Ecstatic Experience in Pentecostalism and Popular Music

by Mark Jennings (Author)
©2014 Monographs 231 Pages


Based on two richly described case studies – a Pentecostal worship service and popular music festival – this book draws on sociology, theology and religious studies in order to understand the significance of ecstatic experience in these contexts. Interviews with performers in both settings, together with detailed first person accounts of worship services and live performances, combine to create a picture of the role of music, performance and space in catalysing ecstasy. Drawing on the work of thinkers as diverse as Michel Foucault, Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner and Friedrich Schleiermacher, this book demonstrates that religious and non-religious disciplines, paradigms and understandings can work in a complementary fashion to help us understand the significance of phenomena such as music and ecstatic experience.
Ultimately, the argument put forward in the book is that ecstatic experience takes place in both religious and secular settings and is best understood by both theistic and non-theistic approaches, working together. The ecstatic experience common to both contexts is theorised as ‘proto-religious phenomena’ – the kernel from which religion may develop.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 That Feeling of Exaltation
  • 1.2 Chapter Outlines
  • 1.3 Method
  • Ethnographic methods
  • Phenomenology
  • 1.4 My position
  • 2. Breakfree Church
  • 2.1 Breaking free – from profane to sacred space
  • 2.2 The “Encounter”
  • 3. Understanding Breakfree – Theological and Religious Studies approaches
  • 3.1 Friedrich Schleiermacher: Music and Religious Experience
  • Schleiermacher, Music, Experience and Breakfree
  • 3.2 Rudolf Otto: The Non-rational elements of the “Numinous”
  • Otto, the Numinous and Breakfree
  • 3.3 Mircea Eliade: Hierophanies and Shamans
  • Hierophanies, shamans and Breakfree church
  • 3.4 Paul Tillich: Ultimate Concern and Religious Experience
  • Ultimate concern and Breakfree church
  • 3.5 Paul Ricœur: Mimesis
  • The threefold mimesis and Breakfree church
  • 3.6 Summary
  • 4. Understanding Breakfree – Socio-Cultural approaches
  • 4.1 Emile Durkheim: Collective Effervescence and the Conscience Collective
  • Breakfree, Collective Effervescence and the Conscience Collective
  • 4.2 Max Weber: Charisma and Religious Leaders
  • Breakfree, Charisma and Musical Priests
  • 4.3 Mikhail Bakhtin: Carnival, Ambivalence and Laughter
  • Breakfree, Popular Culture and Ambivalence
  • 4.4 Victor Turner: Limen and Communitas
  • Breakfree: Liminal transition to communitas
  • 4.5 Michel Foucault: Heterotopia and Limit Experience
  • “Breaking free:” Limit experience within the Breakfree heterotopia
  • 4.6 Summary
  • 5. The West Coast Blues & Roots Festival
  • 5.1 A long prelude: morning and afternoon sessions
  • 5.2 A different world: Night sessions
  • 6. Understanding the Blues & Roots: Socio-Cultural approaches
  • 6.1 Emile Durkheim: The Sacred and Profane and Collective Effervescence
  • Collective effervescence and the WCBR
  • 6.2 Max Weber and Charisma
  • Charisma and the WCBR
  • 6.3 Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnival and Popular Culture
  • Carnival and the WCBR
  • 6.4 Victor Turner: Limen, Communitas and Process
  • Turner and the WCBR
  • 6.5 Michel Foucault: “Different spaces”
  • Heterotopia and the WCBR
  • 6.6 Summary
  • 7. Understanding the Blues & Roots: Theological and Religious Studies approaches
  • 7.1 Friedrich Schleiermacher: Intuitions, culture and religion
  • Intuitions of the universe and the WCBR
  • 7.2 Rudolf Otto: The Numinous and the essence of religion
  • The numinous and the WCBR
  • 7.3 Mircea Eliade: Shamanism and Hierophanies
  • Shamanism and the WCBR
  • 7.4 Paul Tillich: Ultimate Concern
  • Ultimate concern and the WCBR
  • 7.5 Paul Ricœur: The Threefold Mimesis
  • The threefold mimesis and the WCBR
  • 7.6 Summary
  • 8. Conclusion
  • 8.1 Précis
  • 8.2 Implications
  • Music and space – “Realms”
  • Music and ecstatic experience
  • Proto-religious phenomena
  • “Methodological Ludism”
  • Artists and performers
  • Community development
  • Pastoral care and the helping professions
  • Social change
  • Churches and church leaders
  • 8.3 Directions for future research
  • 9. Bibliography
  • 10. Index

