Fear and Faith: Faking Conversion?

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.03.52 PMIn the past, citizens of Western societies had their religious beliefs affirmed directly through a  socio-cultural system that extended religion through most areas of public life. In the United States and Europe in the present, Christianity is treated—rhetorically speaking, at least—as a private affair. In my own experience, people who claim to be Christians do so on the foundation of a profound religious experience, be it that of a conversion, communication from God, an unexplainable series of events, etc. In other words, belief in God is founded first on an emotional understanding. This is important not because of the standard reasoning of naysayers that emotion is false and cognition true. Rather, because people know that society places a higher value on reason than emotion, they tend to privilege reasonable justifications of beliefs or world views over emotional ones, even when the latter have a greater sway.

I caught a TV show by British illusionist Derren Brown called Fear and Faith in which he shows by various means how religious belief can be reproduced through a series of psychological and emotional manipulations. The clip is forty-seven minutes long and worth watching in its entirety. Pete Rollins has a brief discussion on his blog about the very first portion of the show, when the vast majority of audience participants, even though they do not believe in the devil, were unwilling to participate in what they thought was a Satanic rite where they had to stab the picture of a family member. Brown suggests that we are “hardwired” to believe, to draw connections between our actions and some greater scheme of meaning. Rollins argues that, despite conscious disbelief, religious belief is still operative on a repressed level. This claim is particularly important in Western society where it is culturally normative to distance religious belief from public daily life; consequently we are encouraged to disassociate religious belief from our normal operation even when it is influential. This, as I’ve argued before, plays out in dangerous ways in the way we interact with other groups of people on a personal and international level.

What I found even more interesting, though, was the main focus of the show. Brown takes an avowed atheist and attempts to induce a religious conversion experience in her in order to show that religious experience can be manufactured and can occur outside our logical and volitional processes. In the course of a fifteen minute conversation, Brown speaks with a stem cell researcher named Natalie while sitting in the aisle of a large church. He first associates Natalie’s feelings about her father with the idea of an all-caring and loving father figure, and connects that idea with the tapping of his fingers on the table they are sitting at as an aural cue, much like a favorite song that helps one recall a significant event. He speaks with her about awe-inspiring experiences and subtly suggests the possibility of their orchestration for her personal benefit, like the idea of God or Jesus. Brown then gradually brings these two ideas together, both through hand gestures and his speaking to suggest to Natalie the possibility that a loving figure was arranging events in her life and watching out for her. Then, at nearly the end of the conversation, he says he has to leave the room for a moment, but reiterates the conversation by tapping on the table again to bring back the powerful feelings and suggesting that sometimes we may find “things” right in front of us that were with us all along. Brown then leaves the room and within less than a minute, Natalie has an emotional reaction as she takes in the conversation and the religious environment she sits in. She begins to sob and speak to God. When Brown comes back, she speaks of having an all-encompassing feeling of love. Only later on the show does he explain to her the cues he introduced to help manipulate her experience.

Watch the clip to get the full effect of this process, since it may seem staged on reading it. We are highly emotionally suggestive, naturally anthropocentric, and we want to make sense out of nonsense. Brown’s point is that we don’t need the supernatural to explain the scenario he created through a series of replicable manipulations. Though the emotional experiences are quite real, they come from within us and are not prompted by an outside force. It is interesting in that sense that many would rather attribute their actions as re-actions to a deity, rendering themselves automatons, rather than attribute to themselves the power to create experience. Even after explaining to Natalie the orchestration of the events, she still (understandably) could not immediately give up the reality of her emotional experience.

The point is not that the emotional experience is somehow fake because it doesn’t correspond to an outside object. That presumption begs the question of God’s existence we are trying to address. Rather, the point is that we are disposed to make meaning out of chaos, and religious belief is one of a number of ways to make meaning. It is not, however, the only way. Brown concludes that, insofar as religious belief makes people happy, there is nothing wrong with it, since we all just want to be happy. I cannot buy this argument because of its tendency to create collateral damage. As Brown suggests, after having a conversion experience, what one tends to do is find additional experiences, to discern additional patterns out of life events that confirm one’s beliefs. The supreme way of doing so is convincing others of your worldview and having them adopt it. The trouble comes when others have equally universal understandings that govern their lives and do not cohere with ours. Then conflict begins, and my happiness comes at the expense of yours. This is historically true with Christianity and with democracy.

