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John Bealle - Review of Deborah Justice, (White)Washing Our Sins Away: American Mainline Churches, Music, Power, and Diversity

John Bealle - Review of Deborah Justice, (White)Washing Our Sins Away: American Mainline Churches, Music, Power, and Diversity

Religious garments and the inside of a church

Deborah Justice's (White)Washing Our Sins Away: American Mainline Churches, Music, Power, and Diversity is an ambitious work in the vein of decolonizing ethnological disciplines, that is, in redressing the emphasis on aestheticized marginalized cultures. The focus in (White)Washing is thus on the music of White American mainline Protestant churches, long associated with racial and institutional power and largely exempted from ethnological scrutiny by a veneer of normalcy. Since the 1960s, however, mainline churches have been in decline, leaving a dangerous vacuum of "cultural confidence and security" (222). Thus, the book addresses an important interface that provides benefits both to ethnomusicology and to American society in general.

In response to mainline Protestant decline, some congregations have made dramatic changes hoping to retain their vitality. The congregation Justice studies, Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, has adopted the dual-service format that emerged in the 1990s in some mainline churches. In this, they offer separate Traditional and Contemporary (evangelical) services in different worship spaces, so that each Sunday the congregational body is divided. Much of Justice's book recounts the exacting negotiation and implementation of this plan, which nationwide came to be known as the Worship Wars. Through a sometimes acrimonious process, mainline churches channeled divisive issues into a single binary of perceived difference.

Music, it turns out, was a prominent motivating issue in this change, and a prominent concern in the logistical and theological adjustments that were made. Churches, in fact, have long recognized the power of music to both corrupt and redeem. Through the materiality of worship music, Worship Wars differences were condensed into the binary that Justice identifies as “musical immanence” and “musical transcendence,” so that worship itself produced the experience of perceived difference. At Hillsboro, this difference was embodied by tangible dichotomies such as guitars versus organs, or praise choruses versus hymns, or worship versus performance.

In an important chapter, Justice outlines the strategies that congregations employed to bridge the deeply emotional divisions that adding Contemporary services entailed. Both Traditional and Contemporary congregants embraced the nationwide fascination with gospel chestnuts and the bluegrass style with which they were associated. Also, a practice of "retuning" hymns emerged, whereby Traditional hymns were adapted and arranged in Contemporary style. And once each quarter, the church began offering a single unity service in place of the dual format. Mostly, no one liked the unity service, but worshiping together, the experience of congregational co-presence, of the "liturgical whole" (150), produced an appreciation for the achievement of the dual-service format. That is, the tangible experience of the dual-service accomplishment became entwined with the congregational self-image as diverse and open-minded.

If the goal is to reinvent ethnomusicology by giving mainline institutions a cultural face—a "seat at the table"—then a dual-service congregation seems an odd choice. It is a complex undertaking, not easily represented. Mainline "aesthetic angst" complicates things, as also do the mixed aesthetic views the two factions have of each other. This might seem to replicate rather than critique the cultural dynamic that Justice wants ethnomusicology to emerge from. The fact remains, Justice insists, that Hillsboro is more invested in the accomplishment of the dual service than in the aesthetic qualities of either component. It is on this basis that Justice and Hillsboro achieve cultural critique and in turn foster the transformation of desiring mainline Protestants from power to identity.

Most of (White)Washing Our Sins Away involves the details of the transformation to the dual-service format. But the subject of race, as promised in the title, makes cameo appearances throughout the book and then is discussed more explicitly in the late chapters. During the period of the Worship Wars, some White mainline churches were striving to integrate. Hillsboro, through much of its history, has taken the progressive side in denominational disputes involving race. Some members view that narrative as tangible history, decisive in their affiliation choice.

In its own outreach initiatives, however, Hillsboro had relied primarily on familiar social networks, which by habit were exclusively White. The appeal of evangelical congregants appeared as a promising avenue to reach a new population, and from this the dual-service format emerged. But racial integration had not been achieved. It also had not lost its moral urgency, so this left unfinished spiritual business for the church. Thus, the book concludes, the dual-service-as-diversity narrative emerged alongside the discouraging attempts at racial integration, preserving the self-image of the congregation as diverse by non-racial measures. Hearing sonic difference gave the congregation a tool to navigate turn-of-the-millennium challenges in social, religious, and racial identity.

More recently, Hillsboro entered into an unusual and ambitious service-exchange relationship with Spruce Street Baptist Church, a prominent Black church in Nashville. In this, the two churches established an ongoing agreement whereby once each year the entire congregation of one church, pastor and musicians included, would travel to the other's church and produce a worship service. From these events, an implicit relationship evolved between the two congregations, revealing yearnings that extended across the racial divide.

Thus there is a priority asserted by the author between the diversity achieved in the dual-service and the racial diversity of the service exchange. Justice takes great care in describing this relationship, letting the candid and sometimes awkward observations of the congregants stand as authoritative. Readers expecting a more mature effort at racial reconciliation will be disappointed, as will those expecting a more triumphant depiction of the church. The book emerges as resolute in its allegiance to the views of the congregants.

(White)Washing Our Sins Away is an ambitious and complex work. The fieldwork involved was intense and joyful and lengthy. The author takes great care in giving the subjects a platform to speak. The book addresses scholarship primarily in the areas of whiteness studies and works on contemporary Protestantism, especially Protestant church music. It is an ethnographic work situated contextually within the societal swirl of the Worship Wars. It illustrates how musical style serves as the chief currency for a dramatic denominational transformation.


[Review length: 1021 words • Review posted on April 30, 2024]