1. Introduction

1.1 That Feeling of Exaltation

Many of us have felt music’s power to lift us out of ourselves. In 2012, some friends and I attended a gig by the English folk rock band Mumford & Sons at the Belvoir Amphitheatre, about an hour outside of my home city of Perth. It had been a long drive, and the usually glorious Perth weather had started to turn bleak and drizzly. My friends and I were totally unprepared, and found ourselves having to purchase ill-fitting ponchos as a precaution, should the threateningly dark sky suddenly schism and deluge us. To make matters worse, the band themselves were having a bad day – someone had stolen some of their equipment, so some of them were using borrowed instruments and amplification.

Not the ingredients for a great gig. And yet, inexplicably, I realised a few songs in that I was no longer aware of the temperature, or how soaked my jacket and shirt were getting, or even the fact that I had run out of beer. Once again, at a time when I had least expected, the experience that one of the respondents in this book calls ‘that feeling of exaltation’ had happened again. My friends, the crowd and the band were swept up in a shared experience of ecstasy – a word which literally means ‘to stand outside oneself.’ Barriers were down, weather conditions no longer mattered – we were all together carried away by the sound into an inchoate pleasurescape. As quickly as it began, sadly it was over.

This book is centred on this phenomenon – that feeling of exaltation. If you have a fully functioning auditory sense, or even if you do not, chances are that you have similar experiences of music. Perhaps ← 11 | 12 → you were in a magnificent cathedral, listening to a choral mass, or in a suburban backyard, as a group of friends rocked out with one guitar, or a karaoke machine. Alternatively, you may have been in a discotheque, nightclub or rave, accompanied by dancing.

In this book, we will be closely examining two very different settings which become the sites for the experience of exaltation. The first is a Pentecostal church, which greets regular attendees and newcomers with a sound designed to help them “break free” from the world outside the church meeting and come into a space where the divine can be encountered through music. The other is the West Coast Blues & Roots festival, an annual music festival held in Fremantle, Western Australia. At this event, many different performers and participants gather to inhabit a unique realm whose existence and rationale for being is music, a space maintained by the performance of music, where a different order of behaviour and meaning from the world outside exists.

It was my privilege to carry out field research, using the methodology often referred to as ‘participant observation,’ in both these settings. Over the course of my research, it became clear that what both of these case studies share in common are the conjoined phenomena of ecstasy and music. In both, music is used to create a discrete space for ecstatic experience. Within these spaces, as we will see, a different set of rules, order and way of being seem to apply. People engage in behaviour under the influence of musically catalysed ecstasy that they would be unlikely to indulge otherwise. At the music festival I witnessed a man standing on another man’s shoulders, strangers embracing each other and people dancing together, and women flashing their breasts while perched on the shoulders of friends. At the church I heard people utter streams of a strange sounding language, and I saw people standing with outstretched arms and closed eyes lifted to heaven, totally lost in a private – yet shared – experience.

I began to notice other commonalities between the two settings, as I continued to participate and observe. In times of the exaltation of ecstasy, I became part of an experience of camaraderie and unity with a group, where the boundaries between individual persons started to get fuzzy. I have wondered at the seemingly boundless and unique ability of certain individuals, leaders who exercise a charismatic pow ← 12 | 13 → er to catalyse ecstatic experiences and group unity. These ecstatic musical spaces, it seems to me, are very, very different from the world outside – a world which, in contrast, seems strict, formal and staid compared to the abandon and euphoria I and others participated in.

