Tom Gilson

Recognizing the Real Thing: Is Christian Worship Manipulative?

The music in church was great last Sunday. Unfortunately my mind wasn’t on it totally. I flashed back on the memory of some atheist or skeptic’s complaint that we Christians subject ourselves willingly to emotional manipulation with our minds in cognitive neutral. Later I went to look for where I had read that, and while I didn’t find exactly what I recalled, I ran across this from a blog post lovingly(?) labeled “dining with dunces:”

… contrary to how evangelicals present the spiritual aspects of obviously banal and carnal methods, it is always fabrication and manipulation. It was apparent the friends at the table did not like my use of the word manipulation. They appeared defensive and started on a rhetorical monologue on how it is always the holy spirit [sic] and since human beings are primarily emotional beings, God does use such means to evoke powerful emotions in the lambs.

Yawn. I am allergic to these [sic] all-too-familiar goobledygook which is nothing but pontifications that are meaning-less and non-sense (in the semantic sense of the word). There is no way anyone can verify such fairy stories – akin to listening to a religious crackpot who claims a daily hotline to God – we can either spurn all critical thought and take these nonsense at face value or simply reject them as rantings of the delusional.

Anyhow, simply asserting that it is the work of the holy spirit is not enough. One has to be able to RULE OUT the possibility of crowd psychology and manipulation….

The only way one can at least attribute to something other than this worldly causes is to maybe, preach in monotone using a manuscript. If the lambs still have a “spiritual reaction”, then it is likely that the experience is a genuine one.

There is something even sadder here than his apparent reliance on verificationism (a philosophical doctrine long since defunct). It is his flattened view of genuine experience. If the “lambs” have a “spiritual reaction” to a preacher monotoning from a manuscript, he says, then their experience is real.

Some readers will undoubtedly wonder whether this man has heard of Jonathan Edwards and America’s First Great Awakening. Why, though, is emotion less genuine than cognition? Manipulation is certainly possible, yes, and feelings are notoriously not the best test of truth; but not all calls to emotion are dishonest. I was focused enough last Sunday to know what I was singing. The same message could have been delivered without the music and I could have nodded in thoughtful agreement. The words were honest and right.[pullquote]It’s not manipulation, it’s holistic self-integration.[/pullquote]

But God did not create brains in vats. He created whole people living in community. Christianity is the most holistic religion I know of. Its spirituality is not walled off in some disconnected mystical/ethereal compartment.  It’s for the whole person, and worshipful singing involves the whole person like nothing else. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s relational, it’s auditory, and it’s cognitive, all at once. Nothing can match it for expressiveness. If it helps drive the truths we believe deeper into our emotional centers, that’s not manipulation, it’s holistic self-integration. And what is a spiritual experience if not the whole person’s encounter with God?

Group singing is also one of the more unifying acts of community a person can participate in. It’s a way of being together. Add it all up and what you have is one way (there are many others) of moving toward the fullness of humanness, which is at the same time a move toward the fullness of spirituality in relation to God.

This skeptic’s view of Christianity reminds me of how I have viewed some others’ view of the universe: “sad, dry, cold, and mechanical.” No wonder he rejects it. I would too. God’s ways are far more interesting than that. If we can get a taste of that in all its rough and rich glory, then it is likely the experience is a genuine one.

Related: On Belief and Emotional Reasoning

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27 thoughts on “Recognizing the Real Thing: Is Christian Worship Manipulative?

  1. “Some readers will undoubtedly wonder whether this man has heard of Jonathan Edwards and America’s First Great Awakening”

    I think this is a reference to the idea that Edwards preached in a monotone and read his sermons from manuscripts. But I was surprised to discover the following article which claims that this is not true:
    Regardless, I agree that a reaction to emotionless preaching is hardly the only one that can lay claim to being a true spiritual experience.

  2. Christianity is the most holistic religion I know of. Its spirituality is not walled off in some disconnected mystical/ethereal compartment. It’s for the whole person, and worshipful singing involves the whole person like nothing else. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s relational, it’s auditory, and it’s cognitive, all at once. Nothing can match it for expressiveness.

