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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Ben. Some good light on a phenomenon I have been pondering myself.

Rory Shiner

visual theology said...

Hi Ben, I came to you via Richard Hall's blog and am grateful to have discovered you in cyberspace. Thank you for this absolutely superb piece of insight. You bring a very fresh and delightfully provocative perspective on this key issue, which I hope stimulates creative discussion far and wide.

Brando said...

Thank you for your insights. It's made me think about my own recovery from pornography and how I used it as a way to control my world when things were getting chaotic. Ultimately the images never deliver the control that they promise. I would quickly slip back into the chaos that had been there before my "worship service". I wonder if this could also be related to the evangelical experience. Do we come together seeking to strip God of all mystery so we can make sense of a world that often just does not make sense? Will hundred's of churches across the US drape a flag over the cross this week because it's just too much to imagine a God who loves all God's creation and not just the part that "deserves" God's love? (that may be a rant for another day.) In the end this God we seem to know so well slips away and we're left in our chaos.
Just some thoughts and questions I had after reading your post.

David Drury said...

Wow. Should be published.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben, for such an insightful post. It might be a short contemporary commentary on the incident in Exodus 32 of the worship of the golden hung-like-a-bull calf - which, of course, is meant to represent, not replace, Yahweh - with its own "promiscuous experientialism".

In God against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (2008), Matthew Myer Boulton writes of "this strange coupling [!] - secrecy as a condition of intimacy." He observes that "There are always things we do not know, as well as things we should not know. Genuine intimacy involves secrecy, both secrecy that covers up what should be uncovered, but secrecy that - out of love and wisdom - refrains from uncovering what should remain covered." Influenced by Barth, Boulton would appreciate your model of veiling-unveiling.

You are also, however, right to warn against a rush to ritualism. Quite apart from the fact that the evangelical-charismatic money-shot is not the only type of liturgical boredom, and, further, as James Alison points out, that there is a proper liturgical boredom as "a long-term education in becoming un-excited", as long as we are motivated by the question "What will I get out of this act of worship" it is unlikely that we will be worshipping God whether we are in a chapel or a cathedral, an arena or a hut.

Perrerera said...

I just stumbled on your blog and this is the first post I read. It was so nice that I have now added it to my RSS-feeds. Really well written and thought provoking.

Bob said...

Ben - been reading your blog for quite a while now, and this piece is insightful and superbly written. I liked the song, too. I'd like to reflect a bit on this in my own blog - I'm grateful to you for starting off a train of thought.

John David Penniman said...

Ben - thanks for the helpful thoughts. I am working on a paper about spectatorship in the Christian life and this touches on some areas I have been thinking about for a while.

By the way, I don't know if you have ever come across an essay by George Steiner titled "Night Words," but it is about this very topic (i.e. the "laying bare" of our most intimate thoughts in pornographic writing). I found it incredibly helpful and intriguing.

thanks again.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for this post. As you may remember from our conversations, this is a topic that hits "close to home." Having grown up within the experiential-evangelical world, I saw many of my friends make the journey to Canterbury or Rome or Constantinople. I still feel a strong pull to the Anglican Church.

That said, I don't think the draw to more liturgical and ritualistic churches is limited to or even primarily about a reaction to the "unbearable boredom" of evangelicalism -- though this is certainly a major reason for many, I'm sure. Most of the people I knew who reacted against their evangelical roots had other concerns on their mind, though they weren't any more worthwhile as reasons than the one described here.

Some of these reasons include: a desire for an authority (and authority structure) outside of the individual person reading Scripture; a concern for visible communion with Christians all over the world; a desire to abandon and preclude the personality cults surrounding many evangelical preachers by placing the Eucharist at the center of worship; a need for liturgical structure and rhythm; an interest in the church calendar; a concern about remaining faithful to the traditions of the church and having a living connection to communities of the past (i.e., an interest in ecclesial continuity); a desire for theological substance where evangelical churches are often theologically vacuous; and simply a desire for less clap-happy religion and shorter sermons.

While the strong attraction to mystery is certainly a factor, I am not sure it can be made as central a factor as the post seems to indicate. I say that because the most popular "Anglican" churches around Wheaton College were the "evangelical Anglican" churches which combined the elements that answered most of the issues listed above with the same highly experiential form of worship.

Perhaps it's not that these Christians were looking for a God who is more veiled than unveiled, as you suggest. Perhaps it is rather that they found in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox worship an even more experiential worship than they had before. These liturgies employ all five senses where the American evangelical churches do not. The use of iconography, incense, call and response, etc., are all very experiential. Whether these were elements of a more hidden and mysterious God are possibly beside the point. I might argue instead that these fellow Christians found in these older traditions a more fulfilling form of worship, precisely because it is more experiential. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

A valiant, and well-written effort, Ben, but I think I'm going to (attempt to) disagree.

