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Spirituality and Sound

This word originally appeared in my Fall 2017 Harvard Crimson column, "Difference Tones," which can be found here.

This past Sunday, I arrived in Ballroom B of the Courtyard Marriott, where Hilltop, the local Christian church I attend, holds its weekly services. A congregation of about a hundred people squeeze together in a sterile, beige conference room to consider the character of the Divine. This two hour service begins with an hour of singing. Vocals are loud. There is dancing in the aisles. A few people kneel in corners, weeping tears of conviction and of joy. The music is a massive swell of harmony, cascading in waves from three vocalists, a violin, two guitars, a keyboard, a bass, and a drumset. The timbres are thick with warm, sustained tones, saturating the room. Synthesizers sustain long, formless pads in open chords. Guitars are adorned with echo, reverb, and compression effects. Reverb and compression effects are applied over the vocals and violin as well. There is never a moment of musical silence, only the swelling of an ever-present set of diatonic sonorities, shepherding listeners into spiritual encounters with the Lord.

The spiritual aspect of music has always been central to my personal experience as a listener and musician. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can mean different things for different people. The balance involved between emotion, intellect, symbolism, and physical sensation is one that has challenged and transformed me throughout my 21 years of life.

In tenth grade, a few friends invited me to a night of prayer and praise music at church. I had never been to one of these before. The vibe was similar to Hilltop church on a Sunday morning. I ran into a woman I had never met before. She asked to pray for me. With rock-concert loud music in the background, she laid her hands on my shoulders, leaned close to my left ear and prayed. She prayed that I would know God not just as a ruler, but also as a close friend. And though I had never told anyone, especially this stranger, just how deeply I resented myself because of my shy nature, non-athleticism, and pudgy physical appearance, she prayed specifically into this resentment, declaring how the Lord created me, and saw me with awe and wonder. In that moment I became very hot, as if a fire was very close to my body. I wept. We hugged. The music continued to swell and swirl. Leaving that night, amidst this powerful spiritual encounter, I decided I would become close with this God, who seemed to have an extraordinary power to deliver people from darkness.

I went weekly to these nights of praise music. I also studied scripture, sought out spiritual mentors, joined the praise music band, and even started my own. I had a strong sense that my life had a purpose, and that my experiences were ineffable and undeniably real. Leaving California for college, making new friends, and going to a new church recontextualized my experiences, taking me for a rollercoaster ride of confusion. I met religious and nonreligious people who had had powerful spiritual experiences like mine, completely outside of a Christian theology. I met Christians who had never had these experiences, and even thought them irrelevant, given that they were not particular to Christianity. The big question that loomed over me through this was, “Was that night in tenth grade real? Or was it just emotions?” I began to resent my spiritual background, feeling as though American-brand Christianity had fooled me, through hype and emotion, to ascribe to their lifestyle. For a time, emotions took a backseat in my spiritual journey, This bore some good fruit. I began to see the absolutely necessary importance of having an outward-facing, un-indulgent practice of religion, one that orients itself towards community, relationship and service to other people, not just the self. I gained perspective towards subjectivity, and how complicated it is to consider a God-of-the-universe when the act of universalizing beliefs and behaviors has such a tragic, hurtful, imperial history. Disempowering my emotional experiences from such a lofty, authorial position brought a lot of good to me, and the people around me with whom I shared my faith.

Emotion is real, and to discount it completely is to refuse an integral aspect to human identity. Music is emotional, yet are we to say it is meaningless if it can’t be intellectually explained? Even more so, how could I possibly understand that night in tenth grade the great breadth of thought surrounding God’s character? If I took to heart only that spiritual encounter six years ago and nothing else, indeed, I would be at a loss. It was emotion that struck me to the core that night, and it is what called me to a lifelong journey towards God, one full of both intellectual and emotional encounters.

I have been coming back to terms with the emotional side of living, understanding that even in a prestigious school like Harvard, intellect is empty if it cannot invite in the experiences that surpass our current human understanding. The value given to emotion, intellect, symbolism, and physical sensation: these are balances that always differ among communities. Though that balance still fluctuates in me, I have confidence in what it was for me in those past seasons. Ultimately, the journey began with that woman’s prayer, reminding me that I was fearfully and wonderfully made. If such a word about my identity is true, than those balances of emotion and intellect that shaped me are not ones I have to refuse.

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