On Emotion and Worship

I figured our discussion on last week’s podcast, in which we proclaimed that the most important part of a hymn or worship song is the doctrinal content and that emotional expression can be misleading and dangerous, would raise some controversy. And so it has. There’s a raging debate going on in the comments section for the show notes, and even our friends at CWC: The Radio Show seem to have taken offense at our assertions.

Since I’m the one who came down most strongly on this point, I’ve taken it upon myself to further explain my reasoning. It should go without saying that what I write in this post does not necessarily reflect the opinions of either David or Nathan; obviously, they are free to disagree with me or to add to what I’m saying.

The CWC folks pointed to my stance for doctrine and against emotion as evidence of the difference between Calvinism and Pietism, the tradition to which the three of them all more or less belong. (Bethel University is itself a Pietist institution.) They are correct. My two major theological and philosophical influences are Calvinism and Existentialism. Combine these two, and you have a person who doesn’t particularly trust emotional responses. I will admit my bias.

But it’s not as though I’m unemotional or that I don’t listen to music that moves me. Absolutely I do. That’s why it’s important to differentiate between private responses to art (even private worship of God) and corporate worship. It’s the latter for which I demand doctrinal rather than emotional content. As I mentioned in the show itself, my views on the subject are heavily influenced by Robert Wetmore’s book Worship the Way It Was Meant to Be. It turns out that this book is rather drastically out of print, and used copies are expensive, so I’ll try to quote it enough here for our readers to get a good idea of what it says.

Wetmore’s thesis—and I agree with him—is that “The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of all worship.” He is therefore irked that “fewer and fewer churches sing hymns and choruses that mention Him” and that “The hymns and choruses they do sing seldom glory in His cross.” Without that doctrinal content, all we’re left with is “sentimental drivel.”

Wetmore himself is too generous to call out specific hymns and praise choruses for being empty—though he certainly had a good time doing just that in the class I took on the subject—so I’ll give two examples, both of which I mentioned in the show itself. First we have “In the Secret,” also known as “I Want to Know You,” first popularized by the rock worship band Sonicflood when I was in high school:

In the secret
In the quiet place
In the stillness you are there
In the secret
In the quiet hour I wait only for you
‘Cos I want to know you more

I want to know you
I want to hear your voice
I want to know you more
I want to touch you
I want to see your face
I want to know you more

I am reaching for the highest goals
That I might receive the prize
Pressing onward
Pressing every hindrance aside
Out of my way
‘Cos I want to know you more

 

Joe Futral points out in the comments section that he “can find nothing theologically suspect” in the song. Of course he can’t—there’s no theology at all. Christ’s name isn’t even mentioned, let alone His cross. If they played this song on a Top 40 station instead of a Christian station, you’d think it was about having sex in a garden, not about a religious experience. As an expression of Christian worship, “In the Secret” falls flat—it is so vague that it could just as easily be sung in a mosque or a temple.

Lest I give the impression that I’m just against contemporary worship, let’s take a look at the classic hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Hail Thee as the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness,
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!

 

If this hymn lacks the borderline-sexual content of “In the Secret,” it doesn’t replace it with much specific praise of God. All in all, this may as well refer to the pagan gods Beethoven was probably thinking of when he wrote the music.

These aren’t terrible songs, I suppose. (At least “Joyful, Joyful” isn’t; “In the Secret” grosses me out.) If someone wants to sing them in his or her car, pray, and convene with God, that’s just fine with me. But they’re misused in corporate worship because of their nearly total lack of doctrinal content.

My evidence for the centrality of doctrine in worship comes from Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The word teaching likely speaks for itself; admonishing in this case seems to be a translation of the Greek word noutheteo, which also suggests instruction in the right way of living. (I will confess here that I don’t speak a word of Greek and am relying on Wetmore and his sources; if Nathan or someone else who knows the language wishes to correct me, I will accept it gratefully.)

If I may draw what may well be a shaky analogy, I’m going to suggest that emotional vs. doctrinal worship may fall down on the same lines as speaking in tongues and prophesying, which St. Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 14. Speaking in tongues is great, says Paul, but the problem is that it is entirely interior: “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries” (14:2). Likewise, the primarily emotional song can speak only to an individual–and does so in a mysterious way, as I’m sure we can all agree.

