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What a Rush!

By Michael D. Speir --

Growing up in the Christian faith, I was incessantly warned from the pulpit against the perils of insidious emotion. One was to live by faith, not by one’s feelings. In fact, though, emotions played a big part in our religion. Looking back now I see that they were really only deemed untrustworthy when they led one contrary to the faith.
Pentecostal PreacherImage via Wikipedia
Any that might draw one into belief or fortify one in one’s belief were good and wholesome, indisputable evidence of the rightness of the teaching. For want of better ways to label these, I’ll use the terminology current in Christian circles: conviction and blessing.

I got my taste of conviction early on; or, rather, my many tastes. Although I was raised not to be able to view the world except through the lens of a Christian metaphysic, I was all of 14 before I got around to “accepting Christ.” I can’t even remember now why it took me so long. What I do recall is that Sunday nights were evangelistic services. These seemed custom designed to make a young teenager squirm. The preacher would start out by reading an appropriately uncomfortable Bible passage, maybe something about what miserable miscreants people are for having descended from Adam, fully deserving of the eternal wrath of a righteous God. But that wasn’t enough. It was only a start; and when a Pentecostal preacher gets cranked up it’s something to behold! He would storm up and down the aisles, a veritable nimbus of indignation hovering right overhead, complete with earsplitting peals of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning. He knew just how to turn the screws.

I had been feeling thoroughly sinful since the Scripture reading, but as the sermon dragged on into eternity I was provided greater and greater insights into just what an execrable wretch I really was. And it wasn’t all the preacher’s doing, either. My own conscience would turn against me. The little lies I’d told, the times I’d “put one over” on my younger brother and sister, the illicit experiments conducted behind my parents’ back--all these came back to haunt me then. And, of course, there was the time when I was ten. A friend and I had sneaked off to see what smoking a cigarette was like. No doubt about it, I was going to burn in Hell--forever. As I grew increasingly miserable I wanted nothing so badly as to crawl underneath the pew and out of the harsh glare of the preacher’s gaze. (I knew, of course, that it was to me and me alone he was speaking.) No, what I really wanted was to run down the aisle to the altar and get myself saved so I wouldn’t have to endure this feeling ever again. Or, maybe not. At least, I resisted for a very long time.

But then, almost miraculously, he would start wrapping up. It was nearly over, and there was hope! If I could just hold out through the altar call, all would be well.

Alas--wouldn’t you know it?--the organist and pianist would solemnly make their way to the pulpit and take their places. That infernal, mournful music would begin as the preacher, cheeks tear-stained and voice aquiver, would begin to plead with us, the walking dead, to turn from our iniquity and toward Jesus while there was time. For all we knew there was a car with our number on it just waiting for us to try to cross the street on the way home. Oh, the grinding and churning within my breast! The fathomless, unmitigated dread! Even now I was perched on the brink of Hell; I could smell brimstone-scented vapors and hear the anguished shrieks of the hopelessly damned. It was almost more than my 14-year-old constitution could withstand.

What was this feeling, anyway? I was told it was the Holy Spirit convicting me of my sins and entreating me to come to Christ for salvation. I just accepted that. Hey, what did I know? I had never been given so much as a clue that there might be a likelier alternative explanation.

The fact is, most Christian ministers become masters of emotional manipulation. I want to be careful to say that I doubt this usually results of any deliberate guile on their part. There may be exceptions, but I suspect they don’t go though Heartstring Pulling 101 in seminary or Bible school. They don’t while away idle hours plotting mind games to play with their congregations. It’s much more innocent than that.

Funny, young preachers, those just starting out, usually don’t seem to bring on this sense of conviction in their listeners so well as those who have been in the ministry for a while, even when they’re speaking on the same topics. (Why would this be if the “engine” behind the feeling were, indeed, something supernatural rather than the mood set by the minister himself?) But, little by little, they start to pick up the craft. They’ll begin to note, perhaps only subliminally, that this gesture works better than that. A particular tone of voice or an abrupt change in the level of volume makes people sit up and take notice. Whose adrenaline doesn’t surge at a sudden roar? Utter certainty and an air of authority will always cause one to doubt one’s doubts, at least for the moment. After a few years these techniques and more coalesce into an inadvertent habit of presentation that instills “conviction” into the unconverted and gets them to the altar much more surely than before.