The pornographer isn't seeking mystery -- the pornographer is seeking intimacy (Kim alludes to this -- but I want to ensure that the two aren't collapsed into each other).

To simply veil the body, isn't enough. For the pornographer knows, better than the rest of us, that a veiled body is still just a body. It is intimacy that is the mystery for the pornographer; it is intimacy that forever falls out of his or her reach. The veiled body? The pornographer knows all about that -- he or she has mastered the art of producing the strip-tease.

(BTW, Ben, I'm basing these thoughts upon conversations I have had with sex workers over the years in which I have worked with them.)

Thus, I would suggest that the recent number of evangelical conversions to Rome and Constantinople isn't based upon a prior quest for a Deus nudus, but is based upon their prior experience of a God who isn't there. This isn't simply a Deus absconditus; rather, it is the experience of genuine godforsakenness.

We seek intimacy with God; but God has remained unfound within our churches. I suspect, once we get beyond the spectacle of new rituals, we will also not find the intimacy for which we are yearning.

Instead of following these rabbit trails, I suggest we heed the words of Porfirio Miranda:

The question is not whether or not someone looks for God, but whether he [or she] looks for God where God himself said he was.

Thus, the intimacy we seek with God, is to be found in the company of the poor.

Anonymous said...

I agree with dan 100% in regards to pornography. However, I disagree somewhat with this statement: "I suspect, once we get beyond the spectacle of new rituals, we will also not find the intimacy for which we are yearning."

Actually, I just disagree with his emphasis. And maybe I don't even disagree with that...A better way to put it is that I take issue with the finality or definitiveness of this statement. If the "spectacle" he speaks of is reduced to mere experientalism then, yes, it will result in the same sense of lacking. If, however, the experience of ritual is engaged with as something beyond superficial affectation or some kind of spectacle for its own sake aesthetic reward then maybe with head and heart thus engaged it can be seen to offer up exactly the access to intimacy (as with prayer when employed beyond mere functionality) that the adherent presumably lacks.

John Roberson said...

Great song, great post. Thanks!

The shift from nudity to intimacy seems relatively immaterial.. same song second verse and all that.

Unknown said...

Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,
gorillas and tarantulas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,

there's one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment's rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.

It's ennui! Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, dear [evangelical]. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine —
you — hypocrite [evangelical] — my double — my brother!

— Baudelaire, "To the Reader"

LoieJ said...

I've always admired the Catholic statement during the Mass, something about the "mystery of faith." It isn't all-explainable, as grace isn't all-explainable, at least not on this side of heaven.

Good discussion. Something to think about, but not the whole pictures, as the comments point out.

There certainly are pros and cons to any form of worship and church structure. I would hardly think that some people would go toward Rome or Anglican for "authority" when some branches of the Evangelicals seem to have preachers who establish themselves as the "authority" regarding interpreting scripture.

Any form of worship can be boring if the worshiper isn't in a worshiping frame of mind. It sure helps when the musicians and leader play the music like they mean it, which isn't always the case. Sometimes it does seem to be "all about them" rather than about God. And the "I will worship..., I will worship" songs have "I" as the subject, not God.

Liturgical worship does connect us to the saints of the past and future. It can take us beyond what we are feeling at the present moment. It can be boring if we are bored with worshiping God or if it becomes a performance or the musicians are playing in a boring manner. Liturgical worship can help us remember things about our faith and our God that aren't on our minds because of self-centeredness or selfish or shallow concerns.

Anonymous said...

[i]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.[/i]

This is a sublime argument for adopting a temporal nihilism of theology to move from a proclivity for absolutist objectivism towards [i]authentic mysticism[/i]; i.e., encountering, experiencing God on God's terms rather than our own.

Although, on the other hand, we could always manufacture mystery, artifical mysticism by pointing theology inwards on itself. Ha!

Theological Pornography? (Of course, it follows from this exposition on the nature of pornography, not the manifestation of carnal pornographical that is so wildly popular in today's culture.)

Great post.

Very Best,


Anonymous said...


"carnal pornographical"

should be:

"carnal pornography"

Of course, something else comes to mind as well - when theology is practiced in the vacuum of relativistic objectivity, do we participate in intellectual hedonism of our own design, hmmm?

What happens when a lot of people who share the same relativistic objectification of God get together? I know, terrifying thought. Would it then be hedonism, bordering on epicurianism?!?! (Think of the Roman Gourmandish Orgies from the days of old. . .)

Food for thought.


Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

I understand and appreciate the point of your post. I am a little uncomfortable however when the words "pornography" and "contemporary worship" are so closely related together.

