Emotions Are Everything

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It is a cliche that therapists ask the question, “How does that make you feel?” However, one thing I have learned about human motivation after 10 ½ years in the counseling field is that feelings, or rather emotions, are everything. You may be familiar with the behavioral psychology concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, but that is just surface level stuff. The internal mood states experienced by individuals are what really drive behavior and preferences.

That may sound simplistic, sentimental, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotions are powerful. Before the cognitive processing abilities of your frontal lobes were developed, before you were able to encode memories using language to assign meaning, you were experiencing the world emotionally, deep within the limbic system of your growing brain. Emotions were shaping your concepts of the world before you even knew you were distinct from the world.

People do things that create or result in positive mood changes. Now, a behavior itself might not be “positive” in and of itself according to certain standards or perspectives, but the individual subjectively experiences the mood change as desirable. When you listen to your favorite music, watch your favorite movie, or eat your favorite food, you experience a mood change. When I drink a cup of coffee, lay in a hammock, or hug my children, I experience positive mood change. The physical markers of this involve surges in neurotransmitters and other physiological responses.

Now, William Glasser observed that while we can directly control our thoughts (cognition) and actions (behavior), we do not have direct control over our emotions or physiology. But we do have indirect control. If somebody is experiencing a negative mood state and finds a way to experience a positive mood change, the reinforcing of that behavior will be magnified. The more powerful the mood change, the more the behavior will be reinforced. A teenager seeing their favorite band in concert and belting along with their favorite songs is experiencing a powerful mood change. A gambling addict pulling the lever of a slot machine experiences a powerful mood change. These are emotional highs.

Of course, other factors such as worldview, core beliefs, core values, temperament, and genetics mediate what we experience as “positive” or “desirable.” An identical behavior will result in “positive” mood change for one person and “negative” mood change in another. For example, somebody may light up a cigarette and feel rebellious, satisfied, cool, connected, and/or energized. If it were me, I would feel unsatisfied, contaminated, unhealthy, and seedy. People who overeat feel full, nurtured, and safe when they indulge in food. People who restrict themselves from food may feel powerful, in control, and confident.

Abandon your simple ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’ list of feeling words and go deep. If you want to start to understand your own behavior better, start to analyze the exact emotions you experience when you engage in that behavior. For example, when I listen to my favorite music, the songs that really do it for me, I tend to feel a combination of mournful, sensuous, validated, and powerful. Get a thesaurus if you need so that you can accurately identify the specific feelings involved in your mood changes.

Divine Wind & Plum Wine

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A couple months ago I walked into a Starbucks and saw a guy studying from a premium Bible at one of the tables. “Is that a Cambridge Clarion?” I blurted to the stranger excitedly. He confirmed that it was. “Nice!” Later, as I saw him hard at work, we began a brief dialogue and I asked him if he was in seminary or perhaps writing a sermon. He told me that he was actually preparing to move to Japan that upcoming Thursday to be a missionary – indefinitely. Wow. Here was a young man setting off on a divine adventure, leaving relationships, home, and native language – doing something courageous that I have only dreamt about doing but cannot due to family, vocational, and financial reasons.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan is 1.5% Christian. That is not a typo. I love the people, the language, the cultural aesthetics, the history, and the food of Japan, but it is one of the spiritually darkest countries on Earth. Despite the many ways that Japan has thrived and prospered, I detect a pattern of fatalism and ennui when examining their pop culture art, which I believe reflects the spiritual undercurrent of the nation.

One recurring theme in Japanese pop culture art is uncontrollable, world-consuming destruction. Perhaps this is a remnant in the cultural consciousness of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is an obvious symbol. Others include the enveloping headless forest god of Princess Mononoke, the rampaging No-Face spirit in Spirited Away, and the Tokyo and Neo-Tokyo obliterating destructive force of the titular Akira. Another theme is boredom or feelings of emptiness as motivation to engage in violent or extreme actions. Both student Light Yagami and the Shinigami Ryuk cite boredom as contributing to actions that eventually result in mass killing in the manga series Death Note. Not one but two murderous antagonists in the videogame Persona 4 cite boredom / emptiness as reasons for their diabolical actions. Even satirical manga superhero One-Punch Man struggles with the drudgery of lacking meaningful challenge. No wonder. English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple states that people who are bored, alienated, or not spiritually anchored may find that “danger absolves one of the need to deal with a hundred small problems or to make a thousand little choices – danger simplifies existence.”

