Strange Lyre: Nothing But Feelings

Strange Lyre: Nothing But Feelings

Manipulative worship impatiently skips the slow and deep persuasion of the human spirit (knowing full well that it will not be popular with the masses). It will give us the intensity our bodies crave, regardless of the object of our worship. When it comes to what Pentecostals call “intensity,” we would do well to distinguish persuasive, spirit-centered zeal from a manipulative, sensually-controlled passion.

Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience of emotion, intimacy, joy, wonder, or happiness. Indeed, this is a close cousin of the ecstasy in ecstatic utterances. The experience sought is one where active seeking gives way to a passive experience of overwhelming pleasure or emotion.

Critically examining emotional experiences like this has all the fun of ruining someone’s birthday surprise or spoiling a joke by blabbing the punchline before the narrator has finished. We don’t like people like that, who appear to find joy in lessening the joy of others. Not surprisingly, when a critique of someone’s spiritual experiences begins, the response is often an impatient sentiment along the lines of “Can’t you just let people have their fun?”, or, “What’s it to you if someone has a different worship experience to you?”

But in matters of Christian worship, we cannot be content if worshippers merely make the claim to an ecstatic experience. That’s precisely because the experience of worship is not the goal of worship. Worship is not successful simply because the worshippers enjoyed their worship. Christian worship is rooted in truth, and therefore everything that claims to be Christian worship must be a truthful response to a truthful revelation of the true God. In other words, you can get worship wrong, even if it felt right. Many people feel good about an exam they wrote, and find out they failed; some feel terrible and find out they passed with flying colours. The indispensable necessity of Christian worship is a true revelation of God from the Scriptures, and a truthful—that is, appropriate and corresponding—response to that revelation. The First Commandment restricts worship to the true God. The Second Commandment restricts the responses of worship to those He has commanded, which correspond to His being. The true God worshipped the true way constitutes biblical worship.

This brings us to a rather dispassionate discussion of felt emotions in worship, one that is sure to annoy all fans of scrunchy-face worship. Philosophers and thinkers have written much on how human emotions differ: their categories, their manifestations, and how they are evoked. Dating back to classical Greece, philosophers have often placed emotions into two categories: those evoked by reason, and those evoked by physical sensation. Different nomenclature has been used, but a similar idea prevailed for centuries. Pre-modern theologians spoke of the affections and the passions. Nietzche coined the terms Apollonianand Dionysian. Our own era has collapsed the two into the word emotion, but the distinction is worth reviving and keeping.

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