Tag Archive for art

Affect or Effect

The difference between affections and emotions is seen in what art is used in worship.

Since worship uses art, worship leaders can use it in precisely one of these two ways: to affect us, or to create effect.

They 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, and be affected by truth. As Edwards pointed out, this “impression” is made during corporate worship:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart in the time of it; and the memory profits as it renews and increases that impression.”

Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is returned to regular life with his desires and inclinations more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Conversely, worship leaders can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. They can aim to create an experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately–and one might say viscerally–the supposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the appetites and feelings are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to the rest of his life with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God. Ironically, these descendants of the Reformers have created a kind of evangelical Mass: the presence of God is only known and felt at church. This time, the Presence is manifest not when the priest rings the bell, but when Dude strums his Fender Stratocaster.

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 proponents would bristle at: manipulation.

There is nothing accidental here. Worship leaders know what kind of art will produce what kind of result. Philosopher Roger Scruton tells us the difference between real art and manipulative art:

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. (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 fulfilment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our desires 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. One kind of art actually grows our affections, the other shrivels them.

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. Such a man wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, which respond automatically, sensually and ephemerally. Esau would like a bowl of soup now, please. What good do these hymns, promises and principles do for my bored & achin’ heart right now, man?

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.

We’re told that the worship wars are over and it’s obvious which side has lost. So be it. As Eliot said, “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”