Thursday, 19 April 2012

Please manipulate my emotions

There is a great deal of suspicion of emotional manipulation. Sometimes I think that suspicion is justified. A friend told me a story about a church where the keyboard was hooked up to an electric shock machine, and just at the right moment the keyboard player would hit the button and people in the front row would be brought to their knees by the ‘electrifying’ power of the sermon.
But sometimes I wonder whether we are oversensitive to the power of music on our emotions, as if being moved emotionally by a song is less ‘worthy’ of us than to be moved intellectually by a sermon.
Consider the tension felt by the great father of the faith, Augustine. His conversion story was marked by an emotional musical encounter:
“I wept at your [God’s] hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of your sweetly singing church. Those voices flowed into my ears, and the truth was poured out in my heart, whence a feeling of piety surged up and my tears ran down. And these things were good for me.”1
Yet at the same time, the Platonism which Augustine’s culture had subscribed to made him suspicious of such animal attraction merely based on music:
“the gratification of my flesh – to which I ought not to surrender my mind to be enervated – frequently leads my astray ... when it happens to me that the song moves me more than the thing which is sung, I confess that I have sinned blamefully and then prefer not to hear the singer.2
For similar reasons, another thinker, Athanasius, decided that it would be better not to sing at all. For him it was important that the Psalms were recited not ‘from a desire for pleasing sound’, but as a more spiritual ‘manifestation of harmony among the thoughts of the soul’.3 Augustine, to his credit, didn’t go that far. But he did look down on the role of music, saying it merely enabled a ‘weaker soul’ to ‘be elevated to an attitude of devotion’.4
But I don’t think it is an admission of weakness in our soul to recognise that we are embodied: our thoughts and actions are influenced by what we eat, whether we have slept enough recently, and whether our brain chemicals are balanced. To recognise that music can have a non-rational effect on our souls is simply to recognise that we are human. Rather than be afraid of any emotional effect, we should seek out music which draws us closer to God and honours Jesus. Provided there is no deception, and the emotional power of the music is anchored in the truth, and we aren’t trying to substitute for the Spirit’s work in changing hearts, I can’t see the danger. If ‘manipulation’ means simply helping me to feel the weight of Jesus’ glory then please, go ahead: some days I could do with a bit of musical manipulation.
1 Augustine, Confessiones IX, vi, 14 in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154.
2 Augustine, Confessiones X, xxxiii, 49-50 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 154.
3 Athanasius, Epistula ad Marcellinum 29, PG XXVII, 40-1 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 53.
4 Augustine, Confessiones X, xxxiii, 49-50 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 154.


  1. great thoughts. Very relevant :)

  2. Totally agreed. I certainly know that my emotions are going to be manipulated by whether or not I've exercised recently, or by the subversive messages that my marks feed me about my worth, so I think it's legit to fight back against unkind manipulators
    with one that reminds your heart of what is true and real. Not as the substance or even the fuel of my faith. But as a helpful aid! When I was in high school, having recognised that music had a significant influence over the way I felt, I went through a phase
    where pretty much the only music I'd listen to was Christian music. I figured that if I was going to be affected by music, I wanted to be affected by something that was anchored in truth. Whilst that phase didn't endure, I look back on that time with thankfulness
    to God for the way He used music as a tool to keep me abiding in Jesus. And I think that the way it did that was not just through keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus, through the lyrics, but keeping my heart transfixed by Him by enabling me to feel what I knew
    to be true in seasons of dryness. I am so thankful for the gift of music BECAUSE it mobilises my emotions, orienting them in a direction that is worthy of all my affections and infinitely more. End rant. What do others think?