In March of 2011, I awoke in the middle of the night. I was trembling, shaking uncontrollably, much to the alarm of my wife. I thought my body was cold, so I tried to bundle up with extra clothing and get back in bed. It didn’t work. I wasn’t cold, my body was just trembling. I had no idea what was happening to me and I begged for God’s help. After quite a while I was able to stop shaking and fall asleep. In the morning, I read that there had been a devastating earthquake in Japan, followed by a tsunami. It happened at the exact same time that I woke up, half way across the world. As the ground in Japan was shaking, so was I.

Interpret that however you wish, but when I shared this mysterious occurrence with a Japanese friend of mine, she later told me how encouraged she felt upon hearing it. To her, it meant that God still cared about Japan and the Japanese people, and perhaps he had good plans for that Land of the Rising Sun.

Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

Sub-Creation and Simulated Worlds

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I wish I had known about J.R.R Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation when I wrote my Video Game Theology post. I discovered it while reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (surely one of the longest book titles in recent memory). In a nutshell, “[Sub-creation was] used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer to the process of world-building and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a ‘little maker’ creating his own world as a sub-set within God’s primary creation … Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God” (Tolkien Gateway).

In my post as well as a post on Christian Art, I argued that “humanity directly reflects the image of God when we engage in creative acts – when we bring something good into existence out of “nothing,” we are intentionally or unintentionally imitating the work of the ultimate Creator. This divine reflection reaches its apex when our art involves worldbuilding.” Compare the similarities between my concept and Tolkien’s: “The doctrine of sub-creation was especially congenial to Tolkien, both as a Christian and as a fantasy writer. As a Christian, Tolkien could view sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators” (Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology).

Messianic Michael wisely pointed out in the comments that, of course, such worldbuilding goes far beyond fictional / entertainment-oriented constructs and can really apply to any form of computer modeling or computer simulation. Indeed! And to take it a step further, the technology which has allowed us to run increasingly complex simulations may open a door for a new wave of academic research.

Theology is supposed to be the science of God. However, theology fails to smoothly fit into the accepted standards of scientific methodology due to at least one inherent limitation: repeatability. Here is a section of a research paper I wrote for my Theology 525 class several years ago (references here omitted and available upon request):

“Despite the past, present, and future availability of sense data in which theological propositions can be empirically verified, such propositions cannot be submitted to the classic scientific method due to a lack of testability. The scientific method demands that results of empirical observations must be repeatable. The concepts of finite impingement and God’s freedom show how repeatability cannot really be applied in the observation of God’s actions into our world.

Oswalt describes non-repeatable interventions of God into human affairs which do not conform to science’s focus on “uniform occurrences of all things in all times.” Oswalt states: “Here the transcendent God is accomplishing his will through an obedient nature in a specific historic event. In a unique moment in time and space, never to be repeated, but also never to be forgotten…”  Furthermore, Erickson defines God as free. God is “not under any compulsion” and “nothing in Scripture suggests that God’s will is determined or bound by any external factors.”  The finite impingement of an infinite God into our space-time cannot be repeatedly observed like one would observe the effects of vinegar being poured onto baking soda.”

Well, for the first time in human history, by the benefit of simulated world technology, we have a chance of testing philosophical and theological propositions. Yes, we cannot view God through a microscope, but we can simulate small, laboratory-controlled versions of reality and change the variables. Molinism in a box! Who are the brave pioneers willing to step up to the challenge? Soli Deo gloria.

