Friday, July 02, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: EDM in the ‘Sanctuary’

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Christianity Today notes a new trend in “worship”: electronic dance music. As writer Jeff Neely puts it, “layers of computer-programmed electronic backing tracks, quarter-note bass thumps, and cycles of musical ‘builds’ and ‘drops’, much of it set to a tempo around 130 beats per minute.”


Tom: That’s my sister’s response, Immanuel Can, and I think it’s entirely apropos. Some things are beyond the pale. But perhaps we can use it as a jumping-on point to discuss the role of enthusiasm in worship, what sort of place the arts might have or not have in the context of local church gatherings, and so on.

That work for you?

Immanuel Can: Certainly.

Uptight and Less-Uptight Evangelicals

I come from a background that was (and remains) highly suspicious of any kind of emotional demonstrations, Tom. It was cultural, really: but the theory seems to have been that it was alright to have feelings and express them if you couldn’t help it — that would be an assurance of their sincerity — but to enjoy expressing one’s emotions or to be effusive, well, those things were highly, highly suspect. Restraint was the watchword. Was that right, do you think?

Tom: Well, I’m of the same bent, and I’m not sure it’s entirely cultural. What I dislike is ginned-up emotion. Emotional displays that come naturally to a person are perfectly fine by me. The Christian woman who gets giddy about her husband had better get equally giddy about the Lord under the appropriate circumstances, I’d say. But cultivating an atmosphere in which we feel pressured to outdo one another in emotional performance art seems to me unhealthy, just as excessive rigidity and faux-gravity are unhealthy. And I dislike cheesy, contrived efforts to provoke emotions. There’s enough in scripture that ought to make us authentically joyful without trying to pretend we’re more enthusiastic than we are.

The Torch Song for Jesus

IC: Oh good. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds it abrasive when people work themselves up for nothing. Music’s one area where I think things go bad. The phenomenon of the popular “torch song for Jesus” really grates on me.

Tom: The one where you’re trying to figure out whether she’s addressing her boyfriend or the Lord? Yeah, I’ve heard that too many times to count. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe it’s important to sing with feeling, but if you can sing cornball pap with spiritual energy, you’ve got a way less sensitive gag reflex than the one I got stuck with at birth. Or not a lot going in the discernment department, I suppose.

IC: Well, yes. It’s not just enough to feel a lot of emotion: a person has to ask himself (or herself), “Is this emotion appropriate?” Or “Is this a fair reflection of what one ought to be feeling with regard to the object in question?” Those are questions we have to ask in regard to people; but how much more do we need to ask them in regard to the Lord? Singing torch songs instead of hymns isn’t merely enthusiastic: it’s irreverent and ignorant too. The singers have not given due thought to what is appropriate to God, and what is appropriate to man.

Passion and knowledge must work together. Take away the former, and faith becomes stale and heartless; take away the latter, and we become foolish, frivolous and disrespectful.

Acting! GENIUS. Thank You.

Tom: Yes, and there’s another element to this that I think needs to be called into question: In many cases, it’s not felt-emotion. It’s acting. The person is turning in what they believe is a performance appropriate to the gravity of the material.

IC: Yes, that’s a good point. I’ve noticed that a common thing in people who are keen on the emotionalism: they use performing techniques to whip up their emotions. In other words, their emotionalism isn’t so much a natural reaction to passion or enthusiasm, as it is a winding-up of themselves into it. They start by pretending to feel it, and after a time they do.

Tom: The Christian life is about transforming the interior of our beings: our desires, our motives, our affections. Ananias and Sapphira thought pretending to give was as good as actually giving. The Holy Spirit begged to differ. How is it different to pretend to feel powerful emotions about the Son of God so everyone in the audience will think you’re spiritual?

IC: You mean that we ought not to be merely responding to our natural affections, but rather judging those. Then we ought to be setting ourselves some new, right affections by light of the Word, and by dint of our fellowship with God by the Spirit. We ought to find our passions transformed into something they could never be without that transformation, by God’s help.

Is that right?

Tom: That’s right.

Old and New Affections

IC: If so, then our new affections will look rather different from the old affections, won’t they? What would you say these new affections should look like, Tom?