As for me, I quite miss my days in a Pentecostal church, where it seemed like an experience with the divine was a little closer at hand.

One other thought, I can't speak for the Australian situation, but in North America, the Evangelical churches (along with their contemporary worship) are growing, where as the mainline churches are declining. It would be hard to conclude from the North American numbers that the Evangelicals are moving to more traditional churches in significant numbers. Rather, the converse is more likely. I touch on the topic a little bit when discussing Southern Baptists in Decline.

John Cassian said...

As a former Evangelical, now Catholic, I would argue that, while the analogy has some rough approximation to what a "typical" convert thinks like, the analogy fails by simply replacing one set of self-directed experiences (emotional experience) for another (mystery and ritual).

Most converts I know, even if they cannot fully articulate it, are looking for a way out of the evangelical experience game altogether - I think most realize that simply having a more mysterious or ritualized service would do nothing for the fundamental problem that lies at the heart of all evangelical worship. Indeed, if mystery is all that is wanted, the Emergent movement tends to do a pretty nice job of meeting those perceived needs.

Interestingly, another commenter in this thread suggested a movement towards a much better analogy. I would suggest that the evangelical convert is indeed a pornographer in search of intimacy. The problem cannot simply be solved by dreaming of clothed women. There must be a movement towards contact with actual human beings.

To bring the analogy back to the theological, one could perhaps argue that evangelical converts are those who desire to move from an emotional presence to a Real Presence

Martin Kemp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Kemp said...

(Sorry, some lazy typographic errors in the first attempt...)

Interesting thoughts. The analysis of pornography leading to boredom is on the money, methinks.

But could it be that some people prefer a veiled God because they don't like what has been revealed? ie John 3.19?

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting.

I am one of those evangelicals who converted to a church with a more orthodox worship style. I found the experience of belonging to an ('happy clappy') evangelical church to be very off-putting. It was the hyped up, emotive services interspersed with sudden outbursts of prophetic proclamations and sudden exclamations of praise from random members of the congregation.

Perhaps I am a too much of a skeptic, perhaps even lacking the necessary faith, but I just couldn't believe that it was all genuine. That the emotions and the prophetic claims of God's specific actions and movements in the world ('God did this'/'God did that') could all be caused by God. But yes, this type of worship is akin to the unveiling which Ben speaks of. But it is not so much the lack of mystery - the 'stripping of God' - which was off-putting, rather (what I percieved to be) the mind-numbing presumptuousness of it all... The belief that it is God, and not just the hype of rock music which provokes the emotions, and that sudden exclamations in the middle of the service are acts of praise provoked by the Spirit Him/Herself.

But this is a different issue to the one you are discussing, right Ben?

The evangelical style of worship that I described above does in a sense unveil God - but it need not necessitate that any of the mystery of God is 'removed'. It may result in the feeling that some mystery is removed, but is this 'feeling' justified? (That would depend on exactly what is meant my the mystery of God itself?) Probably not, since how can we presume to have penetrated any/a great deal of that mystery?

So rather, perhaps the issue is just what feelings are evoked by the service. But then the criticism of emotivism can equally be applied to the Roman Catholic/E. Orthodox services. And hence, boredom can equally become a problem for them.

But my problem with those services is the presumption required in order to 'unveil' God in this way. But then, isn't such a presumption required by anyone who observes God moving in the world at all? But regardless of whether such divine movements in the world occur (I believe they do), can we make such observations?

Blackhaw said...

So which type of contemporary theology, singing group, or worship leader is playboy, penthouse, or hustler?

I think Amy Grant has to be one of them because she “raped me spiritually.”

BTW I am converting from begin a Baptist to either Anglicanism (most likely) or Eastern Orthodoxy. And what you have said is one of the reasons why.

Before you think that what I say is not important remember Jesus thought of ME above all.

He did not think of the Father or even of you. He thought of ME!!!

Anonymous said...


If you have offensive comments to make, consider not making them public.

As for you final comment.

Philippians 2:

" 6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! "

Why did he die on the cross? For you, for me, because he considered us "above all" these other things he had.

Blackhaw said...


Wow! I think you need to look at yourself. Humor is okay. And the last part of my post was humor also. It comes from a conteporary worship song. It was a point at how unchristian some contemporary worship songs are. But I suggest to take life a little less seriously.

Anonymous said...


I apologize if I came across a little strong there, I am just tired of people slamming contemporary worship.

I may be wrong, I think I appreciate humor as much as the next guy. (I even enjoy reading the "Wittenburg door".)

But comparing worship to pornography, or talking about Amy Grant raping you spiritually, or making fun or Christ's sacrifice for you (and me, but above all you :)), all these things tend not to tickle my funny bone.

