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Interview with C.R. “Kees” van Setten about the Power of Musical Lament to Reconcile Jews and Christians

In this email interview from spring 2008, van Setten tells how the music of lament has helped heal European Christians ashamed of how they’ve treated Jews and helped Jews feel God’s presence. He explains how combining lament and praise can enrich evangelical worship.

C.R. “Kees” van Setten traveled from the Netherlands to attend a workshop on lament in worship given by Michael Card and Calvin Seerveld at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship. During a meal together, Seerveld discovered that van Setten had organized a Christian musical group, New Wine Ensemble, that toured Eastern Europe, playing mainly for Jewish audiences.

You can hear some of that music, much of it instrumental or in English, here. The songs are from van Setten’s CD Nigun, a Jewish term for (often wordless) sung prayers.

In this (minimally edited) email interview from spring 2008, van Setten tells how the music of lament has helped heal European Christians ashamed of how they’ve treated Jews and helped Jews feel God’s presence. He explains how combining lament and praise can enrich evangelical worship.

What experiences or ideas led you to produce Nigun?

That whole story has two components, a musical one and a theological/historical one. It began in 1974 with a series of performances in Dutch churches of the Canadian duo Merv and Merla Watson with their group, Schechina. They do Jewish folk music with a special emphasis on the Jewish people.

Their music and dance and message struck me. I shall never forget an old (“stiff Reformed”) pastor—of course, Dutch Reformed—dance during one of the concerts in one of our cathedrals. And it was appropriate! Miracles happen....

Strangely enough it took some years for me to work this out. At that time I was studying theology at the Utrecht State University and music (organ). I was, still am, a Bach lover. Things changed. More and more I started to play the piano. I met a married couple of professional cellists, made arrangements for them and we began to perform in this somewhat unusual combination, together with singers.

Then, in 1988, we were invited to play in Israel. During my studies—I graduated in the field of the New Testament—I did not care much about Jewish theology and the Jewish people. This came later. In the 80s I began to read about Judaism, not only from a theological point of view, but also from a historical and literary point of view. I intensively studied the Shoah in these different perspectives.

It became obviously clear that Christianity has played a major role in antisemitism and has blood on its hands, whether I like it or not. Furthermore I discovered that not only the Germans did kill the Jews, but the...Europeans did too. The Germans just organized it, but could do this on the basis of a long and deep-rooted antisemitic tradition in the whole of Europe. The racial antisemitism (since the 19th century) is only one of many kinds of antisemitism. And European Christianity is in the midst of that.

Beside this I was of course influenced by my (more or less traumatized) father. At 17 years old, he was put into a camp for slave laborers. They had to work for the Germans. All over Europe, the Germans picked up people and put them into factories, camps, and so forth, locked them up and forced them to do slave work. This "workcamp" of my father was for Dutch non-Jews and was located in the neighborhood of camp Westerbork, a durchgangslager from where the Dutch Jews were transported to Auschwitz (as was Anne Frank). Besides Westerbork, where Jewish people were brought, there were two other camps, Vught and Amersfoort, where the Germans put “criminals,” such as people of the resistance. Somewhere in 1944 my father escaped and found shelter with farmers in this area until the war was over. After the war, against his will, he was forced to fight in Indonesia, which was at that time a Dutch colony.

In fact this all changed my faith (I am a believer since I was 17), my theology, my perspective on Europe, history music. I am convinced this was not only my action, my interest, but more and more I noticed that God played a (hidden) role in this. I began to feel some of the pain which must be in his heart about this (and lot of other things). This marked more and more my lectures, thinking, and my music: not only the genre but also my way of playing.

I began to feel this subject in my fingers. I cannot express it more adequately. I started to compose and tried to mediate between God's heart and the notes on the paper (which is of course a mission impossible.) In the 70s I had made a lot of travels to Eastern Europe, smuggling Bibles with Open Doors and Brother Andrew. Now I looked for ways to perform in Eastern Europe with this music and especially for a Jewish audience there, “those who survived,” I must say, because a Jew there is by definition a survivor. In 1988-1989 we performed in the former Yugoslavia and in 1990 I was invited—by a Jewish woman!—to come to Russia. Since then I organized several concert tours in that part of Europe, mostly playing for a Jewish audience.

Our message was

  • biblical themes of lament and hope, from the psalms and prophets
  • comfort
  • praise
  • letting them know that we are aware of the fact that antisemitism has a big Christian component and acknowledged this
  • reconciliation, respect, and more reconciliation

We visited many places of slaughtering, which confirmed my thesis that antisemitism is a European, not a German, cause. I have seen present (!) antisemitism with my own eyes, experienced it in the Ukraine. It is of a very dark kind. In one of the baroque theaters in the Ukraine, we performed for Jewish people while the Ukrainian staff of the theater (which was rented by the Jewish Agency) was very mad at us. And if looks could kill....