On Becoming a Published Author

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The one enduring dream of my life has been to become an author. The earliest memory I can recall on the subject is from perhaps the age of four, sitting outside and looking at the pictures of Pack Rat Pete by Robert Quackenbush. As a preschooler I didn’t know how to read, but as my mother read that library book to me, I thought – this is what I want to do! Before I could spell, I would dictate stories for my mom to write as I doodled illustrations in crayon, and I fondly remember sitting on the front step with my dad as a child and improvising interactive tales about Henry & Bill: Dinosaur Detectives.

Sure, I flirted with other career paths in my youth (Zookeeper! Private Investigator!), but until my interest in psychology solidified in the summer after 6th grade (inspired by reading Michael Crichton’s Sphere), being an author was my single overriding professional goal. I dreamed of the day that I could walk into a bookstore and purchase a copy of my own book; that’s when I would know that I had truly arrived. I also knew that if I reached the end of my life without becoming a published author, I would consider myself a failure. Hey, I might even need to pull a Van Gogh and cut my ear off in some sort of melancholic artistic protest against the world’s indifference.

Sometimes aspiring authors receive disheartening messages on their journey: “Why is it so important to be published?” or “Have you thought about self-publishing?” Okay. These people just don’t get it. And every aspiring author knows the sting of the ubiquitous rejection letter. Writing a book is the easy part – then comes editing, and finding an agent, and finding a publisher. The amount of rejection one can face while vulnerably revealing one’s labor-of-love, soul-bearing art can crush you if you let it.

But, as of a week and a half ago, my literal (and literary) lifelong dream came true. I am now a published author. Pinch me. My faith-based historical fiction (or “Biblical fiction”) novel, Kings of the Promised Land has been released to the world. It’s registered with the Library of Congress and has an ISBN and everything!

So, what is it like to accomplish what one has sought after their entire life? Well, I definitely did not have a Julie & Julia moment, dancing on the front porch with my spouse in joy as I opened an envelope to find a surprise publishing offer with a juicy book advance, nor did I come home one day to find a mysterious package, only to discover… my book in printed form! Indeed, many of my readers received copies of my book long before I did! And, although I felt a true adrenaline rush while signing my publishing agreement, the immediate nights after my book was published were sleepless, full of anxious tossing and turning as the weight of my new task sank in. I wrote a book. My book got published. But now I actually need to get people to READ the book!

I am very, very grateful to God for the inspiration, direction, and publication of my first book. May all the glory belong to him. I am no longer somebody who likes to write, nor an aspiring author, but truly an author. That fact has barely sunk in. I have crossed a threshold which cannot be uncrossed. But, I also realize that as one journey has ended, a brand new journey has just begun. I may have achieved my lifelong dream, but I, God willing, have a lot of life left to live.

 

 

Kings of the Promised Land: A Novel

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KINGS WILL FALL. OUTCASTS WILL RISE.

The Priesthood is in disarray. The House of God has been dismantled. The scattered Twelve Tribes are surrounded on all sides by stronger, more technologically advanced enemies, ready to invade. Will the Chosen People be “wiped off the map?” In this epic tale of faith-based historical fiction, the fate of a nation hangs in the balance as three men struggle for the soul of ancient, Iron Age Yisra’el.

Shemu’el: the wise and respected Seer finds himself at odds with the will of the people. They want to replace the rule of Yahweh with the rule of man.

Sha’ul: the strong and handsome first King of Yisra’el. Hailed a savior and unifier of the nation, can the King overcome the temptations of absolute power or will he fall into darkness?

David: the young shepherd who becomes a legendary Hero, betrothed to the princess. But with great success comes many enemies, and the warrior-poet soon finds himself in a desperate fight for survival.

What readers are saying about Kings of the Promised Land:

“I actually felt as if these events were unfolding right before me.”

“Tolkien-esque.”

“A Judeo-Christian Game of Thrones.”

“Makes the scarlet thread that weaves all scripture together come alive for me!”

“A masculine work of Biblical fiction.”