It would be much too easy for me now, outside of a religious context, to say that I was always skeptical about God communicating with me. I did often have a sense of disappointment that it seemed to “happen” to others much more often than myself. I do recall one experience at a prayer meeting where I had what I thought was a mental picture from God. I had the picture of an empty ice cube tray being filled under a faucet. If you start in the corner and fill one cube, it begins to spill over and will gradually fill all the other cubes as well. In the context of a prayer meeting about how God was “working” in our community, I interpreted that image as God telling me that the work he was doing in our church was going to “spill over” into the surrounding areas and have a positive influence. I conveyed my image to the people who were present and it was validated by their approval. Our collective belief was affirmed. But, just like Brown’s experiment, it was highly controlled, not by one man, but through a tradition, which is even more efficacious because the responsibility is difficult to place anywhere but with God.

What do you think? Does the fact that we are highly suggestive, that spiritual experiences can be created, suggest the possibility that “supernatural” experiences don’t have to be supernatural?


Mrs. Robinson’s Explicit Lyrics

I stopped buying CDs about seven or eight years ago. I didn’t stop listening to music, obviously, but when the iPod and iTunes started to become viable alternatives, it just didn’t seem necessary to buy a physical CD. For a while I lamented the demise of cover art, but I got over it. When I was in high school, though, Columbia House and BMG were the way to get your music. They were always offering some insane deal of between six and twelve CDs for the price of one to get on their monthly membership. I signed up for Columbia House and got the twelve CD deal. I can’t remember all the music I got, but I think it included the Counting Crows, maybe REM, the Cranberries, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits…and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

urlUntil they got smart and imprinted the explicit lyrics sticker in the cover art, the warning was just a sticker on the outside of the CD. I simply transferred the explicit lyrics sticker from Dr. Dre to Simon and Garfunkel and my problem was solved. Fool anybody, right? I don’t think I knew anything about Dr. Dre other than I’d heard “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” on the radio. It became a guilty pleasure for a nice Christian kid to be bumpin’ Dre in the car as I cruised to 7-11 (even though it was only a block away) for a Super Big Gulp.

It’s difficult for me to separate my feelings about “inappropriate” music from the Christian moral standards by which I judged both it and myself (while still listening to it). I do think that to a certain extent despite background, that type of music is popular because it is transgressive, yet it can be separated from the self. In other words, I can listen to it without it being a part of me. I can live vicariously through the music, through the “profane” language, through the sexual explicitness, through the demeaning treatment of women and figures of authority without actually being that way myself. I told myself that it was just the music that I liked, not the lyrics. But that’s not exactly true, is it?

The debate over the influence of media is not new. Video games, comic books, music, and movies have all come under fire for negatively influencing people (often children, although I think focusing on kids is an excuse to ignore the equally complex influence on adults). With the lines drawn, there are those who suggest that these media “desensitize” people to social norms, thus increasing their chances of in some sense mimicking what they see, read, or hear. They point to the most transgressive elements of these media and seem to have ample evidence for their claims. On the other side, defenders show that the vast majority of people who consume these media don’t become “bad” people, so that it’s not possible to single it out as the cause of transgressive actions. They might even contend that without such “outlets” to blow off steam, people might even be more transgressive.

The “truth” lies somewhere in between. Ignoring the question of the ethical responsibilities of the media producers—a significant discussion, although I’m unconvinced of any lasting ethical standards where capitalism is involved—it would be ignorant to assume either that we can posit a self that exists in the world but is unaffected by it, or that we are passive automatons with no ability to filter the information we receive. What is most interesting to me now is how music, as a media in and of itself, is inherently transgressive, or has the potential to be. It is the fact that a series of musical notes can circumvent the normal process by which we like to think we reason and interpret our world. We even identify certain types of music with particular emotions, as if these were inherent to the music itself, because of their ability to produce those emotions within us. When language is then added to music, it adds a message that can become self-founding because it is processed in an emotionally-supported environment transcending the context of its production.

At some point, I was found out and probably threw Dr. Dre away out of guilt or fear of punishment. But there would be others over the years. I had a complicated relationship with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Onyx, Wreckx-N-Effect, and many more. I have long since stopped beating myself up over my musical choices. However, there is still a sense of guilty pleasure in the sensory reception of transgressive action, even if it is as artificially constructed as killing zombies (just as a hypothetical, of course). The way for us to “humanize” music, as well as other media, is not to come to an answer about its societal or individual role, but to take a step back regularly and cognize our complicated relationship with it, recognizing the variegated functions it performs in our own lives. This will neither assign it wholly to the moral realm nor separate it completely from it.

I’ll talk more about specifically religious functions of music this week as well. Until then, any thoughts? Does/should music have a morality?


