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What “moves” you in worship?

Which of the following scenario is a more meaningful worship experience?

The 100 member choir and 50 piece orchestra combine in a rousing performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 182, a piece composed for Palm Sunday.

The stage is full with a professional band, complete with drums, electric guitars, and a praise team. As the music soars and rages, they sing, “Jesus is Lord!”

Children stream down the aisles in beautiful white dresses and suits waiving palm branches and streaming banners and shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” as the choir follows singing a triumphant “Hail, to the Lord’s Anointed!”

The congregation sings five hymns accompanied by organ, interspersed with a lengthy Scripture reading, affirmation of a doctrinal confession, and an intercessory prayer. Not one mention is made of Palm Sunday.

Depending on your background and personal preferences, you may view one or more of these scenarios as a better experience of worship to celebrate Palm Sunday than the others. Assuming that the doctrinal content of each scenario is similar, and assuming that the Word of God is faithfully preached in each service, what really distinguishes these services from one another? Why would someone who is used to one of the first three scenarios find the fourth to be a spiritual disappointment?

Again, assuming the doctrinal content is the same among the services, the difference between them has to do with the way art is used in each service, and how it affects people. Of course, art includes music, drama, visual, and literature. So is one use of art more “worshipful” or “meaningful” than the others? Is any one of these uses of art inappropriate for congregational worship?

Art affects us, and that effect creates an experience that is often interpreted as meaningful worship. Yet in each of these scenarios, the experience is quite different from the others. In other words, the experiences created in these services are so different from one another that they cannot be the same kinds of experiences. So which is more meaningful? Which use of art in worship best creates a biblical experience of worship?

Understanding of how people are affected

In order to properly understand how art affect us, we need to first understand how people are affected.

Man is made of two parts — material and immaterial, body and spirit.1 We know this is the case because of the reality of life after death — the body remains, while the spirit is with God. Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The body and spirit, however, are not without relation. Scripture teaches a kind of “holistic dualism.” Unlike Plato, who argued that the body is the inferior, undesirable “shell” of the true person, the Bible teaches that the physical body is a good, God-given part of human nature. In fact, believers will be given new, physical bodies after the resurrection. Even during the intermediate state, souls seem to have some kind of bodily form. In other words, “persons” are complete only as a uniting of body and soul, which are still distinct one from the other. Animals are only body; God is only spirit.2 But man was created out of the dust of the earth (material) and infused with the very breath of God (spirit). Thus man is a living soul.

The following diagram will be helpful as we further discuss this body/soul distinction and interaction:


Although the body and spirit do interact and affect one another as the totality of the human person, each part can be affected apart from the other. Just like animals operate completely on the basis of biological reactions to stimuli, so man can react on that basis alone. For example, if a child rounds the corner and his brother shouts “Boo!” in order to scare him, the reaction the child has is purely physical — nothing had occurred in his spirit to cause him to jump. His brain gathered the data of a suddenly loud sound that produced a physical passion of fear accompanied by certain feelings that created the impulse to jump.

This kind of purely physical, chemical process of causation is part of the biological nature of man. Appetite, fear, anger, sexual drive, sentimentality, and many other passions that produce feelings such as tears, increased heart rate, goosebumps, or exhilaration can be formed without thought by pure, physical stimuli. The physical response of laughing when tickled is an example of this purely physical causation. Adults, infants, and animals like can experience this kind of response.

On the other hand, these kinds of physical reactions can also be created as a result of thought. This reveals the interaction between spirit and body. As the mind (a component of the spiritual nature) comprehends an insult, it produces the passion of anger accompanied by various feelings that move the person to action. Likewise, when a person laughs because he understands a joke, the same physical response occurs as when he is tickled, but it began in his mind, a component of spirit.

But just like the physical part of man can be affected apart from the spirit, so can the spirit operate apart from any influence upon the body. A man may have love for his wife because of his knowledge of her, but that love is not always accompanied by physical feelings. Love is an affection — something purely spiritual. It can, and often does, produce feelings, but it does not have to. Often those feelings are mistaken for the love itself, but if love were a feeling, then God would not be able to experience love, for He has no body.

The affections are part of man’s spiritual nature. They are products of thought and may or may not be accompanied by feelings. Furthermore, different people experience different levels of feeling as a result of possessing certain affections. Two people may both possess the affection of courage but may exhibit it through different physical feelings.3

Jonathan Edwards explains this important distinction between the passions and the affections:

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.4

Both affections and passions can drive a person to action. The affections are the inclination of the will (the moral component of the spirit), while the passions/feelings drive physical impulses.

What is important to remember is that a Christian must never be governed by his passions. The Bible calls this part of man his “belly” — his “gut,” and reveals an unbeliever to be a slave to it (Phil 3:19). A Christian should never allow his gut to control him. These passions and feelings are not evil; they are simply part of the physical makeup of mankind. To assign morality to them would be like assigning morality to hunger. Jesus Himself experienced the passion anger, and yet without sin.

