A Subtle Contrast

Where are my pants?


People down near the front of the arena rise to their feet when the lights begin fading quickly to black. Instinctively you stand as well, happy to be up since you’ve been seated for over thirty minutes. Then a hush moves over the crowd. The moment they’ve all been waiting for is now becoming a reality, and your curiosity only builds.

In the absence of light your mind’s eye is left with the reverse image of what little you’ve been able to observe up until this point. Mainly, a crowd of people and a large black curtain across the entire width of the stage. So, not much.

With nothing left to distract you, the possibilities race through your mind. You wonder, is this some sort of seminar, or maybe a concert? Is it a multi-level marketing sales pitch? A fashion show? “Please, don’t let it be a fashion show.” 

The black curtain, it now appears, is actually somewhat translucent, and a single spotlight at center stage comes up slowly. As it grows stronger it sweeps forward to silhouette a lone figure approaching the audience. He stops when the glint of a microphone blinks into existence from the void. A momentary pause brings the tension to the breaking point. 

Anticipating that your wait is almost over, you think back to the details of your assignment. All you knew ahead of time is that you were going to be in a large crowd and that the people around you were not going to speak the same language as you. That’s one variable that had to be established, so you would have to rely strictly on what you observed. Talking to others would be cheating.

Then your train of thought is brought to an abrupt halt. 

Four clicks, barely audible in the large space, are the only signal the audience needs. Hands shoot into the air as the first downbeat resounds thick and heavy. You jump at the sound, and at the sight of the crowd suddenly awash in every spectral hue from a dozen angles. The lights sweep back and forth across the crowd as the remaining stage lights slowly come up, revealing a full band, the source of the pulsing music. The brass cymbals and silver edges of the drums, the highly polished guitars and bass, even the keyboard seems to come alive as they reflect the pulsing lights in every direction, showering the arena with enormous multi-colored sparks of color.

You, for one, are relieved. There was an outside chance this was going to be a self-help seminar. And the fact that the music is actually pretty good is a welcome development, even though it’s nothing you’re familiar with.

wait for it...Now the lights all begin to sweep up front, drawing everyones eyes toward center stage once again. The curtain falls dramatically as the leader steps forward with a commanding stride, then lets his guitar fall to the side and takes the mic out of the stand in one smooth motion. With one hand in the air he brings the music down and all the lights fade until only the bright white spots behind him remain.

Then he begins to sing and the strobe lights kick in, pulsing with the backbeat and framing snapshots of the singer and musicians as they work through the first verse. By the time the music begins to build toward the chorus the entire place is jumping with the beat. The red lights come up first, followed by blue and violet, and you notice that even now there are people being moved to tears. 

You feel something deep inside of you and decide that even though you have no idea who the band is, you may as well go with the flow. Your hands go up, you bob your head to the beat, and a smile stretches across your face.

Everything feels good. Better than good. Great. No, fantastic. 

Song after song goes by in a similar fashion, with lighting and smoke effects timed perfectly to accent the rise and fall of the bands dynamics. It would have been nearly impossible not to be taken in by the music and the experience of it all, and you have to admit that you’ve been moved. 

Rock show.
By the end of the set, the people around you are visibly exhausted, but in spite of this their faces beam with ecstasy as they seem to recount memorable moments from the concert. You don’t know what they’re saying, but you can guess.

They’ve all had a collective experience that you know could not be replaced by any sound or video recording. It was real and it was exciting.

The question is: What, exactly, did you just experience?

Obviously this was a concert, but what kind of concert? Without knowing what they were singing, do you have any way of knowing whether this was any old rock band, or a worship service? And would that, or should that, have an impact on how you interpret the emotions you have been lead through during the course of the evening?

* * *

This is where I feel stuck. Personally, most of the ‘religious’ experiences I’ve had have been a part of a concert experience. Whether at a church or at a concert venue, in a backyard strumming acoustic guitars with friends or on a stage with a full band and lighting; these are the times I’ve felt closest to God.

Some people say they can feel God’s presence as they walk through the woods, as if he is present in nature for them. This doesn’t work for me. Other people tell me that God’s presence surrounds them as they study the Bible, or when they are with their family and loved ones, or when they are serving the homeless and needy at a local shelter. Still others feel God’s presence by simply walking into their home church. 

As for me, I have to say these feelings have always been tied to music. Whether I’m playing in the band or swaying with the crowd, a good concert really moves me, and that feeling just doesn’t happen at any other time.

