After Church: Into the Presence of…?

In the following post, the reader will notice that I’ve used many words that belong to the nuanced vocabulary of the “new age / self-help” world. I use the vocabulary, not to scoff at the traditional language of Christian experience, but only because I find this vocabulary helps describe my experiences. For those “turned off” by the language, forgive me, but do try to press on.

white-rabbit-with-watch-1

Pictured: Pat Gann on commute.

This morning, like most mornings, I had my hour-long commute to work. I hate this drive. I find the best way to level off that hatred is to ignore the constraints (example: the clock, I’m-late-I’m-late-for-a-very-important-date; or, the slow drivers who stay in the left lane and the foolish drivers who have the nerve to pass them on the right — I’ve played both of those roles in my life). In an attempt to curb the anger, I popped in a fantastic set of instrumental music: Module’s Imagineering.

Module, the stage name for New Zealander Jeramiah Ross, is best known in the video game music (henceforth known as “VGM”) world for his work with developer Sidhe; specifically, for the awesome space-glam-rock soundtrack to the game Shatter. His original work isn’t too far off from his VGM work, so Imagineering holds up as great, “listenable” music. It was released last year, and from time to time I pop it in for my own sanity.

This morning, I had a sort of holistic awakening. My mind and body — and dare I say it, my soul — were in a groggy, depressed state (probably not safe for driving). A few songs into Imagineering, and I’d gone zen. I wasn’t fighting traffic; I was moving with the traffic. I wasn’t dreading the day ahead; in fact, I wasn’t even thinking about the day ahead. I was basking in the soft glow of the harmonies, rolling through the contours of the music. The music was a haven. I can’t overstate this point.

And it was only near the end of the album: “Vehement Storm,” “Nantai San Sky,” and then the album’s sole vocal track, “The Pieces Fit,” that I became self-aware. That is to say, while I was washing my mind and body with this music, I wasn’t realizing that I was calming down. I wasn’t thinking about me. But here I “awoke,” and I was like “oh, wow, that worked wonders.”

This experience reminded me of another “experience” I had with music two weeks prior.

This experience was with “worship music.” And in using those terms, I know I just opened a can of worms. Let me specify: this is one acoustic guitar, four chords, some teens and young adults crowded into a one-room chapel, singing songs written in the ’90s and ’00s. In other words, Evangelical CCM worship (Contemporary Christian Music, for those not in the know).

Worship

But not this.

It’s worth noting about me: for the most part, I’ve come to loathe this style of music. From a creative perspective, the elitist in me finds it lazy. I get so caught up in the impotence of the music that I’m not able to stop and reflect on the God I believe in and, when I’m honest with myself, wish desperately to encounter.

But in the right setting, the style and content of the music rarely matters. The wrong setting, for the record, is mega-church sound system upper-middle-class worship. And, while I appreciate the aesthetic of Catholic and mainstream Protestant worship settings (less instruments, more voice, tons of liturgy and tradition), those series of rituals often leave me “high and dry” as well. It satisfies my intellect, and that’s about it.

Whether it was an old choral work or a crappy four-chord guitar piece, I find that the small setting with a diverse group of people, including people I know and strangers, is the one place where I can let go of inhibitions and just be pulled into the presence of Something or Someone infinitely bigger and more important than me. That’s life-affirming. That’s what I need to press on.

So: what’s different between me in a car listening to Imagineering and me singing “Grace Like Rain” with a bunch of twenty-somethings at the old summer camp? To be blunt and wishy-washy hippy-dippy about it, both made me feel better. Not just in an abstract way. They made me feel connected to life.

Question: can only music intended for the specific purpose of communal worship bring us into a closer connection with God?

Assertion: no. But it’s complicated.

I’m a big fan of the idea of common grace. The idea that God brings his bountiful goodness through all kinds of channels. And it’s not just the things that make us “feel good” that ARE good. But the two are certainly not mutually exclusive either.

This all can (and should) apply to games, especially as we (Zach in particular) dives into “games as art.” But going back to music — it’s like this.

A deist would agree that God gave Module the tools to create something sublime. And, in some way, some credit is due back to the Creator for its power and effects on us. From a theistic perspective, it may be the case that God helped Module craft the sounds that he did; regardless of whether or not Module counts himself among “the fold” (and I have no idea, I haven’t asked, but if he is, he’s not outspoken about it … which is fine!).

Even with common grace coming into play, though, intentions can and do count. While I may use Imagineering to, as Gretchen said in Donnie Darko, “remember how beautiful the world can be,” and while worship music can also serve that purpose, the intention and the communal aspect make a difference. So, while Imagineering‘s music is objectively more complex and more impressive than “Come Lord Jesus,” the latter is the one that puts me in the frame of mind of remembering and being humbled and getting back to a space I often tell myself is inaccessible as a busy salary-man.

What’s such a challenge for me, though, is that intentionality is a judgmental kind of thing. Why do I feel I’m incapable of worshiping and encountering some aspect of God’s presence while in evangelical mega-church? Is the problem them? Or is it…me? I’m a judgmental guy. I know I’m not supposed to be. But I judge the motives and the money and everything around me and then I’m just so disgusted, I can’t play along. What I experienced two weeks ago is the polar opposite of the mega-church experience. “Small is beautiful” and all that.

(Also: I love indie games oftentimes for similar reasons. The “business” of big games sucks the life out of it. Three guys trying to make something that is inventive and clever and is packed with meaning and expression: YES PLEASE. But that’s an aside.)

Consider this ranty post an endorsement for intentional, “authentic” worship, and for true musical artists willing to dabble in electronic music, such as Module. The grace of God — the reminder that He loves us and is for us — reaches us through unexpected places, as well as “intended” places, is all I’m trying to say.

About Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann is currently in his final year of graduate degree, a Masters in Social Work from Millersville University. He lives with his wife and three children, most of whom enjoy video games, none of whom have Patrick's passion for game music. Patrick still contributes the occasional soundtrack review to RPGFan and OriginalSoundVersion, and also writes sporadically for GameChurch.
  • Jay Tholen

    Love this and agree completely.

  • Really enjoyed the article and especially the conclusion. Thanks.

  • I feel you on this. As a guy who has somehow passed into God’s heart while early 90’s cheesy Charismatic songs like “We are Giant Killers” are playing, I feel you on this. It was often much easier for me to ‘praise Adonai’ while listening to that psychedelic Sufi-rock chick who sings in Farsi half the time. Though regardless, I think it might be a relational discipline either way.