We stepped out of the car into the grassy, gravel courtyard of the evangelical Ethiopian church. We were very late for worship; today was the feast of St. Gabriel, and we had been stuck in traffic as hundreds of Ethiopian Orthodox churchgoers walked past our stranded car, streaming by in their traditional white robes. That was them, this was us: We were evangelicals, and we were going to an evangelical church, a distinction of great importance, we were told. We finally arrived and rushed toward the sanctuary. Even from outside, we could hear a digital Afropop beat pulsing in the air. Now, as we entered, the volume kicked up to a level that rattled our internal organs. We scurried past rows of Ethiopians lightly swaying to the music and up to the front, where a precious few empty white-plastic lawn chairs had been saved for us.

The band consisted entirely of a young Ethiopian man in skinny jeans playing a keyboard. From that solitary keyboard came the throbbing sounds of synth chords and a fully automated rhythm section. The chords were simple, but the beat was overwhelming and the Afropop-by-way-of-Casio groove was infectious. I had no idea what we were singing, but as two young women rocked and staggered around the stage, singing themselves hoarse, sweat dripping down their microphone cords, I recognized this: We were in a charismatic worship service. We threw ourselves in and sang along, copying the Amharic syllables of an endlessly looped refrain. The front wall of the sanctuary was a sparse painting of a blue mountain with a cross on it, appropriately devoid of images as a Protestant sanctuary. But the real art, the real icons, were dancing in front of us, dancing all around us. This was local, indigenous church-culture making. This was liturgy, the work of the people to the glory of God.

Or was it really local art? As several church leaders later confided to me, the expression of worship that we experienced was heavily influenced by broadcasts of Nigerian televangelists, with their requisite backing bands and spiritual stage shows. Just as in the United States, those who are doing church bigger, faster and “better” exert an oppressive cultural pressure on local churches. Just as it is so hard to imagine what local west Michigan sacred music could sound like when we’re too busy copying Nashville and Sydney, so these Ethiopian churches struggle to know what local Ethiopian sacred art would look like without the external pressure to look and sound like pan-African televangelist culture. The problem is compounded by the reality that, for Ethiopian evangelicals, so much Ethiopian art and history is culturally wed to the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church. And if there’s one thing that evangelicals in Ethiopia are proud to not be, it’s Orthodox. Historically Ethiopian sacred music, historically Ethiopian art and iconography, the cult of the saints and Mary, a hands-off approach to Scripture: all of these things are lumped together as Orthodox and therefore off-limits.

CONFRONTED BY SCRIPTURE

The church service continued as a preacher got up and began preaching a sermon with apparent passion and conviction. As he preached in Amharic, my new friend, Temesgen, would lean over and whisper-translate to me what the preacher was preaching about and what scriptural text he was expounding. Earlier that morning, I had been reading a collection of the sermons of Emil Brunner. The contrast between the long, rambling musical cadences of this Ethiopian and the compressed prose of Brunner was jarring. Even more jarring was the contrast between Brunner’s cool psychological-existential reading of the gospel and this Ethiopian preacher’s fiery imperatives. I found myself uncomfortable when comparing Brunner’s confident and smooth appropriation of Jesus’ teaching to this man’s urgency and unsettled passion. I was challenged by this Ethiopian preacher to avoid the Western torpor of Brunner, standing as he was at the end of European Christendom, in favor of something more raw, more confronted by Scripture. If forced to choose, I think I would choose the bold, real-time immediacy of this Ethiopian gospel instead of the European theological overconfidence of Brunner.

After the preacher finished, another person walked up to the pulpit and began addressing the congregation. A hush fell over the group until two teenage girls shyly came up to the front. In a whisper, I asked Temesgen what was happening. He answered, “One of those girls just prayed to accept Jesus as her savior.” We were witnessing a good, old-fashioned altar call, something so many American evangelical pastors are too discreet or tactful or cowardly to ever do. I was rightly humbled and challenged by this. As a Reformed evangelical, I am caught between John Williamson Nevin and Charles Finney, between sacramental idealism and evangelical pragmatism. As I participated in this Ethiopian worship service, I lamented the absence of the table even as I was humbled by the boldness of their gospel proclamation. Can’t we have it both ways?

GOAL OF SAVING SOULS

There is something refreshingly single-minded about radical evangelical piety, where the central goal and purpose of the Christian life is saving souls. All human passion and energy can be stewarded for and focused on this all-important goal. Under the urgency of this gospel imperative, morality and ethics can be more easily streamlined into something resembling wartime rations and curfews. But what about art? What purpose does art serve in a world where all human activity must be directed toward the salvation of souls? There is a certain utilitarian approach to art among evangelicals, both in the United States and in the Ethiopia that I witnessed. Art is dangerous, dangerously sensuous, dangerously imprecise in its theology, dangerously close to idolatry. If art is used at all, it must be used for the higher purpose of saving souls. However, when art is deprived of its prior capability of independently glorifying God, it can prove difficult to prevent it from descending into kitsch, propaganda or industrialized, mass-produced and mass-copied McArt. So the Ethiopian evangelical church, just like the American evangelical church, struggles to know what the place of art and culture-making could be in evangelical piety and discipleship.

And yet humans keep making culture, instinctively. In the same way that a bee glorifies God by pollinating as only bees do, so humans, seemingly without prompting, continue to make something of the world. There is a sense in art that the world (or the art medium) is received as a gift, as a given, and yet, surprisingly, we take this gift and make something more of it: By art, we freely make it more than it was. Walking through the market in Addis Ababa, I saw a stack of limes arranged in a perfect pyramid. There were nine limes on the bottom, four in the middle, and one on top. Why would someone take the time to arrange them? It was a small act that re-rendered a created thing as a gift.

Again, everywhere I looked in Addis, I saw signs of human making. Tin-roof shops sit under half-finished Chinese-invested multistory buildings. Compared to the shiny new structures, someone else might find these tin-roof shacks ugly, but they were beautiful to me, each one a thing, a good which someone had planted atop the topography of their given place in this world. And I can’t forget to mention the custom jobs on Ethiopian minibus taxis. Hop into any minibus in Addis, and you will be delighted and surprised by the abundance of decorative accessories lining the van inside and out. Patterned fur of all kinds line seats, dashboards and ceilings; religious icons, soccer-star photographs, and faux brand decals are plastered on walls and windows; beads and hanging ornaments dangle from mirrors; each van is a portable art installation on wheels. Each taxi driver receives the givenness of his canvas (in this case, an automotive interior) and in turn gives it back to the world, a piece of reality that is now “more than itself.”

CULTURE OR SOULS?

How can we choose between the tasks of culture making and soul saving? Are we to spend our days making art (a gloriously wasteful enterprise) or seeking the lost (spiritually, the most “efficient” enterprise)? The stakes feel too high to waffle between them or try to settle for both.

And yet here is where Reformed sacramental theology might give us the help we need. We rest in the promise of God’s sovereignty, and in the hope that created things, works of art, bread and wine can be lifted up by the Spirit to become more than themselves. To follow Peter Leithart, we need to abandon a “Zwinglian poetics,” in which things cannot be both themselves and also beautiful signs of something bigger.

Yes, the Reformed evangelical can and should have it both ways. Both culture making and evangelism are limited, finite human goods. Both actions are radically dependent on God for their being and for their efficacy. But both can be taken up, by God, in God’s freedom, to make something beautiful. It’s my prayer for the church in the United States and the church of Ethiopia that we would receive from God both means of grace.

Steven Rodriguez is pastor of worship arts, Pillar Church, Holland, Michigan.

Image: Jorge Gordo, Unsplash