    Amen to that, Tom! I am moved by music in a lot of ways. Emotionally, spiritually, rationally. I can read the lyrics of Amazing Grace and marvel, rationally, at the truth of fact. Add the music and it stirs the emotions. I’ve heard this song many, many times and nearly every time I cry because it is so, so beautiful. One of the best songs ever.

  3. @Tom, SteveK
    Same here

    So many of the old hymns that we sing are actually theologically very deep, and really do engage my heart, mind and spirit in profound ways.

    Atheists have enough difficulty understanding basic Christian truths, let alone the depths of worshiping God Most High, Who loves us, redeems us, and fills us with His Holy Spirit.

  4. Having said that, I think we do have to be careful not to mistake a purely emotional experience for the work of the Spirit. Especially at big events, or large churches of the charismatic/Pentecostal variety.

    I’m pretty sure my brain is biased towards the left, but I get very uncomfortable with things that feel like playing on my emotions, even (especially?) if they happen in church.

    I think it’s OK to say to our brothers and sisters that, “If you could have gotten that excited at a rock concert, I hate to break it to you, but it’s probably not the work of the Holy Spirit.”

  5. The (latest) song to bring me to tears:

    How deep the Father’s love for us,
    How vast beyond all measure
    That He should give His only Son
    To make a wretch His treasure
    How great the pain of searing loss,
    The Father turns His face away
    As wounds which mar the chosen One,
    Bring many sons to glory

    Behold the Man upon a cross,
    My sin upon His shoulders
    Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
    Call out among the scoffers
    It was my sin that left Him there
    Until it was accomplished
    His dying breath has brought me life
    I know that it is finished

    I will not boast in anything
    No gifts, no power, no wisdom
    But I will boast in Jesus Christ
    His death and resurrection
    Why should I gain from His reward?
    I cannot give an answer
    But this I know with all my heart
    His wounds have paid my ransom

    Performed by the writer:

  6. I actively dislike most Christian music. It sounds canned, contrived, generic, and fake to me. On the other hand, I’ve been running a soundboard for a non-denominational church around the corner for the last two years, and it’s completely different when I hear those same songs live… because I know that the people singing them are expressing an honest and passionate love for their God and each other. Nothing wrong with that. Can be quite beautiful, actually.

    …but have I seen live Christian music used to intentionally hype up an audience and provoke those hyper-emotional religious experiences? Oh, absolutely, and it disgusts me!

    Here’s the rub, though – some people need some coaxing and need to have the right setting to get into the mood, so to speak. Should I feel less accomplishment or be judged a phony if I have a personal trainer to help me work out and reach my goals?

    Maybe it’s the case that some people can find the Promised Land on their own, and some need a firm push.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t feel genuine to me when people go into histrionics or are “slain in the spirit” or are convulsing or “speaking in tongues”. The mind can do many things with the right stresses and encouragement…. it seems to me that a spiritual experience should ennable, ennoble, empower, and elevate, rather than turn you into a babbling, convulsing fool.

    Sooo…. it’s not a black-and-white issue to me. Worship music is a tool, and like many tools is not intrinsically good or bad – I think that what matters more is how it is used.

  7. Sault,

    Perhaps this can change your mind about “Christian music”. (Just kidding but couldn’t resist posting it.) Worth every tear it brings.

  8. If anyone would like evidence that modern Christian music can be earnest, passionate, and theologically rich, I submit this from Matt Papa:

    The entire CD is phenomenal.

  9. The aphorism “He who sings well prays twice” is correct in itself, but incorrectly attributed to St. Augustine… although he did write “Singing belongs to one who loves.” (Thankfully, the qualifier “well” precludes anti-music such as rap.)

    @7 Anyway, Sault, it seems pretty clear you’re imposing (for mixed reasons) your personal tastes upon the sung praise of God. And do you really believe Gregorian Chant or eastern Christian chant/liturgical music is “canned”? Really? Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder… at least not for a thinking beholder. How about Bach’s Mass in b or Mozart’s Great Mass in C or his Requiem Mass…? And what about Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus ( What about the ~2,000 years of liturgical music out there?

