Being an Intellectual in an Emotional Church

Is it hard to be an intellectual in your church? Do you respond more deeply to theology than worship or devotions?

Bonnie KristianPart of me resonated strongly with a new piece at Relevant by a Twin Cities writer (and Bethel Seminary student) named Bonnie Kristian. Like her, I don’t tend to “get swept up in emotional worship experiences” and I’ve had a hard time finding the right kind of small group to connect to.

But certifiably introverted egghead though I may be, I couldn’t connect with the heart of her complaint:

…the American church has done an excellent job of catering to a devotional or emotional style of spirituality—and that’s a good thing! But it’s also a bad thing, because it leaves a lot of us, the ones for whom “nothing happens” when we try to grow closer to God that way, out in the cold.

This is a shame, not only because of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy it can cause people like me, who don’t fit the devotional mold, but also because Jesus showed He was more than capable of loving and ministering to both of these spiritual styles.

Worship service
Licensed by Creative Commons (Kelly)

For one, I’m not sure I’d equate “devotional” and “emotional” in the realm of spirituality (but then I read “devotional” and think “contemplative,” which conjures up restraint rather than abandon). I certainly wouldn’t set “emotional” against “intellectual”— even when Kristian argues that Jesus affirms both Mary and Martha (in John’s account of the death and resurrection of Lazarus), who occupied “the opposite ends of the emotional-intellectual spectrum of spirituality.” As my wife could tell you, I’m as likely to be caught up in feeling or lost in thought. And I attend a church that is highly educated (in our last census, 25% had a master’s degree or higher; we host a lecture series on topics like doubt and belief) and puts out its own Lenten devotional on themes like “Adventurous Spirituality” and “Longing for a Change of Heart.”

But perhaps Kristian’s piece (which also includes some helpful advice from C.S. Lewis and her own suggestions for how to be an intellectual in an emotional church) strikes a chord with my readers:

  • If you’d identify as an intellectual… Have you often felt out of place in American churches? (I think Kristian particularly has in mind evangelicalism, but perhaps it’s also true of other Christian subcultures in this country.)
  • Do you respond more fully to theology or other intellectual disciplines than to worship or devotional practices? (Just this past Monday night I was making the case for my Senior Seminar students that the practice of history is itself like an act of prayer, so you can tell I’m not likely to accept this binary…)
  • Do you agree that there’s an “emotional-intellectual spectrum of spirituality”?

Here’s the full article.

7 thoughts on “Being an Intellectual in an Emotional Church

  1. It seems to me that Pietism, at its best, like the Romanticism it inspired, was a corrective to the cerebral scholasticism present in both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Current cognitive scientists remind us that the heart, like the head, is also an intellectual organ. Likewise the head is a site of emotional intelligence in a person seeking a spiritual integration of head, heart and hand.

    In my experience as a pastor and professor in a Pietist tradition, both devotional and doctrinal life are often held captive to a received theo-logy void of the theopoetic life energies that led some of the early Pietists to step out of the intellectual-emotional binary into new modes of being with God, world, self and other.

    Scott Holland, Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Theological Seminary

  2. Coming from a church where a good worship song just doesn’t make it without help from the smoke machine and and dancing spotlights bouncing off the ceiling, I think it is important to note the bias of the technology we use in our worship experiences. If the medium truly is the message, then a message from a screen descending from the ceiling with a video playing on the side screens will undoubtedly be more biased toward a visual, emotional experience. Chris, I just went to your church on Sunday and, instead of a guitar rift, I heard a community of old and young people sing a beautiful choir anthem. I also sang, with the lights on, from a hymn book. Those media used in worship clearly push the listener toward a more cognitive, text based, community experience. So as we think about emotion vs. intellectualism, it is important to keep in mind the impact of technology and the bias that technology introduces into the worship experience.

    Peggy Kendall, Bethel’s Department of Communication Studies

  3. I resonate with the notion of the article, but was frustrated at times by the terminology as well. In particular devotional/emotional.

    I for one, get fairly emotional when I read the sermons of C.H. Spurgeon or George Whitefield. My heart starts pounding, my face gets warm, and typically the next person I come into contact with gets an earful of exclamation.

    I think personally, as someone who is more taken by theological treatises than caught up in the wave of emotions during worship through song, there is a tendency to have a condescending attitude towards those unlike me in their expressions of devotion. I think it comes from a genuine place, a genuine concern that hearts and minds can so easily get caught up in the adrenaline-filled worship that I hear so often, without paying any mind to the actual content, however there is a sinful pride at work when I feel that way at times as well.

    Personally, I find no other music hits me as deeply as hymns, and even classical work by men like Bach and Handel.

    I find it hard not to analyze a song’s lyrics to see what theological statements are made, and have more than once not sung a song that I feel has a warped Christology, ecclesiology, or even hamartiology.

    All this being said, I don’t see how theology can be excised from emotion, much less devotion, while still retaining efficacy. I have felt out of place at times, sometimes it is genuinely concerning, but others it is a healthy cognizance of variety, and recognition that being in the minority is not a signal to go elsewhere. I do think there is a spectrum, but I’m also of the opinion that theology isn’t something you can choose to do or not do, just as emotion isn’t something that can be completely removed from one who has come to grips with their sinfulness and need for redemption.

  4. Very interesting. I don’t think emotional/intellectual is a binary choice. But I’m not sure Bonnie Kristian is really arguing that point in her article. After all, she approvingly quotes C.S. Lewis who said, “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.” A singing heart sure sounds “emotional” to me. I think the term “emotional” is too blunt a term. Maybe there is a better word for what she is trying to express, although none comes to mind at the moment. (Physically excitable, perhaps?)

    I think a corollary of her argument is that the church as a whole has perhaps swung too far in the direction of catering to what she labels the “emotional style of worship,” at the expense of serious intellectual study of theology. I am certainly guilty of this in my personal life, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense. After all, serious intellectual study of theology is hard. But a decline in intellectualism is very dangerous. It can lead to a lack of confidence in your faith when difficult issues are presented, and it creates a general impression that Christianity is not an intellectual pursuit. And when the Church is seen by the public as lacking serious intellectual vigor, it results in ceding the intellectual high ground in the public’s mind to those who claim no faith. I see examples of this misapprehension all of the time and it frustrates me.

  5. I find the emotional, passionate side fuels the desire in my intellectual side. And the more I learn and discover (in my intellectual side) fuels my desire to be passionate. So, for me, the problem with passionate and contemplative worship is nonexistent unless that is a product instead of a method/vehicle.

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