For only the fourth time in history, a Christian music album topped the Billboard 200. Chris Tomlin’s album, Burning Lights, hit #1 for a brief moment in January. On one hand, it’s surprising, because there is little to recommend Tomlin’s style of music as anything particularly spectacular. There are no gimmicks like auto-tune, no unique subjects such as thrift shopping, and no sweet guitar solos way up high on the tiny strings. It’s a collection of songs written in a standard set of chords (G, C, D, Em, and sometimes Am) made to be easy to play and easy to sing. In full disclosure, I haven’t actually heard this album, but I am familiar with Tomlin’s older music, having played and sung it in churches for the last decade.
It’s not just a fluke that Tomlin’s album hit the top of the charts. He has a knack for producing anthemic music that makes you feel good. The secret to him being sung more often than Katy Perry (who also recorded a Christian album), as a recent news story reported, is that his music is sung corporately. It is eminently singable, and as anyone who has joined in with hundreds or thousands of other voices at a concert in a common refrain knows, there is a cognitive and physiological sense of participating in something big. The unity reinforced by a large number of people performing the same action, presumably for the same purpose, gives the participants a feeling of awe.
One of the first ideas I latched onto in the study of religion was “collective effervescence.” Perhaps it’s because it sounds like an amazing shampoo. Regardless, it was used by sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book, Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He is one of the dead old white guys we learned about only to dismiss his ideas as out-of-date and politically incorrect. It makes us feel more enlightened and pluralistic. But that’s another story. In Durkheim’s important work on religion, he claimed that we can observe the social function of religion by looking at the way primitive societies organize and divide their time between the profane (mundane daily living) and the sacred. Collective effervescence was the term Durkheim used for what happens when people meet together to re/affirm a common goal or idea. In his examples, tribes organized and performed a regular series of rituals around a totem object. The participants acted in dramatic and expressive ways that they did not in normal life. The corporate performance of ritual re/created their beliefs in the power of the object and the supernatural forces it represented, giving them the energy to perform their mundane activities until they gathered again.
The most popular way of producing a sense of collective effervescence in modern Western Christianity is through music. Tomlin is popular because he provides an easily accessible way for a large number of people to get a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Other methods that the church has used and does use are comparatively less effective, either because they are outdated, more hierarchical, or more complicated. Baptism and communion, the participation in fasting across the monotheistic traditions, meditation in the Eastern traditions all create a sense of belonging, but the prerequisite level of knowledge is higher. Singing just involves more or less following the words sung in somewhere close to the right pitch, which a majority of people have already done before, whether in the shower or in the car.
From a musician’s standpoint, worship music is simple, too simple. But it’s designed to be that way. And Tomlin has made a lot of money from it. I’m not saying that he’s trying to go the route of “Faith + 1” from my favorite South Park episode (and the only one I’ve watched). I think he’s sincere, and so are the majority of folks who sing his music. But he, like they, mistake the feeling of collective effervescence they get from singing for the divine. Dramatic conversions, reaffirmations of faith conviction, and an expression of spiritual manifestations such as speaking in tongues and being “slain in the Spirit” (falling over in ecstasy) all are more likely to occur in the large group settings that have been the hallmark of American Christianity. Singing songs that are as simplistic as radio pop with religious lyrics provides the easiest cultural “in” to experience a sense of the divine on a regular basis. For Marx, religion may have been the opiate of the masses, but for Tomlin and others, music is like meth (or maybe weed) for the masses. But, as Christian proponents would say, without the harmful side effects.