    Do you really think the primary aim–or even the proximate aim–of sung praise is for entertainment… and do you really think we’ll take you seriously when you cast your judgment precisely in that manner, i.e., you judge music to the extent it entertains you and you judge the some singers’ on alleged “hype” (please provide scientific evidence for that)? “… most Christian music… sounds canned, contrived, generic, and fake to me” Really? Sounds more like a lot of arrogance and weakness of musical sense… or ignorance of a whole lot of music.

  10. @Sault:

    If this is canned music… well, what can I say? You must have canned ears.

    note: and though Arvo Part is a contemporary Estonian composer, he is drawing from a recognizable millenial tradition of Christian liturgical music.


    My great passion is literature not music. But it always struck me as highly significant that the angels are described as singing hymns to God. But they do not read poetry. There is something, not only deep and misteryous, but highly significant as to the nature of these different arts, in this fact. One could note that poetry is language, human language, an imposing of a human, even humane, order on an otherwise hostile and alien world. What use can the angels have, facing Him as they do, for poetry, which is *our* contructed language for consolation and hope? But music is divine, a sort of unmerited direct connection to the transcendent. There is a real puzzle here.

  11. @BillT
    Yes, that is what I’m talking about 🙂
    It seems to me that many modern Christian songs lack that sort of theological depth, and involve too much repetition – I don’t find those so uplifting and edifying.

    That’s not a general statement, as I’ve heard and sung contemporary hymns and songs that are thoughtful and encourage my heart in the LORD – they also prepare me to listen to and think deeply about the Biblical exposition and message that our pastoral team has prepared for the service – actually, the songs and the sermons are planned that way, to complement each other.

  12. Victoria,

    Thanks. That is a good one. If you don’t know her, I think that Nichole Nordeman’s music is very strong theologically. “This Mystery” is stunning. “Woven and Spun” as well or one of her compilations. YouTube has some songs. Try “Holy”, “Small Enough”, “To Know You” and absolutely listen to “Why”

  13. Perhaps the question Sault struggles with (and I pose it to all) is the following: does the disposition of the singer or his/her ability to hold a note, in any way take away from the song? Put another way, is there any way rap can be made beautiful–even if performed (I shudder at the thought!) by Tiri te Kanawa?

  14. Holo,

    Certainly, if we are talking about performance, the quality of it matters as your reference to Tiri te Kanawa and the above Renee Fleming piece show. However, I’m not sure that it matters personally. I don’t think your or my singing abilities add or detract from corporate worship. We can be moved and, I think, transformed by our own participation regardless.

  15. @Holo
    Well, if one has a voice that sounds like nails being scraped on a blackboard or a cat being tortured, perhaps one should sing softly in corporate worship, for the sake of one’s seat neighbors 🙂

    On the other hand, we are encouraged to ‘make a joyful noise unto the LORD”.

    In any case, regardless of the ability to carry a tune, we can all participate in the joys and blessings of vocalizing those hymns as an act of worship to our LORD – He doesn’t care how we sound (and even if we make Him wince, He’s too gracious to let us see that 🙂 )

  16. @Victoria

    One thing to remember with the modern vs. traditional hymns is that the old hymns that are still sung are the ones that have stood the test of time. They are literally the cream of the crop from their era. Last Saturday in our church history class our lecturer put up the words of a very early baptist hymn. They were hilarious and absolutely dreadful. Our experience of the music of previous times is almost exclusively an experience of the best that was produced.

  17. Well, Holo, if you’d read past the first sentence of the first paragraph of my post you would have the answer to your question…

    “…it’s completely different when I hear those same songs live… […] Can be quite beautiful, actually.”

    I like Gregorian chants, actually, as well as a great many other traditional Christian hymns and praise music… it’s just a lot of the newer stuff that annoys me. Sometimes actively participating in some of that music lets me enjoy it, though, and I’m okay with that.

    My two cents, take it or leave it.

  18. Sault:

    You assert the following:

    (1) “I actively dislike most Christian music.”

    (2) “… it’s completely different when I hear those same songs live [at a non-denominational church around the corner]

    Why is it “completely different”?

    (3) “because I know that the people singing them are expressing an honest and passionate love for their God and each other.”

    If you can’t see what’s wrong with that, it’s not worth pursuing… oh well, I’ll take a crack at it anyway.

