Sunday, 21 January 2018

Why I, a Non-Theist, Like "Lord of the Dance"

A dance club with stage and light show, and people dancing visible in silhouette against the lights.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I do not consider myself a Christian. Nor, in fact, do I believe in any theistic God, but that is (for once) beside the point of this post. Mostly.
In this post, I will be looking at hymns. Hymns are important to a lot of Christians, and even for some liberal Quakers, though they do not feature as a regular part of our worship. Devotional music is important to many people of all sorts of different faiths, bringing some beauty and profundity to the act that the words alone somehow fails to convey. I think a lot of Christian hymns are musically uninspired, personally, and the lyrics in many seem awkward, even taking Christian belief as a given. Some, however, I can see that beauty in, even if I can't sing them wholeheartedly myself due to the words not having that significance for me.
There are some hymns, however, that speak to me beyond the surface of their words, and in this post, I'll be looking at one of them. Despite it's absolutely Christ-based words, it speaks to me with more than just its music; my failure to identify with the literal meaning of its words doesn't stop it from somehow resonating. I'm going to try and explore why.
To start with, the music itself doesn't hurt. It is sprightly and joyous, and stirring, features of the melody and typical arrangements that are independent of the words themselves. I'm a person who can feel intense emotional reactions to music, and while this piece doesn't provoke the strongest reaction, it does stir me. It's also eminently suitable for the context in which I was introduced to it – participatory music in primary school, where so many of us will have first come across it.
That emotional response to the music is not the whole story, however. It is helpful, perhaps even necessary for my overall response, but it is not my any means sufficient. I feel stirred by the music of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, but the piece overall does not speak to me. There are numerous traditional Christmas carols and hymns that are lovely pieces of music, but few whose words resonate with my spiritually.
These words, though… they're something. Sydney Carter's Lord of the Dance has become so pervasive that many assume it is a traditional hymn, yet the words and music date from just 1963 (the music is based on an older Shaker melody, but is different enough to be considered new for copyright purposes). It is still in copyright, and as such I shan't be reproducing the lyrics here – but the copyright holder has the lyrics reproduced on their website, along with some information about the song. Such information includes the fact that it is the fifth most requested copyright song for use in school assemblies in the UK, while another piece by Carter is in seventh (When I Needed a Neighbour) and yet another in first (One More Step).
It is worth noting, given my own faith, that Carter had a more than passing connection to the Religious Society of Friends. While sources differ somewhat in the precise nature of the relationship, whether they identify Carter as a Quaker or simply a repeat participant in Quaker worship and deeply in sympathy with Quaker values and spirituality, it is clear that his relationship with the society went beyond a shared pacifism and involvement in the Friends Ambulance Unit. Indeed, his book Rock of Doubt started life as a project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. While funding from the JRCT is by no means restricted to Quakers, to be working on a spiritual text funded by them suggests a connection between the spirituality therein and Quaker teachings and traditions. From the excerpts available online, the book appears to be a challenge to traditional mainstream Christianity, but to come from a place of deep faith combined with deep uncertainty, a pattern far from unusual among liberal Friends.
The song, however, tells of the life of Christ, select scenes from the traditional, mainstream story. The pre-existence of Christ before his incarnation, the fact (if not the details) of the incarnation, and selected scenes of the life of the adult figure of Jesus, including the passion and reincarnation. While I would never say that I see no value in the stories of the life of Jesus, they have no general or special importance to me. Some episodes are beautifully meaningful, others fail to resonate with my experience of the Spirit, and there's the odd part that is deeply troubling or just baffling to me. The way these scenes are told in this song, though, speaks of something deeper.
So we have pre-incarnation, and the incarnation. We have the finding of the apostles. We have miracles and condemnation. We have the crucifixion, and the resurrection. All very meaningful events, variously theologically significant (the existence of Christ pre-incarnation being considered of great theological significance) and significant as spiritual teachings, as in the nature of the reaction of different people to the actions of Jesus. These are interesting to me, and I appreciate their spiritual value, but no more than I do the writings and teachings of many other faiths. What is it about their presentation that manages to speak to me beyond the basic biblical origin of the stories?
There is a joy to this song, an uplifting beyond that which comes from the music itself. A sense of rightness, not to the literal story it tells, but to something deeper – deep enough that I cannot be quite sure what it is. There is a deeper meaning to the story, as presented by Carter, that is not so apparent in the story as presented in the New Testament.
Introspection is not an exact science. I can't be sure what it is that has this effect on me, but I can make my best attempt. While I do not believe in the resurrection of Christ, there is a deep truth to the description of “the life that will never, never die”, and that will “live in you if you live in me”. To me, then, it seems clear that these phrases do not refer to a literal Christ figure, whatever his nature might be, but to something else. The Christ of Lord of the Dance is not simply a presentation of the story held by many to be essentially literally true, but a realisation of a more metaphorical Christ, one that is familiar to me, and possibly many other Quakers, as an aspect of the Light we feel within ourselves and among our Meetings. It is a presentation of characteristics of that essential Spirit in Christian terms, but emphasising it in ways that make sense to me in my understanding of the Divine.
What are those characteristics, though? Well, the most obvious is the joyous nature of the music and the idea of the dance. It is an impulse to action, as we know the Spirit to give us today, but an impulse to joyous action, to an act of celebration. Then, it is eternal – it existed before its recognition, an essential element of creation; for me, I'm not sure that the Spirit isn't a product of life, but even that would make it eternal compared to humanity. It also goes on past the death of any individual, the Inner Light not being merely a facet of each of our individual beings, but a communal, shared phenomenon whose persistence does not depend on any individual, so that it will never die. It is available to us all, if we seek for it and welcome it, living in us if we live in it; for while the Light is present in us, it takes our willingness to make it truly alive in us. Taken thus a as a metaphor, the Christ of the song bears a strong relationship to my experience of the Spirit, even if I do not identify the Spirit as Christ. This is not a contradiction; I take no issue with my Christian Friends identifying the Spirit as the Light of Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Christian God, and hold that we are seeking the same Spirit, but understanding it in different terms.
It is not only in the characteristics of the Christ of Lord of the Dance that I see the Spirit that I seek, however. It is in the reactions he faces. When presenting himself and his impulse to those in power, and those who consider themselves learned, he is rejected. When presenting himself to simpler, down-to-earth folk, he is welcome and joined in his dance. His impulses and actions are not constrained by the social expectations of inactivity on the Sabbath, and they bring healing; while I do not believe in the power of the Spirit to physically heal, I know its power to heal relationships and spiritual, emotional suffering. They are faced with condemnation from the powerful who rejected the call of the dance, beaten down and suppressed. The powerful do their best to destroy the dance utterly, and think they have succeeded, but they have not – because they can never take this dance out of the heart of those who have welcomed it, and they cannot stop the call being heard anew.
This is the spirit as I understand it, and indeed follows somewhat Carter's intentions as recorded in his own words (see the link above, which includes his commentary as well as the words of the hymn). To him, Christ is “the incarnation of the piper who is calling us”, and he views his words as having a universalist meaning, saying “by Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best.” It is a testament to the quality of his work that this universalism shines not only through his commentary making it explicit, but through the actual work itself.
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