The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Suzel Ana Reily, Jonathan Dueck
Oxford Handbooks
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     744 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities demonstrates that ethnomusicology is a field that religious studies scholars cannot afford to ignore. Largely, but not exclusively, situated within that discipline, it effectively places the study of Christianities in a global context that allows for new critical narratives and theories about the nature and history of Christianity. The slippage between “Christianities” and “Christianity” is present in the very first paragraph and an object of explicit reflection in Philip Bohlmann’s afterward, but as the title suggests, the framework of “Christianities” wins out. The positioning of the object of study as “Christianities” is integral to a discursive norm that governs much ethnographic work, in which ontological and normative questions are held at bay. This means that while religious studies scholars will be able to use the work offered in this handbook effortlessly, theologians of music will have a more complex relation to it. Furthermore, while the volume seeks to provide a world perspective, the effort to paint a picture of “world Christianities” falls a bit short of shaking off a favoring of Euro- and Euro-American Protestant perspectives. Seventeen of the thirty entries deal with some form of Protestant Christianity, and sixteen treat European or North American contexts. For comparison, four entries deal with Roman Catholicism and three treat African music, although Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination and Africa is home to the world’s largest Christian population. Still, the Handbook contextualizes European and North American Protestantism in a way that effectively undercuts its aspirations for cultural hegemony.

The Handbook is organized in five sections; many of the entries straddle more than one of its themes. Each of the entries is impeccably researched, generally creating a balance between attention to ethnographic detail and solid historical contextualization. The entries address Mission Music and Local Responses; Utopias and Alternative Modernities; Struggles over Musical Space/Competing Christianities; Flows, Media, Markets, and Christian Musics; and Cosmopolitan Identities and Everyday Lives. Because many entries could have been placed in more than one section, my limited examples of specific entries will not always follow the volume’s organization. The opening section on mission music addresses the musical legacies of colonialism, primarily in terms of how indigenous populations repurposed the music Europeans brought with them in their missionary activity. In this respect, it also bears noting that two entries—Zoe Sherinian’s on Dalit Christian modernities and Suzel Ana Reilly’s discussion of church music in Brazilian Catholicism—treat sonic manifestations of liberation theology, a perspective that could have sharpened the analyses of colonial legacies. 

In the second section on utopias and alternative modernities, the entries treat the question of how Christian communities use music to negotiate the boundaries of religion as a “safe haven” and the world as a potentially hostile Other to religious truth and practice. Judith Klassen’s discussion of how the pronunciation of a single vowel among German-speaking Mennonites in Mexico reveals contrary ideas about the appropriate expression of Christian humility over and against worldliness is a clear example of the use of sound to police this boundary. A vivid example of divisions created by music occurs in Natalie Zelensky’s entry on Russian Orthodox music in a New York congregation. A singer in the congregation’s choir, she describes the glares parishioners shot her way when the music director moved from a familiar hymnody influenced by 19th-century Italian music to a repertoire rooted in older Russian styles. While Zelensky describes a “worship war,” Matthew Unger describes how heavy metal musicians and fans see the baptism of heavy metal music for Christian purposes as a deep betrayal of the very point of metal music. A new sound in a familiar context or the recontextualization of sound can equally disrupt established bases for communal identity. 

The section on media and markets will be indispensable to scholars who analyze the role of financing and marketing in the spread of religious ideologies. Anna Nekola’s analysis of the “battle over whether commodified worship music enhances or debases religion” (514) stands out as a particularly incisive treatment of the issues at stake. The final section of the handbook examines how local Christian communities use music to situate themselves in a larger Christian world. Jeffers Engelhardt’s distinction between ecumenical—the doctrinal discourse of unity—and ecumenicity—sensible forms of shared Christian practice that transcend denominational distinctions (649) is of great help in clarifying ways in which music can create a sense of shared community across differences.

As mentioned, the Handbook takes on the question of mission and colonialism at the outset. It notes how ethnomusicologists have often seen themselves as protecting or preserving local music against the imperialist juggernaut with which the Christian missionary endeavor has been implicated. This concern for an analysis of colonialism, however, does not extend to a critique of the anthropological enterprise on which ethnomusicology depends. There are brief references to James Clifford’s The Predicament of Cultures (Harvard University Press, 1988), but sustained engagement with the imbrication of ethnographic field work and the colonial legacy is missing. The result is that the entries generally preserve a voice in which the people studied are objectified and the researcher presents themselves as the superior knower, a “we/them” hierarchy that critical anthropologists have identified as a key part of anthropology’s participation in the colonial endeavor. This dynamic is clearest in Thérèse Smith’s confession that the trust necessary for her fieldwork necessitated a relationship built on dissimulation (267). 

The editors and some contributors cite Michelle Kisliuk’s Seize the Dance! Ba Aka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance (Oxford University Press, 1998). Kisliuk, with whom I took classes in graduate school, models an intensive form self-reflexivity as a corrective to the hierarchical aspect of fieldwork. The entries generally do not follow her lead in engaging deeply in self-reflexive analysis. Moments when the firm distinction between the insider and outsider break down include Christopher Dicran Hale’s autoethnographic account of Christian bhajans, Natalie Zelensky’s analysis of Russian Orthodox worship music in New York, and Melvin Butler’s descriptions of his negotiations of tension between being a faith performer and a field worker. Throughout, the voice of the fieldworker trumps that of practitioner, showing that discursive procedures, rather than subject position, can be the decisive factor in establishing the insider/outsider problem.

“From the wall of sound that I encountered […], I knew that I was hearing far more than a hymn of European origin” (228). Marie Jorritsma’s opening sentence provides a helpful lens for closing reflections on the Handbook. Sound provides new angles for considering the place of Christianity in globalized cultures. While Jorritsma uses the metaphor of a wall to describe a powerful encounter with music, the metaphor can also describe the ways in which music can signify or create divisions within Christian communities, divisions several entries discuss. But more of the entries see music as a bridge of encounter that mediates doctrinal, liturgical, economic, cultural, and linguistic differences. Some of these encounters are productive and conducive to cultural inventiveness, while others are violent and destructive. The sheer variety of these encounters shows that Christian music is indeed “far more than […] of European origin,” and the Handbook’s attention to this variety points to possibilities of a truly post-Eurocentric study of Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mout St. Mary's University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Suzel Ana Reily is Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas. She is the author of Voices of the Magi (Chicago, 2002). She has also editedThe Music Human: Rethinking John Blacking's Ethnomusicology in the 21st Century(Ashgate, 2006) and Brass Bands of the World: Militarism, Colonial Legacies and Local Music Making (with K Brucher, Ashgate, 2013).

Jonathan Dueck is Assistant Professor of Writing and Deputy Director of Writing in the Disciplines at The George Washington University. He has published in Ethnomusicology, the Journal of American Folklore, and Popular Music and Society, among other venues.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.