Sarah Bakker Kellogg,
San Francisco State University

Missing Relations: On the Inner Limits of Christian Universalism

Listening to Elevation Worship’s The Blessing on YouTube, I could not stop thinking about my friend Petra’s missing aunt. A stalwart member of her Syriac Orthodox Christian parish’s liturgical choir in the Netherlands, Petra felt the wound of her aunt’s conversion to an evangelical Protestant church especially deeply. In tears, Petra told me that she had not seen her aunt in years; as far as her family was concerned, by leaving their liturgical tradition, her aunt had died. For Syriac Christians like Petra, chanting the Liturgy of St. James, learned in chains of genealogical transmission from village priests and monastic uncles, enacts a kinship system that is both intimate and global. Stepping away from that liturgical tradition is to disembed oneself from parish life, from cloistered and ecclesiastical family members, and from the social relations that define the Syriac Christian world as both Syriac and Christian.

This is the reason, I suspect, that I could find no Syriac Orthodox rendition of The Blessing. For all its aspirational universalism, The Blessing is untranslatable here because it presents one of many possible conceptions of what makes a Christian ethnos. This translational gap is suggestive for future inquiry into how diverse Christianities materialize disparate visions of “peoplehood.” What kinds of relations, for example, are presupposed by each video’s production process and by their synthesis of visual and sonic elements? What kinds of attachments have to be obscured, severed, or forgotten to facilitate Elevation Worship’s vision? What local conditions of reception inflect this globally circulating production? What listening conventions, which theologies of sound find their way into individual productions? And what kind of Christian world-making is this project, anyhow?

It is tempting to view “The Blessing” as emblematic of how Anglophone Pentecostals go about bringing the fictive “global” Christianity of their imagination into being through music, with all the aesthetic homogenization and ontic violence such a project must inevitably entail. Their online music program is designed by Pentecostals, for Pentecostals, in the name of a Christian universalism that deliberately excludes far more than it includes and which polices its boundaries carefully. While acknowledging this, I also wonder what slips through the aesthetic borders of this world-building project.

In the original Elevation Worship production, the songwriters set the parameters for how this song should be performed. With arms raised up and out, hands facing upwards to receive God’s blessing or stretching forward to bless the audience, eyes closed and chins uptilted, they build a wall of sound with instruments and voices whose timbre and pitch are indistinguishable from one another. With scores of singers on stage, the Aaronic blessing builds to crescendo with a repetitive soft-loud dynamic structure evocative of both early 90’s Seattle grunge and early 2000’s Icelandic post-rock, extending the Amen until layering the climactic, ecstatic, Gospelish shout “He is for you” into the mix. With lyrics projected on a screen above the performers, the audience sings along, creating two semi-circular walls, a ring or perhaps a vortex of sound. This song is public, loud, and for those physically inhabiting the ring, undoubtedly haptic in its intensity.

The suggestion of movement, to borrow Patrick Eisenlohr’s apt phrase (2018), in the climactic swell of amen and he is for you both conveys and enables yielding to God’s overwhelming power. As Josh Brahinsky (2013) has shown, Charismatic “yielding” practices require training to achieve, a fact that generates considerable ambivalence in how it reveals the theologically dubious point that divine agency seems often to depend on human action. The wall-of-sound style of singing prayer is one possible technique for overcoming such tension, because it disperses the action from the individual to a collective music-making body. But this, too, requires a specially trained sociality.

Listening to this song outside of its original performance context raises a number of questions about how aesthetic practices configure Christian sociality. The videos themselves share some aesthetic features, most notably a visual and lyrical preoccupation with children, but their differences suggest a porousness to the project as well. One of several Arabic-language covers is especially interesting. This production shows clips of singers with their families on couches, at dinner tables, in home studios and apartment balconies from Morocco to Lebanon. In this version, aesthetic uniformity is absent: the oud, the voices conveying just a hint of tarab, float above the rest of the choir, weaving in and out of the wall of sound, which, unlike the original Elevation Worship rendition, seems to permit more variation among individual performances. Differences in timbre and pitch are audible among men and women of different ages and vocal stylings. Voices intermingle, layered but distinguishable, improvisational melismas drifting into Gospel vibrato, threatening periodically to be lost in the swell, until the contemplative sound of the oud returns in the final seconds. Does the counterpoint between these shared and disparate sonic qualities across videos constitute an idealized expression of Elevation Worship’s Pentecostal universalism? Or is this rather an uncomfortable cosmopolitanism poking holes in the Anglophone Christian world’s aesthetic homogeneity? None of this rendition’s sonic qualities make it into the “Global Choir” reclaiming of the Blessing, suggesting the latter might be true, rather than the former.

While some traditions within Middle Eastern Christianity have gone through the historical transformations necessary to syncretize with this Pentecostal sensory culture, it would be difficult to syncretize The Blessing’s aesthetic values with those branches of non-Chalcedonian Christianity for whom the aesthetic makes a different ontic demand. Such aesthetic translation requires a willingness to think about sound as divisible from the relations that produce that sound, a disjuncture among meaning, materiality, and relationality that may define Pentecostal Christianity but which would disturb Christians in other traditions. Elevation Worship’s aesthetic makes an ontic demand as well, of course, as The Blessing is clearly an embodied prayer practice. But every ontic demand requires a social order through which to respond to it, and we do well to remember, with Petra and her aunt, that the construction of this order often entails the destruction of another.