38. Bach and the Navajo — A Conversation with Samuel Metzger

November 27, 2022 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

In previous podcasts, we’ve talked about the challenges of working as a Western classical musician in a global and missional context. In my first month in Japan, I was helping to lead worship on a pipe organ, which I was asked to do, when an older missionary came up and started to berate me. “You can’t play that kind of music here. It’s completely against everything we’re trying to do for the Japanese church.” In other words, he was not very encouraging!

I was a bit shocked, but I could see his point. As Christians, we want to see the nations of the world worship God in their heart languages…their spoken language, but also their musical language and their cultural language. The music of Messiaen, Vierne, Widor, and all the other Western composers who’ve written for the organ are not part of their heart language…so, doesn’t that mean I shouldn’t play that music while church planting in Japan? I mean, what role do I have, someone trained in distinctly Western styles of music, in bringing the gospel to the people of Japan? How can I justify playing the pipe organ for people in Japan?

Well…this is, of course, one of the key issues we’ve been addressing in many podcasts. The fact that we’ve seen many Japanese become Christians, not by adopting Western cultural forms, but by embracing creative expressions of the gospel in their own culture proves we need to rethink the dilemma. Church planting around the world builds the kingdom of heaven, where all the nations worship God of course through their heart languages. But also, they are led in worship through the heart languages of all other people as well. Just as in Isaiah 6:3 where the angels call, “Holy, holy, holy,” to one another, our worship is enhanced by calling out and sharing the praises of God through our own languages and cultures, our own perspectives and insights and experiences. God is most certainly glorified through it.

When I play the pipe organ in Japan, I build relationships with people that lead to experiencing the gospel. I share myself, and they in turn share themselves with me. And through it, we see Japanese become Christians. Not Western Christians, but Japanese Christians who praise God through their perspectives and lead me in worship through them as well.

So, being an artist and a missionary is not only okay, but it’s helpful. It’s effective. It’s strategic. And we’re going to investigate this a little bit more fully in today’s podcast.

This week I’ll be talking with Samuel Metzger. Samuel and I have a lot of overlapping circles. He is currently the organist at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN, which is a church that has supported me and my family generously as missionaries for many years now. And it’s also where my latest organ album, called COVENANT, was recorded. (You can check out that album and its music in the show notes!) Before that, Samuel was the music director and organist at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, another church that supports us very generously. I was also the organist there for a number of years before coming to Japan as a missionary. Before that, he was the organist at Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Florida, a huge TV church with services broadcast around the world. I actually auditioned to be organist at that church but didn’t get the job. When Samuel auditioned, he did get the job! So, obviously, he’s a phenomenal organist. He’s active as a concert artist and was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany. The list goes on. Anyway, I feel privileged to know him and to be able to call him a friend.

The reason I’m bringing Samuel on the show today is because, besides being a stellar musician, he also grew up as a missionary kid working with the Navajo. And so he has something to offer as we seek to understand what does it mean to work as a Western classical musician in a missional context.

Samuel, thank you so much for being here today.

Samuel

Thank you. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Roger

So you are a musician and you've been a musician your whole life and you are a missionary kid. We've had a number of conversations in the past in this podcast about how the two connect, missions and arts. And so I'd like to talk with you a little bit about that and hear some of your history. So let me go back to the beginning, your growing up. Tell me about what it was like being the son of a missionary family.

Samuel

Well, I think it's probably the case for all missionary kids, it is a bit of a unique circumstance because you're in a foreign place. And even though I grew up in the United States, but being on the mission field, being truly a minority, and for a lot of the time, being home-schooled, the family is very important.

My love of music really came through my father. My father, who is a German immigrant, he's now passed, loved classical music, loved the music of Bach, loved the organ in particular. Had studied organ privately in his late 20s. So when we went to the mission field, he had this wonderful record collection and conversations, and he would reminisce about programs that he'd gone to at the Eastman School of Music when he lived in Rochester. And I would hear about all of these famous organists and of course, we had the recordings.

Roger

So was he a musician himself or just a music lover?

Samuel

Music lover. He had played for a little bit, but when you start playing an instrument at age 27, regardless of how hard you work, you can't do it. And then he felt called into ministry.

Roger

Right.

Samuel

So I grew up hearing music constantly in the home, even though we were at a place culturally that might have seemed a bit removed from that. But when I was eleven is when I was able to start taking some private lessons at the University in Flagstaff, which was an hour drive from where we were. They had a preparatory school for young kids. So I studied with a student teacher there and actually began on the organ, because we didn't have a piano, we were given a little electronic organ. And so that was at eleven.

Roger

That's the way I started as well, on the organ, not on the piano.

