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Secular Culture

In blog posts over the last several weeks, I have been trying to help us understand what kinds of influences and values have converged to produce the culture in which we Christians in the West now find ourselves. I’ve explored some of the worldview values that have shifted; today, I’d like to begin exploring how those values have impacted the broader culture. As I’ve said before, understanding the world around us is critically important as we seek to know how to rightly live holy lives in our world.

The Industrial Revolution, often said to have begun with the development of steam power in the early 1800s, also had significant impact on culture and, consequently, the church and worship. As technological advancements made communication and travel easier, local folk cultures began to lose their distinctiveness, and a new mass culture emerged. This newly formed “pop” culture had as its core mass appeal and commercial interests. “New” or “contemporary” became axiomatic values since with technology, new is usually better. C. S. Lewis helpfully explains how as a result of the rise of machines, “what other ages would have called ‘permanence’” now became simply “old” and “outdated”:

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage.1

This belief that new is always better is often an unconscious assumption; in other words, a significant change in culture has created a shift of worldview.


One important philosophical shift that occurred as a result of the Enlightenment and had significant impact on broader culture was the emergence of the naturalistic category of “emotion.” When theologians and philosophers prior to the Age of Reason spoke about human sensibilities, they used nuanced categories of “affections of the soul,” such as love, joy, and peace, and “appetites (or passions) of the body,” like hunger, sexual desire, and anger. This conception of human faculties appears all the way back in Greek philosophers, who used the metaphors of the spankna (chest) to designate the noble affections and the koilia (belly) for the base appetites. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul employed such categories as well, urging Christians to put on the “affections” (splankna) of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and describing enemies of Christ as those whose “god is their belly (koilia)” (Phil 3:19).

This way of understanding human sensibility dominated Christian thought and philosophy from the Patristic period through the Reformation.2 The affections were the core of spirituality and were to be nurtured, developed, and encouraged; the appetites, while not evil (in contrast to Gnosticism), must be kept under control lest they overpower the intellect. Theologians believed that the Bible taught a holistic dualism where material and immaterial combined to composed man; thus, while the body and spirit are both good and constantly interact and influence one another, and physical expression is part of the way God created his people, biblical worship should aim at cultivating both the intellect and affections as well as calming the passions. With music in worship, for example, second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria argued, “We must abominate extravagant music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to changefulness—now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.”3 Rather, the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.” Likewise, Augustine later insisted that while the affections were at the core of Christian religion, the passions must be controlled by reason,4 Thomas Aquinas likewise maintained a distinction between the soul’s affections and the body’s passions,5 and sixteenth-century Reformers such as Calvin agreed, considering worship to consist centrally of pious affections,6 while yielding entirely to “fleshly desires” was sin.7

In contrast to this premodern way of thinking, the purely naturalistic environment of the Enlightenment created a new psychological category philosophers called “emotion”—non-cognitive, purely physical, involuntary feelings.


This new psychological philosophy of emotion, combined with increasing secularism, affected the culture broadly and the church specifically, including their view of art and music. Premodern thought, understanding music to be directly connected to the heart, and understanding a distinction between the affections and passions, consequently understood a distinction between kinds of music. Some music inherently targets the spirit—the mind, the affections, and the will, while other music is designed simply to artificially create a physical experience of the senses. Augustine and the Reformers used the biblical terms “spiritual” and “carnal” to describe this distinction, while non-Christians have used the terms “classical” and “romantic.”

After the Enlightenment had taken hold, Friedrich Nietzsche used the labels “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.” Both Dionysus and Apollo were mythological Greek gods associated with music. Apollo was the god of reason and logic and was considered the god of music since the Greeks thought of good music as a great expression of order and pattern (a la Pythagorus and Plato). Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of wine and revelry and was worshiped with loud, raucous music accompanied by pipes and drums. Nietzsche used these names, then, to describe the distinction that had been made in the past between kinds of music. In an article applying this to sacred music, Daniel Reuning explains this distinction in kinds of music:

Music that communicates emotions with a Dionysian force is that kind which excites us to enjoy our emotions by being thoroughly involved or engrossed in them with our entire person. Our enjoyment of the emotion then becomes ego-directed, driven by the desire for self-gratification. This direction often shows itself in keen physical involvement; people become emotionally involved through stomping of the feet, swaying of the body, clapping of the hands, and waving of the arms. Music that solicits from us this kind of emotional response allows us to enjoy our emotions from the inside and very experientially. This kind of music is clearly anthropocentric in nature, because it turns man to himself, rather than away from himself, with the result that he becomes the appreciating center of his own emotions and experiences. Herein lies the goal of all entertainment and popular music, which must please or gratify the self if it is going to sell.8

The difference between Apollonian and Dionysian music is basically what it targets in man. Apollonian music targets the spirit of man—the mind, the affections, and the will. Once the spirit is moved by such music, it may often result in some kind of physical sensation, but that is not the target; it is a result. Dionysian music targets the passions of man—the physical feelings themselves for their own sake. It artificially stimulates such feelings.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, Dionysian music rose to dominance—the goal of music in the broader culture became to excite human passions rather than calm them, and this gradually impact music in worship as well. Faulkner helpfully summarizes how the Enlightenment affect the music of western culture:9

  • The goal of music is to excite human passions rather than to calm them.
  • Music provides entertainment and diversion rather than the shaping of content.
  • The best kind of music is characterized by constant variety rather than order and modesty.
  • Individuality and originality are virtues in musical composition and performance rather than cultivating a noble tradition.
  • The gauge of music’s excellence is popular acclaim rather than its ability to shape content in an appropriate manner.
  • The best kind of music is “natural” and unlearned rather than skilled and ordered.
  • Music is purely scientific without any ethical dimension.
  • Music is unimportant rather than that which orders men’s souls.

This is not to say that theologians prior to the Enlightenment saw no connection between worship, music, and the heart; indeed they certainly did. However, losing the older distinctions between “affections” and “appetites,” lumping both together in a nebulous category of “emotion” or “feeling,” led to a reality in which “music’s historic anchors to the church and its worship—carrying praise, prayer, the story, and proclaiming the Word—were obscured or removed.”10 Faulkner concludes,

Music (for that matter, all the arts) had become a theological orphan. In fact, no important theological movement, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century, has concerned itself in any profound way with the significance of harmony, order, or beauty in Christian life or cult.11

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. C. S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), 21. []
  2. See Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). []
  3. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, trans. in Robert A. Skeris, Χρομα Θεου, I:78, quoted in Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 69. []
  4. See Ryan J. Martin, Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: “The High Exercises of Divine Love” (London: T&T Clark, 2018), 37–46. []
  5. Ibid., 49–56. []
  6. Calvin, Institutes, 3.7.5. []
  7. John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Thomas Myers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 115. []
  8. Daniel Reuning, “Luther and Music,” Concordia Theologial Journal 48, no. 1 (January 1984): 18. []
  9. See Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 172–79. []
  10. Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 230. []
  11. Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 190. []