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Weirdness In Church? Or: The Adventure Of The Dancing Men


Thursday
Jul 13, 2017

What hath male ballet dancing in church to do with Christians enjoying fantasy stories?

Answer: Both ballet dancing and fantasy fandoms are seen as weird, and misunderstood. Christians can slander both of these as if they’re automatically sinful. Yet both can be ways to glorify God—though not necessarily in a local church service.

So who actually did ballet dancing in church? Last November, Redeemer Presbyterian Church did, at one of its locations in New York City. Its video from last November is simply titled “Life Together.” It features three male ballet dancers clad in white (thank God they don’t have those tights) who portray a three-part, interwoven relationship.

But without further explanation, you can’t tell for certain what the performance is about.

One biblical pastor, who posted the video nearly eight months later, said that its theme confused him. Then he said he read this excerpt from the church’s pastor, Tim Keller:

If God was unipersonal, there would have been no love until he created the world. However, if the world was created by a triune God, then relationships of love are what life is all about. The Godhead is characterized by mutual self-giving love as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit orbit around one another in a dance. It is impossible for us to join in if we focus on ourselves, but through Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross, we can be brought into the dance.

So far, I haven’t found if the performers meant to portray the Trinity’s relationship of harmony. (If they only meant to portray something more human, such as members of the Church working together, it’s interesting that viewers compared this to the Trinity!)

It’s easier to see that people thought the performance was really, really “gay.”

A few of the comments:

Is the Trinity gay?

I always thought Tim Keller was effeminate. No respect for him at all.

Too effeminate….men shouldn’t be moving and dancing like this…it’s gross…

Add this to the dung Hill of heresy that attempts to feminize God.

There are dance moves that are masculine and feminine. And clearly, this entire dance routine was feminine.

Then one Christian leader got into the “effeminate” accusation. He claimed the performance was “gayer than the kiwi queen of the fire island fruit festival.” (I don’t even know what this means, though it must have felt really awesome to put that phrase on the screen.)

All this is nonsense.

Totally “gay.”

You can’t call men dancing, with classical ballet moves, and even touching or lifting each other (this is part of ballet!), “gay.” Or “effeminate.” Such a slander is not based in biblical discernment. The point is worth a quick exploration before we move on.

Nothing in Scripture supports any kind of “everyone knows” definition, of which speech patterns, colors, gestures, or interests count as “masculine” or “feminine”—meaning that if a man likes or does “women’s” things, he counts as sinfully “effeminate.” There is no single, advanced culture that “fixes” biblical masculinity as denoted by muscular bodies, trucks, tools, sports, blue instead of pink, nonfiction over drama, or no-dancing over dancing.1

As one commentator rightly noted:

I’ve been all over the world and grew up in different cultures. And, yes, I have seen plenty of male/male kissing and hand-holding and dancing that would be considered effeminate by men here. I’m quite familiar with the American fundamentalists’ conception that anything uncomfortable to them is necessarily an abomination. … I get weary of any kind of less-than-American-cowboy machismo being decried as effeminate, as if that is what the biblical conception of effeminate actually meant.

Totally masculine.

Indeed, this is a very modern, Western notion. It skews what Paul meant by “effeminate” in 1 Cor. 6:9 (NASB). Other translations combine this word into the phrase “men who practice homosexuality (1 Cor. 6:9, ESV). Instead, this judgment of what counts as “effeminate actions” is based in cultural assumptions, and very, very strong feelings. This may include some strong feelings of men, who may feel personally threatened by other men who do not act or behave in “traditional” masculine ways, or share “traditional” male interests.

No, Christians can’t discount those feelings. We can’t just say, “No, that’s just your feelings talking. So shut up and let them do their thing.” Instead, let’s keep talking! Ask, “How did you feel about that?” Or, “What did that thing they did mean to you personally?” Or even, “Yes, there are people intentionally trying to blur the differences between sexes. This is absolutely wrong. But do you think ballet has been, or can be, only done to do this?”

How I often feel watching ballet. (From Arrival, 2016.)

But we must see that the discussion is based on strong feelings either way. It is not a matter of “firm biblical conviction against the thing, versus worldly compromiser for the thing.”

For my part, I don’t get ballet. It’s an alien language to me. Watching it feels like repeated attempts to make first contact with an alien civilization. I don’t get why we “need” ballet. I don’t get why people would need to dance out their emotions. After all, we have perfectly great words, images, and even music to reflect those feelings?

Yet these are just my feelings. They are my preferences. Other people watch and perform dances, including ballet, and they are strongly moved.

Worst of both worlds: the “effeminate” wizard Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle (2006).

But I do know fantasy fiction.

I know why we need it and why God has used it so powerfully in my life to glorify Himself.

