If you have heard the term “Kumbaya” come up in a conversation, it was likely NOT a compliment. Kumbaya can be a catch-all phrase to describe something so saccharine as to be unbelievable. People of the Kumbaya mindframe, are naive enough to believe their own worldview. They are also naive enough to imagine that everyone else is on the same page. Hence, if you every get called “Kumbaya” as a nickname, it is perhaps time to check yourself, look in the mirror and get with the times.
But that was not always so. Kumbaya entered the lexicon of popular jargon just because it was at one time so ubiquitous as a campfire song. It was popularized in the 1960’s by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, though written long before that. The song has been traced to the Creole people of the Sea Islands. In Creole dialect “kumbaya” means “come by here”. It was a spiritual, sung by former slaves. Its popularity in the 1960’s is part and parcel of world folk songs that made their way into popular culture at that time.
Folk songs sung for the people by we, the people. It’s a nice thought, at least. The great “We” that is supposed to include everybody. Those who remember Kumbaya might also remember the “Coke” song of 1971. It featured dreamy looking hippies with cute curls, paunchos and turtleneck sweaters, looking off into the distance, holding a bottle of Coke in hand. The lyrics are equally saccharine. “I’d like to build the world a home, and furnish it with love, grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves…” Why, it’s practically “moon in June” cliche by today’s standards, and yet it was a marketing campaign that tapped into the zeitgeist of the times and made Coke a lot of money.
But no more. The assumption of universal ethos has long been replaced by radical individualism. There are very few instances where you can point to a belief system that is shared by all. Just like special effects in the movies, the bar for what is believable has also been raised. We are more sceptical. Belief comes at the cost of some critical scrutiny, and one size no longer fits all. Still, recognizing differences might be another way of saying that we have grown up. Maybe it is time to move past facile assumptions that consuming culture, means you understand culture. It’s like thinking that eating Chinese food lets you know anything about Chinese people.
Kumbaya comes to mind because of church music. Specifically, mega-church kind of music, known as WORSHIP songs. The tell-tale characteristic of worship songs, are that first of all, NOBODY KNOWS THEM. They always seem to be new. Hence, you will be fumbling for words while looking on screen for the lyrics. Second thing is that they are endlessly repetitive, and hence endlessly repeated. A worship song can go on for a LONG time, presumably to put you into a controlled mindframe, just like hypnotists assume they can change your consciousness by dangling a penny and saying the right words.
Here is where I would stop and say that sometimes differences are appropriate. I don’t like anyone assuming they know me that well. Neither do I imagine that something like religious belief comes as a one-size-fits-all. Usually the decision to believe, is deeply personal and tied to some equally personal events that turned a corner in your life. Revelation is like that, even when it is personal it is tied to a time-line that links our own history with the greater salvation history of mankind. Like church father Tertullian noted, “Some came by Athens, others by Jerusalem”. He meant by that, the some people are by nature more rational, and others more emotional. What sways your belief can be highly individual.
Music can also be quite keyed to memory. That is why for me at least, some of the older traditional hymns have such traction. They can make me tear up easily, and the words tend to be rooted in deep gospel truths that have been a bedrock for many generations. When my wife plays Easter music that she grew up with, it is very different to what I am used to. The songs are Arabic Maronite, and they are the annual songs called up at Easter, when a lot of people are feeling the same thing. It brings to mind, when my mother-in-law was newly widowed. She is a deep well, hard to read, and her personal feelings are quite private. If you asked how she was, she would always say “Nushker Allah” (thank God) by way of answer. We took her to our church for Mass here and there, but it did not seem to resonate with her. On the Good Friday preceding Easter, we took her to the Arabic Maronite church instead, the church she grew up with. The incense was ramped up for the day, and the crowds were stuffed into balconies and alcoves. When the Priest did his Good Friday procession, their custom is to carry an effigy of Jesus into a mock tomb, where it lays until resurrected on Easter Sunday.
The deep wells of feeling opened up. Kleenex well-used. It was the music that did it I think. It unearthed deep feelings that stirred her heart from memories of youth onward, celebrating Easter as a girl with family, and others long since gone. It also brought up ancient truths of Easter, that per the vows of our baptism we die with Jesus and are similarly resurrected in Jesus. I could not relate to the music of course. It will never stir the wellsprings of my own heart, and yet it worked for her. Yes, belief is individual, and deeply personal. There is not a song in the world that is a one-size-fits-all deal.
Of that, I am glad. I don’t want to be manipulated into a state of mind that does not reflect my own journey through life. I don’t want cliché music. What moves my own heart to worship is also tied to personal memories that God only knows. I also note with some relief that I cannot “make” you believe anything. Religious belief is by nature, the work of God on the human heart. And so it is that for Christianity to be true, it has to be true at the deepest level - the level of the individual. It will live on universal, through a million shared stories that are as unique as every new day that dawns on this earth. No Kumbaya perhaps, but something better, that will weather the storms of time until the Church universal is gathered up and Kumbayas won’t matter anymore.