  3. I think the key thing is the link between emotions and truth. Emotional manipulation is just that - underhanded, dodgy, sneaky, manipulation. I love music. But I know that it can generate powerful emotions in me, whether or not I'm listening to the words.
    Where all of this starts to go wrong is when the emphasis in our gatherings becomes *generating emotion*. *Especially* in our corporate gatherings. A church may foster a culture where people are encouraged to respond instantly to the emotions of the preacher
    and music leaders without considering the content of what they're saying/singing. They are attempting to generate emotion at the expense of, or in place of, truth. The sermon/singing was "good" if it was "emotional" and people responded "powerfully" in the
    moment. You see? I don't want a song leader trying to command me to feel emotional. Or do an elaborate show to generate "mood" and "emotion". I want them to point me to Jesus in the words of the song. Help me sing meaningful and joyful so that my emotion is
    driven by my conviction of the truth in what I'm singing. Minor rant also :)

  4. I agree with Sam C & I also want to add this.. Whilst I love your music & ministry GH, I have to say that this can be really dangerous when it comes to youth (& probably young Christians no matter what physical age).. whilst I don't disagree with the positive
    effects of music for a mature Christian (i.e. someone who understands the balance of studying the Word as well as the place of music/singing in a Christian's life) I've seen too many youth getting dependent on the emotional high they get from "worship sessions"
    & equating this with their way of getting "close to Jesus". I've seen too many kids turn their backs on solid bible-based churches to go to other churches that aren't particularly well grounded in Scriptures because their singing sessions were "so much more
    alive" (or words to that effect) & obviously the consequences of this is that the youth don't grow past "newborn babies" & they aren't "craving for pure spiritual milk" so that they can grow in their salvation.. I love your music GH because your songs are
    grounded in scriptures but I do believe that we need to be very careful .. in fact I'd go so far as to say that we should not do any sort of manipulation when it comes to youth & new Christians.

  5. I think if what Jesus had done doesn't effect you emotionally then you don't understand it intellectually. Also doesn't singing make you release endorphins that make you actually happier. So singing will naturally make us, happy. So to try and separate
    the two you'd have to just write a sermon and we could all say it together. I wish I would be intentionally emotionally engaged from the singing and the sermon.

  6. Thanks for your comments paolo, Steph, Ryan, Col and Sam. I wonder though, Col, whether the experience of losing kids from our churches to more exciting but less solid teaching tells us we need to make our gatherings more emotionally switched on, not less?
    (Why are they leaving, if not to meet a legitimate yearning to engage as whole humans with God which in our middle class platonism we've ruled off limits?) I should add though, that I use the word 'manipulate' a little bit provocatively - there is something
    horrible about real emotional manipulation (which is deceptive, truthless and from an attitude of using people not caring for people), but when most people talk about 'emotional manipulation' they're really just talking about 'engaging emotions', and I don't
    think there's anything wrong with that.

  7. I have always believed that when we are experiencing a strong emotion/s, we need to be very careful what music we choose to put on. If we are angry it does not serve our spirit to put on a song with anger-inducing lyrics or melodies and if we are depressed
    we should avoid sombre lyrics/melodies that push us deeper into depression etc. Music is powerful and we need to take responsibility for what we allow ourselves to hear. The people who write and play the music also have a great responsibility as it touches
    the soul in a way that words on their own can't. However, I can't think of a situation when we shouldn't listen to music that honours God, praises him and challenges us to draw nearer to him. God used David's music to manipulate Saul. God created music and
    created us to respond on a deep level to it. If it points to God and draws us to a place of deeper communion with his Spirit, if only for a moment, then manipulate me too!

  8. "Provided there is no deception, and the emotional power of the music is anchored in the truth, and we aren’t trying to substitute for the Spirit’s work in changing hearts, I can’t see the danger." I find this a strange sentence. If we accept that music
    has a non rational effect on our soul, then it seems to me that the danger of music is deception. Music is dangerous because it can be used to cause people to love that which we ought to hate, or to detest that which we ought to rejoice in. It seems to me
    that your saying that if music is not dangerous, then its not dangerous. Do you think there are dangers of 'emotional manipulation' in music? Particularly as it can manipulate emotions to cause people to be happy about things about which we should lament?
    And, if yes, how does that effect our attitude towards 'emotionally manipulative' music?