But Paul has a better way, as he usually does: “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (14:3). That word edify is key here. Joe asks, “Would not people need to be edified emotionally as much as intellectually?” According to Wetmore, anyway, the answer is no; otherwise, you wouldn’t need someone to interpet the gift of tongues in order to make it edifying:

Notice that Paul said edification can occur only when the mind is instructed. An electric thrill may run through the congregation as everyone begins to speak in tongues, but this thrill is not edification. People are edified only when words are spoken to their minds, so that they can think about these words and be transformed by them.

Now, one objection to this assertion is that the New Testament says in several places that we should worship both in “spirit” and in “truth” (or “understanding”). People who make this objection suggest that spirit means emotion and truth means doctrine. I’m going to suggest it’s far more likely that spirit refers to the Holy Spirit, who doesn’t seem in the New Testament to manifest Itself primarily through stirring up emotions. Indeed, we are all promised the Holy Spirit upon accepting Christ (or whatever phrase your confession prefers). As Wetmore points out,

In a worship service, the Spirit of God is uniquely working with each individual believer, and we cannot see what He is doing. He may be giving one believer an experience of emotional exultation while bringing grief into the heart of another. All we can see are the results of what He does, but while He is doing it, His work remains a mystery.

To worship in the Spirit means not having an experience of passion through the music—frankly, Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” carries me to far greater heights of “spiritual” ecstasy than any worship song I’ve ever heard—but our worshipping in the fruits of the Spirit delineated in Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Of these nine, only joy even sounds like an emotion, and I’ve always understood it to mean a stubborn joy that perseveres no matter the emotion of the moment. (In the New Testament, by the way, peace almost always refers to an interpersonal peace rather than the calmness we typically use the word to mean these days.)

Likewise, when Paul says in Ephesians 5:18-19 that we should “not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,” I don’t think he’s promoting a deep emotional experience—he’s telling us to live with the fruits of the Spirit. How could we speak to one another in songs composed mostly of emotion, which is, after all, an individual and individualizing experience?

Another objection—this one was raised by both Chris Gehrz and Joe Futral—is that the Psalms are full of emotions rather than doctrinal content. They do display emotions; so does “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Nathan points out one difference between the Psalms and “In the Secret” in the comment section—the Psalms give specific historical detail—but that’s not the only difference.

The modern worship song is a romance song with God, and since modern American romance is typically shallow and based on emotion, so are our worship songs. Wetmore contrasts this attitude with that of the Psalmists:

The psalmists, on the other hand, praised God for specific characteristics. God is righteous, just, kind, loving, wise, powerful, good, avenging, protecting, and compassionate. They also praised Him for what God had done. In so doing, they moved the focus away from how they felt to who God is and what He has done.

So even at their most emotional, the Psalms are not primarily about emotion—they’re about who God is and what God has done and will do for the Psalmist. In the end, I think we should follow the model of the Psalms as read through the theology of Paul: Emotion is fine if you’d like to have it, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient, and a proper song (or perhaps set of songs, if your congregation is attached to “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs like “In the Secret”) needs to make actual and specific statements about our actual and specific God.

One other thing I wanted to say in the podcast but didn’t–though I did hint at it when answering Grubbsy’s first question–is that it’s a big mistake to consider only the music portion of a church service as worship. You’ll hear a music minister say this sometimes: “First we’ll worship, then we’ll pray and hear the sermon.” In fact, everything about a service–the music, the prayer, the sermon, even the “Big Howdy” where everyone shakes hands (or hugs, if you’re a Baptist)–is worship. Indeed, our entire lives are to be acts of worship, as St. Paul makes clear in Romans 12.

I hope I’ve made the evidence for my argument at least a little clearer. As we all agreed in the podcast, these issues are important, but they are not worth splitting a church over—they’re not even worth having an uncivil argument over. I doubt I’ve convinced many people who love “Trading My Sorrows” that they need to incorporate more doctrine into their worship music—but I hope I’ve at least demonstrated that my side has a point.

16 thoughts on “On Emotion and Worship

  1. I’m about 10 minutes from “half hour” so I don’t have much time (I work in the performing arts). Two things.

    First if that was all Paul said about in Corinthians, you would be on less shaky ground. But I already brought up the following passages earlier. Do with them what you will

  2. My fault for trying to respond quickly and on my iPhone. I’m post-show and in front of my laptop.

    “There is also Corinthians 1 14:15 “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” Paul places BOTH emotion and intellect (if that is how one wants to bifurcate the elements) on equal footing, not one over the other.”