You were the second guy in about as many weeks to slam the song, which probably added to my frustration. Meaning wise it is very similar to the first verse of "Amazing Grace", that is powerful God stoops to save miserable me, yet I haven't heard people mocking Amazing Grace.

There is a lot of quality in contemporary music today, much of which is sincere songs of worship to God enthroned.

If people don't like it, fine, their are many good things in other traditions (like the Anglicanism you are considering).

I just wish that Christians would try to say more of "here is what is good about what I believe and practice" as opposed to saying "here is what is bad about what this other Christian believes and practices." Let us try not to knock the way that other Christians choose to worship and live out their faith.

I hoped this helped you to understand what I was thinking when I wrote my original comment. Again my apologies for coming off so strongly. Feel free to visit my website at if you would like to find out a bit more about where I am coming from.

Mike Bell

Blackhaw said...


Point taken. I do find a big difference between the 1st verse of Amazing Grace and that song. It is one thing to say that God came to save the lost and stooped down or emptied Himself to save me. But it is another thing to say that He thought of ME above all. They are light years apart.

Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

As a former evangelical/charismatic, now Catholic for 4 years, my opinion is that Mass is more about God, with the focus on His redeeming love and sacrifice for us, vs how the worship experience makes me feel.
As a former charismatic praise band musician, we used to judge whether we were touched by God based on the emotions stirred during the worship and praise time of the service. Worship/Praise is not bad but I found it focused too much on ME and not Him.
In the Mass, the entire experience centers on Him. The beauty for me as a Catholic is that I can now get closer to Jesus (in His real presence in the Eucharist)than I ever could before, completely separated from how it makes me *feel*.
Also, many are drawn to Catholicism because they believe it is true, not necessarily because it "feels" right or good.

Your comments on mystery in the liturgical church are interesting.

Michelle said...

I loved the analogy between pornography and contemporary worship. Having been in a blended service (meaning traditional and contemp. mixed) for the better part of the last 10 years, I have come to a distinct conclusion that I think part of the reason that people are looking again to an ancient church or traditional church type setting is strictly worldly. First, we are bombarded with media and messages continually. Most of us carry electronic leashes in our pockets at all time and feel obligates when someone calls to answer. We constantly have "something on just for noise" when what our soul really desires is something quiet and peaceful. A break from all the loudness in our lives. Traditional church offers a relief from that steady input into our minds and lives. It offers an interruptionless time to be still, quiet and reverent before God that isn't allowed anywhere else in our schedule. Think about it... we feel guilty if we are quiet. We feel like we've missed something if we don't get emails, phone calls or text messages. These things, while helpful in communication with other people, don't do much when you're trying to listen for still small voice.
Think also about what "the other guys" are offering... peace, quiet, contentedness... centeredness... sound remotely appealing? Yes, these are things that Christianity doesn't market, but these are things people are looking for, and from personal experience, can ONLY be found in Christ. Why then are we, as Christians, able to see that in order to reach the masses, we need to meet them at their point of need. People come to church searching for direction, peace, love, acceptance. We give them very little of any in a very contemporary worship setting. We strip our God down to a "hey, whassup" kind of God and belittle his Kingship and holiness. The "hey, whassup" kind of God is great for reaching people, but as far as worship - it lacks in the adoration and complete facedown type of approach. There has to be a balance between the reveal and the mystery of our Lord. He is after all God of the Universe and can not, nor should ever be, placed in commonality for worship.

Anonymous said...

I like this! It lampoons the sacred cow of Mega Church madison avenue promo and the Jesus business. It also leads ones imagination to the pathectic, limp, protestant liberal attempt at "Contemporary Worship" Not any of that old "straight persons" liturgy. The emerging church! The ecclesiastical equivalent of Crack Cocaine. In my day forty years ago it was Speaking in tongues...and in our Episcopal parish we were quite a slice of seveties stereotype happening with our prophecyers prohpecying and everyone else showing their Baptism in The Holy Spirit Member Card by Speaking in "Tongues". All adrift wafting cigarette smoke in those parish hall vacuous vespers. All that went away with my first bad marriage and the real world that is not nourished by all the glitz of praise music. So I threw away my living bible and dug out my grandmothers King James and 1928 prayer book and found a parish where these prevail. I think our vestry is thinking of installing canons in the tower in case the Presiding Bishop sends an armament of feminist theologians to enforce the "Gia" ligurgies upon us. Bottom line...From the "me" genners onward church has become a playground, a flight of fancy for the bored and short attention spannned..and it will only get a good solid church that knows who Phillip Brooks was....go to Rome or Cypress, make the sign of the cross from one direction of the other and "Stand up, stand up for Jesus"!

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