Friday 1 March 2024

On Cool Church Music And Drug Dealers.

The technology we use to make things cool will make things uncool with time as the only variable. That's because technology only makes things cool by connecting the desired product with the desires of the consumer. In short, technology is a means to fulfilment that otherwise would have to come from one's self. 

McLuhan talks about this as technology is the extension of our nervous system into reality. That's all well and good when we're talking about how an eye needs to see more clearly or farther but that same nervous system is why you cry during certain songs. The golden ticket of any worship leader's career. 

So for today's experiment and demonstration, we're going to show you how cool, as a concept, fades. And why that's important to know, and what happens when it's not known. We'll then end on a dystopian nightmare for the church and worship leaders at large. 


The link below is for a band named Sonseed

Now the kind of recording and clothing worn by the band might give it away, but this band is a little old. They sing a catchy if not simple song about Jesus that for all intents and purposes is theologically correct. We could dissect the lyrics, but I think it might be more fun to dissect the aesthetic. Aesthetic is something we are obsessed with these days in the church. Our websites need to look like they belong to churches who know how to run websites, to the point where we will put stock images of people who do not attend our church, or even of people not at our church but others, on that website. When people find our website, they can then see who we aren't but want to be. That's an aesthetic decision and one too common not to mention.

But where you find that kind of decision being made isn't the mega-church propper that would seem like the culprit of over-aestheticism. No. It's in their main consumer, the mid-sized church that is looking for the same thing that the mega-church does in its worship services. This is why you'll see a near-uniform painting of the back wall black, in churches meant to be churches and not concert halls or stadiums. They want their worship leaders to look like the worship leaders who sing the songs they play and when you google those songs you do not find them in hardwood-clad, pew-lined churches, with dated carpet and fake plants on either side of the large pulpit. You find them on black LED-lit stages or in abstract spaces lit with hanging bulbs where the band is in a circle. Neither of these places is a church, that's not the point of the worship music being produced online. No one makes a video of a worship band performing in a warehouse by themselves because that's where Jesus needed to be worshiped. They make that video there to sell you that song, which is fine, so that you'll sing that song in church, also fine. And they do so by appealing to the emotional reactions they want to get and plan to get from the video in question.

Which is exactly what Sonnseed tried to do and I would argue did, they might have been chasing different emotions. Crafted for a different time, sure, but the videos being produced for songs by Elevation Worship and Hillsong are the same thing, if not at the very least the same kind of thing. Sonseed is just after a different emotion and one I might add that no longer has the public sway as it comes to religious expression anymore. In 2023 we do not want a Jesus who is fun or friendly, we want a Jesus who can fix everything and restore our brokenness.

Enter Zach Webb

Whose song I enjoy. It found me, ironically, at a dark time in my life and did what it is supposed to do. To speak truths about the Christian life and lead me to worship God because of it. But again we see a music video of not a church where this worship song will be sung but a beach and twilight and melancholic wanderings of a man talking about God.

These two videos are the same thing. They are not both worship songs, though they are both worship songs. They are both not music though they are both music. They are both cool, and the fleetingness of cool is a thorn in the hamstring of modern worship. Because the plain truth is that a lot of the new contemporary worship songs are beautiful works of art, centred around the worship of our Lord. But they are sung as if songs like Sonseed's or other older worship songs aren’t also that same thing. They are sung, and more importantly sold, as cool.

What throws us for this loop is that we chase cool things on an emotional level and pursue true things on a rational level. That rationally, Sonseed sings a theologically sound enough song, as does Zach Webb, but they are in tune with different emotional values. This is not a problem. Your parents and grandparents in the 70's and 80's do not need to feel the same way you do about religious life for you to both worship Jesus. Emotional response to the divine is not uniform or rational.

This is dangerous, though, because of things like this

This girl illustrates why worship has to be something we enter into logically and experience emotionally, in that order. If the emotionalism comes first, then anything that can illicit the chemical responses of emotional response can sidestep into the place we’ve reserved for religious feelings. Because they are chemical responses and religious feelings. But they are likely feelings first. Not confessions or declarations. Feelings. We can't remove the chemical nature of how the physical world we live in affects us emotionally. How those chemicals make us feel. Rollercoasters are exhilarating, not because they are an idea but because they put us on the edge of danger in a safe way. You move just as fast and get just as close to heavy steel objects on the road in your car and never once say "Weeeeeeee." That's because you step onto a roller coaster knowing you are not in control of the heavy metal objects and speed, and you feel the result of that kind of surrender. It's a rational if not laboured decision to go on a roller coaster. But everything after the restraints get locked is emotion. And we love it. More or less. 