Music Too Intimate for Church?

searchI came across a post on a news site several years ago about Wal-Mart refusing to shelf the latest CD by the Vineyard because the titles and lyrics were too racy. To be honest, for a couple hours I thought the story was legitimate, because the song titles they mentioned were just close enough to reality to make it believable. (Two of my favorites include “Touch Me All Over” and “Naked Before You.”) After some searching, I discovered that the news site was a Christian equivalent to The Onion and was known for satirical commentary on contemporary Christianity. (The site is now defunct.) Ironically, I actually found the post funnier when I participated in that kind of music than I do now. It is, however, an apt commentary on one of the uses to which music is put in some segments of contemporary Christianity.

The Vineyard Church is a neo-evangelical/charismatic movement that sprang up in the latter half of the 20th century out of Southern California (like many other “Jesus” movements of the time). It splintered off from the Calvary Chapel, itself a relatively new Christian denomination, over the issue of the role of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church, believing that the Spirit could and should manifest in the same manner as it did in the New Testament (with speaking in tongues and other physical manifestations among the assembled believers). The Vineyard became especially well-known for popularizing a guitar-driven intimate style of worship music in churches, one that reflected musical changes in broader (counter-)culture as well. To the best of my knowledge, since the early 1980s it has been a primary source for worship music for many of the churches birthed in the twentieth century, and has had some limited crossover into traditional denominations as well.

Fast-forwarding to the time I began to be involved in playing and leading worship in the late 1990s, Vineyard worship music was the music to play in church because it seemed heartfelt and personal in comparison to the triumphant but slightly more formal music I had grown up singing. It was also typically guitar-driven rather than piano or organ-driven, which allowed the leader to interact in a different way with the audience. I certainly recognized the intimacy that the songs portrayed in the Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I even emulated the style as I attempted to write music of my own. The subtle sexuality of some—though not all—of the lyrics was lost on me, however.

It seems significant now for several reasons. The first is that it mimics contemporary music in broader culture. Relationships, sex, and love are probably the most common themes of popular music. This indicates not only the amount of space it takes up in the collective thinking of musicians and songwriters (just like the rest of us), but the fact that these themes make money. Songs about my day at work just don’t pack the same punch as a song about my night at the club with “the ladies” or the feelings I have for my one true love. Churches who play music that sounds fresh and similar to popular music get a better cultural reception. I heard many Christians talk about leaving a church or attending a church based on the music they did or did not like. At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but it’s just being a good consumer.

The second and more obvious thing that “intimate” worship music says about Christianity is that many Christians are taught to conceive of their relationship with the divine, particularly Jesus, as a loving and intimate one. Jesus is conceived of as a friend who you can tell anything to, who loves you no matter what, who wants to talk with you and spend time with you, who you share special and intimate moments with, etc. Music that plays on these themes heightens the experience with the divine as a personal and emotional one. To provide just one example among many, Martin Smith of the worship band Delirious penned a song, which many churches used in worship, that includes the following:

Lead me to the cross

Where we first met

Draw me to my knees

So we can talk

Let me feel Your breath

Let me know You’re here with me

If you had to describe the kind of relationship that would entail the type of actions in the song, what would it be? Am I trying to say that the average Christian wants to have sex with Jesus? No. Throughout the centuries, mystical experiences of intimacy with Christ have often been described in thinly veiled sexual terms. My point here is rather that the contemporary church has used music as a reinforcement of commitment expressed in relational terms that a broad swath of culture can relate to. As in musical culture generally, although expressed against an object (of love), we are reaffirming ourselves. The emotional experience that music provides performs a number of different tasks. It can relieve stress, and it can make us feel happy or deeply saddened. Most importantly, though, in a corporate setting it reaffirms the commitment of the participants to one another and to the ostensible object of worship.

None of this is particularly problematic if understood in its fullness. Music can and should be used to evoke an emotional response. Anyone who has watched a movie knows what a difference the music makes in receiving the action on the screen. I wouldn’t conclude that the emotion is not “real” because it was intentionally evoked. However, it can become a problem in the church if participants are not aware of the calculated function of music to provoke an emotional response, because it is often made to work as experiential “proof” of the divine.

As I noted last week, assuming the existence of God, God either wants/needs our glory and is consequently limited by that desire, or he has absolutely no need for it, in which case we worship him for other reasons, namely to reinforce our own beliefs. In either case, it is an act of creation. We use the medium of music to help create the object of our desire.

Music, both inside and outside religious circles, is a fascinating topic and I’ll continue to touch on it this week. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.