An Ontological Account of Contemporary Christian Sentiment: An Investigation of Praise and Worship Music

Preface

What follows is a basic draft of a text that I was thinking about including in a book chapter; however, I’m not sure that I will use it now. The text itself is problematic and needs revisions. I’ve devoted my time to other writings and essays and things of this sort that I’m working on for this book, and so I’ve neglected this text. Nevertheless, I still like the idea of what the text is getting at, and so I wanted to include it here. A revised version may or may not make it to the book. In any case, here it is.

The Text

To understand the ethos of any religious system as it exists in the present age, one needn’t consult religious texts to explore prominent positions; all one needs to do is examine the culture. To illustrate, the current social climate of America is becoming more secular, progressive, and pluralistic. The efficacy of this cultural norm can be seen through the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. Regardless of what the Christian Bible says about homosexuality, the Christian denominations that wish to remain relevant are becoming acceptive of the LGBT community. This is demonstrated by the Episcopal Church, as well as others, which have voted to allow same-sex marriages. On a more individual level, the religious youth and young adults of today are becoming less doctrinal in their practices, showing distaste for religious bigotry, and a championing of civil rights. As shown, the religious culture is tending to be more secular, progressive, and pluralistic, albeit kicking and screaming. Moreover, music is one of the notable mediums through which culture is influenced, and delving into contemporary praise and worship music one can assess the concepts inherent in religious sentiment.

The emphasis placed upon praise and worship these days lies in existential soil. Some of the prevalent themes include: intimacy, disclosure, intercession, connection, vulnerability, love, brokenness, forgiveness, redemption, and phenomenological human life. These themes all share an ontological nature, namely that which constitutes human existence, human connection, and connection with the divine. For the devout, ontical existence reveals an underlying ontological structure to one’s Being. Within this structure lies the devout’s aversion to things of a worldly nature, where one’s conceptions of sin unfurl, and where one supposedly arrives at redemption and communion with the Godhead. This is the heart of where modern praise and worship music takes its direction. If one strips away the God belief and the ideology inherent in the religious framework, these songs reveal a need to conceptualize human existence and to connect with others in sharing this experience.

Praise and worship music is an emotional outpouring. Religion itself is designed to link up to emotion. Both religion and worship music serve not just to bolster feel-good fluff, but to tap into deep ontological affects such as redemption and despair, which are then provided a schema by the devout’s concept of God. Later on, the devout will attribute phenomena in the external to the divine workings of God so that these deep affects have greater significance.1 Praise and worship music is an attempt to augment these affects, and to connect with others and provide a framework for experience, which is a fundamental need of the Being of Dasein. Praise and worship music is one way that Dasein tries to disclose oneself in intimate outpouring of these ontological themes, and tries to get at reality and oneself by exaltation of one’s God. Again, whether atheist or theist, this need manifests because it’s primordial for Dasein. It just happens that theists manifest this need in songs of praise and worship and in religion itself.

Although it’s creditable that the devout at least attempts to construct a way to manifest this need (even if one doesn’t realize one is doing it), the devout’s efforts of connection and conception can never be fully realized. The devout’s systems will always be limited to one’s ideology which conceals from the devout, one’s essence. On all fronts, be it atheism or theism (and by extension deism, pantheism, panentheism, etc.), Dasein is confronted existentially with the question of what it means to be human, and must systematize the ontological essences of things.

Perhaps the most remarkable route that praise and worship music has taken is that of intimacy. It is through this quality that the essence of praise and worship music is first gleaned. Moreover, music itself is imbued with a quality that some would attach the label “spiritual” to. This is a mislabeling. For the most part spirituality is ill-defined, vague, and nebulous. However, one would posit that music is rich with metaphysics. Through the avenue of music phenomenology is felt, ontology is refreshed, and teleology is ascertained. Indeed, music enables accessibility for Dasein to delve into fragility and vulnerability — these poignant affects that are rooted in intimacy. It’s easy to see why some would ascribe the label “spiritual” to music, considering these deep, heart-related affairs, most of all those religiously devout who tag it to worship music. More to the point, the essence of praise and worship music lies in this intimate, heart-related facet. To grasp this essence, we must first ask: what is the essence of music as such?

Music can be utilized in a twofold manner: to be taken up for its own sake, that is, as an end-in-itself, or to convey a concept or a particular emotion. To illustrate, an example of the latter would be an occasion where “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played, the national anthem of the United States, to formalize a public event and to commemorate patriotism. Therefore, the first principle to be established in the unearthing of the essence of music is: music is teleological. Even when music is employed as an end-in-itself it is still purposeful. The one turning on the radio just for background ambiance still has intent.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his prose collection Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea states, “Music is the universal language of mankind. . .” Expanding upon this idea, music has the uncanny characteristic of conveying matters in a way which transcends human language. That is, music is expressive. Music has a potent quality of getting at qualia and expressing them in a lossless manner. It has the power to evoke saudade, memories, and emotions of long ago in a fresh and unforgotten fashion. Ergo, the second principle to be established in the uncovering of the essence of music is: music is phenomenological. There is no greater method for human expression, and by extension, communication, than that of music. Even in the realm of teaching, music provides fluent learning skills.

