Economies of Sound and Asymmetries of Global Christianity
Candace Lukasik, Washington University in St. Louis
Lena Rose, Oxford University
The challenges of the global Coronavirus pandemic, which started in early 2020, have inspired multiple responses by churches and Christian communities, often curtailed in their usual ways of coming together for worship. As in other areas of life, much of Christian communal practice has been rendered digital and moved online. Thus, the worship song The Blessing by Chris Brown and Steven Furtick of US-based Elevation Worship, featuring Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe, was written and released in March 2020 for a church living through a pandemic. In a way unexpected by the original writers, the song has been translated, adapted, reproduced, and circulated globally in a short time span, resulting in covers in more than 25 different languages.
The song consists chiefly of the simple lyrics of the Jewish priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23–27), that ask for God’s favour on the listener/receiver and their children:
The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His
Face toward you
And give you peace
May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family
And your children
And their children
And their children
May His presence go before you
And behind you
And beside you
All around you
And within you
He is with you
He is with you
In the morning
In the evening
In your coming
And your going
In your weeping
He is for you
He is for you
He is for you
Produced in the United States, the spread of the song points to the reach of American evangelical internationalism, as well as its absences among different Christian forms and traditions. In focusing on the transnational connections and absences of the worship song, this installation showcases diverse national and communal perspectives on the song’s reception (or lack thereof) among evangelicals in Hawai’i, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and among Syriac Orthodox Christians in the Netherlands.
In considering the reach of the song in the era of Covid-19, these contexts open up space to investigate the borders and boundaries of “Global Christianity” under lockdown and the role of the United States in shaping the idea of a Christianity that presumes symmetrical connection, rather than hierarchical rank of different Christian traditions. A poignant affirmation of this imagination is the second video of The Blessing by Elevation Worship, released in May 2020. The video portrays the singers of Elevation Worship performing the song, supported by what they term a “#globalchoir” on large screens behind the stage. On these screens, excerpts of other performers of the song from all over the world are shown in sync with the American performers on stage; sometimes they are fronted in the online video, with the singer’s origins blended in as text.
Perhaps this re-recording of the song is a celebration of the way in which “God has used the song to minister to families and churches all over the world” since its first release (as expressed by the lead text of the video); perhaps it is also a ‘taking back’ of the song, a ‘bringing in line’ of the various versions and interpretations that have emerged all over the world (as an aside, and adding additional layers of complexity, a ‘taking back’ of the original Old Testament lyrics of the song appears to have been carried out by a messianic Jewish Israel Blessing, as well). The selection of song excerpts of different performers is indicative of how Elevation Worship, and perhaps more broadly Anglophone evangelical Christians, imagine global Christianity; the video is a construction of a “global [evangelical] choir.” It features singers from individual US states, interspersed with videos of a small selection of the publicly available non-US versions, some in languages other than English: Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Indonesia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, and France (in this way, the video equates whole countries with individual US states).
The song, its many local versions, and its re-recording by Elevation Worship invite us to reflect on Christian imaginations and constructions of the local, the national, and the global. What is the instinct behind the creation of national versions of this song? Who do the performers imagine to be blessed in each case? What devotional labour does the act of ‘blessing’ entail, and what outcome is desired by the respective performers? Given the emphasis on family, children, and “generations”: what notions of the social are promoted through the song and its various versions? Have these changed during the pandemic, and if so, how?
By way of such questions, The Blessing also brings to the fore the intimate relationship between power and agency. In focusing too closely on how global contexts loop back into U.S. imperial power, other perspectives are frozen into a curious passivity, whereby the only relevant actors of exploration or analysis are the white, American evangelicals that produced and exported the song. What this perspective misses is not only the pervasive and invasive influence of empire on global religious worldmaking, but specifically how different religious forms are taken up and contextually transformed. Most of this installation gestures to the utilization of evangelical forms (shaped by white, American evangelical actors) to renew local place-making practices, strengthen national imagination, as well as right-wing populist itineraries. These contexts are not simply white, American evangelical creations nor do they adhere to a command of American religious networks more broadly. (The reach of different evangelical networks outside of the U.S. context, such as Australia for example, contain their own tentacles of empire, influence, and inspiration). Rather, they take the imperial reach of the song and resist its assimilationist force.
The following installation follows some of the national/regional versions of the song and explores the themes introduced above in more depth. There are many more versions of the song not represented in these installations, each with their own story and their own patterns of assimilation and resistance. The Hawai’i Blessing centers the interaction between the global and the indigenous, focusing on the active role of places and land in making people. While the colonial legacies of Christian mission in Hawai’i configure Hawai’ian evangelical relations with the rest of the United States, the land of Hawai’i molds a placemaking project that is dynamic and diverse. Similarly, while the UK Blessing imitated much of the American evangelical aesthetic, the Irish Blessing exhibits a post-Catholic landscape (in the wake of waning institutional religious power), but also interfaces with the legacy of British colonial impulses–pushing forth a distinct Irish national framing. Yet, in the case of the Brazilian Blessing, with its appropriation of American evangelical aesthetics, and in the context of rising conservatism, the worship song speaks to both the imperial homogenization of global evangelical culture and the indigenization of local patterns. In the case of Syriac Orthodox Christians in the Netherlands, however, The Blessing operates outside of the bounds of intelligibility, further troubling the all-encompassing perspective of the primacy of the United States in shaping global Christian formations. While there is incentive among evangelicals as well as Orthodox Christians between homeland and diaspora to mold their traditions to be made legible to structures of power that bind them to certain forms of life, one must be careful to acknowledge how power shapes action as well as resistance. In a time of pandemic, the transformation of the Aaronite blessing into an international evangelical trend provides a lens to explore the co-constitution of “global Christianity” today. This installation explores the effects of U.S. religious power and cultural influence on a global scale, while also being attentive to the national and communal formations that make them intelligible (and unintelligible).
Candace Lukasik, Washington University in St. Louis, USA
Lena Rose, Oxford University, UK
Sarah Bakker Kellogg, San Francisco State University, USA
Mark Porter, University of Erfurt, Germany
Angelo Vasco, Oxford University, UK
Heather Mellquist Lehto, Arizona State University, USA