Quaint or poetic turns of phrase are especially effective. Would anyone have remembered had John Kennedy said, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…?” That would have been too common--too pedestrian. Everybody talks like that. It fairly reeks of the ordinary. There’s nothing memorable about ordinary. But “Ask not what your country can do for you…” has a whole different feel to it, doesn’t it? It elicits a different feeling in the hearer, too. It seems exalted, more worthy of remembrance. We can almost imagine it might have flowed from some higher source than any man.

When I was a teenager we almost always read from the King James Version of the Bible. We weren’t “KJV-only.” It was just that somehow the Holy Bible seemed so much holier when rendered in the earlier English. That made it sound higher, better than the prosaic language we spoke in our day-to-day lives. And when the preacher wanted to wax especially eloquent he would sprinkle thees and thous throughout his homilies. This instilled in us that same elevated feeling the King James Bible did. It was the Word of God, and his words sounded a lot like it. Curiously, most of the time when “tongues and interpretation”1 was given in church the interpretation came out in that same, venerable English. Even much later, after I had abandoned Pentecostalism (though, not its younger sister Charismatism) and switched to Methodism, our pastor often prayed using the same thees, thous, and other linguistic elements common in King James’ time. He knew very well the emotional impact “set apart” language has on the listener. I imagine the Muslim feels this way when he hears the Koran read in Arabic.

But the icing on the cake was the music. What altar call would be complete without music melancholy enough to rub the sinner’s nose in his misdeeds, real or merely alleged, but with just the right tincture of hope to make him think there might be a way out?2 It’s like water seeping beneath and undermining the foundations of his fortress. That’s because music bypasses the intellect altogether and goes straight to the heart.3 It’s what worked aboriginal men into orgiastic frenzies so they could club the neighboring, competing tribe into submission. It’s this same quality that old-time armies used to count on with their drum and fife corps in battle and is still employed in fight songs during football games. How many movie scenes have you sat through that might have made you chuckle had it not been for the doleful background music that brought you to tears instead? Indeed, the right music can turn the serious silly or make you sympathize with and even root for someone you might see as reprehensible in a different presentation. In short, music is powerful, mood altering stuff. Preachers learn how to work it to their advantage.

But if music has its place in bringing the unregenerate to their knees, it even more potently raises the redeemed to their feet. Oh, the pure, effervescent joy I used to feel as I heard the Oak Ridge Boys--the old Oak Ridge Boys--sing “Jesus is Coming Soon!” It was almost like I was in Heaven already. (This was after I had already caved in and gotten saved, of course.) Worship services centered around the “praise and worship” song: music engineered to bring on this feeling of “blessing.” If conviction hinted that the Holy Spirit existed and spoke to the human heart, blessing swept up from behind and over the human soul leaving no doubt. Many was the time I looked out over a sea of raised hands rolling to and fro with the current of the “Spirit.” Faces turned upward, eyes closed and streamed tears, all in the thrall of some song of praise sung over and over. “What else could possibly feel like this?” we would exclaim to one another.

It was many years into my Christian life that I began to notice things that didn’t make sense when interpreted in this way. No, actually, what I noticed argued very strongly against the interpretation. I would slap a cassette tape of the Oak Ridge Boys into the player (Yes, it was a very long time ago) and listen with rapture (no pun intended, but I’m not disowning it, either) to “Jesus is Coming Soon.” I would rewind and listen again. I got the same rush of feeling again. Well, pretty close, anyway. I really enjoyed feeling like that, so I’d listen to the song yet again. But there was a noticeable drop-off in the intensity of the emotion each time I played the tape. Why would that be? I could understand the song getting a little old after hearing it several times, but wasn’t the Holy Spirit the author of the joy I felt as I listened? Does one become inured to the Spirit as one becomes inured to the song? I told myself that God didn’t want us to live by feelings, so he wasn’t going to encourage me to seek for them. That made sense, sort-of. But still, why did my falling sense of the Spirit’s presence seem to correlate so closely with the increasing staleness of the music?

There was something else that was much more telling. I don’t know if the Oak Ridge Boys even pretend to be Christians anymore. They’ve become more popular than ever in the last three decades singing songs that would leave the saints filling your average Pentecostal pew looking a little pallid. What’s curious is that I get that same rush of buoyant joy when I hear them performing something patently “ungodly” like “Elvira.” What, does the Holy Spirit bless “Elvira”? A few years ago I first heard a group called Il Divo. These four men sing popular music, and some of the stories they tell about themselves lead me to believe they aren’t Christians, at least not in a way any Pentecostal or Fundamentalist would define the term. They certainly don’t present themselves as a Christian group. But they still have that male quartet sound, much like the Southern Gospel groups I grew up listening to. They have the same way of bringing the music to a passionate climax and launching the hearer into an Aether of ecstasy. Those powerful male voices could make “Old MacDonald” sound majestic--the kind of strength and majesty that reminds Christians of the God they believe in.

