Sunday, 29 June 2008

The pornographer's dream: or, the problem with contemporary worship

There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years about why so many evangelicals are converting to Rome and to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder whether the highly experiential focus of contemporary worship might have something to do with it.

The New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has an entertaining song entitled “Pornographer’s Dream” (from her 2007 album, Beauty and Crime). In the song, Vega asks what kind of woman a pornographer would dream about:

Would he still dream of the thigh? of the flesh upon high?
What he saw so much of?
Wouldn’t he dream of the thing that he never
Could quite get the touch of?

It’s out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils, covered in silk
He’s dreaming of what might be

Out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils,
He’s dreaming of mystery.


It’s a nice idea: the pornographer, from whom nothing is concealed, dreams only of concealment itself. Unlike the rest of us, his fantasies involve not naked flesh, but a body “hidden in veils, covered in silk.” For the pornographer, the only thing forbidden is mystery, so that his fantasises are of clothed women, veiled flesh.

As an analysis of pornography, I think this is completely correct. The real problem with pornography is not that it is too erotic, but that it is not erotic enough. In seeking to reveal everything, to fulfil every fantasy, it destroys the very possibility of fantasy and eroticism. And so the use of pornography ultimately results not in erotic ecstasy or euphoria, but in mere boredom.

Perhaps all this can serve as a parable for the contemporary preference for experiential worship styles. Where every church service becomes the opportunity for a life-changing experience of the divine presence; where every song and sermon and prayer is designed to produce immediate emotional impact; where the whole Christian life is transformed into the pursuit of a “naked” experience of the divine – here, the final outcome can only be a profound and paralysing boredom. And for those subjected to such boredom, the only remaining spiritual desire is for a mysterious God, a God not merely naked and exposed, but clothed in ritual, sacrament, tradition.

Why are so many evangelicals converting to Rome and Constantinople? Perhaps their infinitely deferred quest for a Deus nudus has finally resulted in an unbearable boredom. Perhaps they’re dreaming of a God who is not always promiscuously available to immediate experience, but is instead “hidden in veils, covered in silk” – a more modest, and therefore more sexy God.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that we should avoid the pitfalls both of a promiscuous experientialism and of any reaction towards ritualism for its own sake. Instead of trying by our own efforts either to strip God or to clothe him, we should look to the place where God has both veiled and unveiled himself for us: in the event of Jesus Christ.

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