    It’s centered on YOU and your perception, isn’t it? It’s about your personal opinion and your “completely different” physical presence at “performances” and your personal judgment of what is in people’s hearts as you perceive it, isn’t it? When you’re physically present at ONE church, it’s okay… otherwise you “actively dislike most Christian music”. Actively? Pray tell, how DO you actualize your dislike… by tearing up sheet music? … by yelling at singers you see on TV or YouTube? By holding a deep-seated grudge against singers who don’t perform to your personal standards?

    Things are pretty clear here, Sault: it’s the entertainment you value–not what’s behind the music. It’s not the intention of the inspired composers or song writers and what animates them (praise and worship of God)… how could it be? You despise faith and you’re an atheist, so, by your narrow definition, what animates these people is false and hence the music is false… and so you’re left with nothing but whatever personal entertainment you can eek out of your “live” experience.

    Instead of hiding behind “I actively dislike most Christian music,” why don’t you just borrow some testosterone and say what’s really on your mind: “I actively dislike Christianity.”

    Even if we buy your qualification that “it’s just a lot of the newer stuff that annoys me” (full disclosure: to some extent I share that with you), that nonetheless betrays your focus on personal entertainment value.

    And here’s a gem: “Sometimes actively [you like that word, don’t you] participating in some of that music lets me enjoy it…” Memo: you’re NOT actively participating because that would involve REAL worship and praise and gratitude. No, you’re just there to be actively entertained. And, this nicely reflects/betrays many of the comments you’ve shared on this blog: it’s God and faith and music and etc., that are being judged in the dock. I can’t speak much to your judgments of faith and music etc., but YOU judging your straw man understanding of God… or, worse, God Himself? Really?

  19. @Holo

    Wow, that was certainly a rant. I hope you felt better afterwards.

    “It’s centered on YOU and your perception, isn’t it?”

    Actually, it is, yes, and I don’t think that at any point in time I’ve claimed otherwise. Everything that I’ve said has been subjective. Why not? Music affects everyone differently, and everyone walks away from a musical experience (e.g. worship) with a different reaction.

    Music is intensely personal – whether it’s purely internal, whether it’s interpersonal, or whether it’s between you and your God. There is a great deal of passion there, and many emotions can be aroused.

    ” Pray tell, how DO you actualize your dislike [of most Christian music]”

    Usually I compare them to bags of hammers. You know, I try to keep it classy.

    ” it’s the entertainment you value–not what’s behind the music.”

    I would say at this point that you’re projecting and purposefully ignoring what I’ve said in order to paint me as something that I’m not.

    I may disagree with the theology, but there is something beautiful about a great deal of traditional Christian music. I do not find that same beauty in a great deal of modern, contemporary Christian music. I feel the same way about country music and Christmas music, too.

    Victoria said, “It seems to me that many modern Christian songs lack that sort of theological depth, and involve too much repetition – I don’t find those so uplifting and edifying.”

    I agree with her a great deal, although of course there are the exceptions here and there. “This Is the Air I Breathe” is the first example that came to mind – an absolutely beautiful song, I think.

    “why don’t you just borrow some testosterone and say what’s really on your mind: “I actively dislike Christianity.””

    I actively dislike some elements of Christianity. I bet you’d agree with that statement, although we might differ on some of the particulars.

    “Memo: you’re NOT actively participating because that would involve REAL worship and praise and gratitude.”

    One of my languages of love is service. I serve these people that I love by helping them, in my own small way, find that place that they are attempting to reach. If I can enrich their experiences, then I can walk away happy, for I have given some of myself to them. I may disagree with their theology, but sometimes love is more important than theology.

  20. @Sault
    But Holo does have a point – since as an atheist you don’t believe a word of the theology expressed by Christian worship songs, what is it that you enjoy about them? What makes truly worshipful Christian songs? An aesthetically pleasing melody? That’s only the framework to make the vocalization of the words enjoyable. No, it is the words that exalt God Most High for His character, goodness and faithfulness, or His plan of redemption through the LORD Jesus Christ – exalting both the Person and what He did for us by His life, death and resurrection; it is prayer, set to music. It is being caught up by the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom only Christians have, participating in a bidirectional relationship that connects time and eternity – it is being aware of the very Presence of the Trinity in our midst – no unbeliever can appreciate or understand that.

