Father Berchmans and Indian Evangelism – A New Dimension in Contextualization through Singing

 M. S. Thirumalai

Fr. Berchmans – an Instrument of the Holy Spirit

Fr. Berchmans comes from an interior small village in south eastern Tamilnadu and was trained as a Catholic priest. He accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and began preaching the gospel in mid-1980s. The Lord gave him the talent of composing and singing songs of praise and worship, and this talent has attracted thousands of people to Christ not only in the state of Tamilnadu but in other parts of India as well. Fr. Berchmans, led by the Holy Spirit, has become a very effective tool of the Holy Spirit to usher in a revolution in evangelism in India. Fr. Berchmans’ compositions and singing mark a new chapter in the contextualization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in India.

In Father Berchman’s compositions and singing, the Spirit of God has released to us a freedom of praise and worship in Tamil over and above what Tamil Christians have experienced until the 1980s.

Indian Ethics and Buddhist Traditions

Indian ethics is grounded deeply in Buddhist and Jaina (Jainism) teaching. The existing didactic works on moral and ethical instruction in Tamil, a classical language spoken predominantly in the state of Tamilnadu in India and northern and eastern Sri Lanka, are mostly derived from Buddhism and Jainism. However, these two radical offshoots of Hinduism were totally eliminated from India through various means.

The Buddhist and Jaina terse moralistic teaching was part of their insistence on asceticism as the supreme form of spirituality and as the primary means of salvation. This naturally did not go well with the common people among the Tamils. Buddhists shunned music, dance and other forms of traditional entertainment. Their religious teaching appealed more to the philosophically inclined elitist groups than to common people.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere attempted to incorporate local beliefs and traditions as part of their teaching. Whether the Buddhists and Jaina monks encouraged such eclecticism in the state of Tamilnadu and other parts of India is not clear. There were also concerted efforts in the state of Tamilnadu to brand Buddhism as a religion foreign to Tamil Hindu sects. The wars between the Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka Sinhala dynasties also led to the labeling of Buddhism as a foreign religion. Finally, Buddhism and Jainism disappeared as independent religions with any significant following in south India.

Revival of Hindu Sects that Focused on Devotion to Their Deities

The elimination of Buddhism in the state of Tamilnadu twelve centuries ago was accomplished also by a renewal of the Hindu movement of devotion, called Bhakti. Worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu formed themselves into distinct sects, but their sages adopted a common method of composing songs in the language of the people and worshipping their deities through these songs of praise and worship. These sages moved from place to place and visited the temples with their disciples. Their songs, composed in newer forms of poetry, with devotion to chosen deities, became popular and were sung in native tunes. Arts including music and dancing were restored and approved. However, this reform among the Hindus was more or less of an elitist-caste orientation. Lower rungs of the society were not allowed entry into sacred places and the landed gentry had the upper hand.

Christian Entry – Jesus is Lord of All, not just of the Elitist Classes and Castes

Christianity preferred to present itself in common man’s language. The elitist orientation of the spiritual practices was not encouraged. One of the ways this was achieved was by adopting the colloquial idiom as the vehicle for the translation of the Bible in Tamil.

Prose became the preferred medium of expression in Tamil Christianity, whereas poetry was the dominant form of expression of devotion to the deities in Tamil Hindu sects.

Early Christian missionaries to the Tamils contextualized praise and worship in many significant ways. Hymnals were mostly set to organ music and these were often translations from a European language. On the other hand, lyrics were original compositions in Tamil and employed native tunes, idioms and simple native musical instruments that were easy to use without much training. Many lyrics employed direct address to Jesus as a favorite form of worship and praise. All lyrical compositions praised Him and worshipped Him. Devotion, grace, salvation, appeal for help in times of trouble, seeking blessings marked the contents of lyrics. Lyrics were composed meeting the needs of various stages and events of life.

Characteristics of Tamil Lyrics

Anointed servants of God wrote and sang thousands of lyrics in Tamil. A good number of these found their way into the authoritative collections of lyrics and sung in churches for generations. Many others became proud possessions of Christian families as part of their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Standing strong in the tradition of bhakti (devotion), the lyricists advocated total surrender and dependence on the theology of grace and confessing Jesus as the Lord and Savior.

