Jesus the Song and Dance man

The “Song and Dance Man” was a much-loved aspect of Vaudeville and Musical Hall from, say,1840-1950, springing from an ancient root. Their Elizabethan counterparts provoke the somewhat derisive comment in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What, dost thou make us minstrels? An thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords. Here’s my fiddlestick. Here’s that shall make you dance”.

The role of the Minstrel –as opposed to the more refined Troubadour –  required many different Vaudeville-style skills including: juggling, acrobatics, fire eating, conjuring, reciting verse, buffoonery and even animal training – along with the regular song and dance routines.

The Minstrel’s descendants are still to be found here and there, not just in TV “variety shows” but in odd corners of Irish pubs, in some of our street buskers and fringe festival poets and in the “Open Mike” nights in Folk Clubs. The young Bob Dylan was received that way in the cool hipster cafes of Greenwich Village, as a strolling minstrel, sharing news.

And in a moment of enduring genius, the 1963 song “Lord of the Dance” reimagined Jesus as a strolling minstrel, a kind of pied piper, encouraging listeners to join in the dance. Here’s the lyric:

I danced in the morning when the world was young
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees
They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t follow me
I danced for the fishermen James and John
They came with me so the dance went on

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame
They ripped, they stripped, they hung me high
Left me there on the cross to die

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on

They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the life that will never, never die
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me
I am the Lord of the dance, said he

What’s the story behind the lyric? Sydney Carter replied, with teasing ambiguity: “It’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”He continued: “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. 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.

I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus. Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible.

The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did. The Shakers didn’t. This sect flourished in the United States in the nineteenth century, but the first Shakers came from Manchester in England, where they were sometimes called the “Shaking Quakers“. They hived off to America in 1774, under the leadership of Mother Anne. They established celibate communities – men at one end, women at the other; though they met for work and worship. Dancing, for them, was a spiritual activity.

… Their hymns were odd, but sometimes of great beauty: from one of these (Simple Gifts) I adapted this melody… Sometimes, for a change I sing the whole song in the present tense. ‘I dance in the morning when the world is begun…’. It’s worth a try.”

But was Carter just being fanciful or was he laying hold of something in the Scriptures themselves?

In Lk 7:31-35, Jesus compares the people of his generation with children calling to each other in the marketplace: “We played flute and you didn’t dance; we sang laments to you and you didn’t mourn”. Some scholars take the concept of weddings and funerals to relate to the two subsequent ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. The people of this generation (v31) are those who reject both the strict and sober John and the free “wine-drinking” Jesus. They have turned down the invitation of both to join in, whether it be the fast or the feast.

Such a statement recalls that first, strange miracle, when Jesus “showed his glory” at a wedding reception and in the sheer exuberance of all that excess wine, the playfulness of saving “the best until last.”  (Jn 2) Truly, Jesus came “eating  and drinking”, playing the flute, but no one wanted to dance. And so many of his words that we take as starkly critical of the hypocrisy of the religiously self-important, were actually provocative, playful and subversively comic. He simply made a laughing stock out of all who would exchange the joy of God’s presence into a set of ridiculous rules.

One might even say this: that he kingdom of God is only for those who are ready to play and dance: in short, those who are ready to “receive as a child” (Luke 18:16-17). Jesus presents the children here as a model for any who want to enter the kingdom of God. Now, one of the most defining characteristics of a child, -let me assure you!- is the ability to play. The whole of life is a game to a child. Try tutoring sixteen year olds who are just not quite ready to act like adults. But far from criticising their inability to concentrate, Jesus spreads his hands and says “That’s it! That’s what I’m looking for!”

People who are not open to play are not open to the kingdom of God. It is foolishness to those who are ambitious for human wisdom, human intellectual respectability, social approval (as Paul said, in a different context). No, no: the kingdom of God is Sabbath. It is rest, and play, and shalom. It’s the interplay of creation in which each and everyone gets his due.

The whole tenor of the teaching of Jesus is deeply playful. It’s interesting to read –as I’m doing right now – one of those “Red Letter” Bibles that puts all the words of Jesus in special print. It makes one realise just why these words were so well-remembered. They were significant, weighty, deliberate but none the less crazy, provocative, subversive. You just couldn’t ignore them and they lingered in the minds of the hearers like a burr under the saddle. They created an itch.

Don’t let anyone get away with saying that the Sermon on the Mount is “ethics for life”! The entire dictatorship of necessity and order is undermined by inviting people to play the Sabbath game.It took religious people to invent what has been called “the puritan work ethic” which stimulates joyless and materialistic workaholics everywhere. But Jesus announced Sabbath: “Why are you anxious?…See how the flowers grow? They don’t toil or spin and yet not Solomon…” (Matt 6:28-29).

In this context, the parables of Jesus are like icebreaker-games at the beginning of parties. They make a gap in a closed order and make room for God’s rule. For example: Here’s a reliable farm worker: but Jesus tells of one who gets a full day’s pay for an hour’s work (Matt 20:1-16). Here’s a runaway son come home. We understand the joy of the father but we only dimly grasp why the child doesn’t feel the need to ask (somewhere between the hug of greeting and the dance-floor), “Why have you done this for me?” (Luke 15).

Here’s a sinner and a saint, and yet it’s the sinner who is commended (justified) and somehow the proud saint is condemned. How does that work? (Lk 18).

Jesus is playing games with the existing order and opening up unsuspected possibilities for those who are oppressed by the order or who stand outside it altogether.

Like a game, a parable reflects our world in the light of its consummation in the eternal Sabbath. Therefore, a parable has therapeutic power, since it puts us in a position to stand back from the present situation, perceive possibilities we had yet to dream of, and thus understand ourselves and the world in a new way.

The stories about Jesus’s miracles also have a similar power to change the world and are as it were parables of action.Against a passive acceptance of the status quo they proclaim that the possessed can be freed, the hungry fed and the sick healed. Gerd Theissen said “The miracle stories will rather deny the validity of all previous experience than the right to eliminate human suffering.”

The passion of Jesus breaks through the closed walls of necessity, surprisingly bringing in the healing light of God’s kingdom. It’s the anarchic chaos that McMurphy brings into the tight-fisted Ratchet-run ward of One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jesus is not just the one sane man in a world full of maniacs: he is also the archetypal song and dance man, bringing the party, encouraging self-determination, life, belief, fun.

It’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.

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This entry was posted in Christianity, Contemporism, Evangelism, Faith, God, Is it me?, Jesus, life, Listening, New Church, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jesus the Song and Dance man

  1. Pingback: Jesus and the Knockout Punch Line | Dr Ken Baker

  2. Pingback: Why did Jesus tell stories? | Dr Ken Baker

  3. Pingback: Bob Dylan: “I still believe in Jesus, mofos!” | The Cinch Review

  4. Pingback: >>?The Historical Jesus<< | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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