Modern worship leaders sing true things in dark rooms to emotionally isolate you, they light the stage and the singers and the words on the screen because they want you to focus on what the words say, what the singers express and what the darkness and moving lights up front will evoke. Take any modern song away from that context. Perform it in a well-lit conference room with paper handouts for the words and see the magic disappear. Because it's not magic. It's tech doing its job and worship leaders doing theirs. Using emotional manipulation to lead people into worship, through feelings.

You might shrink back at the use of "manipulation" there, but I don't. Everyone manipulates everyone. I do it with words, others do it with clothes. And the church is clearly doing it with its worship music. And being blind to it just means you have a better time for the most part. No time spent dissecting a rendition of a song alongside its light cues. If worship leaders are manipulating people to confessions in Christ, praise of his name, and changing of lives for righteousness' sake, there is no good done in pointing it out just to make them stop out of principle.

But just like the nose-ringed girl lost her religion to the band One Direction, we risk losing our religion to much more theologically challenging opponents than the average boy band. This might be a fevered dream with too much REM to blame, but it is, at the very least, a possibility.

What happens when we mix more tech than just the moving lights and screen with this cocktail of emotions and Jesus? Because I wager that the only reason we have this emotional rollercoaster, at all, is because we have tech in our worship services as much as we do. And that tech use is progressing faster than the decline of said roller coaster. We are past the peak and trending downward at an accelerated rate. Everyone is having a good time 

What happens when We dabble enough with A.I. to let a robot decide what songs to play and how to play them and how to move the lights and dim the room and eventually move the people around the stage or generate them artificially. What happens when the church hands over the reins to the emotional crazy train to someone other than pastor Osbourne and we find out how black the sabbath can get? At least twice as black as the stage is now, I figure. 

Imagine a worship set tuned to its congregation, so finely, that everyone feels what our nose-ringed friend felt before she saw the boy band up close. Everyone getting locked in by the emotional manipulation because the A.I. was trained on everyone's response to the variables of modern worship's need for tech to do what it does. An A.I. hooked up to a myriad of sensors and cameras, that you'll now notice if you look close at everything but the well-lit stage in the dark room next time you go to a mid-sized mega church. You might scoff but A.I. has already begun generating worship services like these two.

The same pastors who would tell you the dark room, and black stage, and moving lights, are only aesthetics are doing this kind of thing too.

A fundamental truth in technology is that technology progresses. No one finds a better mousetrap and then gets a cat that they're allergic to, because of its traditional aesthetic appeal. They take the mouse trap that kills mice and forego the sneezing in church. Painting it black like your sanctuary walls lets you charge a bit more for the trigger and spring. The hardwood pews you ripped out for soft seating will not be reinstalled. The choir loft you ripped out to make the front of the church a sound stage will not be built back better. We're in the thick of it now. Our choice to embrace the darkness of the modern worship big room is separate from the darkness embracing us all back. Rollercoasters don't take you along their tracks. They let you ride them. It's all momentum till someone hits the brakes.

What A.I. will do when given full control and a proper set of emotional tools to use on us, is hone the fine edge of chemical addiction and surgically keep us addicted to church services. Whether or not those services are in line with Christian worship or not. It will do it in other places for sure, it already is in fact. Dopamine is a hell of a drug. Porn is a (Hell) of an industry. That will be where A.I. gets its blueprint for hooking the modern Christian, emotionally. Because statistically, that's where over half of the modern Christians go to get their dopamine. And it, dopamine, is the reason you get the tingles across your arms and back when a good song comes on the radio that you can't help but sing along, or a well-performed worship set sends you to tears because of how loved you are in and by Christ. When those tingles are not only produced but measured by a machine instructed to evoke those responses, It will do so. With machine-like precision and efficiency. And what we have at the end of the day is a tech-enabled drug dealer for dopamine in the name of Jesus. 

And we will be nothing but happy for it. 

By design. 

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