Tom: Well, the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, right?

What it isn’t is self-exalting. It’s humble. It lets others go first. It shares the stage. In fact, it would happily build a stage for others to stand on and spend its time opening and closing the curtain for them, just as the Lord Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. That’s what Christian affections look like from where I sit.

IC: A nice summary. And what about the control center? From where does the power that governs the emotions emanate for the Christian? Who’s in charge?

Tom: “No longer I, but Christ who lives in me.” And while, courtesy of the gospel writers, I can picture Christ in the company of tax collectors and sinners, I just can’t see him at a rave bouncing to the beat in the middle of a sweaty crowd. That just doesn’t work for me. My sanctified imagination is not that expansive.

The Unsanctified Imagination

IC: Wow. Nothing particularly “sanctified” about that imagination. Now, we can acknowledge that the Lord was always human, evidently sociable (he accepted invitations to parties, for example), sometimes funny or ironic in his own way (here I think of camels and gnats), on occasion highly emotional (I’m pretty sure the cleansing of the temple was fairly vehement), but never, never trivial. That measured, right-minded association of emotional level with circumstance was characteristic of him from start to finish. And the Lord’s spirit was always under his control; so he left us no pattern of gratuitous enthusiasm.

Tom: There is that; the absence of pattern for it. But there’s also the complete absence of positive teaching to get all emotionally worked up when we come together. This sort of banal excess simply doesn’t find a precedent of any sort in either the gospels or the epistles, although maybe there’s a negative precedent in Corinthians where Paul talks about the golden calf episode and says, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Thing is, those people were idolaters. The actual Object of worship and his holy nature wasn’t the least bit concerning to them. It was the method they loved. So it wasn’t Jehovah they were worshiping, even if they used his name.

Baptizing and Using the World

There was something you emailed me in one of our exchanges prior to discussing this that stuck with me. You asked, “How much of the world can we take in, baptize and make Christianly useful?” It’s a good question. But it kind of answers itself. When we baptize something, we declare it to be dead with Christ. Self is six feet under for good. So the idea that I can be a Christian and at the same time use “worship” as a way to jumpstart my musical career is dead too, is it not?

IC: If it’s not, it should be.

Tom: I understand platform performances are not going away. Sometimes it’s even the preacher who’s the one performing. But it seems to me anything that draws excessive attention to the individual also takes our attention away from the Lord Jesus, who is, allegedly at least, the object of our gathering. How do we reconcile that?

IC: I suppose what we find is that real worship, worship of both passion and substance, is not easy. So we opt for that which comes easier (the emotion) and just leave the substance to take care of itself. Of course, it doesn’t.


  1. Interesting that you should see this as an issue. My experience is exactly the opposite in that during mass often only the few regulars feel they have the talent to contribute towards singing a hymn (and sometimes listening to the person next to you makes you appreciate if someone feels that way :-). Many, I think, don't really want to make an effort and if they would, music has this wonderful quality that it combines even the slightly disharmonious into something sounding decent enough. What you describe seems to lean towards a gospel type of service, which I thought is pretty standard for certain types of Protestantism.

  2. I suspect the electro-stuff is just another flavor of the month. Most evangelical churches with "modern" music are running 20-30 years behind the new releases. They're back in the eighties, doing soft rock, power ballads and alt-country, and usually there's some attempt to make the songs accessible enough for the congregation to sing along with the choruses. With EDM, however, you're lucky to get much more than a chant.

    I would be perfectly happy to stick with hymns myself, Q, even if the congregational singing's occasionally a tad disharmonious -- not least because the maximum amount of one's fellow believers can be fully engaged in singing a hymn in a way that does not trouble anyone's conscience or cause distractions.

    Wouldn't mind some decent lyrics in the language of this century though.

  3. I think this new age music is ruining the churches, and attendance. We can't find a church that isn't rocking out the tunes. We were attending a nice church, and then the Pastor retired. We resigned the church to another denominational church , and in came with them, the loud music. Needless to say, most of our original members have left. I feel very discouraged about the future of our churches. When the older members leave, they take with them their Godly wisdom.

    1. North American churches are in uncharted territory these days. I too am finding it increasingly difficult to picture where we are headed in the post-COVID era.