Worship: Effective or Affective

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

Roger Scruton, Beauty

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate.  Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our emotions are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything.

Since worship uses art, it can use it in precisely one of the two ways Scruton speaks of. It can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is. Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is “returned to reality” with his emotions more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Worship can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. It can aim to create a surrogate worship experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately, and one might say viscerally, the proposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the passions are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to reality with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God.

There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If an effect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship theologians would bristle at: manipulation.

Ask yourself: does most modern Christian worship chase after effect, or after the genuine contemplation of the object of worship, leading to ordinate affections? When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New,  God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.

When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. He wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, whose response is automatic, pronounced and ephemeral. By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.

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14 Responses to “Worship: Effective or Affective”

  1. Mark Penrith Says:

    Good post. Worship is a really relevant question in our congregation and our society in general. Appropriate praise for our king. I think ‘the how’ should always be informed by ‘the why’ and ‘the why’ should always be informed by ‘the who’. Does that make sense?

  2. David Says:

    Yes, and I’d agree in the main, but I’d want to qualify that in today’s worship context. While the ‘who’ shapes the ‘why’ and ‘how’, there is a powerful reciprocal effect as well. That is, the way a congregation worships shapes its religious imagination, which in turn affects how it understands ‘the who’. The problem many modern evangelicals have is they think ‘the who’ is this hermetically-sealed package of information that is downloaded into the believer’s brain via expository preaching. The corporate worship is then seen as culturally flexible wrapping paper that in no way affects the message of ‘the who’. I think Scripture demonstrates again and again that the Person, motive and method of worship cannot be separated.

  3. Mark Penrith Says:

    Person (who), motive (why) and method (how). We’re certainly talking the same language.

    I think though I’m describing a non-permeable membrane and you’re talking semi-permeable. Let me explain:

    The way a congregation worships (method or the how) shapes its religious imagination (motive or the why), which in turn affects how it understands ‘the who’ (the Person or the who).

    This means that the who is subject to the how. We both know however that the who is immutable. He’s not subject to anyone or anything much less an electric guitar and snare drum with some watered down lyrics.

    Surely correct knowledge of the Person of God illicits an appropriate response (worship) which is manifest as congregational worship?

    Maybe I’m punching above my weight group.

  4. David Says:

    Well, I think your idea of ‘who’ needs to be tweaked a little. Of course who God actually is remains immutable and perfectly revealed (as far as God wants us to know it) in Scripture. However, the human understanding of who God is (which I take to be ‘the who’ that we’re actually discussing), is vulnerable to perversion, warping, and infinite kinds of misunderstanding or error.
    A correct understanding of the Person of God ought to elicit appropriate worship. However, inappropriate worship is responsible for a partly incorrect view of God. What you do in corporate worship communicates not only propositionally – who God is – but affectively – what He deserves. In other words, one has to come at this thing from both sides – propositional truth and affective truth. I argued for this in another post: https://conservativechristianity.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/expository-preaching-is-not-enough

    I’m certainly committed to the purity of propositional truth; I just do not hold to an anthropology that says: input information, output behaviour. I think the biblical anthropology is more like: shape affections, input information, output affection-shaping behaviour.

  5. Web Pulse – March 15, 2010 | Religious Affections Ministries Says:

    […] Worship: Effective or Affective « Towards Conservative ChristianityThis id great. Religious Affections will never be immediate. […]

  6. Mark Penrith Says:

    Great article, good responses and a lot of points to ponder.

    In Christ,

    Mark

  7. unknowing Says:

    ellicit, not illicit.

  8. unknowing Says:

    Augh!! Elicit. See what it elicited?

  9. David Says:

    Thanks for catching that.

  10. ML Says:

    Amen and Amen!!!

  11. Toni Says:

    David….thank you for your article. As a contemporary worship leader, I have struggled as of late with exactly what your article implies. The worship at our church is no different than a Christian rock concert. The sanctuary lights are dimmed, the media slides are mesmerizing, and the sound is enough to vibrate my ribcage. When I have questioned the necessity of these “creative elements of worship” in the past, it has been explained to me that the goal is to incorporate as many of the 5 senses as possible, meaning, to help the worshippe better engage in personal worship with sights, sounds, and sensations. What I have found is that when I am in a worship context outside of the church sanctuary, i.e. my home, car, walk in nature, I have a hard time “feeling” like I’ve connected with God on the same level that I did last Sunday with the worhip band. I would appreciate your thoughts.

  12. David Says:

    Toni,

    Thanks for reading. I’m not sure exactly where my thoughts would be useful to you – it sounds like your conscience is already raising objections against what you experience each Sunday. The fact that your corporate worship mirrors what Scruton says about bad art probably says much of what you need to know about its value in term of truly ‘engaging with God’. Engaging with God begins with humility and faith.
    As to the argument for enlisting as much sensory input as possible, it is hard not to say ‘sensuality’ at the top of our voices. God reveals Himself to the understanding of man using analogies understood by the imagination. While this process will use the senses, it does not seek to arouse, excite or tantalise them as ends in themselves. I need to hear the Word through my ears, but I do not need the sheer sensual experience of the Word coming at me with the volume of a jetliner landing. I need to see other believers loving God sincerely, and (ideally) have architecture that points me to the majesty of God, but I do not need a psychedelic experience of flashing coloured lights and other eye-candy. One approach teaches, the other tickles and teases. One approach leaves room for the understanding to reflect and come to conclusions. The other makes emotional conclusions for you by simply overwhelming you.

  13. Simon Thomas Says:

    What you say is right. Many go for the “feel good” of a “worship session, and not for the person who deserves the worship. This comes down to idolatry. Wheter you pracice the worship in a loud charimatci type of way or in a quiet contemplative way, both stimulate feelings. But it is not by these feelings we worship God, it is by a changed and transformed life. Or have I missed something here?

  14. David Says:

    Well, I think you’re on the right track. To pursue feelings as ends in themselves is a kind of idolatry, however you evoke those feelings. On the other hand, we cannot worship God without feelings. An emotionless worship would be a very severe and brutal thing. What we want is appropriate feelings that are raised by a true apprehension of God. This is what the post argues for: how ought we to evoke the right feelings for God – by manipulating them, or by allowing the understanding to slowly grasp these unseen realities?

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