I began to wonder if these two settings – a music festival and a Pentecostal church service – are as different as they appear to be. One is centred on the kingdom of God, the other a Dionysian leisure experience of carnival. Yet, perhaps both are manifestations of what Emile Durkheim refers to as “collective effervescence,” the ecstatic euphoria people in groups get from being together en masse. Alternatively, they may be examples of the divine spirit “blowing where it will” (to quote John 3:8) – distinct yet connected manifestations of what Rudolf Otto calls “the numinous,” or the sacred.

My own observations were not going to be enough to understand how others perceived and experienced what was taking place in these ecstatic spaces. I recruited participants in both settings, and began to ask them for further information into how they understood the nature of the experience many of us were sharing. I scoured interviews published with popular music performers to see if they had reflected on the exaltation experience it seemed they could catalyse through their music and share with a living audience. I delved into the literature on shared experience in sociology, religious studies and theology, eager to learn how some of the great systematisers had understood this phenomenon. After all, this was an experience I believed common to all humankind, not simply to those who participated in the music and contexts I had been involved in.

As I commenced work, a number of questions appeared to be very important. How do people experiencing this musically catalysed ecstasy engage in different behaviours in interaction with each other? What were the implications for those who held a belief in a divine entity, as I presumed many at the church would? Is it possible for theoretical frameworks from different disciplines – in this case, Socio-Cultural studies and Theology and Religious Studies – to function together to help us understand the significance of ecstatic experience?

At later stages, when I began to analyse data using the theories and paradigms of the authors identified below, the crucial questions began to crystallize around two major themes. The first concerns how ← 13 | 14 → people experience and interpret experience. The second theme revolves around how people use ecstatic experience (together with their interpretations of its significance) in interaction with everyday life in the “real” world – meaning the world outside the musical spaces in which these experiences happen. Together, these two questions form the primary concern of this book; their answers will be uncovered as this exploration progresses.

1.2 Chapter Outlines

In the present chapter, I will explain the nature of the ethnographic fieldwork which was undertaken at both sites. Also, I will elaborate upon the phenomenological style in which the bulk of the book is written.

Chapter two contains the first of the case studies. The case study begins with a detailed description of a service at “Breakfree” Church, a suburban Pentecostal church in Western Australia. In total, I spent four months conducting participant observation and in-depth interviews at the church. From this time with the congregation, I have distilled a picture of a ‘typical’ Breakfree church worship service, commencing with the set up of the hall in which the church meets to the “pack down” and community time at the end of the service. Interwoven into this descriptive section are my observations regarding the role of music in creating and maintaining the exaltation experience within the worship service.

Chapters three and four build on the case study of Breakfree church. These chapters are each divided into five broad sections and a summary. At the beginning of each section I introduce a theorist and outline the specific area of their work which is relevant to the task at hand. Following this I compare the paradigm outlined with an aspect of the data garnered from Breakfree church. This phenomenological method of outlining theory and then comparing that theory with data is maintained throughout the five sections. ← 14 | 15 →

Chapter three applies theological-religious theory to the data gathered from fieldwork at Breakfree church. Specifically, I draw on the work of five thinkers: theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto and Paul Tillich, religious scholar Mircea Eliade and philosopher Paul Ricœur. I begin with Friedrich Schleiermacher’s conception of religion beginning with an experience he called “intuition of the universe.” I also raise the importance of music to Schleiermacher, particularly the role he understood music to play as a catalyst for religious experience. I compare Schleiermacher’s ideas to Breakfree’s commitment to experience and music. Secondly, I describe Rudolf Otto’s phenomenological concept of the “numinous”, the divine as the wholly other. I utilise Otto’s “wholly other” in order to understand the practice of glossolalia at Breakfree church.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
sociology phenomena theology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 231 pp.

Biographical notes

Mark Jennings (Author)

Mark Jennings completed his PhD at Murdoch University in 2010. His research interests include sociology of religion, and popular culture studies, and he has published on Pentecostal worship; popular music studies; shamanism and New Testament studies. He has conducted ethnographic research at music festivals and Pentecostal churches. He currently lectures in Sociology at Murdoch University.


Title: Exaltation
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233 pages