    You may agree with what I said, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that my reasons for not liking some ‘theologically shallow’ contemporary worship songs are completely different from yours.

    It’s all well and good that you think you are doing your Christian friends a service – that’s nice, but you steadfastly refuse to believe what they are singing about, staying forever on the outside, never committing to it yourself.

  21. Can you have a spiritual experience from listening to instrumental music (i.e., a melody with no words)?

    Can you have a spiritual experience from a song where you don’t understand the words?

    Can you have a spiritual experience from a song where you are free to interpret the words in a way that the composer might not have meant?

    Can you have a spiritual experience when (at least some of) the music isn’t even being played by Christians?

    Okay, let’s take Handel’s Hallelujah chorus for an example of the first. Gregorian chant certainly falls under the second, for most people at least – say, “Kyrie Eleison” as an example. The third one is perhaps a little tougher, but there are at least some people out there who think that “secular” songs can be used for worship (‘Use Somebody’ by Kings of Leon? Hmmm… I’m more on board with ‘Hey Jude’ myself, but whatever).

    Oh yeah, and for that last question… I was scheduled to play guitar tomorrow, but we have a new soundboard, so I made a few swaps so that I could stay behind the board instead and make sure it all goes smoothly. If I was playing guitar, would it have invalidated the worship? In other words, is the music any less worshipful when I’m playing guitar, or when I’m running the soundboard, instead of a Christian?

    Holo has accused me of being subjective, and I agree with him – I think worship is very subjective. How about you? Victoria, the next time you worship to some music, I’d like you to ask yourself if it would matter if the people playing the music weren’t Christian. Could you still close your eyes and worship, knowing that the singer was just being paid to sing the words? How about if it was just one instrument (like the guitarist)? …Or how about if it was just the sound man? Could the mere presence of an atheist keep you from worshiping?

    ” No, it is the words that exalt God Most High”

    And finally, if you weren’t allowed to say any words at all, could you still worship?

  22. @Sault
    I guess we have different ideas of what ‘spiritual experience’ means, in a Christian context, then. For Christians, it is an objective connection to the very present and very real Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perceived and enjoyed by each individual (the ‘subjective’ part, although over the years, comparing notes with other believers, I can say that there is quite a bit of commonality in those experiences). I doubt that this is what you think of as a spiritual experience.

    Could I have a moving experience listening to a song with words I did not understand? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be what Christians think of as worship – how could it be if I didn’t know what the words mean? This goes back to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12-14 about speaking in tongues – it might be good for the speaker, but useless to anyone else unless the language is interpreted.

    I know what we experience as Christians worshiping our Abba and Adonai – my question to you is ‘what in the world does an entrenched atheist get out of participating in something he doesn’t believe in, understand or can enter into as a member of God’s family?’ Now, it is my hope and prayer that constant exposure to Christian teaching and worship will be used by the Spirit of God to woo you and draw you to genuine Christian faith – that you will actually make a personal, saving commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord God and Redeemer.

    Corporate worship is a family affair for God’s adopted children – by your own admission, you exclude yourself from that when you said because I know that the people singing them are expressing an honest and passionate love for their God and each other – ‘their God’, not ‘our God’, and certainly not ‘The LORD’, the King of Creation. Oh, one day you will kneel before Him and confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, but will it be as His grateful child and heir, or as a defeated enemy?

    Can I worship if I’m not allowed to say any words at all? Yes, because I can always think the words and thoughts. I do that all the time when I’m running hard and don’t have the breathing room to carry on a spoken conversation or a song (although Amy Grant’s El Shaddai has the right tempo for a slower run 🙂 ).
    That’s because Christian worship is always cognitive, involving the mind actively thinking and reasoning about what God has said in His Word – it is equally about the heart and spirit – I can feel Him with me at those times – it is intensely emotional, sometimes overwhelmingly so – it’s also scary until the indwelling Holy Spirit reminds me that this is my Daddy, who invites me to come to Him, clothed as I am in Jesus’ imputed righteousness.

    Tell me you experience that during your participation in the church service.

    Let me ask you this – would you be so eager to contribute your time and skills if the church held a series of seminars/workshops on some deep Biblical studies that involved no music at all?

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