Anthropology of Religion Art Theory

Rapture Music – Intensity And Eschatology Within Christian Revival Movements, Part 3 (Fraser Macdonald)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here, the second here. The full article is also available in the Spring 2022 issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

One important current found within heterogeneous musicalities is contemporary popular music, whether country, rock, funk, hip hop, and so on. The use of these idioms within Christian worship is quite well documented, for example in Netherlands,[1] Brazil,[2] and with the “praise and worship” music associated with globalised megachurches like Hillsong.[3][4] While these examples highlight the importance of popular music styles within Christian worship, it is vital that we go further to recognise that music produced under conditions of intensification always tends toward a heterogeneous aspect. Stating that Christian worship repurposes popular or traditional music in effect returns us to a dualistic reification of analytic categories. We must instead seek out the novel pluralistic mixes that issue from underlying multiplicity. As Dueck states, “On their long diasporic journeys, Mennonite groups have borrowed and repurposed many musics.”[5] The elements that comprise the musicalised extension of heightened intensity rapidly migrate from diverse homelands to their new territory. The gathered molecules are not an army march under order, but a nomadic pack with a common vision – less itinerary and more itinerant. Examples from 1970s Melanesia illuminate these purer mixtures. From the Sepik region, a missionary eyewitness to unfolding eruptions across the area remarked on emergent musicality: “Some lyrics were in Tok Pisin, some were in local language. Some of the music resembled traditional performances, and some mixed with new music.”[6] The revival songs of the Guhu-Samane of Morobe Province expressed a similarly complex synthesis:

The melodies are either ‘revival’ tunes, adaptations of popular Papua New Guinean guitar songs, or traditional melodies, nearly always with instrumental accompaniment. The songs are sung in tok ples, Pidgin or, occasionally, English, or with an alternation of these languages in the repetition of a particular song.[7]

Or consider Gillespie’s ethnomusicological research among the highlands Duna, revealing a simultaneous “cross-fertilisation between Christian and stringband/secular musical forms” as well as “a combination of Duna and Tok Pisin languages to present their message.”[8] But perhaps the clearest example of sonic nomadology comes from the neighbouring Huli, whose enormous corpus of revival songs exhibit an abundance of recoded heterogeneity. As reported by Pugh-Kittingan, a pervasive pentatonic melody was undoubtedly derived from a non-Huli source, although the Huli claim that they invented it as they created the thousands of verses sung during the revival. Joan Rule has heard the same tune sung as a quiet benediction at the end of services amongst the Foe E.C.P, at Lake Kutubu, from where the revival spread into the Huli area, and thinks it may have been unconsciously acculturated from a popular coastal melody.

This opinion is shared by Ken Macnaughtan, who believes it has developed from several sources particularly the Pan-Pacific string band music heard over the radio. Unlike the quiet, reflective Foe benediction, this melody is used as a basis for most of the noisy, joyous Huli Christian songs.[9] During the revival, the Huli utilized several melodies for their verses. One of these was the Indian song “I have decided to follow Jesus” which is popular amongst student fellowships on campuses throughout the world.[10]

Musicalised intensity exhibits a plurality of influences indivisibly united around an emerging common articulation – a qualitative multiplicity. We must also underscore not only the deep heterogeneity, but also the broad trajectories of these elements. Nomadology is not only a metaphor for recoded performativity, but a description of geographic wanderings. Sonic molecules from the local, the regional, and the global coalesce and commingle upon an intensive plane laid out by the surging Holy Spirit.

Floating melodic elements from neighbouring ethnic groups, wider cultural regions, and even transnational Christian songs, are seized upon to musicalise an urgent intensive becoming. Unfolding eruptions of religious intensification, much more than institutionalised modes of charismatic Christianity, allow us to immediately and clearly see the cultural process through which diverse performative materials migrate to new intensive territories. Heterogeneity in the making. Or rather heterogeneity repeating. Multiplicities disintegrate into components that leave home to settle in new qualitative mixtures. The combination of elements waxes and wanes under the pulsing of intensive force.

Describing the musical dimensions of religious intensification thus becomes, first of all, an exercise in multiplying connections and elements across cultural and spatial dimensions. But, more importantly, there needs to be a strong emphasis placed upon the transversals and diagonals produced by intensive agglomeration. That intensified musics are composed of materials from diverse origins and qualities is true, but not an especially original insight. The point is to appreciate how the diverse sonic molecules comprising this qualitative multiplicity have been detached from a former assemblage, traversed physical and cultural space, and then spontaneously recombined to musicalise a new intensified ontology centred upon the radical immanence of the Holy Spirit.