  9. Thanks for the response Andy. I've heard many put forward this argument - i.e. trying to make solid bible-based churches more "engaging" in order to keep youth from leaving. I believe this also is very dangerous & for the most part disagree (sorry!). I
    think instead leaders have the responsibility to teach youth what church is all about.. during this year's KYCK they showed a video which had a few great statements.. something along the lines of : "Church does not exist to meet my needs. We are the church
    and we exist to meet the needs of others". We need to teach youth to see church as a place where they are to encourage & serve one another not to judge a church by how good it's music is or the emotional high they get from singing. By trying to prevent them
    leaving by making the singing session more "engaging" seems to me to send them the message that it is ok to judge how good a church is by how engaging it is to me, rather than, am I being taught truthfully from the word & do I have the opportunity to encourage
    & serve others.

    I've got some other points to make but don't want to go on a major rant! Perhaps later... :)

  10. Just wanted to add this little question.. 98% of the time that I have observed Christians getting emotional in singing sessions is as a response to the type of music being played vs the actual words of the song. Yes many of the songs being played have
    good quality content that is bible based but it's more often than not the type of music that goes with the words that gets people emotional. The songs that inspire the most people to raise hands & close their eyes with that emotional look on their faces..
    you know the one :) are the ones that are set to slow or "trancey" type music & they are often played with repetitive choruses. Whereas songs, with equally good content & quality teaching, but aren't set to the same type of music, do not seem "inspire" anywhere
    near the same type of emotions. The question that needs to be asked is whether people are responding to the words of the song & therefore showing their joy in what the words are saying about Jesus or is it really the music they are responding to?

    I'd love to test this out by changing the music to songs like Mighty to Save or Blessed Be Your Name to polka tunes & see if the same sort of response occurs. Same words but completely different "ambiance" right? My guess is that the emotional response would
    be totally different & possibly non existent. What is it then that is "manipulating" our emotions? Something to ponder..

  11. Hi Jason - I think we're agreeing here. 'Provided there is no deception' is my condition for saying that there is little dangerous about the ability for music to move us. If there is deception, false motives, a lack of grounding in truth, then that is
    another case altogether (like my example of the keyboardist using electric shocks to physically move people in an altar call).

  12. Hi Col - thanks for your thoughtful comments. With regard to teaching youth about church, I totally agree. I wouldn't ever want to suggest that an emotional high become our measure of what church is for. But I don't think denying the emotional aspect of
    faith altogether is the solution, either. It seems like an unfortunate and reactive move which will only exacerbate the problem. As for your question about music styles, I think your hypothetical about Mighty to Save is built (if I may be so bold) on a common
    misunderstanding of how music works. The words mean something different depending on the music to which they're sung. So to sing 'he rose and conquered the grave' without the triumphal return to the major I and emphatic repetition would be to sing a different
    thought, or at least a different shade of feeling. A polka version would make the victory something comic, because there is a disjuncture between the emotional content of the music and the emotional content of the lyrics. SO to answer your question, the reason
    why some songs don't move people could be various: it may be a poor song (where the lyrics don't fit the music) and I've written many of the worst offenders. Or it may be simply that the emotional content is there, but it's a different shade of emotion (some
    good songs make people want to clap rather than raise my hands). Does this help at all?

  13. There has bee a lot of good stuff written on church and music. There is nothing new under the sun. Here are some links that might be worth a read. and an article on Geoff Bullock (does any one still remember Geoff? He preceded Darlene) in the Briefing April issue 1999. Let me finish with these few encouraging words from Martin Luther, "Music is to be praised as second only to the word of God because by her all the emotions swayed ... When natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in this wonderful work of music ... He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod and is not worthy to be considered a man!". Quoted from Cathy Sampson's CD cover Stand Firm

  14. Whilst I haven't read all the blogs, I am enjoying them because they are truthful and the comments following are also thoughtful and just as challenging. So much better than the rest of the internets!

    Praise Jesus. :)

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