The physical passions are not evil in themselves, but they must always be kept under control. Left unchecked by the spirit, passions always lead to sin. This is why the Bible must warn, “Be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph 4:26). Anger is not wrong, but it will lead to sin if not controlled. Likewise, appetite is a good thing, but left unchecked it results in gluttony. Sexuality is a wonderful gift from God, but uncontrolled it turns to lust. Fear is a necessary part of the survival instinct of man, but if it controls a person, he can not operate properly. You can distinguish between affections and passions because you can never have too much affection, but it is possible to have too much passion.

The problem is that when the passions are set in conflict with the mind, the passions will always win. A man may know that it is wrong to hit another man, but if he is angry, that knowledge alone will not stop him from reacting wrongly. It is only when his knowledge is supported by noble affections that he can overcome his passions. As Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.” This is true for faith. Faith is not mere belief in facts. That alone would not move a person to a righteous life. Faith is belief combined with the affection of trust. When belief is supported by trust, a person will be able to overcome his sinful passions.

Christians, therefore, should strive to gain more right knowledge and nurture more right affections so that they act rightly. They must also beat their bodies and make them their slaves (1 Cor 9:27).

In summary, when people talk about emotion, they are speaking of a category that may include the affections, passions, or the resultant feelings. This is why we must be more specific when discussing these things — “emotion” is just too broad a term. Most people are thinking of “feelings” when they say “emotion,” but not always. Joy, fear, and “butterflies” are all “emotions,” but they are very different from one another. Therefore, the emotional experiences created by various uses of art are consequently very different from one another.

Dionysian vs. Apollonarian art

With this understanding of how people are affected, we move now to a discussion of how art affects people.

Art, and especially music, is emotional by its very nature. But remember, emotion is a broad category. To say that art affects the “emotions” is to say that it can affect either the affections (which may then produce feelings), or that it can affect the passions (which always produce feelings). With the first kind of art (what aestheticians call Apollonarian art), the whole of man is involved — spirit and body. A certain level of intellectual involvement is necessary, and the affections are targeted. This, in turn, may produce feelings, but the feelings are not the central focus of the experience. The latter kind of art (what aestheticians call Dionysian art) targets the feelings themselves. Devoid of spiritual involvement, this kind of art moves the participant into an experience of the senses alone. Animals can experience the effects of this kind of art no different than humans.

Both Dionysus and Apollo were mythological Greek gods associated with art. 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 patterns (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.

These names are used to distinguish art that targets the whole person (spirit and body) through the mind and affections (Apollonarian) from art that targets the body and encourages enjoyment of feelings for their own sake (Dionysian). Daniel Reuning explains:

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 oft he 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.5

All art has both components to one degree or another, but various forms of art, by their very nature, communicate either primarily with a Dionysian force or an Apollonarian force. Literature, because it essentially targets the person through the mind, usually communicates to the whole of man with an Apollonarian force. It requires at least a moderate level of comprehension and reflection to be enjoyed. Readers can experience the same feelings as the characters, but they do so in a way that allows for evaluation of those feelings and the motivations that lie beneath them. Cheap literature does exist, however, filled with cliches and thinly veiled sentiment, which simply stir up the passions.

Music can communicate in both ways. Well-crafted, “modest” music involves the whole of man — mind, affections, then feelings. In Heinrich Schenker’s terms, it is true to nature — every component of this music fits within the whole of the piece. Other musical forms, however, simply rouse the feelings through spectacle, sentimentality, or the simply sensuous6 experience of loud amplitude and timbres.

On the other end of the art spectrum is dramatic art. By its very nature, drama communicates directly to the passions with a Dionysian force. Drama invites the participants to actually experience the feelings of the characters in a sensory way, providing little possibility for reflection. Participants are almost involuntarily drawn into a vicariously shared experience of passions that gives no time for detached reflection or evaluation. Theologians and philosophers throughout the centuries have questioned the wisdom of using drama, particularly for sacred purposes, because of these reasons.

In summary, different art forms affect humans in very different ways, and sub-forms within a broader category of art may affect humans differently. Therefore, when evaluating the use of art in worship, one must determine whether such uses are really affecting the spiritual nature of man or simply the physical passions.

What Does This Mean for the Christian?

What does this mean, then for believers? What does this mean for the use of various art forms for sacred purposes?

If as Christians we are striving to rule our bellies by our heads — if we rightly do not want to be controlled by passions or their resultant feelings — then we must embrace Apollonarian art and be wary of Dionysian. I am not prepared at this point to say that all art with a Dionysian force is wrong for a Christian, but it is at least potentially dangerous if consumed regularly or in large quantities.

