While I belted songs with my questionable tuning during elementary school chapel as a kid (I went to a private school for a few years), I think I discovered a profound spiritual revelation… at least to me. But it was so counter to everything around me, I assumed I must be wrong and ignored it.
See, after hearing a speaker preach up and down about the spiritual dangers of making graven images of God (aka idols), my weird mind spat out a problem while we sang the next song. I was imagining God. In my head I was making up an image of God to focus on while worshiping. That seemed to go against everything the chapel officiant had just said. We weren’t supposed to make images to worship. Those are idols. But my kid brain figured that is exactly what I was doing.
I remember being frustrated trying to clear my mind, but I must have figured this is one of those things where there’s a piece of nuance that adults get and kids don’t. I mean, everyone else does it too. I let it go… until now.
I went to an evangelical service for the first time in a while recently. (Family was in town.) As I looked around I missed the comradery and communal singing. Then I heard what they were singing.
We all create constructs, images in our minds of what the divine is like. We kinda have to. If we’re going to talk about things we don’t understand, we have to put words and expression to it. These images can be comforting, orienting, subversive, and beautiful… but maybe they shouldn’t be worshiped?
I realize the implications of this are rather vast within a religious context. The fact that practically all “worship music” is predicated on a creating images of God is not lost on me. As an alternative, several years ago I wrote about the poetry in the book of Genesis declaring humanity as God’s idol. Someday, I hope to write about that again. (Hopefully next time my writing style will have improved.) But yes, I am saying “worship music” may need a complete overhaul.
For those scoffing, ‘Humanity has always constructed images of God in our minds,’ I think you’re right. However, just because it’s always been done doesn’t mean it must be right or it must be benign.
As I listened to the music at this service recently I was struck by some problems. Aside from the attempts of everyone to work themselves into an emotional high for their hot-boyfriend-Jesus (a practice I was good at in my youth), there was also a strain of latent authoritarianism assumed in the lyrics. Behind the words of affection, this construct of God was a dictator that needed to be obeyed. The sermon was even more explicit. It equated love with obedience and tried to teach a mind trick to help us obey. But… That’s not what love is.
My friends and I don’t love each other by obeying each other. My (admittedly limited) love life has never seen obedience as a major attraction. Even kids obeying their parents isn’t about them obeying as love. Imagine a kid who’s disobeyed and burned their hand on the stove being told by their parent, “If you loved me more, this wouldn’t have happened.” That’s not love. That’s manipulation.
Imagine a large group of people, groomed by this image of the divine as dictator. If they were told by trusted authorities this God has appointed someone to help them as a ruler, what would ever make them question? God’s the authority and his appointed must be in the right simply by default.
Separating children from their parents, making life harder for the poor, breaking any laws to win- It’s all ok because… Who are we to question the dictator god.
But if the idol of the divine is the person next to you, if what you do to the least of these you do to the great Mystery of the universe, if loving your neighbor is really the same as loving the force that creates it all, then what? Then is it messy? Fraught with questions? Songs harder to write but more beautiful and grounded? Politics change? Purposes change? Orientation changes? Life changes? Instead of working toward emotional/spiritual highs could we really hold someone’s hand and discover divinity?