DANCE AND DRAMA IN WORSHIP AND
EVANGELISM – A CONTEMPORARY
1. Thoughtful Christians looking at the contemporary situation in Great Britain find much reason for concern and exercise of heart. Whilst there is in the situation that which should make us deeply thankful, there is also much that causes anguish and apprehension. For every evidence of God’s presence among His people and in services of worship we should be truly grateful. However, it is necessary to ask whether, when we meet together in the name of Christ, His presence is gloriously manifested in power and grace. Also there is reason to be exercised by a seeming inability to communicate the truths of the gospel to many of those around us. Of course there are some who listen to the preaching and who are converted but the teeming thousands of our great cities are
*First published in the Banner of Truth, 1978.
unmoved and untouched by our message. How many ordinary people have any idea of what the gospel really is and why Christ came? The answer must be that very few indeed have any comprehension of God’s truth. This being the situation we need to be humbled, and even when speaking about the issues raised in the title, remember before God our faults and failings. We need to seek with zeal that pouring out of God’s Spirit upon us that we so desperately need. Let us remember that the power and glory of God’s presence and truth is a great corrective to error and spiritual confusion. However, while what is written above is true, and while also we recognize the concern and zeal of others for right worship and evangelism, that does not mean we can agree with the innovations in worship and evangelism which they consider desirable.
2. Some readers may wonder why we should give any thought to the place of dance and drama in worship and evangelism. The fact is that in some spheres such issues are creating great problems. This is particularly true for young Christians in universities, where such activities as street theatre are thought to have a place in the evangelism organized by Christian Unions. For many years liberal churches thought nothing of putting on religious plays and pageants. What is comparatively new is that churches styled evangelical have followed suit and introduced drama and dancing into their worship. A book has been written by a tutor at an Anglican Theological College, reputedly evangelical, called Praise Him in the Dance. In the foreword we read, `The Great Lover is also the Great Dancer,” and the use of dancing in worship and evangelism is vigorously argued. It is necessary also to remark on how wide are the issues raised by these recent developments. We are confronted by the question of what is involved in the true worship of God.
In religious traditions other than Protestantism the use of drama is already accepted. R.C.D. Jasper writes, ‘As long ago as 1948 Mgr. Ronald Knox wrote in his book The Mass in Slow Motion that the movements of the priest during the mass “really add up to a kind of dance meant to express a religious idea to you, the spectator”. He recognized that worship involves a language of movements as well as of words.”
The same is true of Russian Orthodox worship: ‘The Russian Church is near to the spiritual life of Greece. Its liturgical service, even the church interior, betrays its relationship to Greek drama. Indeed pious Russians describe their liturgy, without any irreverence, as “the drama of salvation” … This is eastern piety. Its worship is the theatron pneumatikon, the theatre of the spirit.” What has been acceptable in Catholicism is now becoming acceptable in certain evangelical circles. In Protestantism centrality has always been given to the preaching of the Word of God, both in worship and evangelism. This has been the glory and strength of Protestantism. We need to think deeply of the implications of these trends.
It is perhaps apposite to close this section by two quotations, the first of which reveals the Orthodox attitude to these issues: ‘They reproach Protestantism which places the sermon in the central position with the words: “You are rationalists. You have to have everything explained. You have no awe before the secret things of God. These secrets cannot be grasped by reflection, but only through the five senses to which they are presented in symbolic forms, in the icons on the iconostases and in the magnificent priestly robes, in the wonderful singing of the priest and choir, in the high smoke of the incense, and in the cross held out by the priest. In kissing the cross, the worshippers feel the presence of God”.” The second quotation is from the introduction to Worship and Dance by J.G. Davies where he is speaking of the last article in the book: ‘The final paragraphs of this concluding article describe the god Shiva as Nataraja, i.e. as Lord of the Dance. In this introduction we have then come full circle, from Sydney Carter with his vision of the Lord of Dance to Shiva with his rhythmic play as the source of all movement in the cosmos.’ The implications of such a statement hardly need pointing out.
3. What is the justification for these radical innovations? That the New Testament provides no such justification is willingly conceded, ‘In the New Testament there is no evidence of the dance and music-making that characterized Israelite worship’.’ It is to the Old Testament that appeals have to be made and in due course it will be necessary to examine more fully the relevance of Old Testament teaching.
One other main line of justification is church history and to this we must now look. ‘After the New Testament period there seems to be no evidence for dance or dramatic presentation until the fourth century when we know it took place in some churches, though later Augustine spoke out against it because of its association with pagan festivities … The Middle Ages saw the advent of Miracle and Morality plays which proved extremely popular.” We must look more carefully at this argument. Even if the mediaeval and early church had been in favour of such activities it would, of course, not necessarily prove anything. All kinds of activities have gone on in the church during the centuries of its history. However, the fact is that there is evidence of great hostility to stage plays during many centuries of church history.