Attesting to the ability of music to not capture but embody emergent intensities, Prieto maintains that “Music is constantly creating new planes of consistency, whose primary value is in the way they cut across existing boundaries, breaking down barriers between different levels of thought and establishing new and unforeseen connections.”[11] Religious intensification turns stable musical populations (genres, styles) into innumerable nomads who must metaphysically transform to reach their destination. To operate in a new intensive territory, the musical nomad does not require a new face, but rather becomes a new face by speaking in tongues with their fellow travellers. 

Higher Ground

“The refrain may assume other functions, amorous, professional or social, liturgical or cosmic: it always carries earth with it; it has a land (sometimes a spiritual land) as its concomitant; it has an essential relation to a Natal, a Native.”[12] The emergent intensified ontology that propels musical decomposition and recomposition traces out metaphysical territories. Surging intensities inhabiting reassembled performative materials bear territorial motifs that loom over and express these forces. The radical immanence articulated through song always has a name and it always opens out on to broader cosmic terrain. What, then, is the metaphysical hallmark of musicalised religious intensity? Where does the current of intensive traversal ultimately lead? What is the name of the intensive plateau laid out by the Holy Spirit upon which detached sonic molecules congregate? Heaven.

Beyond life. “Music doesn’t awaken a death instinct, that isn’t why it gives us a taste for death; it confronts death, stares it in the face.”[13] The joyous music of intensified Christianity aims to catapult believers across the mortal threshold to a paradisiacal afterlife. Recoded musical nomads speed across the surface of radical immanence towards the eschaton. Ecstatic Christian music ceaselessly pursues the end of time and its soteriological culmination. It is to the actualisation of this divine realm and moment that the musicality of religious intensification always tends. The prodigious wave of new songs that accompany charismatic eruption triumphantly celebrate the return of Jesus and excitedly position their performers as natives of the coming kingdom of God. Paeans of parousia. Rapture music.

Musicalised immersion into an imminent apocalypse is a feature of charismatic Christianity across a wide range of contexts. In her study of evangelical youth conferences in the United States, Ingalls speaks of the “eschatological discourse” embedded within worship, entailing “a conversation about heaven or the end of time” and an experientially rich “foretaste of worship with the heavenly community.”[14] Klaver’s work on a Dutch revivalist church similarly underscores how “revival songs portray God as the coming king who will descend from heaven and bring revival, a depiction connected to eschatological notions of the dawning of the kingdom of God.”[15]

Perhaps the most lucid distillation of the relation between music, intensification, and eschatology is Webb’s notion of a “spatiotemporal millenialist aesthetic.” The term denotes how “music style, song repertories, and embodied communal performance practices can be understood as enfolding an apocalyptic sense of space and time that anticipates the coming reign of God.”[16] Of direct relevance here is that Webb ethnographically and historically positions the emergence of this intense musicalised eschatology within the charismatic movements that swept across Melanesia in the 1970s. The lyrics of many songs during this time attest to a deep preoccupation with the Second Coming and its promise of millennial glory and abundance:

Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming. My brothers and sisters let us gather together. Brothers, His sun is setting. Jesus is coming, HE is coming here. There let all of us go (with him).[17]

Jesus Christ will come. ‘Take me,’ you will say. ‘Do you know me?’ He will say.[18]

When sky and earth will finish. At that time I will say: where have I gone? Give me, Give me (present of Holy Spirit). Jesus, give me. Because you understand fully, and you are not turning away from me[19]

Jesus was killed on Friday because of my sin. Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, and after being raised He went back to Heaven. Jesus is in Heaven, and later on He’ll come back to be here. When Jesus comes, Christians will go together to Heaven.[20]

Jesus died, but I believe – he is with us. He sent the Bible here to us – I am going to see him. The time is passing quickly, I am going to see him – the time is passing. The time is passing quickly – passing quickly. Christ is the heavenly man – Mary is the heavenly woman.[21]

The musical multiplicities created by intensified life carry Christians into millennial glory. But let us not forget that not only the living, but the dead too, seek out divine territory. Indeed, within the premillennial dispensationalist theology that pervades contemporary charismatic, Pentecostal, and evangelical Christianity, the resurrection of the dead is a key aspect of the parousia. One striking example from 1970s Melanesia shows how this additional soteriological route may be performatised:

Many clans cleaned up their cemeteries. Belief in the resurrection of the body made these a place for rejoicing. Great excitement accompanied the practice of dancing in the cemetery.[22]

Dancing to the tune of death. The rapid intensification of religious life is expressed by emergent novel musical heterogeneities that deliver faithful Christians (above and below ground) to the promised land.