But one day it struck me; I’ve felt the same way as I walked out of a rock show as I have as I walked out of a night of worship, like they hosted back at North Central on Wednesday nights. I’ve had the same enthralling, ecstatic emotions that stayed with me as I drove home. And the thing that troubles me is I would be hard pressed to describe the difference between the religious and the secular concert, between the sacred and the profane, as it were.

I guess I’m just left wondering what this means. It’s like I could stop going to church altogether and still “feel” just as close to God so long as I see a good rock show every once in a while. Does that cheapen the ‘religious’ experience, or heighten the ‘secular’ one? Or is there any difference in the first place? Does this have anything to do with God at all, or is it just emotional manipulation though a collective musical experience no matter what kind of music it is?

What do you think?


{P.S. I feel like it’s worth pointing out that I have felt the same sensation during a well done orchestral concert or piano-lead hymn session. I just want to be clear that this is not a ‘beat’ driven thing for me.}



  1. Wow that weard. I just posted to ADH on my blog about IMO one should never have Rock or Jazz format in worship. I love both forms of music in a secular setting (probably like it too much), but it is close to disgust in worship. I feel that way about Gospel music as well, but I assume that’s simply because it wasn’t something I was raised with.

    Such musical forms IMO appeal actively/directly toward the physical body. Perhaps its me but it also has a complete disengagement of the mind and spirit affect on me. In worship I want the spirit engaged not the body at least not actively.

  2. yeah a physical reaction.

    It is adrenaline, it feels exactly the same as being in a football game. Having to use only instinct to avoid being tackled. It is a really intense feeling.

    Even if there is a spiritual side, its hidden by this physical reaction. Why should it need that?

  3. “is it just emotional manipulation though a collective musical experience no matter what kind of music it is?”

    This is something I would desperately like an answer to as well. I am similar to you in that I usually “feel” closest to God through music as well, especially when I just sit at the keyboard by myself. And I wonder if any of it is legitimate or if it’s just the way I’m built … or if, perhaps, He uses the things we connect best with to connect to us…

    And it bothers me immensely everytime I do music for anything because I worry about the whole “emotional manipulation” thing… I don’t go into those things intending to manipulate anyone, but you are right, music speaks to emotion, no matter what kind of music it is. I actually stopped doing music for an entire year because of it and am still hesistant now/not sure what I think of any of it anymore.

    However, I would also like to point out that books and well written articles/novels etc appeal to emotion… and so do various speakers, and drama and art, and for some people, nature, and so on… They may do it in a different way, but their very purpose is to appeal aesthetically to a person’s emotions or mood and then inspire some sort of reaction, thought or feeling. … so does that mean we should never do, use or view those things in a “religious” light or to “worship” our Creator?

    So in some attempt at fairness, I guess if we’re going to call music emotional manipulation than wouldn’t we have to say that about quite a few other things too? (That’s not a defense of music, just an honest question.)

    And, even in scripture, there was quite a bit of “emotional” writing by Jeremiah and David… so I don’t know that it’s an entirely terrible thing.

    And this may not be a valid point, but we write songs about other “relationships” all the time (especially those with a significant other) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they felt manipulated after being moved by a love song someone wrote for another person… so why do we automatically assume we’ve been manipulated when hearing a “love song” written for God? (Like I said, that isn’t a strong or valid argument, just a thought.)

    Anyhow, now I’m just rambling. This was a good piece though Anthony. If you get any answers let me know… 🙂

  4. Ok a question for you sola scriptura folks.

    The Psalms are specifically written to address worship in song.It even specifies “stringed instrument”in many locations.

    In context does this mean only stringed instruments available at that time? IOW would there be a restriction limited to say the harp? Or a more generalized way of limited to only string instruments and not percussion or brass etc.?

    I wouldn’t take that approach, but I wonder if there are any strains of this in your tradition?

    I do think however that a solid rule is to appeal to ones spirit not to the body. The spirit is to be master over the body, if the message appeals first to the body and then towards the spirit, then I think the message gets watered down at best.

    In western culture dancing is almost exclusively demoted with sexual overtones. This is not the case in African and eastern culture where dancing does have a religious cultural roots. This is one of the reasons I think rock & Jazz are not the viable in church worship. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used in other Christian venues, just not during services.

    I asked a Jewish rabbi one time about how Psalms were sung during the temple period. He said the closest thing we have today to it is Gregorian Chant.

  5. I don’t know if I’m quite understanding your question correctly, but how can you measure whether you are appealing first to the body and not the spirit or vice versa?