    My big problem with both sides of the discussion (having been a part of both charismatic as well as more conservative churches) is that very bifurcation. The charismatic who accuses the conservative of quenching the spirit by using too much of his mind—”it’s the heart, not the brain”. And the conservative who says emotions lie as if the mind is incapable of lying.

    To have music without the intent of emotion is to miss the whole point of music, whether instrumental or vocal. I would further say to consider the passages with “spirit” referring to the Holy Spirit to somehow negate emotional importance is, again, to ignore how we were created. I don’t think the Spirit does that.

    I would also say any doctrinally or theologically correct song that is bereft of emotional drive and content is at best a clanging cymbal signifying nothing. I would also say that any doctrine or theology that does not evoke emotion is also empty. This is not an either/or issue. We are to love God with all our heart, mind, body, and soul.

    A few challenges, and then I’m bowing out, probably for good regarding conversations with Christians and art, regardless of context. It is just too frustrating, disappointing, and mostly pointless and fruitless. Just not worth it.

    First (this is what I had to do when I first was exposed to contemporary worship tunes), take a song like “I want to know you more” and do a bible study with the words. It helps to have a computer bible to search for passages with those words. You’ll find pretty much every line, at least in that song, has scripture support and in how the song expressed the principles, sometimes verbatim. Not all songs come out so well, but that one surprised me back in the day.

    Second, in any discussion of Christians and music, I really encourage you to do a more thorough study. As I said the are 380 verses that deal with music in scripture. If you are going to give a thoughtful opinion on the subject, at least find them. The bible is not silent. And even though the weight of the passages are in the Old Testament, there is still a good bit in the New.

    The Christians of whom I’ve had conversations with and I thought were the most thorough and well rounded about music and art, I can count on one hand. Two of those actually have a lot of written material, especially online. One is Glenn Kaiser (he is the one who first exposed me to the 380 verses) and the other is Mako Fujimura. There you have a free-willer and a Reformer! So nice balance. I’ve read a lot, but Charlie Peacock’s book _At the Crossroads_ has some relevant stuff (particularly about worshipping in spirit and truth) even though it is mostly about the CCM industry.

    You’re still my favourite Christian podcast. Keep it up.

    Joe

  3. I did want to say a couple things regarding the Psalms. It really doesn’t take long into the Psalms to find the exceptions to your concept of the Psalms. 13, 15, and 17 came up quickly. And they are not all historic or from the POV of Israel. A large bulk of them are the personal experiences of David. I guess in that regard, they are historic in nature. But not as such “history”.

    Although I would agree that a large amount of not just the contemporary music as is many of the old hymns are no where near as personally honest as David was in the Psalms. That would be refreshing to see, but I fear much of the church would run the artists out on a rail if they admitted things David admitted. I mean, is it really historic Christian doctrine to say we are blameless or faultless? Or to claim that God has forsaken us? I really do not see how one can separate the emotion, David’s emotion, from the Psalms, and still have something meaningful.

    Joe

  4. I think if you’ll look at my post, you’ll see that I don’t try to get rid of emotion; I say that it’s often there but that in a corporate worship scenario it is “neither necessary nor sufficient.” The Psalms you quote are emotional, but 13 and 17 especially put a great deal of emphasis on God’s nature and actions, as I claim in the post the Psalms do. Number 15 is a little different, but one could argue that it’s about God’s nature because it describes the characteristics of holiness. Certainly it tells you far more about God than “In the Secret” does.

    I do deal with the verse you mention, in the same paragraph where I talk about “spirit and truth.”

    Your quotation of 1 Corinthians 13 seems incorrect to me; you have it backwards, in fact. We’ve already made the connection between speaking in tongues and singing emotionally. In chapter 13, Paul says that even if a person speaks in those tongues, he’s a clanging symbol without love. Are you suggesting that the New Testament concept of love is primarily emotional? I am almost certain that isn’t the case.

    I’ve argued in other posts that “Love the Lord with all your heart” isn’t referring to the emotions. Christ is quoting Deuteronomy, of course, and from my understanding the seat of emotions in the Hebrew world wasn’t the heart but the bowels. Now, I don’t know Hebrew, so someone else will have to verify that for me.