I saw Il Divo performing on public television during a fundraiser. I hadn’t watched long before I was in tears, my heart bursting full of that same feeling I used to have with “Jesus is Coming Soon.” Why would that be? Il Divo wasn’t singing Christian songs. Maybe it isn’t the Holy Spirit bringing on these emotions at all. Isn’t it likely that I was conditioned as a child to respond this way to a certain sound, and that’s really all there is to it? (Although, I suspect certain kinds of music do induce fairly predictable physiological effects. It’s not all “baggage.”)

Don’t think so? Let’s look at the flip side. Today’s kids have music that’s far different from what I grew up with. There’s Christian rap and a dozen other genres and sub-genres I don’t even recognize. I notice that Christian young folks seem to react to it with the same intensity of feeling that I do to the Oak Ridge Boys. But it leaves me absolutely cold, even though “Jesus is Coming Soon” can still get me “cranked up”--and I don’t even believe in God anymore! What’s the difference? Aren’t the rappers singing about the same thing? Doesn’t “the Spirit” “bless” the kids through that music? So, why not me? Again, the real answer is obvious. Rap music is foreign to me. I don’t find it inspiring or meaningful at any level. But if it were the Holy Spirit doing the inspiring, it wouldn’t matter the genre, would it? Consequently, if the genre does matter, then it’s the music itself that brings on the elevated emotions, isn’t it?

This brings up the point of “baggage,” what one’s presuppositions and life experiences “bring to the party.” As much as I’ve come to like Il Divo, I find I enjoy their singing a lot more when they sing in English. That, of course, is because I understand English. The song then becomes meaningful to me both in the music and in the words. Who I am contributes mightily to what I glean from a musical performance; and what I believe is part of who I am. I feel “the Spirit” in the Oak Ridge Boys in some measure because I expect to. Il Divo reminds me enough of the Gospel quartet sound (although the “poperatic” style of Il Divo is worlds apart in other ways) to engender the same feelings in me. I get that same tingle whether they’re singing “O Holy Night” (glorious!) or “Senza Catene” (equally glorious). I don’t get it from rap no matter the subject matter or the “spirituality” of the singers. Again, how do you rescue the notion that the feelings are transcendental in inspiration from the contrary implications in this?

I heard one preacher protest that this supposed evidence for the presence of God isn’t a “feeling.” It’s a “sense,” he said. He was just playing with words, of course, but his evident aim was to deflect the very valid criticism that an emotion isn’t good evidence of much anything except the emotion itself. But he provokes an interesting question. Exactly what is this “sense” called? Why would that matter? Think about it. The common senses all have common names and corresponding verbs to express the sensing. That’s because our everyday lives depend on them. With sight we see; with hearing we hear; with touch we touch; with smell we smell; with taste we taste. What is the term for this hypothetical spiritual sense? It doesn’t have a name, does it?4 There’s no verb to describe the sensing of it. We have to resort to generic words like “sense” and “feel.” And that’s strange, insofar as Christians insist it’s so common that all people experience it and so reliable that mistaking it will merit one eternal damnation.

Reliability brings up a kindred point. I’m fifty-four years old. I’ve used sight, smell, touch, and hearing every waking moment of my life. (Taste, of course, less often.) I’ve had a lot of practice with them. You would think I’d be good at using them by now. And I am: on average about like other fifty-four-year-olds. But sometimes I still get them wrong. I smell things that aren’t there to smell or see things that aren’t there to see. I’ve actually made the momentary mistake of interpreting something as warm when it was, in fact, quite cold. So, what is it about this purported spiritual sense that makes it reliable enough that getting it wrong could rightly land one in Hell? Bear in mind that, unlike the physical senses, this sense--supposing there is such a thing--isn’t employed much in our day-to-day lives. We don’t get a lot of practice in using and interpreting it. Even the most devout believer will admit he uses his physical faculties much, much more. He has much more experience with their interpretation. Yet he doesn’t always get even those right. How can it strike us as anything but absurd that our eternal destinies might depend upon rightly interpreting sensations out of the supposed spirit world, a realm where we would be at best foreigners and singularly unskilled? How much more absurd that some should place so much confidence in the similar experiences of men obscured behind the blurry veil of antiquity! And it solves no problems to suggest that God makes it all clear to us when, in fact, God would be working through this same dubious sense in his effort to make it clear. Our fallible human minds are still the only tools we would have to judge the veridicality of an experience and to tease meaning out of it.5

