My AEJMC presentation on Hillsong United, written in amphibrachic tetrameter


It’s truly an honor to be here, invited

To speak on my research of Hillsong United,

A worship and praise band from Sydney, Australia.

If you’re unfamiliar, then let me just tell ya

A little about them. Formed in the eighties,

The Hillsong church started with few men and ladies,

But grew to become, not only quite large,

But a music-based power with its own set of stars.

Hillsong United shapes today’s Christian views

By writing the music that’s sung from the pews.

They’ve produced several albums, a million-plus seller,

Have number-one hits you can buy at retailers.

The group also tours, merging worship and praise

With arena rock concerts that can span several days.


And when they performed in Miami, you see

The show was recorded and sold on DVD.

For about twenty bucks, you can own a recording

Of Hillsong United leading others in forming

A moment of worship and praise for the Lord.

And that’s what my paper addresses, in short.


Today we are asking, “What does it mean

When encounters with God manifest on the screen?”

And it’s a big question. We’re up for the task.

But to get to this point, we first gotta ask,

“Just what does it mean to experience God?”

I used Rudolf Otto, who said that the odd

Encounters with something, a vague “wholly other”

that fills us with awe is called “numinous.” And other

Scholars like Solomonova have said

It’s a non-verbalizable feeling of dread.

A numinous moment may be a clear sign

of God’s holy presence. Or it could be benign.

Some say they aren’t genuine, not holy at all,

But can be manufactured. Frantova, et al.

Created a space to evoke a felt presence,

A being not there, but a dreadful, strange essence.

They put some poor subjects inside of a lab

That was creepy and weird, and purposefully drab.

The subjects said they were disturbed, but convinced

They were not alone. That’s how it made sense.

The subjects felt strange, overwhelmed, and they stated

These feelings were notably exaggerated.

Frantova wrote subjects heard sounds, though unsure

of where they came from, and saw shadows obscure.

To make these make sense, the subjects projected

A meaning: they spoke of a presence detected.

Their work shows when we’re in a place that’s peculiar

We go through a process to make it familiar.

The numinous, then, may be feelings projectable

From something unknown to something detectable.


Today, we will see how a film tries to capture

A primed and intentional moment of rapture.

These numinous efforts, and their likely results

Are fully intended. I don’t mean to insult

The idea that hierophany never is true.

It’s just that to make it is easy to do.

In fact, a good film fakes encounters a lot.

That’s what concert films do; make you feel like you’re not

In a theater seat down the street in St. Paul,

But instead at a concert in Carnegie Hall.


And this is akin to the feelings received

When we see a film that reflects our beliefs.

In fact, Shelia Nayar addresses the notion

Of how Hindu films can demand the devotion

From viewers who say that a film might can be

A totem of a moment of hierophany.

Others, like Schrader who wrote Last Temptation

Say folks who approach films this way are mistaken.

Films can’t address God in a way that is sane

Because they are, and I quote, “totally profane

Offspring of capitalism and tech.”

For Schrader, the Lord’s not in Hollywood dreck.

So how does a film like Live in Miami

Create an encounter with God that’s not hammy

But feels just as real as if you had attended?

Let’s look at a clip. A short one. Amended.


[Show clip 1]


This first clip positions the viewer among

The audience watching the song being sung

By a singer onstage who’s bathed in a light,

An almost angelic and transcendent sight.

By shooting the singer from slightly below

We get the impression that, during the show,

She’s nearly projected as holy among us

Demanding our awe and attention. Humungous

Screens on the sides of the stage suggest that

Giving the word of the Lord is what she is best at.

In short, the film’s angles and lighting project

A feeling of holiness onto the set.


This next clip is really more interesting, and it’s

A nice way to show numinous through its edits


[Show clip 2]
When the clip starts, the edits work well.

Then suddenly, things get all like, “What the hell?”

The editor clearly chose that his film creation

Would include some shots that were manipulations.

Some shots, as we saw, were flipped and arranged

To create a new image that was awkward and strange.

When covering the feelings that happened that night,

This adds to the feeling of “something not right.”

These images, purposefully odd on their face,

Evoke a sensation that we’re in an odd place,

And the viewer is left to just make it make sense.

And with that, let’s let the third clip commence.


[Show clip 3]


In a Christian performance, you must realize

That it’s not unusual to evangelize.

That’s what’s happening here, when the singer here teases

That what the event’s all about there is Jesus.

But I hope that you noticed that during the talk

He said, “Yeah, I know that the feeling here’s awk-

Ward.” He’s priming the crowd to believe that these odd

And uncomfortable feelings are stirrings from God.

“If you feel out of place,” the handsome man starts,

“That’s because you must let Jesus into your heart.”

He doesn’t attribute the out-of-place feelings

To the music on stage, or the lights from the ceiling,

Nor does he admit that the concert film’s made

To purposefully affect you this particular way.


What are the main points and take-aways

From this study of Hillsong United today?

As more and more churches rely on such spectacle

To worship the Lord, we must remain skeptical.

We shouldn’t confuse an event that’s contrived

To make us feel as if God is alive

In a space, with a notion that, when in the end,

Leads us to believe it was all genuine.

If numinous feelings are easily created,

A reliance on sermons mass mediated

Can alter not only how the Word is received,

But fundamentally what it means to believe.

If we measure our faith based on factors created

To evoke numinous, then we’re manipulated

And we’re left with the empty and strange realization

What we worship as God may be a media creation.


But that’s a larger discussion for some other session.

And so I’ll stop here so we’ll have time for questions.

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