And I know that many other people don’t understand this. They may even think fantasy suspicious, or sinful. Or else they justify some fantasy, such as A Christmas Carol, but dislike other fantasy for subjective reasons (e.g., “that picture of that one creature creeps me out”).

They’re wrong, of course. But we can work with that, based in love. God does command His people to work with these issues in love (Romans 14, 1 Cor. 8-10, Gal. 5:13). If you feel a thing is sinful for you to do, don’t do it. If you feel a thing is not sinful for you, but you also know someone who knows you do it is tempted to sin, then in love, avoid that thing.2

However, the question remains: could ballet performances be included in a church service?

My strong inclination is to say no. I don’t say this because I personally don’t get ballet. It’s because I can compare this to my enjoyment instead. Then I can ask, “What would I think of someone reading a great fantasy novel excerpt in church?” That wouldn’t seem right. It would distract from the central purpose of the local church service: to teach and sing about Jesus’s gospel teaching among the people of God in fellowship.3

Dancing can glorify God. It can even do this with behaviors certain Christians would call “effeminate” (because it makes them feel weird). Fantasy novels can also glorify God. But at least for now, let’s not try to force either thing into local church services. Anyway, whoever said you can’t really, super-glorify God with a thing unless you do it on Sunday mornings?

  1. In fact, as several friends of mine pointed out, many men practice overt masculine “trappings” that Christians would not find “effeminate,” and yet also sinfully practice homosexuality.
  2. Note that the apostle Paul always assumes actual, present scenarios when Christians try to keep other Christians from stumbling. Sometimes people turn this into “try to head off any hypothetical stumble situations, ever.” But that is a legalistic application of the text. It’s also absurd: you can’t head off every potential stumble situation in the universe.
  3. For those of you who do doctrine by names, I haven’t been entirely sold on the “regulative principle of worship.” This is the idea that church worship services ought only to include elements that the New Testament mentions occurring in these services. I haven’t been sold on it, mainly because it seems to fail its own test. But you’re welcome to persuade me in the comments! Anyway, I’ve seen little error come from this concept. Whereas we see many errors when people disregard this concept and decide that the “church service” can include anything. (Even from a creative view, making any “genre” include anything weakens its distinction.) If we do that, church service quits serving its own unique purpose: to train God’s people in the gospel. If the “regulative principle of worship” focuses on this training aspect, rather than portraying the fixed-form church worship service as a means to itself, I can get behind it. This doesn’t mean that dancing or novel-reading can’t ever be done in a church building.

E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor of Lorehaven magazine (debuting autumn 2017). He also writes for Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, and Speculative Faith. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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35 comments on "Weirdness In Church? Or: The Adventure Of The Dancing Men"

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Morgan L. Busse
Guest
I guess I disagree. A couple weeks ago we used clips from Thor to teach the gospel during church service. We’ve also used Darth Vader as examples of anger, Barbie and Ken to talk about the plastic masks we put on as Christians to hide from others, and one could even use Gollum as the dual nature of how we want to do right, but also want to do wrong. In church service. I think sometimes we as Christians—living in our Christian bubble-world—forget what it’s like to enter a church. A couple weeks ago I took a tour of historical… Read more »
Peter Schellhase
Guest

Is it such a bad thing to feel like you are entering a foreign place when you walk into church? Because the reality is that is what is happening. The gathered church is an embassy of the kingdom of God, a new world with a very different culture from the world we live in. One of the reasons I left contemporary evangelicalism (and joined a conservative Episcopal Church) is because I wanted to worship in a way that was different from the way the culture worships.

Peter Schellhase
Guest

This is, perhaps, also the appeal that fantasy literature presents. Often these stories involve the discovery of a new and alien world and way of life that is really there, yet hidden from the surrounding culture. I’m thinking of Harry Potter, which does this very well, but it’s a common element of fantasy stories.

Morgan L. Busse
Guest

If it keeps people from walking into a church, then I think it is a hinderance to the very thing we are supposed to be doing: reaching the lost. We live in a post-Christian world, one that is so far from removed from God that the only reason they know the word “Jesus” is as a cuss word and that Christians are homophobic bigots. The church building is not about making Christians comfortable, it is about being a meeting place where our community knows we gather and anyone can come, and the building exudes that feeling of welcome, not exclusivity.

Peter Schellhase
Guest

I agree in the sense that the church building and mode of worship is not really about making anyone comfortable, least of all the congregation. It’s about calling all of us to enter into the life of Christ, which is different from the way we are naturally inclined to live.

Morgan L. Busse
Guest

Exactly!

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

But aren’t we to go into the world and preach the gospel? Where did we get this idea that bringing unsaved people to church is the way to go? Church is for edification of the body, isn’t it?