    While in some respects it may seem obvious we also have very limited sight in that arena.

    I don’t think appealing to one’s spirit really has anything to do with the instrument you are using or the genre of music for that matter… if that were the case we could just draw up a list of appropriate instruments and genres and then force people to stick to those and be done with it… but that wouldn’t make sense nor would it mean we’d be sure we were appealing to the spirit first.

    I personally think that part of being “created” by a Creator means we have this inherent desire to create within us as well… and when we in turn “create” (through whatever means) for him I think that’s a beautiful way of worshipping (regardless of what format it is in). But obviously this means honestly creating for him and not for the purpose of appealing to mass crowds etc, which is where the idea of appealing to the body first may come in?

    I also think suggesting one genre is a more appropriate means than the other doesn’t quite make sense either and may be more a matter of personal opinion. There are different settings which call for different things at different times. Although I’m not excusing the “light shows” we put on as I have a problem with a lot of that as well…

  6. quickbeam,

    Being raised Pentecostal I can tell you, there are plenty who dance in worship without it implying anything sexual. I believe the old bible verse is that “to the pure, all things are pure.”

    I too would find it difficult to portion off a “spirit” part of me and feed that in a particular way. It almost sounds like a border-line rejection of the body, which I read sometimes from venerable Catholics like yourself.

    Now can the rock-worship tunes of today be a mere imitation of cheap pop? Absolutely Are those same songs vastly inferior to the chants and hymns of yesteryear, both musically and especially theologically? There can be no doubt.

    As to biblical literalism on the harp stuff? I forget what the phrase is in latin, but us Anglicans have a phrase that says something like: “That which the scripture’s do not forbid, is legal” That seems to be one of the saving motto’s which have made it possible for anglo-catholicism and liturgical evangelicals to triumph over the Puritans. (though we are again struggling with Puritans, alas!)

    And besides, you know that I’m not a sola scriptura kind of guy.

  7. “That which the scripture’s do not forbid, is legal”

    Yes I’d agree with that. I also agree with avoiding the spirit only to the exclusion of the body.Manichæism is heresy after all.

    “Being raised Pentecostal I can tell you, there are plenty who dance in worship without it implying anything sexual.”

    Perhaps I don’t know that much about that tradition.

    Indeed I don’t know enough about music either. Revivalistic worship is a spontaneous, immediate response to the “leading of the Spirit,” exhibited in various unplanned and unscheduled actions and words. Seeing how that fits ones theology it makes sense to do so. It can encourage the worshiper at some times and convict him at others.

    Now certainly my tradition stress liturgical ritualism which by its nature inhibits some emotions. I think the modern man gets very uncomfortable with silence. Today many need white noise almost as a drug to think.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this, I’m really thinking this one out as I write.

  8. Quickbeam:

    I’ve heard the ‘physical’ argument in the past, but I have to say I don’t agree this is what I experience. I updated the P.S. in the post to reflect this, but I’ll keep it in the discussion here as well. I can experience the same sensation of awe in an orchestral setting or even during hymns, when the music is well done.

    However, I don’t disagree that music *can* elicit a physical response from people. Often times rap and hip hop, even club and dance music, are the ones accused of this. For myself, rap is a total turn off, but I can see techno possibly having that effect.

    Good thing there’s no techno worship at my church, or I’d be in trouble, right? 😛

    But on the other side of the coin, I can be really disappointed with any style of music, if it’s *not* done well. Hymns, rock, blues, jazz, whatever.

    So while some people may have this physical connection to certain forms of music, that is not my primary connection at all.

    I agree with aestivuslee’s question; “… how can you measure whether you are appealing first to the body and not the spirit or vice versa?”

    This is probably different for everyone, but there was a time in history when the church looked down on harmony and monophonic (single note melody) Gregorian chant reigned supreme.

    Centuries later, there were secular classical composers that the church became outraged with because their music was seen as too racy or suggestive or sensual, and nowadays we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought the same composers were anything even remotely provocative.

    I think this depends more on what a person is accustomed to and what they consider to be too much. If it’s too provocative for person A, okay, they know their boundary and should act accordingly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean person B or C will be affected in the same way.


    I strongly disagree that this is just adrenaline. I know what that rush feels like. For instance, the first time you get your car up to 100 mph, or when you go on a roller coaster, or even at a sporting event. That is adrenaline. It’s very exciting, but it’s not emotional to me in the least, it’s physical.