But I am prepared to say that art that simply engages the passions and fuels physical feelings is inappropriate and quite dangerous for sacred use. This would rule out some forms of music and all dramatic art for sacred use. Reuning discusses this in his treatment of Martin Luther’s music:

His music and that of the Lutheran heritage communicates a message with an Apollonian force, which allows our emotions to be enjoyed, while at the same time retaining control and mental freedom. We are relieved of the urgent requirements of our inner drives. Under Apollonian influence our emotions are viewed empathically or contemplatively in a more detached fashion, so that they might always be subject to our discretionand judgment. Since the major point of the Reformation, as of Scripture itself, was to turn man away from everything within himself as the source of hope and assurance of salvation — to the grace of God alone, earned for us by Christ Himself — it was logical for Lutherans to use Apollonian music. Man-directed Dionysian music would only confuse or contradict the message through its anthropocentric emotional forces. Just as hymns and spiritual songs with words full of Dionysian content, doting upon human experience and feelings, are incongruent with the biblical proclamation of the Gospel, so also is music that revels in Dionysian emotionalism. Thus, because music has so much influence on one’s understanding of the Gospel, Apollonian reinforcement was the obvious choice. Furthermore, this choice is just as relevant to us today, since the emotional forces in music keep on conveying their unique messages, remaining uneffected by changes in time or environment — a truly universal expression!7

Is it any wonder why the Christian faith is based exclusively in words — in literature? Is it any wonder that the second commandment forbids the use of visual art in worship? Is it any wonder that the only drama sanctioned for worship is baptism and the Lord’s Supper, relatively safe forms of symbolism?

Art that communicates directly to the feelings through spectacle is inappropriate for worship because people are always in danger of interpreting those feelings as the essential experience of worship. Feelings are not wrong; they are sometimes the natural production of right affection. But when feelings are roused through a primarily sensuous experience, there is always the danger of attaching a spiritual significance to those feelings apart from any connection to the truly spiritual.

This takes a number of forms today. For instance, some people refuse to be part of a church that centers on biblical teaching with little else because it doesn’t “feel” like worship. They consider such churches “boring” or “a let-down” because they relate their experience of worship to certain forms of music or drama or ritual that create an experience of the senses. Others don’t think they have had a religious experience unless there have been high levels of feelings — tears or exhilaration. Others enjoy biblical lyrics set to certain forms of music (whether pop or Romantic) because they interpret the feelings they get from listening to the music as spiritual when they are merely a chemical response to a stimulus.

Yet this is not simply a conservative vs. contemporary issue. Most forms of pop art are Dionysian in nature, but some so-called “Classical” art is as well, including “reverent,” “meaningful” ritual. Many such “conservative,” religious ceremonies — in that they are essentially drama — are intrinsically Dionysian — they create an experience of the senses that targets the feelings directly. This can be anything from the children waving banners to candle-lighting to elaborate processionals. Many people view simple services of hymns and preaching as boring compared to such ceremony. Liturgical churches are filled with this kind of thing — service elements that directly target the senses in order to create the “feelings” of worship.

Conversely, the biblical picture of worship is simple — no flash, no ritual, no drama. Yet unfortunately, many people are dissatisfied with simple, Word-centered worship supported by modest music and the symbolism of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, some want pop music and drama that excite the passions and invigorate feelings. On the other hand, some want elaborate rituals and ceremonies (especially at Christmas and Easter) that, again, are just sense experiences — they do not really involve the spirit. Both are unbiblical.

This is also becoming a problem as churches become more technologically savvy. Churches are adding visual elements to their services — pictures and video on screens accompanying music or preaching — to “enhance” the worship. I am convinced that they have good motives behind it, but I am also convinced that these practices are rooted in a lack of understanding the nature of emotion and art.

The modern church has become so confused on these issues because it has forgotten biblical, anthropological, and aesthetic distinctions that have been understood for centuries. It is my burden to recover some of these things as we seek to worship our holy God as He wants to be worshiped.

So I ask you, reader, to what to you attach spiritual significance in worship? Rousing music (whether “conservative” or “contemporary”)? Dramatic rituals? Elaborate ceremonies? Or the Word?

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. There is some debate about whether man is two or three parts, but for the sake of this post, only the distinction between material and immaterial is necessary to grasp. []
  2. Except, of course, in the person of Jesus Christ since His incarnation. []
  3. Keep in mind that whenever we attempt to assign terms to things that happen internally, we will always be imprecise. The Bible itself uses the same terms to describe different parts of man, such as “heart” or “soul.” It is very possible to disagree with the terms I chose to designate various affections, passions, or feelings. The important thing is to understand the basic concepts. []
  4. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 26-27. []
  5. Daniel Reuning, “Luther and Music,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 48:1, 18. []
  6. Meaning, “of the senses.” []
  7. Reuning, 18-19. []