kind of random selection of those languages) suggests some fairness already, it is assumed. Multilingual chorusing tends to signify the many-voices-in-one-risen-saviour and celebrates the fact that in Jesus Christ, linguistic difference ought to be viewed as an opportunity to build the strength of that one family of God. How one wishes that this same orientation in which the other’s language is found attractive and useful can be adopted in addressing the language problem that Nigeria still faces at the national level.

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