    But let’s assume for the moment that Christ is talking about emotions when He instructs us to love God with all our heart. How do you go about doing that? As Plato notes, the emotions are pretty tough to control. I don’t always or usually feel anything when I sing in church (and lest someone blame it on the traditional service, I felt even less in the contemporary services I’ve visited). Would loving God with my emotions mean FORCING them?

    And any doctrine that doesn’t provoke emotion is empty? Here’s a scenario for you. I have bipolar disorder. When I am manic–which thankfully doesn’t happen very much anymore–I have to go on a drug called Risperdal, which completely flattens all my emotions. I feel nothing on this drug, actually to a disturbing degree.

    I bring this up to demonstrate how incredibly malleable the emotions are. They’re controlled by a million different things: Our genes, the weather, drugs, what we eat and drink. You’re welcome to add music to this list. This doesn’t make emotions bad–but it does make them a lousy barometer for the truth of anything.

    Another question: If emotion is of utmost importance in worship services, why not go all the way with the “Jesus is my boyfriend?” songs and just change the lyrics of pop hits to make them about God. The emotion is built-in; why not capitalize on it? The reason, of course, is that those songs aren’t about God, and simply changing the nouns won’t make them about God. On the other hand, one has to do very little to make “In the Secret” about one’s girlfriend–really you just have to make the word “You” lowercase.

    I’ve actually done the study you’re talking about on contemporary worship choruses; it was my final project in the worship class I took in college. It was this project that convinced me of the shallowness and doctrinal black hole of much worship music, contemporary and traditional.

  5. “Your quotation of 1 Corinthians 13 seems incorrect to me; you have it backwards, in fact. We’ve already made the connection between speaking in tongues and singing emotionally. In chapter 13, Paul says that even if a person speaks in those tongues, he’s a clanging symbol without love. Are you suggesting that the New Testament concept of love is primarily emotional? I am almost certain that isn’t the case.”

    1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

    We worship an emotional God. He is angry, jealous, loves, laughs, delights, rejoices, weeps, desires. We are created in his image. Why would I not think emotions are important? Strip scripture of emotion, tell me what you are left with. All I can think of is something bereft of Inspiration.

    I have no idea to what degree love is emotion. But tell me, what is Love without emotion? What is the cross without emotion?

    Joe

  6. If I’m understanding Michial’s point correctly, a good part of it is that he wants sacred music to be readily distinguishable from secular music. While I agree with that, I’d be interested to hear more of a textual justification for that because I’ve never heard one.

    Also, more pragmatically, does it matter to you where you get your sacred music? I don’t have good examples because I know nothing about sacred music past the 19th century or so, but a lot of the great pieces of music claimed by Christianity weren’t really written for the glory of God. As is well known, Handel wrote the Messiah because he got paid to do so and the commissioner complained that he wrote the thing too fast without putting in the kind of time and effort that the commissioner thought it deserved. So does a piece of music written purely for commercial profit change how you feel about the doctrinal content?

  7. Joe:

    The cross is, in fact, profoundly ANTI-emotional. The emotion comes the night before in the garden when Jesus begs God not to make Him go through with it. That He did anyway suggests a sublimation of emotion, a surrender to the will of God over against any human feelings to the contrary.

    The notion that inspiration deals primarily with emotion strikes me as truly harmful and damaging. I’d like to think the Bible is inspired because what it says is TRUE–not because of the emotional effect it creates in people. If inspiration is emotion, let’s put Nicholas Sparks above the Bible.

    I think you may be misunderstanding what I’m trying to say, though. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in the Bible, or even that people shouldn’t respond emotionally to either the Bible or the worship service. I’m saying that we should see emotions as a pleasant byproduct of a more important intellectual and relational response.

    I’d still like to hear what you have to say about the physical and chemical nature of emotion–when I’m on Risperdal, am I not able to worship? When I’m manic and unmedicated, am I worshipping more genuinely? If I can change the sincerity of my worship by popping a pill, I’m afraid I’m going to have call BS on the whole system.


    Beth:

    It’s not the music itself I’m worried about; it’s the lyrics. If a song can be sung to other gods or even to people without changing the lyrics, I don’t see how it has any place in worship.