Samuel

Yeah. I think it has definite benefits and definite disadvantages technically as keyboard players will know. Give me counterpoint, I can play that all day. Arpeggios, that's always not quite as comfortable.

Roger

So what was the ministry that your dad was involved in?

Samuel

So my father was a missionary to the Navajo Indians, and the Navajo Indian Reservation is the largest Native American nation in the country. And it's all around what's called the Four Corners there of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. And we were in the portion of the mission field, which is near the Grand Canyon. We were about a 40-minutes drive from the Grand Canyon where we lived. So we had a mission church, which actually was in a mobile home right next to the reservation. You could not be on it as a non-Native American. So we lived right next to the reservation. We would go out in my dad's old World War II jeep out into the sheep camps and would visit people. Some of the ministry was people coming to the mission church. Others were just people that my dad would visit. The Navajos did not speak English. He had an old-fashioned wind-up record player with sermons on it spoken in their native language. It was kind of funny. After listening to them over and over again, you could predict where the pops and the clicks were in the LP.

Yeah, we'd be out there in the sheep camps, and we'd have fried bread cooked there and lard on an open fire and mutton stew and all those things. And then we'd go back to my home and we'd be hearing a Bach Cantata at night.

Roger

Well, yeah, that makes me wonder if he's carrying this record player to the reservation. Was music a part of this ministry? Was he playing music as well?

Samuel

No, it was not. It was not the kind of record player, I don't remember why, but it was not the kind that would use the normal magnetic electrical pickup. It was totally acoustical. It was a non-electric system. I don't know what that particular technology was, but no, it did not play regular LPs.

Roger

Did he then do music as a ministry at his house or off the reservation?

Samuel

Yes. When we were first on the mission field, we actually did meet in our living room and we had the regular mission church. He would refer to classical music and later on, as I was able to play more, for example, I learned all of the Bach Schubler Chorals, and I was able to play them and he would use scripture to talk about the text and he would give a translation. Sometimes my dad would do his own translation that would be more literal, rather than the, what's it called, versified or has to be rhyming. Right? The Catherine Winkworth translations are beautiful, but they're not always literal.

Roger

So how did that go? What was the reception? Were there a lot of people there?

Samuel

Yeah, I think it was well received. It was just sort of part of my dad's ministry. He loved music and referred to it. And then, we would often at Christmas time, we would have a listening time to listen to the Messiah, the Christmas section, and we would print out the lyrics. And so, the congregation would hear this wonderful music, but then also the gospel story. We did that. And then he would, on occasion, this would be for the more adventurous listeners, he would maybe do a Bach Cantata and then give a translation in English or something like that. But that was probably becoming more of a reach. Handel’s Messiah is probably an easier lift.

Roger

Well, I would have enjoyed that.

That's interesting, though. One of the things that we struggle with in Japan is that whole thing about trying to make sure that Christianity doesn't look like a Western religion, and so bringing in Bach’s cantatas or Handel’s Messiah or things like that. Do you think there was any of that conflict there? Or how do people…

Samuel

I'm not sure that the Navajo people, at least, certainly 30 years ago, would have thought of it that way. I think in our more modern times, people are more and more sensitive to those thoughts. Now, maybe we were just oblivious to it, but I guess in a way, even for the few white people who came to my dad's church, that was practically just as foreign to them as well.

Roger

Right. That’s true.

Samuel

The whole thing was a novelty. It was a novelty that people thought was kind of interesting. You present it without trying to make excuses for it. You just present it, “This is wonderful.” You know, you just present it with the assumption that people are going to like it. My dad always would say, “You have to get the hay out of the hayloft down on the floor where the cows can eat it.” I don't know if that's an old German saying or what, but his attitude was, I take that even when I do concerts in church settings, if you tell somebody about a piece of music, give them a hook and you present it in such a way that assumes they're going to like it, they will, of course, like it. And so I think being not so self-conscious about that, but choosing carefully, you know?

Roger

Yeah. And I mean, kind of I asked as a devil's advocate because obviously I'm an organist as well, and I'm playing Bach all the time in Japan, which seems like this Western thing, but it seems too that it's a chance to say, this is what I have to offer, this is who I am. It's a way for relationship building rather than some kind of Western domination of culture thing. Just like a sharing time.

Samuel

Yeah. And I think that it's being less self-conscious about it. But whatever we present, and particularly those of us as performers, if we do it with passion and excitement, I think that ultimately music is just music and you have to know your congregation. I do remember I come back from Germany having studied all of this high art, and then I end up in a church in South Florida, which was a TV church and really appreciated just the old hymns. So I kind of got a little bit off of my pedestal and realized I could play my Bach and my Vierne and all that. But then if I worked in a nice arrangement of a hymn setting or something that people related to, that bought a lot of buy-in. And in the end, after being there for several years, my solo concerts would get a huge audience. And it wasn't because they were organ lovers. It's just they kind of knew that whatever I presented they would like. And so I think it's presenting things with passion, and I think that's the key.