A multiplicity of studies have shown a correlation between literacy and music. In a study by Frances H. Rauscher et al, music training was found to significantly increase spatial-temporal memory (1997). 78 preschoolers were separated into two groups with one given music preparation. In the study, music cognition was tested to see if the same neural functions as those in spatial-temporal reasoning were activated. This reasoning controls and transfigures mental images without physical models, and additionally is used in mathematics and science. The researcher’s found that:

Music training, unlike listening, produces long-term modifications in underlying neural circuitry (perhaps right prefrontal and left temporal cortical area) in regions not primarily concerned with music. The magnitude of the improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning from music training was greater than one standard deviation equivalent to an increase from the 50th percentile on the WPPSI-R standardized test to above the 85th percentile.

The very peculiarity which gives music its expressiveness and functionality at all is that of feeling. Music is endowed with it. For music to connect it must arrest you emotionally, and to establish this, music must have feeling. There is nothing more bland, musically speaking, than uninspired, soulless rhythms and melodies. It is at this level where Dasein discovers another modality of Dasein’s Being. Music enables Dasein to inhabit a fundamental way of Being only known to Dasein. Mood is a way in which Dasein exhibits Being, and music is a primordial way of Being which influences emotion. Thus, the third and primary principle to be established in discovering the essence of music is: music is ontological.

To sum up: music is teleological, that is, it has a particular function; music is phenomenological, that is, it’s expressive; and music is ontological, that is, it’s rooted in feeling. The essence of music lies in these three basic principles. Music functions as a vehicle for expression, and these expressions inform emotional states. Music itself is an emotional outpouring of these states. The phenomenology and ontology of music are hinged upon each other. Music is expressive (phenomenology) of feelings (ontology), and these feelings become expressed to us causing us to feel them. This gets us to emotional outpouring. If emotional outpouring were to be taken away from music, it would still be music, albeit ineffective music. Therefore, emotional outpouring is only half of the essence of music. In our deconstruction, we need to get at something else. This gives rise to a discussion of the mediocre, which is what we’re left with if emotional outpouring is stripped away. Here we must inquire: what must be taken away for music to be considered noise?

The mediocre, having been stripped of expressivity, is not yet reduced to pure noise. To clarify the definition of noise used here: noise is sound that doesn’t contain meaningful data. The music that is mediocre still has coherence within its structure, but its contents are shoddy. Meaningful data can still be extracted from the mediocre, in that, its contents still possess musical significance. For example, one can still discern meter, chords, or the key signature.

The nature of the mediocre can be expressed in the relationship between the ordinary versus the extraordinary, the plain versus the exceptional. This extends to a twofold dynamic of “kinds”, or two types of people: lesser “kinds” and greater “kinds”. Lesser “kinds” gravitate toward the mediocre precisely because of its mediocrity. The exceptional is above them; it’s lost on them. The exceptional can be broken down, analyzed, and understood, and to fully understand it requires analysis and attention to detail. The exceptional contains meat — substance and depth. It reveals things about Being. By contrast, the mediocre doesn’t contain depth; it’s basic, limited, doesn’t fully realize itself. The mediocre leaves the mind hungry and unsatisfied. Analysis reveals its prematurity. If mediocrity reveals anything at all, the revelation is lost on lesser “kinds”. The mediocre is necessary, in a relativist perspective, as it ensures the flourishing of the exceptional.

Furthermore, for music to thrive it must inhabit its character of emotional outpouring; that is to say, for music to transcend mediocrity it must be wholly expressive and full of emotion. The primary way for music to execute this is the implementation of melody. The ear naturally wants to be guided; it wants to latch onto certain phrases and passages. As an analogy, rhythm can be compared to the background of a painting, and melody can be compared to the central image featured in the artwork. Melody tells a story. The rhythm provides the foundation, the grounding, while melody tells the narrative of the central character or theme.