    The commercial aspect doesn’t disturb me as much, so long as the doctrinal content is sound. I’m a product of the twentieth century enough so that I don’t think authorial intent has the final say on matters like these.

  8. So if authorial intent isn’t a concern, my next question has to be, do you think having churches themselves commission music for specified lyrics would be feasible? It seems as though that would answer your complaints about shallow lyrics easily (except for the part where you would have to discuss lyrics in committee).

  9. I’ve always found the distinction between “emotion” and “theology” rather amusing, the proponents of “theology” sanctifying their taste for a particular type of emotional satisfaction they gain from analyzing, critiquing or approving the lyrics of songs. All worship is emotional, or it isn’t worship, elevating one’s own taste for a particular type of emotion by drawing on the Enlightenment’s dubious anti-Christian distinction between heart and head distracts the One who is to be worshiped.

  10. If that distinction is inadequate, what distinction would you draw between a song narrating the mighty acts of God on one hand and a song describing the emotional state of the one singing? Are those basically the same song?

  11. Michial, out of courtesy because you did ask some direct questions, I’ll respond. I have no plans beyond that of going any further, however.

    There was tremendous emotion at and on the cross. Despair and surrender, empathy, sadness on the part of his mother, greed on the part of the soldiers, and probably a profound point of the negative aspects of showing no emotion toward Jesus on the part of the other players and on lookers, such as the one who offered vinegar.

    As I mentioned over at another blog, inevitably and invariably physiology comes into the discussion. I still don’t know why. It’s as if it is the one big “See? Emotions lie”. First, physiology doesn’t really explain they why of emotions, only the what. But it in no way explains a first cause. Does physiology cause the emotions? Or do emotions cause the physiology?

    I don’t know the answer to that. But until I or anyone else learns the answer I believe, along the lines of our nature being irreducible, that physiology can affect our emotional capacity. Why wouldn’t it? Physiology can also affect our mental and physical capacity just as much. But do we relegate either of those to some sort of necessary evil or a pleasant byproduct? No, we work harder to overcome the deficiencies.

    Are emotions difficult to understand or deal with? Sure, but so is most anything athletic or intellectual or most anything worth pursuing. Why would emotions be easy?

    Why is something being true somehow anti-emotional? Why would truth not involve emotion? Seems to me, to remove emotion from truth is to believe the android Data is the truest ideal of life.

    Just something to think about. I’ll close with what I wrote in the wonder/wander blog. I am not saying emotion is of primary importance and our minds are secondary. I am saying that one does not exist without the other, at least not as God has created us. One is not more important than the other.

    Peace out.
    Joe

  12. Or, as another person so wisely brought up tom me sometime ago. If emotions are not vital to our understanding, seems we should have no issues with sociopaths.

    Joe

  13. I fear that you won’t read this since it is an older discussion, but just in case, a simple comment.

    It seems that the issue about emotion is a bit missing the point. What does emotion “earn” the emoter? Does emotion suggest that the emoter is somehow “closer to God?” Is it love? Is it the reality of joy?

    Are people who have fewer emotions less spiritual? Should they try to creation more emotions in order to get closer to God. Are people who are more emotional more spiritual? Is it easier for people who are naturally emotional to know God and love him than for people who have fewer emotional highs?

    And what about other religions? I live in a predominantly Muslim nation which has been dramatically influenced by Sufi thought. Sufis are very, very emotional in their worship and in their experience of God. They entirely deny Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but they weep, they sway, they explode with joy in their worship. Are they experiencing God? Does their emotional experience of God authenticate their theology of God? If a Sufi says that Jesus is not God’s Son and feels God’s presence and a Christian says that Jesus is God’s Son and does not feel God’s presence, does the Sufi’s experience negate the Christian’s belief?

    None of this says that emotions are wrong; it all simply says that emotions are NOT the Holy Spirit and emotions are NOT grace and emotions do NOT earn God’s favor and emotions do NOT bring us closer to God and emotions do NOT indicate spirituality and emotions do NOT authenticate the reality of our religious experience. After all, what does it mean to be “in Christ?” Doesn’t it mean that Christ is our relationship with God, Christ is our peace with God, Christ is our righteousness before God, Christ is our joy, our life, our hope, our everything? I have been crucified with Christ and it is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me… When we elevate emotion into something spiritual, it ends up because our true Savior rather than Christ, who is all in all.

    Just a thought…

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