Becky

R.J. Anderson
Guest
I agree that we can use fantasy novels, movies, and other familiar pop culture references in conversation to help non-Christians understand concepts about the gospel and the church that would otherwise be hard for them to grasp. In fact, when talking to a non-Christian friend who had never been able to understand why people would go to church, I once compared church meetings to fandom conventions and you could practically see the light bulb come on above her head. That being said, though, I can’t see anywhere in the New Testament that supports the idea of adapting our church meetings… Read more »
Kirsty
Guest

It’s funny – when ballet was first invented, it was an all-male artform. Now people think of it as feminine. Sometimes I think it would be interesting to go through the song of songs and list the metaphors used for the man and the women. Much more overlap than would be the norm in our culture!

Though I do wonder if performance of any kind (including a choir piece or a solo) really makes sense in a church service (as opposed to a Christian concert)?

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I agree about performance in church, Kristy. As I see it, even with the “special music” pieces of long ago, the focus was more on the performance and the performer than God who gave the ability. And yet we are gathered to give Him praise, are we not? To give Him praise and to edify one another.

Becky

Kirsty
Guest

Saying that, I happily have my Sunday School kids performing a song at the prizegiving, or nativity. But maybe that’s a bit different – it’s kind of half way between a service and a concert.

One thing I like about my church is that most of the band is down on the floor, not on the platform, as if it was a concert.

Kirsty
Guest

People in the congregationdancing as part of the corporate worship is a different thing entirely (not that I do it myself, but if that’s the kind of thing that you’re into)

Leanna P
Guest

If “performance” is defined as anything done in front of the congregation rather than by the congregation as a whole then, technically, the sermon (the hallmark of most church services) is a performance.
Choir pieces and solos and the dance linked to above and sermons in the church service aren’t primarily intended to entertain but to edify, this I think is the question to ask about anything you want to include in a church service.

Lisa
Guest
Interesting discussion. I guess I’m on the fence on this one. Dance is an art form, and it holds all the “dangers” of art – it’s open to interpretation, and not literal, and people could read in all sorts of things into it and so perhaps could lead people astray. It requires some work on our part to “understand” it, and some contemplation. Which many don’t like. But it’s also something that can deeply move people and help them to see truth in a way that they might not see it through words. I thought this particular dance beautiful, and… Read more »
notleia
Guest

I like to think that if postmodern art is experiential, then an experience of bafflement and confusion is also legit.

I also think life is too short to pay much attention to insecure dudes whose masculinities are too fragile to handle seeing a dude do a plie. Gender as performance, indeed.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin
I have strong feelings about performance, particularly live performance, as part of a worship service. I mentioned that in an earlier reply to a comment. What I don’t see anyone addressing is this statement, Stephen: ‘Nothing in Scripture supports any kind of “everyone knows” definition, of which speech patterns, colors, gestures, or interests count as “masculine” or “feminine”—meaning that if a man likes or does “women’s” things, he counts as sinfully “effeminate.” ‘ I think there’s an implicit understanding that “everyone knows” when we use words. They do have meaning. Paul used the word we translate as effeminate in 1… Read more »
Brennan McPherson
Guest
It’s important to note that the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to in the feminine voice throughout Scripture, and in Genesis is portrayed symbolically as a sort of “Mother” archetype, while God the Creator and Judge is portrayed as “Father,” and Jesus is the son of God (and the second Adam). The trinity illustrates, symbolically, a full family (the Church being the bride). Scripture even says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh,” directly after Eve is offered to Adam. If Adam had a “mother,” it… Read more »
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin
Brennan, I agree with everything you’ve said here except the conclusion. I’d summarize your point this way: Since God manifests as both male and female, then it’s OK to be gender neutral. Because that’s how those dancers presented. Of course, nothing about the dance identifies it as the Trinity other than what people said when they commented. But you have given further illustration about the impossibility of us portraying the Transcendence which is God. We aren’t supposed to do it and we can’t pull it off when we try. So that leaves us with three men moving on stage in… Read more »
Brennan McPherson
Guest
No, I don’t think what they’re potentially doing is unwise at all (if that was their intention). Art is symbolic in nature. It’s not supposed to be an idol to be worshiped, and it doesn’t NEED to be. The warning given in scripture had to do with idol worship. God gave illustrations (metaphors) within which to understand his being. In a way, he was making images of himself in peoples’ minds, just like how the dancers could potentially be doing in the video. I definitely think you’re miss-interpreting the warning in Scripture. If the point of the dance is what… Read more »
Autumn Grayson
Guest
One thing people often forget is that back then, ballet dancers, actors, etc were often men. Men who were acting as women during the performance because women getting up on stage to perform was seen as immoral. So many people on both sides see everything as LGBT nowdays, and it’s a problem in both real life and writing terms. It isn’t just with dance performances, but the fact that deep platonic relationships are accused of being a gay romance even though nothing romantic has happened between the two people in question. It’s sad, because in many ways our society has… Read more »
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