Webb, “Palang Conformity and Fulset Freedom: Encountering Pentecostalism’s ‘Sensational’ Liturgical Forms in the Postmissionary Church in Lae, Papua New Guinea”

Webb, Michael. 2011. “Palang Conformity and Fulset Freedom: Encountering Pentecostalism’s ‘Sensational’ Liturgical Forms in the Postmissionary Church in Lae, Papua New Guinea.” Ethnomusicology 55(3):445-472.

Excerpt: In this article I take up Meyer’s recent call to scholars of Christianity: “global Christianity requires attention to aesthetics, understood in the broad sense” (2010:759). I concentrate on the shift in Lutheran worship music practices apparent in congregations in the vicinity of Lae, toward what might be considered a Melanesian Pentecostal or “sanctified” aesthetic (see Scandrett-Leatherman 2008; Yong 2010:175–81, 205–10). Meyer’s (2010) notion of “sensational forms” informs my approach. These are Pentecostal worship practices that are both ap- pealing to the senses and spectacular, and through which participants “sense the presence of the Holy Spirit with and in their bodies” (Meyer 2010:742; emphases in original). Sensational forms, Meyer explains, are “an excellent point of entry into processes of religious transformation” (ibid.:751). More specifically, I con- tribute to the ethnomusicological study of global Christianities by examining the local formation and social and cultural persuasiveness of one of Pentecostalism’s key sensational forms, its liturgy of “praise and worship” (Meyer 2010:751).

Following a description of the field setting and research scope, and a discussion of terminology, I provide a historical sketch of the musical activities and processes that have contributed to the formation of this Lutheran social imaginary in Morobe Province, this local dawning in Papua New Guinea of a new, Lutheran, Christian understanding of the world. Fast-forwarding, I report the emergence of new forms of local Christian musical expression around the time of national political independence in the mid 1970s, produced both in the context of the then-nascent popular music industry in Papua New Guinea, and as a result of encounters around the country with Pentecostal Christianity. Papua New Guineans were certainly attracted by Pentecostalism’s “enchanted theology of creation and culture” (Smith 2010a:39–41) and saw a vision of a new Christian imaginary in Charismatic revivalism and its musical liturgies.

Against this background, drawing on my recent fieldwork among Lutheran and Pentecostal congregations in and near Lae, I consider how, in Morobe Province, new Pentecostal praise and worship music might be understood as “a performative religious critique” (Smith 2010b:688). The gravitation toward Pentecostalized liturgies, I suggest, indicates—among other things—an increaseing dissatisfaction with the kind of temporality aesthetics that have come to govern the Lutheran imaginary, particularly as encoded within its hymnody. I frame the shift in worldview that has been underway from the mission era to the postmissionary church in terms of the transition, desired and/or actual, from acoustic guitar-accompanied to electric band-accompanied liturgy.5 For reasons including its ability to carve out a sonic space, bodily enliven worship, and create worship flow, many Lutheran congregations are, not without resistance from various directions, embracing amplified rock-based church music as the preferred musico-liturgical mode. The acoustic guitar, now pejoratively referred to as palang (Tok Pisin,6 plank or board), is being superseded by electric band worship known as fulset (PNG English,7 full set—of rock band instruments). The contrast in languages as “vessels of meaning” here is noteworthy, with Tok Pisin a local-national language and (localized) English a national/global language. Through interviews with church administrators, leaders, and musicians; discussion of repertoires; and analysis of exemplary praise and worship songs in liturgical performance, as well as field observations, I probe ways in which a new “ecumenical” imaginary is being formed.