Please manipulate my emotions

There is a great deal of suspicion of emotional manipulation. Sometimes I think that suspicion is justified. A friend told me a story about a church where the keyboard was hooked up to an electric shock machine, and just at the right moment the keyboard player would hit the button and people in the front row would be brought to their knees by the ‘electrifying’ power of the sermon.

But sometimes I wonder whether we are oversensitive to the power of music on our emotions, as if being moved emotionally by a song is less ‘worthy’ of us than to be moved intellectually by a sermon.

Consider the tension felt by the great father of the faith, Augustine. His conversion story was marked by an emotional musical encounter:

“I wept at your [God’s] hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of your sweetly singing church. Those voices flowed into my ears, and the truth was poured out in my heart, whence a feeling of piety surged up and my tears ran down. And these things were good for me.”1

Yet at the same time, the Platonism which Augustine’s culture had subscribed to made him suspicious of such animal attraction merely based on music:

“the gratification of my flesh – to which I ought not to surrender my mind to be enervated – frequently leads my astray … when it happens to me that the song moves me more than the thing which is sung, I confess that I have sinned blamefully and then prefer not to hear the singer.2

For similar reasons, another thinker, Athanasius, decided that it would be better not to sing at all. For him it was important that the Psalms were recited not ‘from a desire for pleasing sound’, but as a more spiritual ‘manifestation of harmony among the thoughts of the soul’.3 Augustine, to his credit, didn’t go that far. But he did look down on the role of music, saying it merely enabled a ‘weaker soul’ to ‘be elevated to an attitude of devotion’.4

But I don’t think it is an admission of weakness in our soul to recognise that we are embodied: our thoughts and actions are influenced by what we eat, whether we have slept enough recently, and whether our brain chemicals are balanced. To recognise that music can have a non-rational effect on our souls is simply to recognise that we are human. Rather than be afraid of any emotional effect, we should seek out music which draws us closer to God and honours Jesus. Provided there is no deception, and the emotional power of the music is anchored in the truth, and we aren’t trying to substitute for the Spirit’s work in changing hearts, I can’t see the danger. If ‘manipulation’ means simply helping me to feel the weight of Jesus’ glory then please, go ahead: some days I could do with a bit of musical manipulation.

Originally published April 2012 on the Garage Hymnal blog.

1 Augustine, Confessiones IX, vi, 14 in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154.
2 Augustine, Confessiones X, xxxiii, 49-50 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 154.
3 Athanasius, Epistula ad Marcellinum 29, PG XXVII, 40-1 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 53.
4 Augustine, Confessiones X, xxxiii, 49-50 in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 154.

1 thought on “Please manipulate my emotions

  1. An interesting article! What do you think about playing music while someone is praying, or music to connect parts of a service? Ie- music that has no words to sing and reflect upon, but that can and does manipulate emotion just from a musical point of view?

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