Order it now on Amazon or for Kindle

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Flatland, Fez, and M-theory

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Written by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ is an excellent, laugh-out-loud satirical novel that provokes deep thought about dimensions beyond our daily experience. You think ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is good allegory? Fuhgeddaboudit! I think Flatland should be required reading for all Christians.

Now, if Flatland existed in video game form, ‘Fez’ would be it. Fez stars a pale protagonist who has the amazing powers to walk, jump, climb, go through doorways, swim, and pick up small objects! A lot like us, actually. One day, this simple-living character has his perspective radically expanded. Something dimensionally beyond himself impinges upon his 2D universe. He can now perceive a much more complex reality, and one that is in peril.

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I have written before in brief about Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘dimensional beyondness.’ God, as an infinite being, is qualitatively different than anything within the created cosmos. But where does the cosmos end and the supernatural realm begin – the realm of spirit which is invisible to our unaided senses? In Brian Greene’s popular book on theoretical physics, ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos,’ Greene references a version of superstring theory called ‘M-theory,’ which hypothesizes ten space dimensions and one time dimension (we commonly experience three space dimensions and one, forward-moving time dimension). If this is true, at what level of “physical” reality do we find Christ holding “all things together?” (Colossians 1:17).

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Back to Fez – I do not believe that video game creator Phil Fish is a Christian – at least not based on what I saw in ‘Indie Game: The Movie.’ Fez certainly does not get into deep theological territory, but is pleasantly stimulating aesthetically, philosophically, and is fun to play. It is also rife with mind-bending puzzles that you may never, ever unravel – much like the universe itself! I recommend playing it right after you read Flatland.

So says a Fez NPC, “My favorite shape is a square. Not a cube – those don’t exist!”

Top 15 Christian Rock Songs

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In alphabetical order, here is my current list of the 15 greatest Christian Rock songs of all time. Get your Spotify playlist ready! Let me know what songs I’ve missed in the comments section.

All the Poor and Powerless (The Digital Age)

Beautiful Things (Gungor)

Brother (NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw)

Burn Like a Star (Rend Collective)

Economy (John Mark McMillan)

Hands In The Air (The Waiting)

I Can See Your Love (Leeland)

Lead Me to the Cross (Hillsong United)

Lost the Plot (Newsboys)

Love at the End (John Mark McMillan)

Manifesto (The City Harmonic)

Ocean Floor (Audio Adrenaline)

Opposite Way (Leeland)

Skeleton Bones (John Mark McMillan)

Take The World, But Give Me Jesus (Ascend The Hill)

And a special bonus song:

Church Clap (KB)

Maslow, Music, and Self-Transcendence

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I believe that the music of a culture or people group often corresponds to a sort of societal-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stage. Indigenous groups may perform rain dances or sing songs about the harvest, reflecting basic physiological needs. Inner city rap music and some blue collar country music may often speak to concerns about personal safety and financial security (amassing wealth, fighting against those feuding against you). Pop music perpetually hovers around the themes of love and belonging (love at first sight, dating, breaking up, commitment).

Rock music, on the other hand, frequently transcends the basic or lower level needs, and moves from the “deficiency” needs to the “being” needs. Take for example the song ‘Peace of Mind’ by the band Boston. Moving into the Esteem stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, this song explicitly addresses finding meaning and purpose beyond the rat race of everyday life. One may also point to harder edged but socially-conscious songs from bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Now, are there any songs or types of music that address the fifth and final stage, Self-Actualization? Certainly, but I’ll take it a step further. For Christians, Self-Actualization is not the end-all, be-all goal of life. Christ-Actualization (or the Imitation of Christ) is the highest possible stage of human growth, achievement, or needs-meeting. Maslow himself touched on this theme in his later years, criticizing his own theory and proposing a higher stage – Self-Transcendence. Christian music has the inherent potential of reflecting this most important stage.

‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel represents this, not only as one of the highest human achievements of music, but as a Self-Transcending work of art that points to Jesus Christ. Take a couple minutes and enjoy this Hallelujah Chorus performed via flashmob in a mall food court.