A prolific, spiritually infused, surge in musical creation and performance, then, indicates not only immediate, profound joy and a vivid pneumacentric ontology, but, most broadly, heralds an immense metaphysical shift. It is like an oceanic megathrust earthquake producing a gigantic tidal wave. Slippage, displacement, force. A sudden tectonic shift offsetting a massive volume of water that radiates across the landscape. We can extend this geological metaphor to the understanding of religious intensification across Melanesia. The tidal wave and the landscape are the visible components: affective eruption, intensive transversals, radical immanence, a paradisiacal eschatological territory. But where is our generative moment?

What changed in the fundamental substrate of life to set in motion a musicalised rush to the end of the world? Might there exist a component, even if not determinant, singular, or original, that is common to the series of individual surges and which thereby allows us to partially account for a historically situated regional intensification and its musical extension? One major existential rupture stands out as capable of triggering an affective landslide: release from colonisation.

Papua New Guinea gained self-government in 1973 and full independence in 1975, Solomon Islands in 1976 and 1978, milestones we can surround with an intense anticipation and enduring afterglow respectively. Mirroring this process, the era also witnessed the localisation of many missions across Melanesia. Whether portrayed as a celebratory liberation from European oppression, an anxious and reluctant step into the breach, or a political decision made at an extreme remove, from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s until the early 1980s, the dawning prospect and formal accomplishment of political and religious decolonisation abruptly called into question life’s basic coordinates.

In the Solomon Islands, for example, from the mid-1960s onwards, “Britain’s gentle amble toward the protectorate’s internal self-government rapidly escalated into a breakneck gallop toward independence.”[23] Until this historical juncture, the social, political, and spiritual worlds of Melanesians had been subject to the paternalistic oversight and domination of expatriates, even if from a distance. Now, the demise of the metaphysical colonial kingdom across the region came rushing into view, thereby opening a wide berth for the redefinition of reality in its widest angle. Moreover, we must assume that such an existential watershed dramatically quickened into a state of high tension the imaginations and bodies of the populace. The perfect conditions for an emergent zeitgeist. Primed for absolute transformation. If not colonisation, then what?

The hastened collapse of the Melanesian colonial order coincides with the period of widespread religious intensification within which people across the region fervently pursued a new, paradisiacal metaphysical territory. As the imperial cosmos began to crumble, Melanesians intensively and affectively constructed an alternative, millennial future to inhabit. In this sense, a passionate embrace of Christian eschatology marks the tipping point of decolonisation. Parousia as nationalism. Not failed or weak states – Saved states.

The surging Holy Spirit as springboard between metanarratives, recoding colonised Melanesian Christians as divine subjects. Immense volumes of spontaneous ecstatic intensity rolling towards the eschaton. Generated by the sudden subsidence of colonisation. The affective fruit of cosmological subduction. The implementation of divine models for human life in an independent nation state is shown in a speech by Reverend Leslie Boseto, the head of the United Church in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (UCPNGSI), on Solomon Islands Independence Day, July 7th, 1978:

A newly independent nation must face the future with a choice between good and evil and between life and death (Deut 30:15-16)….All people within a nation must know that the government of their nation is purposely given by God as a servant for carrying out His good service and justice (Romans 13: 1-7)…God calls us today to raise from our own tribal and one-talk experiences to belong to a national tribe and national level of one-talk.[24]

One must hold in mind that such statements are taking place within the context of widespread charismatic eruptions across the region: a new Christian nation brought into being through intense propulsions toward the Second Coming. Musicalised articulations of intensive-affective movements toward the eschaton, thus simultaneously announcing the passage to social and spiritual autonomy. Revival music as the first cries of a new-born country. Webb thus argues that the simultaneous explosion of intensified religious music and approaching political independence occurred “probably not coincidentally,”[25]  especially since revivalist music serves to “prepare individuals and the PNG nation, as part of the Christian transnation, for God’s future blessing.”[26]

In this light, Pugh Kittingan observed among her Huli participants that one of their prominent revival choruses “refers to God’s light shining on Papua New Guinea in readiness for Christ’s return,”[27] while Midian describes the music of religious intensification among the Tolai as the “young people’s cry for religious independence.”[28] The synergy between musicalised eschatology and nascent nationalism has a wider field of application than just Melanesia. As Butler maintains, through their praise and worship “many Haitian Christians have asserted a Pentecostal brand of cultural nationalism,” within which “they race with hope and with Bibles in hand toward a better future for their families and their country.”[29]

More incisively, Marina and Wilkinson contend that in the American setting, “Music and tongue-speaking facilitates the Pentecostal church’s capacity to defy the modern forces of rationality where the attempt to solidify into an institutional bureaucracy threatens to trap religion and its ability to make social change,” ultimately seeing the music of intensified Christianity as “the collective roar of the disenchanted.”[30]

All of these examples attest to the fact that the musical component of religious intensification embarks upon a concerted drive towards a new metaphysical future away from oppressive bureaucratic state and colonial apparatuses. A musicalised ethos indelibly stamped by the vicissitudes of political history. The (Holy) spirit of the (end) times.

