Pink Worship

Natalie Angier recently wrote in the New York Times about the role of pink noise in Hollywood Director cuts. Pink noise (1/f or "one over" frequency) is similar to white noise. The main difference between the two is that while white noise is random while pink noise has some structure to it. White noise looks like this:

Pink noise looks like this:

For more see this review.

What you see in the pink noise is that there is some order within the randomness. Pink noise walks a balance between randomness and structure. Interestingly, pink noise shows up in all kinds of natural phenomena. The rhythms of the natural world are not wholly random, nor are they wholly structured. Pink noise seems to be frequency of life.

The human mind also seems to be governed by pink noise. In her article Angier has us think about the human attention span during work. If we plot how long we attend to various tasks throughout the day--focusing now and moving to something else later--we see pink noise emerge. Our attention isn't random, but neither is it wholly stable and structured. We tend to alternate between moments of fixed attentiveness ("I have to get this done!") to periods of high distractability (surfing the Internet at work).

In her article Angier reviews a recent study where researchers measured the length of the shots (the discrete camera shots that string together to make a movie) within Hollywood movies over the years. Some shots are very long. Some a only a few seconds. Is there any relationship between shot length and how these are grouped together? Or is the pattern like white noise, totally random?

The research suggests that older movies tended to be more white but that, over time, movies are becoming more pink. Here is the relevant graphic from the New York Times (click to enlarge):

In short, it seems that movie directors are starting to cluster shot length to more closely mirror the natural rhythms of the mind.

What does this have to do with worship? Well, with the rise of mega-churches and American consumerism we see worship services being shaped by attention to dramatic production features. Worship is, increasingly, a show or performance. No doubt, this "show" can be highly participatory (with worshipers very vocal, mobile and engaged). Or it might not (worshipers sitting still, quiet and looking on). Regardless, there is a great deal of attention being paid to how the various components of the "show" are organized and link together. For example, transitions between the components are given much more attention.

I'm not judging any of this. But I would like to ask this question. Are Christian worship services becoming more pink? That is, might worship in America (or elsewhere) be following the trends of Hollywood? Might worship planners be unconsciously creating worship experiences that mirror the rhythms of the human mind and attention span, creating an experience optimized to "hold" our focus?

I think it would be possible to measure how pink a worship service is (e.g., simply measure the duration of each focal point within the service as your attention is moved here for a song or there to a PowerPoint slide). If so, a host of research question could then be pursued. For example, are the newer worship styles more pink relative to older styles? What are the demographic characteristics of those in pinker churches? Are they younger? More consumer-oriented?

Regardless, a theological issue sits behind all this: Should worship even be pink? Should we aim for pink worship so it can better "fit" our brains? Why or why not?

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5 thoughts on “Pink Worship”

  1. It does seem that many of these mega churches are increasingly geared towards entertainment rather than 'worship'. Traditionally Christian liturgical services were geared towards worship of God and increasingly they seem to me to be about communal gatherings and feel-god experiences.

  2. This caught my attention immediately because we have our daughter sleep to pink noise. It seems to soothe her, plus it covers up noise from washing up the dishes, etc. Sleeping and worship ... are they so unrelated?
    Regarding the becoming-pink of movies/worship: I wonder whether it doesn't at least sometimes work the other way around, whether the mind (its measure of pinkness or whiteness) is altered according to the "color" of the entertainment we consume. So, for instance, I wonder whether the accessibility of distraction offered by the internet, text messaging, etc. or perhaps the popularity of TV series that self-consciously adopt very short segments (e.g., the comic book style of Heroes) molds the rhythms of the mind accordingly. I seem to recall Walter Benjamin writing about something similar concerning changes in cinematography. Anyway, my concern, I think, would be twofold: first, that worship, planned according to the entertainment industry -- that is, planned to "fit" the brain and hold our attention -- might be inadvertently complicit in manufacturing, not emulating, certain rhythms of the mind; and second, that these rhythms, or this color, is manufactured as an implement of control (even if unconsciously so) that enervates worshipers, making them docile, susceptible to blindness towards the workings of unjust political and economic powers. That is, worship becomes an escape from the world, not a call to change it. (A stroll through the parking lot of the Saddleback Church, looking at the cars of the worshipers, will confirm this link between entertainment-centered worship and blindness towards the concentration of financial power, I think.) If I'm correct about this, then we ought to question where "pink" worship/entertainment is directed. Does it glorify God, or does it share a bed with neo-liberalism and imperialism, distracting us from the work of the Kingdom, the work of justice? Does pink noise put worshipers to sleep as readily as it does my daughter?

  3. "Should we aim for pink worship so it can better 'fit' our brains?"

    I'm in favor of letting our brains tough it out on their own more. We need a break at least once a week from the constant noise we are exposed to in the world.


  4. Great questions--I've been thinking about how to approach this idea using somewhat different language, but the same results.

    I'm working through a book about music and neurobiology, and the author suggests that different types of timbres, frequencies, rhythms, and tonal structures come with a set of unconscious expectations and emotions. For example, a major key establishes expectations of energy, resolution, and happiness, whereas a minor key establishes expectations of sadness and discomfort.

    He also addresses the music culture of America; whereas in some cultures, where music is intertwined into the rhythm of life and used in communication and ritual, American (and most Western nations) culture has a performance approach to music. For example, Bono and the members of U2 entertained us for a nominal fee; perhaps U2 is a bad example of this because of Bono's desire to connect spiritually with the audience, but you get the drift. This performance culture makes us quite musically illiterate; the ramifications of this (the fact that less and less people create music) suggest that you and I would have a similar emotional experience to many musical themes. In contrast, you and I may have different emotional experiences to the same story because our culture is more verbally literate.

    In combining these ideas with worship, I perceive that worship leaders (myself included) essentially have the power to control the emotions of those we worship with by establishing a certain musical theme--a specific instrumentation or chord structure creates the same emotional experience for 95% of the people worshiping with me. For example, when someone's praying (assuming I'm in an instrumental church), I can set my keyboard to play a light, string-like sound and create an ethereal expectation for my fellow worshipers due to a consistent schema of that particular instrumentation.

    My fear is that not only have I abused this power in my own worship leading, but that it's virtually unavoidable given our current worship structure. In tying these thoughts in with yours, I would ask of myself and my fellow worship leaders "What kind of power and control does pink worship give us? It seems that some power is inevitable in our current worship system, so how can we use that power in a way that allows the full gamut of emotions to be experienced, not one particular set?" Carson asked some wonderful questions as well involving worship and justice.

  5. Richard, I make my living by licensing subtle variations of noise to companies like Apple and Avid/ProTools :-)

    WAY too many thoughts and metaphors buzzing around my skull for a blog comment. Someday I hope we meet up F2F - would love to talk about this more. Great post, as always.

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