Accepted Paper:

How to hear: aesthetics of worship and the value of subjective experience among English evangelicals  


Malcolm McLean (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Based on my current fieldwork I argue that the aesthetic of musical worship forms a boundary between conservative and charismatic evangelicals in England, and that their different aesthetics reflect and produce different valuations of objectivity and personal experience.

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on my current fieldwork among evangelical churches in an English university town I argue that aesthetics, not theological doctrine, form the boundary between charismatic and conservative evangelicals, and that these aesthetic differences reflect different attitudes to the 'post-modern' challenge of textual and religious authority. I examine practices of 'listening' to God employed in church services, prayer meetings, and bible studies between the churches to show that for conservatives good listening means finding 'objective truths' through historical-critical readings of universal revelation as found in scripture, and musical worship centres on the theological content of a song's lyrics. In contrast, charismatics emphasise hearing through bodily experience and their worship aesthetic seeks to remove social and personal inhibitions to hearing God, through using darkened rooms and normalising expressive movement such as dance, so that one is receptive to God.

I argue that aesthetics are a significant boundary for my conservative interlocutors because of the high value they place on 'objectivity'. Their worship aesthetic of theologically dense songs sung in a physically inexpressive manner reflects, reinforces and inculcates their belief that God primarily reveals himself to everyone in the same way: through scripture, the objective meaning of which can be discerned through good study. Their dislike of the charismatic aesthetic stems from its embrace of the subjective and idiosyncratic: it suggests God reveals himself through subjective bodily experience. Finally, I relate this concern for objectivity to broader debates around post-modernism, epistemology, and authority in contemporary Britain.

Panel P007
Aesthetics and the making of religious collectivities