    What I’m describing is not. It’s much more like Standhal Syndrome, being just enamored and awed by the beauty of the music when all the right elements come together to produce the cohesive whole.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome

    aestivuslee (aka Summer):

    First off, I get the same feeling when I really get into just strumming my guitar in the backyard, even by myself.

    “…perhaps, He uses the things we connect best with to connect to us…”

    I like the sentiment here. This is why I can’t relate to nature the same way others do, but so many people glaze over when I talk music for twenty minutes, but it’s so exciting to me.

    “So in some attempt at fairness, I guess if we’re going to call music emotional manipulation than wouldn’t we have to say that about quite a few other things too?”

    Good question, and I would suggest the answer is yes. A good persuasive speaker appeals to your emotions and talks you into buying a used car. That’s what it takes to make it as a used car salesmen. And so does a good religious speaker.

    They have completely different goals, but the technique is very similar. I don’t see this as a negative, just the way things are.

    I’m with you on this one, just asking the questions that bug me.

    Great discussion so far, keep it up.

  9. Reed,

    Sorry I wasn’t attempting to promote dualism (that left a tread mark;>)

    I am stating that man is composed of both body and spirit(soul if that’s more comfortable for you). From Gen 2:7 onwards the church has used such terms.

    It has just as clearly rejected Plato’s use of two separate parts like a container and its contents. The soul is intrinsic to the person who has a body.

    St. Thomas Aquinas on the soul. Of course St. Thomas is limited by his knowledge of biology, but in any case-

    Reed: “We live as bodies. God works through bodies. The only way a human can experience God is through our bodies (it can be synapses firing in the brain, the smell of incense or the uttering of a human contrived language). We’ll never find proof of God’s work in some sort of trans-body experience because that’s not what we’re created to do!”

    See in your objection to what I poorly tried to explain it seems your statement is leaning towards Stoicism.

    How does God work through bodies equate to this passage?

    Matthew 10:28 -And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.

    Now don’t get me wrong I don’t think your supporting stoicism, I think perhaps if you exchange body for person it would be fine. Bodies don’t make moral decisions persons do.

    If you are saying that we don’t have souls well then we are strictly speaking no better nor have any more rights then insects.

  10. I read about the progress of science in this area a bit. That a defense mechanism kicks in at the end of life to allow a transition via chemicals in the brain makes sense to me. I don’t equate action in the brain to the soul.

    I think we’re in agreement, but simply not phrasing it in a way that clairifies it enough.

    That the body gives off telltail signs due to spiritual actions doesn’t suprise me either. Again I think we agree that the body can not will without the soul, but at least by my tradition the soul does exist outside the body at the point of physical death and will remain that way until the resurrection. There may be exceptions to the general rule. pneuma vs.psuche I would agree. I suggested soul in hopes that it would assit you. Since it didn’t lest drop it and revert to spirit.

    #2. Well the copiest of matthew was likely a hellenistic Jew, but Matthew was not. I do believe Matthew wrote the original Gospel in Aramic not Greek, but we’re getting so far of the topic so I’ll drop it, because I think we’re actually in agreement anyway.

    #3.”But by drawing a line between what science can and cannot say, we’re by default surrendering the ground the scientist would arguethey’ve already adequately explained away. (I’m not necessariy accusing you of this, it’s more of just an after thought)”

    St. Augustine said something very similar in speaking about Genesis.

    I think the line to be drawn if there needs to be one is that man is more then simply a material body.

  11. ADJ,

    Sorry for going off topic. Getting back to emotions in music.

    Feelings/passions/emotions are morally neutral.

    Via the 5 sense they are love and hatred, desire and fear, joy, sadness, and anger.

    Does the form of music affect those desires and influence our will one way or the other?

    Its not until our conscience and will come into play that a moral aspect determines our action or inaction.

  12. “He uses the things we connect best with to connect to us…”

    I completely agree. However, if it doesn’t glorify God it’s not of God.

    My personal experience dictates that I’ve felt the most free during worship when dancing (whether jumping up and down or acting like a fool). I’ve heard of some say that this is emotionalism, but I dare say that many times, when Jesus alone is glorified, it’s a genuine move of the Spirit. Sometimes people feel the urge to dance and they go to the front, only to find that other people are following them on the way up. Sometimes one person dances in the front and no one joins them. I think, if something glorifies Jesus, then it’s acceptable. If it doesn’t, I don’t need to put it in my life.

Comments are closed.