I know there are Christian ministers and theologians who recognize all this. They teach strictly that the presence or absence of feelings should never argue for the presence or absence of God at any point in the believer’s life. Still, the kind of Christian I’ve described is anything but rare; and, in fact, I suspect most believers do take their emotions as some gauge of their spirituality. And many will argue that the experiences I’ve described do indeed attest to the reality of the Holy Spirit. Except for these emotional “rushes,” what first-hand evidence do they have for their religion? No, I haven’t proven no Holy Spirit exists, but this kind of believer insists such experiences show he does.

For the reasons I’ve given here and others, I’m unpersuaded. There are better ways to account for every feeling in the Christian repertoire that require no reference to the divine.

1 For the uninitiated, this refers back to 1 Corinthians 12:10. As practiced, someone thought to be under the control of the Holy Spirit would stand up in the middle of the service--it could be during the singing, the sermon; any time--and start speaking in what was believed to be an “unknown tongue.” (Well, it was unknown, in any case. Like all reports of miracles, confirmation of instances where people are said to have actually spoken in languages they don’t in fact know seem to come to us conveniently removed in locale, time, or both.) Then, at least according to 1 Corinthians 14:5, the same person was supposed to follow up and “interpret,” by which was meant, translate, also by the Holy Spirit. More commonly, though, the interpretation was given by someone else, similarly inspired. It always made me a little uncomfortable that the “Spirit” seemed to have such a penchant for King James English. (And, interestingly, this is less true where the KJV is not routinely used in church services.) What’s more, there were times when the “tongue” was clearly nothing more than the same thing repeated over and over. (One hardly has to know a “language” to tell one is hearing the same sequence of sounds again and again.) Nevertheless, the translation would come out without this repetition. Other times, the tongue would be rather short and the interpretation would seem to go on forever. (Or the other way around.) That didn’t make much sense either. Another thing that bothered me was that these messages, purportedly from God, rarely if ever told us anything new or revelatory, and nothing ever specific enough to be tested. Hear a few of them and they begin to sound canned, no more original than a form letter, and not really clever enough to have originated in the mind of a god. We’re all intimately familiar with what language sounds like. Why should it surprise us that we can easily make up nonsense syllables and hang them from the scaffolding of the linguistic structures that have become second nature to us? Of course, Pentecostals have contrived rationalizations for all this, but nothing the impartial inquirer would feel obliged to accept.

2 Ever been to an altar call accompanied by a rollicking rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”? No? It probably wouldn’t be very successful, would it? Why not? “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a venerable Christian hymn. If the Holy Spirit were truly the author of this feeling of conviction, why would it matter the tenor of the music being played?

3 Try an experiment. Next time you get a hankering to listen to your favorite praise and worship album, have someone just read you the lyrics instead, without the music. Does it have the same effect on you? I’ll bet it doesn’t. Why not?

4 John Calvin coined the grand sounding term sensus divinatis. Ever heard of it? I thought not. In any case, my point is that the sense apparently isn’t common enough to give rise to a common name. Since it’s not, how can anyone justify setting our perception and interpretation of it as a criterion in determining our eternal destinies?

5 And, please, it helps not at all to suggest God provides us the interpretation. Were that so, our own minds would still sit in judgment on the interpretation, even to weighing whether the experience had been, in fact, from God. It’s no better to say God amplifies our minds so they’ll return us the right interpretation. Subsequent reflection might very well lead us to conclude no such thing had really happened. After all, the failings of our senses are not usually the fault of the sense organs themselves but of the mind in misinterpreting the data they send up. How, then, could we know for sure, insofar as, once again, our own minds would have to make the final determination? In other words, how does one tell the difference between a genuine enhancement of one’s rational faculties and being duped by a mix-up in the brain? (People on LSD trips claim to be enlightened, too.) Christians will tell me they “just know,” and that that knowledge comes of God; but there’s no way to validate this except by reference to subjective experience, which, again, is a judgment the mind itself makes, assuming its conclusion.