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Christian Liturgy as Aspirational Gaslighting

Posted in Life

I have had a fraught relationship with “Praise and Worship Music” since I was a teen. I mean stuff like “Jump,” by Van Halen:

. . . Wait, that was “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver. Same dif.

But just because that song was written for children (see ch. 6 of
this book) doesn’t mean there aren’t deeper songs that I’m even more angry about. Take this one:

The lyrics of that song are inspired by Psalm 42; in fact — unlike, “Celebrate Jesus” — “As the Deer” is objectively a good song. It’s its use in a liturgical context that bothers me.

Phenomenology of the Church Service

When you’re at a church service, you are there (ostensibly) to participate. If you’re a child, you’re actually there because your parents made you go. However, because of the public nature of it — everyone else also showing up in their own Sunday Best to participate — you’re being taught by the process that going to church is something you ought to do. (And if you pay attention, you eventually learn that the Bible itself — or at least Hebrews 10:25 — says you ought to be in church on Sunday.)

You learn all this in the same way (at least in part), that you learn that people ought to get married in public ceremonies (not in the privacy of their own homes), that you ought to stand when the national anthem is played, that you ought to leave at least one empty urinal between you and the next guy, that you ought to walk on the left and stand on the right when you’re on an escalator, etc.

This is what Heidegger called das Man. Going to church on Sunday is what das Man does. In English, we would say going to church is simply what is done, or what one does. And singing these words is what one does.

But surely lying isn’t what is done. So, everyone singing these words must believe them; they must mean it when they talk about how wonderful their experience of God is.

So, there’s the social aspect of participating in a “worship service.” You see from everyone around you that this is what one does. And you hear from everyone around you that this is what one feels, and what one believes.

And since everybody claims to be feeling and seeing these things, they must be real. The fact I couldn’t and can’t see them and don’t feel them means there is something wrong or broken about me, like being colorblind or tone deaf or just not being able to get a joke or solve an equation.

In addition to that social experience of the people around you, furthermore, you have an added layer of authority from above — both literally (the people up on stage) and figuratively. Being at a church service, you experience the songs as chosen for you to sing by people in authority. And as godly authorities, the words they have you sing about your experience, beliefs, and feelings, must be true. Or, rather, they must be the things that ought to be true, if you were a better Christian.

A Venerable Tradition

It’s not just contemporary praise and worship songs that do this, however. If you’re at a hymn-singing church, you instead learn about how much you love (or, rather, ought to love) prayer, and how helpful it has been to you.

You learn that you wake up early to go walk in a garden where Jesus regularly shows up to walk and talk with you — filling you with a level of joy no one else has experienced.

It took me years to realize that that song was meant to be sung in the voice of Mary Magdalene, and was just a fictionalized account of her experience on the first Easter Sunday — not another song like “Sweet Hour of Prayer” about purportedly normal Christian experience. (Even still, it sets up an ideal of Christian experience that is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, and thus fills me with a huge sense of inadequacy.)

And you learn that you are enraptured with God, and full of joy and praise at all times.

In the end, you learn there are a list of emotions that a Christian has.

  • Gratitude to God for all that God has done.
  • Lack of worry because of God’s ongoing care for you.
  • Sadness and guilt over your past and ongoing sins, and over your responsibility for Jesus’s death.
  • Frustration with your continual cycle of backsliding and repentance, and gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness through it all.
  • A general, non-personal sadness over Jesus’s death and a general joy at Jesus’s resurrection.
  • Longing for God (who must therefore be absent), and a desire for God to the exclusion of all else, and joy at God’s continual presence and joy in all of God’s good gifts and provisions.
  • Dismay at the terrible things that happen (evidence of God’s non-intervention) and relief at God’s continual, reliable interventions.
  • Deep, heartfelt, passion for God, with whom you have fallen in love, feel embraced by, overwhelmed by, etc.

And you don’t just learn that from hymns. You learn it from the responsive readings that are part of the liturgy. For example, you have your corporate confessions (both of faith in God’s faithful provision, providence, etc. and of remorse for your own willful faithlessness), followed by the Words of Assurance.

My Problem

My problem is this: I don’t have any of those feelings, except for the frustration about backsliding thing. I’m always trying to be good, and always doing, thinking, and feeling bad things anyway. However, I never felt sadness over Jesus’s death, no joy over his resurrection, no gratitude for God’s presence, etc.

Instead, my primary experience of God is one of absence, and my primary feeling toward God is one of smoldering resentment. I’ve never doubted God’s existence — I’m angry at God, and you can’t be angry at something that you don’t believe exists. It’s just for me, my ongoing, continual experience is of God’s absence (absence of presence, of intervention, and of caring). God, to me, is Deus Absconditus.

So, the song I would institute as a hymn if I were starting a church would be the System of a Down’s take on Jesus’s lament from the cross:

I, however, may be the odd one out. I had my first depressive episode at the age of 8 or 9, and have been a generally depressive person ever since. I have to take medication for it, which further reinforces my sense that I am broken. I recognize that the way I experience the world is not necessarily veridical; I don’t experience things as they are, and thus have to take medicine to fix how I experience things.

So, perhaps my sense of things as a youngster was right. Perhaps everyone else (who is mentally healthy) really does love God, feel God, feel gratitude toward God, etc., like they sing. Maybe God just doesn’t like me, or maybe I’m particularly off-putting to God (like the Israelites in the books of Exodus or Judges, in one of their forget-God-and-rebel periods).

Or, more likely, I suspect that God really is present and interacting with me at all times, but I just can’t see it. It’s like those “Magic Eye” pictures from back in the 90s. There really is a 3D dolphin jumping through a hoop, but unless you focus your eyes right you won’t be able to see it.

