Wednesday 7 January 2009

Subliminal eroticism in contemporary charismatic worship

Thought that would get your attention. My Director of Studies gave me this article to read years ago, though I really can't remember why. Anyway. Martyn Percy is a sociologist who's written quite a bit about charismatic churches, and in this article he argues that there's an awful lot of eroticism going on in charismatic worship (by which he means “the bit of the meeting where we sing”).

He makes the following points:
  • “Charismatic worship” tends to portray the worshipper as very passive, and God as active
  • The worship experience as a whole tends to be individualistic, subjective, self-indulgent, and therapeutic.
  • As such, it provides an emotional outlet and form of empowerment for women in a church culture where often only men are given official leadership positions
  • Love is portrayed in an idealised, adolescent, simplistic manner, and people sing about a fairytale happy ending where God comes along and solves everything
  • Related to this, God/Jesus is often portrayed as a Prince Charming-style superhero, who turns up and magicks everything better
  • Songs portray Christians less as sinners in need of forgiveness than as unfulfilled people in need of healing. The cross of Christ is almost absent, and is replaced by an emphasis on the majesty and closeness of God.
  • Most of the songs talk in terms of I/You, and focus on subjective experience
  • The Christian is portrayed as passive in the “Potter's hand”, but this passivity gives no account of suffering or pain – the source of problems is ignored.
  • “Lord” is used of God in a way which encourages trust in a community where everyone worships the same God.
  • In the end, Percy argues, what we find in charismatic worship is just a sacralised version of a secular culture which is steeped in erotic imagery, where love is like the love you find in a Mills and Boon book – there's no cost, no commitment to working through difficulty and pain, and it's all about feelings and subjectivity.

There are clearly some bones to pick here. To the extent that charismatic worship is erotic, that's nothing new – go read some mystical theology, some Hans Urs von Balthasar some old commentaries on the Song of Songs, or even the Bible and you'll find plenty of (often surprisingly explicit) uses of erotic language to talk about our relationship with God.

I think Percy's more interesting not for the suggestion that charismatic worship is erotic, but for his criticisms of the sort of erotic love that is portrayed – shallow, individualistic, adolescent – these are the things that struck home when I read him. He's describing, I think, quite a particular moment in the history of charismatic worship. The songs I remember singing in the late 80s were much more about being bold and strong, strongholds tumblings down – all weirdly military. And more recently there's been a bit of a shift, I think, towards songs which deal with suffering, "Blessed be your name" the classic example. Maybe the songs Percy talks about are adolescent because so, in many ways, is the charismatic movement, which hasn't been around that long. But still, something there strikes me as quite insightful.

And whether you buy Percy's reading of charismatic worship or not, it highlights the theological element of the songs we sing – the words matter, because they shapes how we see our relationship to God, the church and the world. More meaning, less na na na na na, please.


Lucie Shuker said...

Perhaps makes sense of why so many people are re-discovering hymns that are more doctrinal statements than feel good songs

Did people sing psalms together in the olden days do you know? Because it's just struck me that they are written 'I', many of them, and are mini-stories of something bad happening, terrible emotional turmoil and God intervening.

Not so much shallow eroticism, but still share more in common with charismatic songs perhaps (in being individualistic, emotional) than some of the 200 yr old hymns.

ps - heard you little wedding tale, and thought it was the funniest thing ever. Hope we get to see you soon!

Gabriel Smy said...

It has struck me for some time that there are strong parallels between the charismatic worship experience and sexual intercourse.

1. The purpose is to express our love cognitively, emotionally, and physically in intimate ways to another being

2. The aim is to achieve a climax – an epiphany moment, when one feels or hears the other in an intimate, fulfilling way

3. The climax comes by focusing one’s thoughts on the object of affection and on one’s physical actions (close your eyes, focus on God, keep in this attitude of worship)

4. The focus is driven by rhythm and repetition

4. The language is suggestive (entering in, pushing through, being filled, opening up)

5. People who are normally muscularly rigid find a freedom to move or dance.

I watched a conference of leaders expressing themselves in this way just after reading about Alexander Lowen’s concept of the orgasm reflex (‘Bioenergetics’ 1975). The physical actions were similar – relaxed, almost involuntary rocking, especially of the pelvis.

The scene in The Matrix II where they celebrate in Zion is a non-church example of a similar thing.

I am curious about whether this experience is a substitute for sexual fulfilment for worshippers.

Marika said...

Lucie: I'm not sure what it was like in Judaism, but there's a strong tradition of praying or singing the Psalms in a lot of Christian monastic orders. It does strike me, though, that a lot of Psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, move from a focus on me and my pain to God and how good he is - it strikes me that both worship and eroticism are both meant to be encounters that take us out of ourselves and our own concerns into selfless love for the other (there's a lot of talk in mystical theology about the encounter with God as ecstatic - i.e. something that takes us out of ourselves) - I wonder if that's sometimes what charismatic songs lack?

Gabriel, I wonder why the eroticism of worship would be something that substitutes for sexual fulfilment - firstly, what if learning to let go in an erotic way in worship is something that equips people to have better sex? Secondly, your comments reminded me of something C S Lewis said about Freud - he sad that what Freud got wrong was assuming that sexual desire came first, and every other love was an imitation of that, but that actually theologically God's love for us is the pattern for all other loves. In some ways, what you notice fits quite happily with the (sometimes shockingly) erotic language used by a lot of contemplative monks and nuns about their experience of prayer, and while you could certainly read that as sublimated sexuality, they'd say that actually our desire for God comes first, and all other desires are meant to point us towards relationship with him (owing, of course, a massive debt to Plato's Symposium...),

Zach Beauvais said...

Hiya, found this post via Facebook.

I wonder at the balance between "subliminal" and "explicit" eroticism in charismatic worship. Much of the expression is doubtless sensual, even openly erotic; especially in movement. It's certainly not new for expressions of love for God to be couched in sensuous language.

Donne spoke in surprisingly frank erotic language in the 17th century: "Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee." (Holy Sonnet XIV)

However, is there a difference between expression in a mediated form of communication or expression and an open, public display of physical affection? It may be solely cultural, but witnessing lovers locked in passionate embrace is embarrassing for witnesses and disruptive to communal events (cinema, lecture hall, public transport). It may not always have been so, and it may not be in every culture, but it's certainly contrary to general western sensibilities. Writing within the system of "poetry" or even "writing" allows for some form of abstraction and reflection.

I guess it seems that there is much that is not so subliminal, especially to the guest, the visitor, or the non-initiated. It' frank, open, and obvious (honest? probably not...)

Esaj said...

Heh, I saw the word "snogs" instead of "songs" in Lucie's first sentence.

Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for these thoughts they are so helpful - I've been sctratching my heard for years wondering what is going on and whether I was being too judgmental, grumpy or what. I've always had a sneaking suspicion this worship style is a mystical version of 'jerking off' as you Americans so quaintly put it. I believe you are right and that it is the 21st C equivalent of the Baal orgiastic routine seen in 1 Kings in Elijah's day. What next?