Tuesday, May 20, 2008

is singing rational?

“whenever we speak or sing, we switch into the side of our brain thatÂ’s largely rational and analytical, so if the worship / sacred space is taking us into a space beyond ourselves, the singing will often bring us back” Fascinating comment by Cheryl, whose blog regularly pushes my creativity.

But I’m not sure I agree. I think it depends on what words we say. And I think it depends on how the human voice is invited to participate. I think of poetry; words but neither rational nor analytical. I think of the naked human voice and the way it calls to something mysterious. I think of the raw beats of dub, and the way they move my guts.

A few years ago I asked a visual artist if I could include some spoken words, to be said over the top of their artwork. In their reply, they commented “Steve, you are using words to open things up, not close them down.” It suggests that words need not be analytical.

One of Sinead O’Connor’s CD’s has a fascinating spoken word rant, extolling the power of the human voice, linking it with God’s creative endeavours. It suggests that words and sung words need not be analytical.

It is an issue that I am really wrestling with. I am concerned about the individualism of much church practice and I suspect that the reason churches create consumers is because they offer consumer practices. I personally struggle with sung worship, but I have rationalised it (irony noted), because I suspect it preforms a non-rational element in worship. Equally, I struggle with the individualism of much station based alternative worship and again, sung worship does invite a corporate way of being. Equally, I object to singing a song which dictates how I should feel and respond to God (in contrast to songs which are about God and who God is).

We are in a major experimentation phase with our morning service. Being Pentecost, the time when the Spirit disturbs the church, we have invited some of our visual artists to disturb the auditorium.

We have curtained off the front with floor to ceiling cloth, which has been backlit (in red, the colour of Pentecost). We have moved the preaching place into the middle of the space and brought in sofas to create a more surround sound experience. We have hung 2 Pentecost art installations. And have worked up 3 video screens, enabling us to run video loops.

And we have argued. And we have taken the criticism. Is this corporate church? Will it distract? Is this a mess? Why are we doing this?

My intuition says we need layers. We need words that are both mysterious and rational, we need music and singing used in ways that are analytical and emotional, we need ways to be alone and together, we need both our head and our hearts to sit with art and colour and symbol.

Thanks Cheryl for keeping me thinking (for your gift of words that help me form words :))

Posted by steve at 09:59 AM


  1. hey
    thanks for your response. i think you’re right, and i think i’m right…!

    in reading your response i realise that i really needed to be much more careful with my language, and talk about sacred spaces rather than alt worship. I think worship is inextricably linked to community, as you say, and much of what i’m involved with is pre-community, for those who aren’t looking for community [yet?], who are alienated by the expectation of community, or who find community in different ways [i.e. through discovering that their story is also told as part of eternal, universal story]. i describe most of the stations-based experiences we create as sacred space, not worship, for that reason. but i also don’t think a shared experience or action [singing a song together] is necessarily an experience of community…

    thanks for making me think more!

    Comment by cheryl — May 20, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  2. and the other bit i should have said…

    in the writing of the blogpost i was thinking about a particular form of sacred space [the stuff i particularly love, and that makes up most of what i do], where our intention is not to offer a message that people need to hear, but where we are offering people a space to tangle with a story beyond themselves. most of our songs / hymns [esp. the kind probably favoured by the people who were at the gig i was speaking at] are ‘preaching songs’: doctrinal songs, go out and do good songs. That kind of singing would redirect people’s focus to think about what i want them to think about, which is counter to the type of space we are creating in that particular form of alt worship… does that make sense?

    maybe the word ‘rational’ is what’s tripping us up. perhaps i should have talked more about the words that are used in many songs / hymns – words that are descriptive rather than evocative; songs that are didactic…

    Comment by cheryl — May 20, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  3. really appreciate this.

