Monday, August 21, 2006

Dance, Festivity, Christianity, and Burning Man

I am still reading through and reflecting on The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity by Harvey Cox (Harper Colophon Books, 1969) for its application to understanding cultures and festivity, particularly as it relates to spirituality in Christianity in late modernity. Chapter three is titled "A Dance Before the Lord," and in this chapter Cox includes a quote that caught my eye:

"A people who dance before their gods are generally freer and less repressed than a people who cannot."

Cox notes that dance within expressions of worship has a long history in Christianity, going back to the Old Testament. He reminds us of the "widespread use of dance not only in pre-Christian and pagan religions but in the Christian church itself. While I have not finished this chapter, I have found the ideas in it thus far thought provoking, especially in light of my upcoming attendance at Burning Man where dance and the celebration of the body are valued in this artistic community. The relationship between issues of the body and its connection to spirituality have also been in my mind in my interaction with various Pagan and Gnostic websites where Christianity is critiqued for its attitudes toward the body. Cox's conclusion in this chapter is worth reflecting on in this regard:

"What eventually happens to the church or to liturgical dancing is not a matter of urgent concern in itself. What happens to our stifled, sensually numbed culture is important. To reclaim the body, with all its earthly exquisiteness in worship is a hopeful sign only if it means we are ready to put away our deodorants and prickliness and welcome the body's smell and feel back into our ascetic cultural consciousness. Only when that happens will we know that our civilization has left behind the gnostics and their wan successors and has moved to a period when once again we can talk about the redemption of the body without embarassment."

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philjohnson said...


How one understands the theology of the creation, the Imago Dei, and the Incarnation, powerfully shapes the way one then approaches the topics you refer to.

The theology of creation found in the Old Testament places a tremendous value on the entire creation and the entire creature. The body is valuable because God created it. To loathe the body is to devalue the handiwork of God. Although the Imago Dei is never explicitly defined in Scripture (so it is a mistake to assume that the human physical form equates to the Imago Dei), human beings are distinguished from other creatures by embodying the Imago Dei.

The Incarnation highlights that the body is valuable as God becomes flesh, and the resurrection affirms the integrated nature of the transformed human (not a disembodied spirit).

It is worth also just noting as background to your reading that in the 1960s Harvey Cox was one of the harbingers of the "death-of-god" theology. He also looked at the countercultural appropriation of East Asian forms religious mysticism of the 60s and 70s (as well as the turn to hallucinatory drugs and occult spiritualities) in his book Turning East.

nic paton said...

I don't know if you saw this

but I was astonished that Augustine could have valued dance when so much of our rejection of the material and physical is traceable back to his neo-platonism.