Roger

That's cool. So what about in case of Navajo music? I know they do have a rich heritage, which has really been commercialized when I've been out West and seen the dances and various things going on. Were you ever able to sing together in Navajo various songs or hymns that were Christian?

Samuel

Yeah, there were some songs, particularly with…Well, first of all, most of the Navajos, the young, like young parents and children, a lot of them were already starting to lose their native language. They had become very Westernized, as in language-wise. But there were some songs that we were seeing in our Good News Club with the kids that there were some verses in Navajo that we kind of, my dad and us, as a family learned kind of by rote. So we did have a little bit of that. But they would be Christian songs, but Christian songs that had originally been in English and then been translated. So there was a little bit of a tradition of that. In the actual Navajo music itself, it's not completely tonal in the sense of what we would think. It was more chanting. And a lot of that had to do with the Navajo religion. So some of that didn't naturally translate over into the mission. But doing a verse or two of a song in Navajo, that did happen.

Roger

And how the Navajo react to that? Did they respond well to it?

Samuel

Yeah, absolutely. And we did a lot of things like, for example, instead of just putting a cross on the wall, we had a Navajo rug made that had a cross. And the offering plate was a Navajo basket. And so we did things to try to incorporate the culture into the services, I think because my father, being an immigrant, understood what it was like to not be a part of the majority culture, he was sensitive to that. He came to this country when he was 16, after World War II, and throughout his whole life never felt truly American, so he was sensitive to other cultures not feeling that way. So I think he related well to it. So he did what he could, I think, to create those bridges.

Roger

So let me jump ahead to modern time and this spread of COVID and this has been hard for a lot of people. I'd love to hear your thoughts about how music had a role to play in healing during this time.

Samuel

Absolutely. Well, for all of us, people in general, but certainly those of us in the arts and those of us who serve in church, it's been even for us creative people, has taxed us in different ways. We, unfortunately, at the very beginning of the COVID season, we had a pastor catch COVID and die. And so that kind of probably launched us a little bit more quickly into the various measures. We actually went into having to do everything virtual for a couple of weeks while we were waiting to see if any of us had COVID because we'd been in the same room with this pastor. We even recorded things separately in our homes. So I would say it took a lot of flexibility, but the congregation was so appreciative to have some normalcy and we're blessed, of course, to have had an AV team that could help us make the quality of the audio as good as possible and cameras and all of those things. So we were blessed to have that. But the congregation is really appreciated all that we've done and really have reached out. For me as an organist, where I sit normally on Sunday morning, I'm kind of up there doing my thing up there very privately with my back to everybody. But it was interesting that during COVID because of them needing to put something on the screen, they had a camera pointed kind of down at the organ. And so for the first time, a lot of people saw what an organist does and that was interesting. So in a kind of curious way, it raised the people's appreciation of the organ, which I thought was interesting.

Roger

I remembered during COVID, I sometimes watch NBC News from Japan because it's one of the few that I'm able to watch what's happening with American news. And Second Pres., your choir, was on the news.

Samuel

Yes. That was really a wonderful thing that came out of a tragic situation. This pastor who died really loved music, was so supportive of the music. Loved Handel. So he passed away of COVID and the choir, led by our choir director Calvin Ellis, decided to go to his widow's house and sing a hymn, a cappella. It was a moment when this group of choir members, many who have sung in this choir for 30 years or longer, they’re a group of music lovers, lay musicians, some even have music degrees, but maybe didn't end up going into music as a full-time career. They took their love of music and then used it to serve the higher purpose of ministering to this widow. And it was posted, I believe, on Instagram or Twitter, and then somehow picked up by NBC News. So that was a really sweet thing that came out of a very sad situation.

Roger

Yeah, I'm sure it was healing for the choir too, just to have a way to do something that brought light in a dark situation.

Samuel

Yeah, absolutely. As we know, arts and music and all of these things that we have are what sustain people through difficult times. You can look throughout history…I think of how in my dad's home country, Germany, how quickly after the war they rebuilt the concert halls or would put on the radio broadcasts of orchestras performing even in rubble, the importance of the arts and what that means for our culture and for those of us who serve and use our music in the church setting. It relates, in some ways, not only musically but then the whole fellowship, the church family, and the spiritual higher purpose of that. So that came together in a wonderful way.

Roger

That's a great story to end with. Thank you so much for your time, and God bless your ministry and everything you're doing here.

Samuel

Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

Roger

This is Roger Lowther, and you’ve been listening to the Art, Life, Faith Podcast. Check out my website, rogerwlowther.com, for a transcription of this podcast and various links. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time!”

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