    i’m not so sure we are talking about different things. when you write: “our intention is not to offer a message that people need to hear, but where we are offering people a space to tangle with a story beyond themselves”

    i am thinking – that’s the goal of worship surely, to tangle with a story beyond. that’s what i am hinting at when i try and articulate the place for words that open vs words that close. what does it mean for worship to be a space that opens to mystery. what does it mean for songs to be, as you say, evocative.

    bono talks about this in his book, about how he writes for himself, not for an audience. i wonder how this transfers to “church” ie can we appropriate the song/words of the honest other.

    i’m still struggling to nut this out,


    Comment by steve — May 20, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  4. i should also say that we also as a church run public installations as sacred spaces – outdoor peace labyrinth last year, shippping containers scattered around our tram routes year before. have thousands turn up and we wrestle with these issues there.

    so i am nutting this out walking back and forth constantly between “worship” and this outdoor public sacred space,


    Comment by steve — May 20, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  5. have you listened to Steve Stockman’s lecture on Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions from Greenbelt 2007? you can purchase it from their website, a very interesting listen.

    one of the things he points out is that in the black liberation movement one could not gather the people without singing, that the singing and protest came hand in hand. singing “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” while the rest of the world was saying “you have no light, be quiet” he links in stories of singing and Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “I have a dream” they were inseparable.

    In this case, the singing was not rational, it tapped into something completely “other” as well as using words.

    He says more that’s worth listening too about what songs we sing, and asks if our songs are songs of protest anymore or songs of comfort.

    I also wonder if singing is “rational” or if it’s how we relate to singing is rational. I see a lot of pentecostal churches and youth congregations singing and rarely think it’s rational. Where as I know a lot of people my age who look at the words we use and rationalise them, so singing the songs is a rational activity, we need to think the words through, so while we’re singing them we’re asking “is this true, what does this word really mean, if i say this does it mean…”

    oh, yes, and as a rational and non rational thought re music and other worlds check out “what would jesus buy” a project that I would call prophetic that uses singing as a corporate and rational experience to open up the non-rational. A group of activists gathering to sing newly written songs that are against consumption, marketers, wal mart, shopping…

    I wonder if singing is an act that we participate in because it’s one space where the rational and the irrational can be together in harmony. words and music. singing and dancing…

    long comment, sorry… rant(s) over

    Comment by darren — May 20, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  6. i don’t think we’re at cross purposes… and this is a really helpful conversation for me!

    i’ve used really unhelpful language with the rational / irrational thing. in the workshop on sunday i was talking about right brain vs left brain worship, and how we’ve had a history of trying to convince people of things in worship, rather than offer space for transformation. so what i wrote on that blogpost has to be understood within that context!

    let me say again [as i did on sunday afternoon] that i’m not saying we shouldn’t have singing in worship. and darren, i think singing is world-changing, necessary, wonderful. i think eating around a table with strangers is as well. i just don’t think we always have to have it in every act of worship.

    i haven’t used communal singing in worship for years, and no-one has ever told me they have missed it, or that the worship has lacked something… in fact people don’t seem to notice it wasn’t there until i mention that it wasn’t.

    i always use music in worship, but rarely music with lyrics – because it’s introducing someone else’s thoughts. i use some sinead o’connor because she tells a story, rather than tells me what to think about the story. i don’t use U2 because they are telling me what to think. and while i like their music, that’s not what i’m trying to do in this particular form of alt worship / sacred space. does that make sense?

    wish you were coming to the nosh, steve. it would be a great conversation to have face to face!

    Comment by cheryl — May 20, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  7. cheryl, would have loved to have come, but was booked from back in July 07 for that weekend. sigh.

    i am on sabbatical from semester 2 and it is in these areas that i want to be thinking and writing. starting with a look at how U2 DJ and re-mix their music. not cos i am a fan, but cos their concert videos provide a good deposit.

    and another on the I and we in worship. i think through writing, so am shaping my sabbatical in light of this.

    do you or Darren know any books/research on this. i feel like am almost inarticulate, but my intuition says its a really important area,


    Comment by steve — May 21, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

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