To resume our investigation of noise, noise doesn’t contain any meaningful data, that is, noise is devoid of any coherence. To illustrate, let’s use the example of an elementary school band. The elementary school students are new to music and their musical instruments. They fumble about on their flutes or trumpets and are incapable at first of playing together as a single, cohesive unit. The sounds they produce are confused and sometimes unintelligible. For the most part, in the beginning stages, the students can only generate sounds that could be called noise. They haven’t yet developed the musical cohesiveness to even be considered mediocre. This is not to bash elementary students, only to show the nature of noise. Furthermore, the mediocre still contains musical coherence. Coherence is the structure which provides musical significance; it allows music to take on its character of harmonious emotional outpouring. Therefore, we have simultaneously just worked out the essence of noise and music. The essence of noise is meaningless data, that is to say, chaotic incoherence. The essence of music is this structure of coherence, which enables it to realize itself — to inhabit its mode of expressivity. To restate the essence of music: the essence of music is coherence, which provides the structure for emotional outpouring, which is rooted in the three aforementioned principles pertaining to teleology, phenomenology, and ontology.

Having worked this out, we can now discuss the essence of praise and worship music and where it’s rooted metaphysically. As we can see with music as such, part of its essence is emotional outpouring. This would naturally carry over into praise and worship music. The characterization of praise and worship music is emotional outpouring of the existential themes aforementioned which are rooted in intimacy. Praise and worship music aims for disclosure, a revealing of these deep affects in a way that communes with the divine. Within the ontological structure of the devout, there is a need for intimacy and connection — connection with others, but more so a connection with God. These songs demonstrate the same basic existential disposition of Dasein, only the devout has contextualized oneself within the framework of religion. Essentially, the devout has internalized one’s ideology and has merged one’s identity within that framework. Whether it’s joy or suffering, redemption or condemnation, the devout places ontological significance on the relation of these themes to God. For the devout, God reveals his plan through the process of treading adversity, where grace is poured out upon those in the midst of suffering, whereby a sense of joy is attained in the notion that God is by one’s side — that God hasn’t abandoned the devout. This is the ground where praise and worship music springs. All is an emotional outpouring of this notion in intimate disclosure.

Praise and worship music is a less original or primordial outlet for the expression of this need for intimate disclosure. As stated, this need is a characteristic of Dasein and is expressed whether one is an atheist or a theist. The more original or primordial outlet for the expression of this need is music as such. It is only later in the development of Dasein that religion is meshed into Dasein’s modes of expression post hoc, which is to say, after the establishment of this need. In this way, praise and worship music isn’t a remarkable outlet for existential expression. In using praise and worship music as a medium for existential expression, the devout has, in a way, concealed from oneself this fundamental need, and has reframed it around religious ideology. In a sense, the devout has forgotten this very human characteristic of oneself. By default, that is to say, prior to religious indoctrination or conversion, Dasein seeks to express this need. By the emotional natures of music and this need for intimacy, music is a worthy outlet for its expression. Likewise, religion has, although perhaps not consciously, pilfered music to misdirect this need. Religion is fundamentally a rejection of human nature, and in this ascetic denial, the need for intimate disclosure must still be addressed, and so in regard of genuine existential expression of this need for connection, religion has related it to the divine. The concealment and forgetfulness of this very human trait are glaring. Therefore, to reclaim one’s humanity and to existentially express it authentically entails a letting go of religious forms of expression, and comporting expressions to music as such — in systems devoid of ideology which denies human nature. As shown, praise and worship music is a less original or primordial outlet for expression, and music as such, devoid of denial for human nature, provides a more primordial way to authentically express existential themes.

In order to more thoroughly understand these matters of expression and intimacy, and to get at the essence of praise and worship music, let’s now investigate praise and worship as such. To begin, let’s address the question: what is the essence of praise and worship? As noted at the beginning of our account of contemporary Christian sentiment, the ethos of any religious system as it exists currently can be understood by examining the culture, rather than considering any actual texts. Although, in our investigation of praise and worship as such, we will take both into account. Praise and worship, in colloquial use, has become as broad and nebulous as “spirituality”. In the everyday sense, one would be hard-pressed to come upon any meaningful definition of praise and worship. It has generally been a very subjective view in contemporary society, varying from person to person. Nevertheless, we can still plug in the common denominators. In example, many Pentecostal and nondenominational churches take a very emotional, passionate, and intimate stance on praise and worship, where it’s about a connection with God — a communion of deep, personal affects directed to the divine. In one’s overwhelming suffering or overabundant joy, one exalts the almighty and affirms the worthiness of God. To these folk, God loved and accepted them first; he poured out his grace upon them and offered up redemption; thus God is viewed as being utterly worthy of worship. This is the view that is predominantly accepted in the larger culture, and therefore is the one this portion of the work is primarily focused on.