My Theory

That, as it were, is my hope. My theory, therefore, is that all these hymns and worship songs and confessions really do express people’s actual, personal, experiences of themselves and God. So, they are truthful if sung or recited by the individuals who wrote them.

But when you ask an entire congregation of people to sing a song in the first person (“I,” “me,” “my”), or recite a confession in the same, expressing another person’s (admittedly rather unusual, in the grand scheme of things) experience, you are asking at least some of the people in your congregation to lie.

However, I also don’t think any of the song writers, song leaders, liturgical planners, etc. are deliberately trying to mislead anyone. And that’s still true even if none of the songwriters in question ever had the experiences they describe.

I speak from my experience as a Christian songwriter, beginning in my teen years. The emotions in the list above are the emotions that are available to you when you seek to express the (ideal) Christian experience in song. Those are the emotions a Christian feels (like a pop song is meant to express the emotions a person feels when falling in love or going through a breakup), and thus the ones you write songs about — even if you yourself never experience them.

In many ways, the Christian life is like cosplay, or LARPing, or being a football fan. There are things that are true “in the fiction” — like that Harry is a wizard, or that Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street and suffers from Bipolar Disorder. Those are objective truths about fictional characters. And those kinds of truths shade over into more debatable ones, like that Pikachu is the best Pokemon, or that the Philadelphia Eagles rule and the Dallas Cowboys drool.

And like the best fandoms and fictional universes, one of the reasons you love it — and talk about it as if it were real, and debate about what is canon and what isn’t — is that it would be wonderful if it were real. After all, in the narrative, in the fiction, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc. those things are the truth. And those fictional worlds infest and occupy our own in a very lovely way, without quite becoming reality itself.

The result is that when you go to write a song, you may find yourself writing in the voice of a fictional character. This one is in the world of the Mass Effect 1 and starts with dialog from the game:

And here’s a song about how hard it is to be Superman:

And here’s one about this one time that T-Pain and Flo Rida went to a club, where a girl was wearing both jeans and sweatpants, Uggs and Reeboks:

And here’s another song about being in a club and also Jack Sparrow turning into Tony Montana:

And here’s one about how happy we all are:

Aspirational Gaslighting

So, I want to preface what I’m about to say with those caveats (and more that follows). I have come to the conclusion of late that the experience of going to church is, and has always been for me, an experience of being gaslighted — gaslit? — in a derivative or secondary sense.

Before I explain the way in which it is derivative or secondary, let’s first look at what gaslighting is in the first and most proper sense. Here is a summary from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Gaslighting, an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.

It comes from the play/movie(s) Gaslight and thus originally refers to something done by the male partner in a romantic relationship to the female partner in that relationship.

So, the kind of gaslighting I experience in church services is something else. First, I don’t think it is or was deliberate or personal. I think it was “structural”; it’s simply a result of the structure of the church service and the nature of liturgy. It’s what happens when someone writes something and an authority figure presents what was written to the people for whom they are responsible, with the expectation that it will be good for them all to sing or say it together.

And unlike the kind of gaslighting to which that term refers most properly, I also think the kind I experience in church services is not malicious, but instead is aspirational. It is an expression of faith and hope. After all, ” faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV; cf. Romans 8:24) and we imitate God in “speaking of things that aren’t as though they were” (Romans 4:17, KJV). Jesus himself said, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them ” (Mark 11:4, KJV). And didn’t Jesus also say something about “if you have faith, you will move mountains“?

I have to stop here to note that the vocalist in that song is/was in a band with Trump’s lawyer (here’s their Facebook page) and the people who voted for Trump are the people who grew up like I did, attending politically conservative Evangelical churches. Run a search for “trump evangelicals gaslighting,” and see what results you get.

But I don’t just experience church services as non-malicious, aspirational, structural gaslighting when they are conservative. I’ve been to liberal churches (I attend one now) as well, and experience the same thing in the music and responsive readings. My experience of myself, the world, and God, is simply so often the opposite of what I am asked to sing or say in services not because anyone is trying to manipulate me, but because I do not fit the in-church practices that others seem to find so helpful, meaningful, and fruitful.


I am so very tired (to quote some movie I can’t recall at the moment) of trying to be better, to believe (in things I can’t see, in the opposite of what I experience), and of being broken. It is so hard to keep believing in anything.

And I’m not angry at (nor do I blame) anyone except God. It simply seems to me to be another one of those tragedies that arise from inescapable facts of life even though everyone is trying to do their best.

So, I live in hope — hope that one day life will turn out to actually be a Magic Eye image that comes into focus and I’ll finally see that all the hymns and songs and confessions were true.

Hope and change. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Sigh.

But really, I do hope.

One Comment

  1. Gene Chase
    Gene Chase

    When I told my dad that “In the Garden” was the testimony of Mary Magdalene, he wasn’t yet a Christian. That didn’t happen until he was 79. It was his favorite hymn, preferably sung C&W style by Reba Rambo, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, or Dolly Parton. Why? Dad never went to a garden alone in the early morning. Your essay answers the why question. On the other hand, when I became a Christian (I was 10), and I heard the second verse of the song I Am His and He Is Mine, it captured my experience: “Heav’n above is softer blue, / Earth around is sweeter green; / Something lives in every hue / Christless eyes have never seen; / Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, / Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine, / Since I know, as now I know, / I am His, and He is mine;”

    I’m back to where you are: I won’t sing songs that my worship leader asks me to sing unless I am able in truth to make the words mine.

    You are saying something very important here. Thank you.

    August 6, 2019

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