I suddenly realized that this was the perfect context—seen from the perspective of the listening Jews in the concert hall—for Psalm 23: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” The Jewish people recognized the lament and hope in the music as their lament and hope, although I think many of them did not fully understand what was happening. They cried when we admitted the sin of European antisemitism. In Russia (Orthodox) Christians never do. Many of them are antisemitic themselves.

In fact God used our music and performance (sometimes also with a professional dance group) to express his feelings of lament and hope about the whole case to the Jewish people. So they knew that God knew. I will illustrate this. In 1990 we performed in a Jewish synagogue in Kaunas, near Vilnius, Lithuania. Jews in WW2 had been slaughtered there by the local people (!) in horrible ways. It was very special for a Christian group (“the enemy”) to get permission to play there. At the end of the concert, all people cried.

At our way back to our hotel in Vilnius, a Jewish actress from a Yiddish theater told us that she had a wonderful evening and that for the first time in 25 years she experienced the Shechinah. “God must love you,” she added. I stuttered: “God loves you too.”

“No,” she said, "Gott liebt die Juden nicht.”

She told us how she was an eyewitness of the slaughtering of her brother. By our European antisemitism, we, all those ages ago, communicated that God does not love Jews. By psychological law the victim internalized the accusations of the perpetrator and now they are a genetic part of Judaism.

I worried about this sentence for seven years.

In 1997, however, we performed in the Ukraine. After the concert we were invited by the Jewish Agency to have a special dinner with them (gefilte fish, vodka, and so on.) The president of the JA was from the start of our visit a very critical person. He did not trust Christians. You could hear him think: “Are you here to convert us or what?” In the light of history, that was totally understandable.

Suddenly, during dinner, he stood up, toasted with us and said these words—which I never will forget and which were an answer to the incident seven years before—“Now I know that God loves the Jews.” It was the music that convinced him, not our words. So music is one of the most powerful languages for God to preach in. As a matter of fact, the CD Nigun is just a reflection of these concerts and happenings.

When you play in Eastern European synagogues, are you playing as a concert...part of worship...or for some other event?

We played (I am not doing this anymore now at this moment) as a concert. Christians worshipping together with Jewish people at this moment should be a miracle... But I think we came near! So it was just concerts. Sometimes we organized it, sometimes we were invited. 
Strangely enough it worked as if it was worship. I still have a video fragment of our concert with survivors of the Lodz ghetto where you can see the audience: first very reserved, distant and at the end, together, joyous, clapping their hands and singing along with us. And that was without an altar call.

What reactions or insights can you share about performing Nigun songs in synagogues?

Lots of it I explained already. Most important however is the fact that music is very powerful as an instrument. Not just the vocal but especially also the instrumental pieces. Our first concert series in Poland we gave the name Without Words. Christians, especially in Holland, must learn to preach without words. We have preached too many sermons in which too many words were superfluous.

Be aware of the fact that reconciliation between Jews and Christians is one of the (al)most impossible things! So if Jewish people listen and respond positively to our music, then we have to do with a miracle, due, of course, to the presence of the Almighty but also to the power of the most beautiful non-verbal language in the world: music. Besides that, words will have no effect anymore on this subject. Whatever you say, the European history makes ashamed and enfeebles. People just shut their ears.

But things like these play also a role in the Christian community. We should use this instrument of (instrumental) music more often in our services. There should be a better balance between word and non-word—not only music but also silence, visual elements, and so forth. In the Netherlands our Calvinism (anti-papism and anti-Catholicism) is the cause of the fact that we confuse Word with verb. Of course John teaches us that the Word always has become flesh. This incarnation has, in my view, not only to do with Jesus, but also with the demand that words should become deeds, culture, music, relationship, and so forth.

The interesting question then comes up whether music can communicate concepts, ideas—more than as mere feelings. I now think it can. Music cannot analyze, cannot put things into a system, but it can communicate concepts and ideas in a very special way. In the matter of lament, I many times experienced the cello and the violin express these parts of the psalms better than a sermon. Deeper, I think. Closer to the heart of God. You can play lament. In this it is therefore important that the musician knows about history, theology, philosophy, etc. Musicians should be engaged. To play a bundle of notes is another thing than to have a musical message. So musicians, theologians, philosophers, and historians should combine efforts in a team.

The best thing however is not to make antitheses: the verbal needs the non-verbal and otherwise. But the fact remains: we talk too much, considering the fact that we have two ears and only one mouth.

