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Liturgical Dance?

July 12, 2017

Here is a video of three men performing a concert dance to the Largo from Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D Minor. The occasion is an offertory at Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The audience responds with applause after the performance. No pulpit is visible, but the elements appear on the Lord’s Table beneath the stage.

Perhaps I should state that I have no principled objection to concert or theater dance. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m one of only a handful of Baptist fundamentalists who have visited the grave of Rudolf Nureyev in Paris. The question is not whether concert dance is in principle a good thing. The question is not even whether Christians ought to be able to enjoy concert dance. The question is whether concert dances (think of ballet) ought to be incorporated into worship. Not everything that can be done in everyday, mundane life ought to be brought into the assembly for worship.

That question is complicated by the fact that some form of dance was pretty clearly included as an element of Old Testament worship. The 150th Psalm actually commands “everything that has breath” to praise God with the dance. This imperative leads me to think that God is pleased with at least some dances in at least some places on at least some occasions.

The question is whether services of the New Testament Church are among those places and times, and whether this particular kind of dance is the sort that ought to be offered. I’m inclined to answer that question in the negative, for more than one reason.

First, the New Testament nowhere indicates that God expects the Church to offer dance as part of its worship. There is no New Testament command to incorporate dance into our liturgy. There is no example of a single church doing so. There is no teaching at all about how or when such a thing would be done. Nothing in the New Testament would lead us to believe that God takes pleasure in dance that is offered during the assembly.

Second, we no longer have any idea what sort of dance would please God. It is fairly clear that some dances definitely would not please Him (more on that in a moment). But we have no biblical teaching and no living tradition that would help us conceptualize an appropriate dance form for incorporation into liturgy.

Third, it is doubtful that the churches of the New Testament could not possibly have done anything like the dance that was presented to Redeemer Presbyterian. This dance form is modern, unknown to the churches of the New Testament. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that any New Testament congregation occupied a facility with a stage that would be suitable for this kind of dance.

Fourth, the tradition of dance that we have inherited is a tradition of corrupted dance. Some dances are simply frivolous. They should be excluded from the church for the same reasons that we exclude frivolous poetry, music, and preaching (we do exclude those, don’t we?) Other dances (beginning with the waltz and including virtually all ballroom dances, not to mention popular social dancing) are designed to be sensual. Of these dances it is rightly said that they are a vertical expression of a horizontal action. To bring them into worship is necessarily to introduce impurity.

But what about art dance? What about ballet? Isn’t that what the three guys are doing?

Even art dance is not all one thing, and it is not the only thing. It is not one thing because (especially since Diaghilev, Bakst, and the Ballets Russes) it has focused increasingly upon spectacle. Part of the spectacle often includes the physical form of the dancer. Not accidentally, dance costume is often designed to reveal the form of the body, even when it conceals the actual flesh. The costumes of the three dancers at Redeemer Presbyterian are not exceptions to this rule.

Of course, some modern concert dance is simply and deliberately sensual. Isadora Duncan did more than anyone to move modern dance in that direction, and she has plenty of followers. “Art” and “indecency” are not mutually exclusive categories.

Furthermore, why take concert dance as a template for liturgical dance at all? It is not the only thing. Why not copy marching bands or drum and bugle corps? Why not appropriate traditional ceremonial dances?

The answer to all these questions is really the same. Neither Scripture nor the Christian tradition provides us with any clear guidance. In the absence of such guidance, and in the absence of any New Testament pattern or requirement to incorporate dance into worship, I think it is better left alone. We have no way of introducing liturgical dance that is not raw innovation, intruded into the biblical requirements for Christ’s church.

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