To further a discussion of a more biblical grounding for praise and worship, Dr. Daniel Block, in his book For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship lays out praise and worship as follows: praise: an invitation by grace to an audience with God, where one gives praise and thanks for the privilege of being in his presence; worship: a coming and kneeling in submission and prostration in love, fear, awe, and trust before God in silence, where God gives revelation. According to Block, praise is there to get us to the point of worship, where worship is not only an activity in the church, but is carried out by living a life pleasing to God. Worship is much bigger in scope than praise or music, and music is a vehicle for worship rather than an act of worship itself. In worship, the importance lies on what is revealed by God rather than any formal acts. Block has laid out worship into three dimensions: life, cultic service, and disposition. The life dimension of worship focuses on community, home, work, and play activities; that is to say, the first dimension of worship is an activity that involves all of one’s life. To be a worshiper of God, one must live a life according to him in all one does. The cultic service dimension of worship focuses on liturgy, which is composed of: hearing the word of God through scripture and sermon; verbal response through testimony, prayer, and song; and active response through sacrifice, service, and ordinance. Additionally, thanksgiving and witness antecede testimony; confession, petition, intercession, praise, and lamentation antecede prayer; celebration antecedes song; and baptism and communion antecede ordinance. The disposition dimension of worship focuses on the kind of attitude one should have when engaged in worship: an attitude of awe, love, trust, fear, reverence, and thanks.

So far in our biblical investigation, praise is in place to prepare for an audience with God, and this audience is a silent act of submission — worship, where revelation is revealed to the devout, and furthermore is a starting place for one to live in a way that is in line with biblical principles. Praise is preparatory for worship, and worship involves all of life. As we’ve seen in our cultural investigation, praise and worship are about a communion of deep, intimate affects with God, where out of one’s joy or suffering God is exalted in his worthiness of worship. A slight distinction should be pointed out between Block’s biblical approach and the broader cultural sentiment of praise and worship. To illustrate, let’s return again to an example of Pentecostal and nondenominational congregations. Generally in these assemblies, praise and worship is not entered into out of a strict adherence to a set of codes or rules, but rather is taken up out of a genuine connection between the devout and God, where worship is an act of outpouring from one’s heart. Drawing from our analysis, we can see the biblical and cultural essence of praise and worship is intimate communion and silent submission to the commands of God.

Praise and worship music seeks to communicate this combined essence of praise and worship as such through intimate, emotional outpouring of music, which expresses the aforementioned existential themes. As such, we arrive at the essence of praise and worship music: a communication of the biblical and cultural essence of praise and worship through intimate, emotional outpouring of music, which expresses Dasein’s existential and ontological need for conception and connection with others and the divine. As expressed in this portion of the work, praise and worship music is a less original or primordial way to express this basic need of Dasein, being post hoc in the development of this need in Dasein, and actually has served to conceal this basic human need into the layers of religion. The authentic existential expression of humanity lies in the application of music as such, devoid of ascetic, life-denying ideology, where Dasein is free to disclose oneself as one is, unbridled, in truth and intimacy, and in emotional outpouring.

Now that we have charted this out, we can disclose the contemporary cultural Christian sentiment. The Christian religion (and perhaps an extension of religion in general) has now become a mechanism whereby Dasein has concealed and forgotten this fundamental need for intimacy, disclosure, and connection; but nonetheless, Dasein still finds traces of this need within oneself, and so in one’s devoutness this atavistic tendency for intimate disclosure and connection has reared. Just as in the case of praise and worship music, religion itself is shoddy at existential expression, being another mode of inauthenticity. Religion inhibits and proactively prohibits Dasein from being the kind of being that Dasein is. Dasein is disallowed to existentially express Dasein’s nature, and so, religion has barred access to this fundamental need; it has concealed and forgotten it.

Emotion is religion compatible, and religion has an uncanny way of idealizing emotion. This fundamental need of Dasein is wholly an emotional one, and just as in the case of music, it has found a perfect nest in religion. There is, on the surface, a charismatic, feel-good characteristic to religion which nurtures this emotional need; but, this need is already present prior to the adoption of religion. Religion not only augments this need, but it serves to dig into deep emotional affects. Heidegger said that Christianity has ontologically interpreted Dasein in an inaccurate way, where it interprets Dasein merely as an ontic being, and has left the question of its Being unaddressed. In this way, it has concealed and forgotten the question of the meaning of Being. In the same manner, religion has reinterpreted this basic emotional need for intimate disclosure and connection through religious ideology, and consequently, the essence of the nature of the devout has become estranged; it has become the furthest from the devout. It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to classify religion as one mountainous appeal to emotion.

As we can see through our investigation, the contemporary cultural Christian sentiment is largely a pseudo-rediscovering of this emotional need for intimate disclosure and connection, while being a silent submission to God, even if in practice it’s biblically skewed. That is to say, the current cultural Christian sentiment is about connection through intimacy and disclosure to others and to God, while submitting to religious ideology, even if notions of the ideology has become less doctrinal. We conclude that religion has concealed and forgotten this primordial emotional need, while it is itself an inauthentic medium for a fully realized existential possibility.