What does lament look like in church worship? I'm interested in how you've experienced, seen, or led lament in worship. This could be as an entire thematic service, music, way of presenting Scripture, sermon, way of praying, visual art, drama, whatever.

I am a member of the Dutch Protestant (Reformed) church. Not a pastor, because I work in the field of education (manager). Unfortunately I don't know many examples of Dutch churches doing something with lament. The Evangelicals (Pentecostals) don't like it because they have a theology of glory and are deeply involved in the praise movement. In their circles the (whole) psalms are not so popular.

But in my church, which is more traditional, it is not better. Of course the vision about things is somewhat broader (we have many books about suffering, lament), but our liturgies are as they are for ages: traditional, no feelings, “from everything something.” Not really lament as we have also not really praise. I think things are in the U.S. sometimes the same.

I can remember only one example of a real lament service. In 1999 (I was on the organizing committee) we organized in the Utrecht Cathedral a service which was about the past and the guilt of Christians toward the Jewish people. In the committee also sisters from the Darmstad Schwestern (Basilea Schlink) were active. This was a real lament liturgy: texts written by a Dutch pastor who devotes himself to the matter of reconciliation with the Jewish people, some appropriate wailing songs, etc. I wrote Psalm 22 (on the CD) for that occasion, and I played it at the organ with a violinist. 1400 people left the church after 1 1/2 hours in complete silence...

There is however something I try to contribute to this item. I frequently lecture and give workshops and courses (e.g. for the Free University Amsterdam) on the theme of integration of song cultures (music styles and forms, spiritualities, etc.) and the interpretation of church music and songs. I teach how to (tastefully) combine several sorts of music and songs. For instance, I blend three songs of a different taste (old hymn or psalm, a meditative song of a totally different style, and a praise song). Think about it as a medley. Of course you cannot easily combine a contemporary praise song with a Bach aria, but in many cases it is possible to blend songs and styles. The songs enrich each other. They become, when musically properly arranged, each others’ passepartout. In many cases I blend praise songs (traditional or contemporary) with lament songs and make a musical story or narrative out of these songs.

Now, in my vision, our (contemporary) praise songs need desperately the influence of lament. In the psalms, praise is rooted in real (and therefore mostly problematic) life. The praise movement made a mistake in isolating praise from the (whole!) context of the psalms. But, otherwise, lament needs praise (hope) too. A diet of only lament would lead to a nihilistic worldview. So, in music, you can combine songs and use both to color each other—just as Rembrandt used black to put something into the light. Especially evangelicals should learn how to combine lament with praise. It will enrich them and their praise. Our praise will become more honest. As a musician (and theologian) I always seek for combinations of songs that have this message. Lament so can be integrated in a service and just in moments of praise.

From listening to the clips, I can tell some songs are instrumental and some have words. Which languages do Nigun songs use besides English?

On the CD we sing in English and Hebrew (number 12). Nigun is a Hebrew, Jewish concept. As a matter of fact, it is a sung prayer without words, a prayer melody. In Jewish tradition this often was lament, but it can also express grief, hope, asking, pain, and so forth. Martin Buber describes this when he is writing about the life and tales of the Chassidim.

I know of a story that a naked Jew had to stand for hours in the snow in a concentration camp and that the Nigun of his rabbi, which he sang at that moment, saved his life by giving him warmth. He emigrated after the war to New York. This was described by Yaffa Eliach, director of the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Actually I think we here are near to what Paul described as the “the groans of the Spirit that words cannot express” (Rom. 8:26). It is therefore my opinion that speaking in tongues in this broken creation is often lament and...often far more psychological than we think. Because we are so unable (trapped) to express what is really in us, God gave us this gift “to utter” our (his) grief, our (his) pain, our (his) lament. Freud would have liked it! So, to induce more lament in the church we should more be speaking in tongues! A conclusion that nowadays would surprise most Pentecostals, I think. For a Dutch theological review, I once even wrote an article with the title “Playing in Tongues.” I believe the violinist, the cellist, and the pianist can play in tongues. We can lament on our instruments and those lamentations are real nigunim.

You mentioned that you work in management in education. Where do you work? 

My work is at a Dutch high school in Maarssen (near Utrecht), in the center of Holland. As a director I am responsible for the department which educates for university students of 15 to 19 years old. I also give still a few lessons in religion (ethics) and a course in psychopathology for graduates.

Besides that I regularly give workshops in churches for ministers and musicians about blending (integrating and interpreting) diverse forms or styles of music or song cultures, and liturgy. I write theological articles on this subject.

People who read about your experiences may want to buy your CD. What is the best website for them to order from?

Unfortunately I don't have a website for this anymore. When your readers want to order, please given them this mail-address: I then will send them a copy.