Worshipping at The Voice

I heard a local radio host recall his reaction to seeing part of The Voice (season 11, ep. 23) last night. He said the singer was leading worship with “To Worship I Live (Away),” written by Israel & New Breed. He noted the audience’s participation. He said judges were teary eyed.

Here’s how Amanda Bell of Entertainment Weekly described it. “There’ve been a lot of hymnal-style ballads to hit the stage this season, have there not? Christian Cuevas has made no secret about his allegiance to family and faith, and obviously, that spirit of purpose has served him well thus far — his performance last week caught the attention of Lady Gaga herself and the iTunes downloading community.”

For Cuevas to sing Christian praise music in a music competition venue is certainly a witness to his faith. I don’t wish to criticize his choices or motives, but for the radio host to suggest the audience and judges were worshipping the Lord along with him confuses emotion with worship simply because of the lyric being sung. Would he say the same about a masterfully performed Whitney Houston or Rihanna song that brought the audience to their feet? Of course not, and yet the response is the same. Here’s what Bell said when thinking through predictions for next week. “Christian Cuevas… took a big risk on a song that might get his own insides moving and grooving with the holy spirit, but was otherwise pretty unremarkable for those of us who aren’t familiar with the gospel he was singing in multiple languages.”

The Voice is a music show, and viewers will respond to strong performances.

As I remember the story, Jascha Heifetz and George Gershwin were talking about the pop music of their day, saying someone could write a perfectly scandalous song that should offend everyone who heard it (or maybe it was a ridiculous mess of a song, not scandalous), but if it had that emotional pull of the catchiest pop music, it would be a hit. Heifetz wrote the 1946 hit “When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe)” to prove it could be done.

Modern worship music easily fits this description. Familiar sounds and repeated words guide us through emotional patterns, which in church or Christianized settings we call ‘worship.’ That’s not what we mean by the word ‘worship,’ but let me suggest that’s actually what it is. When an audience is moved by Beyoncé or a cover artist, regardless of the song, they are worshipping. They may be revelling in the look and sound of the singer, the lyric of the song, or the tone and tension of the music. It doesn’t matter what focuses their adoration; it only matters that they are adoring in that moment.

So, yes, Cuevas’s performance did lead the audience in worship, but it was only worship of the living God for some. For most of them, it was the idolatry of music.

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