Lyrics generally adopted the rules set for poetic compositions, often resulting in long and involved sentences. They were and are beautiful compositions, but the need and expectation of the current generation of Christians in terms of music and language as well as the way the content is expressed has greatly changed. A new genre, called light music, has become the dominant form of musical composition in movies in Tamil and other Indian languages, and this called for drastic changes in the ways Christian songs are composed and sung. One would have expected that the high and steep increase in the levels of literacy would have helped the growth of traditional forms of music compositions in Tamil and other Indian languages. Growing literacy should have made the comprehension of the older lyrics easier and more enjoyable. But this did not happen.

The Need for Change

While these lyrical compositions still stir the souls, the fact remains that these were composed in a language and style that bordered on formalism. Lyrics were far better than the hymnals for the new Christian as his or her language and melody were employed. Singing was natural and was well within their tradition. And yet these were composed with words from written Tamil, following rigid person-gender-number endings and other grammatical nuances, common to the written style. The tunes were generally borrowed from the elitist musical tradition, called Carnatic music. Singers needed some training of sorts. The lines seemed a bit longer. Somehow liturgy and lyrics seemed to go together to the average church-going Tamil Christian.

Gospel in Indian Cup

Tamils have a long history of Christianity in India, second only to their Malayalam speaking brothers and sisters. The first ever translation of the Word of God was done in Tamil among all the Indian languages several centuries ago. Contextualization always marked their approach to everything Christian. As a renowned Indian missiologist Dr. Sudhir Isaiah remarked citing Sadhu Sundar Singh, “presenting the Gospel in an Indian cup” appears to have dominated the thinking and actions of Tamil evangelists. What strikes me most is that such developments always seemed natural and had great effect on drawing thousands of Hindus to the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. The effectiveness and success of Fr. Berchmans ministry is a great example.

Easy to Remember and Easier to Sing!

Fr. Berchmans was trained to be a Roman Catholic priest. He accepted Jesus as the Lord and Savior in early1980s. Since then, he began to preach the gospel through singing and dancing. He has already composed more than 350 songs and most of these have been brought out in the form of audio CDs. Some are made available in DVDs also. The content and most of the words in Fr. Berchmans’ songs are from the Bible. Fr. Berchmans prays, walks with the Lord and receives his songs from the Lord. His melodies and tunes are all a great blessing from the Lord to us. Tunes are utterly simple and very elegant, taken from folk traditions, easy to remember, and easier to sing!

Singing Together

As soon as the tune is brought out and uttered, there is smile in everybody’s face in the audience, and lips start singing, because the tunes are part of the living tradition in Tamil and other Indian languages.

A very significant aspect of Fr. Berchmans’ program of evangelism is that everyone joins him in singing. In this process, it is the Word that is praised, worshipped and glorified, and not any single individual. The program is not a display of individual talents. His masterful use of Tamil diction, primarily from the colloquial style, brings in both humor and seriousness of purpose. As we begin to sing together, we begin to feel the presence of the Spirit, speaking individually to our spirits. Fr. Berchmans dances to the tune, after the fashion of traditional folk dances. He has added a few very interesting gestures taken from the modern idiom of nonverbal communication that adds spice to the stuff!

Fr. Berchmans’ Songs of Praise and Worship – A Radical Turn

The words take you to a different realm while the tunes keep you firmly in the localized traditions of singing. Hardly a line has more than three to four words! And these lines are repeated following folk traditions, and this repetition helps us not only to enjoy the tunes but also to grasp the meaning of words! Grammatical nuances are kept to the minimum in a style that predominately uses spoken Tamil word endings. A great revolution, indeed!

Fr. Berchmans’ singing marks a radical turn away from difficult compositions, while focusing on and encouraging direct conversation between us and our Creator through thanksgiving, praise and worship!

Indian English Uniting Indians for the Worship of God

Fr. Berchmans presents the Gospel in his compositions and this has attracted hundreds of thousands of Christians, Hindus and others to come to know Jesus in a very personal way. Recently he has begun to present his songs in simple Indian English and sing these verses in Indian English, employing Indian folk tunes! Language barrier thus is eliminated in multilingual audiences in metropolitan cities. Amazingly even the native speakers of English seem to fall in love with this format of singing in Indian English using Indian folk tunes!

By the grace of our Lord, Fr. Berchmans’ ministry demonstrates that language is not a barrier to praise and worship God!

Suspended Priest!

Fr. Berchmans was suspended from the Roman Catholic Church in 1991. God has however chosen him to become the tallest of singing evangelists in India. His ministry now encompasses all of India and his compositions are getting translated into several Indian languages and sung in all Charismatic churches.

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M. S. Thirumalai