Fraser Macdonald is an anthropologist of religion and a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His research focuses upon global evangelical-Pentecostal Christian movements in Melanesia among the Oksapmin people with emphasis on how different aspects of their traditional religion and cosmology have been reshaped and revalued through coming into contact with globalized forms of Christianity.


[1] Miranda Klaver, “Worship Music as Aesthetic Domain of Meaning and Bonding: The Glocal Context of a Dutch Pentecostal Church” In The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity eds. Monique Ingalls and Amos Yong (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015), 109.

[2] Jaci Maraschin and Frederico Pieper Pires, “The Lord’s Song in the Brazilian Land” Studies in World Christianity 12, no. 2 (2006): 96.

[3] Tom Wagner, “Branding, Music, and Religion: Standardization and Adaptation in the Experience of the ‘Hillsong Sound’” In Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality eds. Jean-Claude Usunier and Jörg Stolz (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014), 64.

[4] Monique Ingalls, “Introduction: Interconnection, Interface, and Identification in Pentecostal-Charismatic Music and Worship” In The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity eds. Monique Ingalls and Amos Yong (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015), 6.

[5] Dueck, “Making Borrowed Songs: Mennonite Hymns, Appropriation and Media,” 86. my emphasis.

[6] Jost, Rivaival Long Is Sepik 1976, 30.

[7] Wendy Flannery, “Bilip Grup” In Religious Movements in Melanesia Today (2) ed. Wendy Flannery (Goroka: The Melanesian Institute, 1983), 173.

[8] Kirsty Gillespie, Steep Slopes: Music and Change in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Canberra: ANU E-Press, 2010), 68; 73.

[9] Pugh-Kitingan, “An ethnomusicological study of the Huli of the Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea,” 291.

[10] Ibid., 300.

[11] Eric Prieto, “Deleuze, Music, and Modernist Mimesis” In Essays on music and the spoken word and on surveying the field eds. Suzanne M. Lodato and David Francis Urrows (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 13.

[12] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 312.

[13] Ian Buchanan, “Introduction: Deleuze and Music” In Deleuze and Music eds. Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 15.

[14] Ingalls, “Singing Heaven Down to Earth: Spiritual Journeys, Eschatological Sounds, and Community Formation in Evangelical Conference Worship,” 256; 263.

[15] Klaver, “Worship Music as Aesthetic Domain of Meaning and Bonding: The Glocal Context of a Dutch Pentecostal Church,” 107.

[16] Webb, “Every Creative Aspect Breaking Out! Pentecostal-Charismatic Worship, Oro Gospel Music, and a Millennialist Aesthetic in Papua New Guinea,” 90.

[17] White, “Family Prayer Movement at Imbongu, Ialibu, Southern Highlands,” 172.

[18] Dawia, “A Revival Convention, Lumusa Baptist Church, Baiyer River,” 126.

[19] Kale, “The religious movement among the Kyaka Enga,” 70.

[20] Pugh-Kitingan, “An ethnomusicological study of the Huli of the Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea,” 292.

[21] Tony Krol and Simon Es, “Enga Catholics and the Holy Spirit Movement” In Religious Movements in Melanesia Today (2) ed. Wendy Flannery (Goroka: The Melanesian Institute, 1983), 140-141.

[22] Krol and Es, “Enga Catholics and the Holy Spirit Movement,” 139.

[23] Judith Bennett, The Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), 311.

[24] Quoted from a newsletter published in September, 1978, by the United Church in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (UCPNGSI).

[25] Webb, “Every Creative Aspect Breaking Out! Pentecostal-Charismatic Worship, Oro Gospel Music, and a Millennialist Aesthetic in Papua New Guinea,” 84.

[26] Webb, “Every Creative Aspect Breaking Out! Pentecostal-Charismatic Worship, Oro Gospel Music, and a Millennialist Aesthetic in Papua New Guinea,” 81.

[27] Pugh-Kitingan, “An ethnomusicological study of the Huli of the Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea,” 295.

[28] Midian, The Value of Indigenous Music in the Life and Ministry of the Church: The United Church in the Duke of York Islands, 47.

[29] Butler, “The Weapons of Our Warfare: Music, Positionality, and Transcendence Among Haitian Pentecostals,” 32; 54.

[30] Marina and Wilkinson, “Pentecostalism as Cultural Resistance: Music and Tongue-Speaking as Collective Response in a Brooklyn Church,” 218; 239.

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