In the 2nd Century Tatian ‘described the actor as a man who is one thing internally, but outwardly counterfeits what he is not’ ;4 whilst Tertullian, a better known figure, in his treatise De Spectaculis wrote, `The Author of truth hates all the false; He regards as adultery all that is unreal, condemning therefore, as He does, hypocrisy in every form. He will never approve any putting on of voice, or sex or age; He will never
approve pretended loves and wraths and groans and tears.’ We read further, ‘In 397 from the Council of Carthage came one of the earlier decrees forbidding Churchmen to have any connection with the stage’.4 It becomes apparent also that while the mediaeval mystery plays may have been popular there was in them much buffoonery and indecency. It would seem that it was this which often delighted the audience and proved the great attraction, rather than a desire to be sanctified and taught.
Probably the most extensive examination of this issue was made by William Prynne who, in his massive work Histriomastix (1632), of some one thousand pages, begins with the premise that the devil is the author of all stage plays. Whilst Prynne was a somewhat bitter controversialist and we would not wish to approve of his bitterness, yet the monumental character of his work was recognized even by his adversaries who made little attempt to refute his arguments. Archbishop Laud, a bitter foe of Prynne’s Calvinism, ‘asserted that the mere reading of the works cited by Prynne would occupy sixty years of a man’s life’.4 Prynne produces a vast body of testimony against stage plays: ‘Hence Saint Cyprian concludes that the Scripture hath everlastingly condemned all sorts of spectacles and stage plays even when it took away Idolatry, the Mother of all plays, from whence all these monsters of vanity and of lewdness have proceeded. Which assertion of his is seconded by Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom with other of ancient and modern times who doom all stage plays He refers to Hilary and Ambrose who use Psalm 119:37, ‘Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity and quicken me in thy way,’ as an argument against plays. Two further quotations from his work may be given. In the first we read, `Tertullian in his book De Spectaculis affirms that the heathen Gentiles did most of all discern men to be Christian by this, that they abandoned and renounced stage plays.’ The second is that `Every Christian that was baptized in the primitive church did solemnly renounce all stage plays, dancing, with such like sports and spectacles as the very works and pomps of the devil.”
To appeal to the early history of the church in order to justify present trends would seem to be a very foolish thing. Evidently the views of many leaders were crystal clear. Miss Long’s assertion that ‘After the New Testament period there seems to be no evidence for dance or dramatic presentation until the fourth Century” is therefore highly misleading. In a sense it is true, but it hardly does justice to the true situation which was that such activities were viewed with profound hostility.
In spite of what has been said above, it must be conceded that there seem to have been some differences of view among the early Reformers and Puritans. John Bale wrote a play with ‘strong Calvinistic propagandist intent.” Furthermore according to Knappen in his book
Tudor Puritanism Calvin allowed the production of a Biblical play at Geneva, although he does not cite his authority for saying this. He goes on to remark that the Puritan Inns of Court regularly produced plays and masques. Another writer asserts that `Beza wrote mystery plays for a Protestant public’.” Even Prynne conceded ‘only the old Reformation plays were at all commendable, and that because in their time they furnished the sole means of furthering the Protestant Cause’.`
There appears to have been a gradual hardening of attitude however. In 1581 Stubbs put in a preface to his The Anatomy of Abuses approving `some kind of plays, tragedies and interludes’ as ‘very honest and commendable exercises’, but eliminated this in later editions.’ In 1599 we have Rainolds’ Overthrow of Stage Plays, in which he writes that ‘to imitate and resemble wantonness, scurrility, imprudency, drunkenness or any other misbehaviour is a thing unlawful’.
Finally in this brief historical survey it is worth mentioning the attitude of George Whitefield: ‘During the time of my being at school, I was very fond of reading plays, and have kept from school for days together to prepare myself for acting them. My master seeing how mine and my schoolfellows’ vein ran, composed something of this kind for us himself, and caused me to dress myself in girls’ clothes, which I had often done, to act a part before the corporation. The remembrance of this has often covered me with confusion of face, and I hope will do so, even to the end of my life’.”
Summarizing what has been said so far, there seems to be a tremendous weight of evidence opposed to dramatic presentation in general. What was so opposed outside the church would hardly be acceptable within its worship. This statement must be qualified by the recognition that in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches the liturgy has a dramatic form. On the other hand, in those churches where the worship of God was most deliberately spiritual and where the sensual was rejected as having no place in the New Testament dispensation of the Spirit, there the greatest hostility to drama has been found. Furthermore there have been Reformers and Puritans who have not wholly rejected the use of drama, although the true character of their attitude requires further investigation. Of course the final court of appeal is the Scripture and it is to this we must now turn.
Nothing of what has been said above is meant to deny that there is a connection between the spiritual and the physical. Thus it was said of Stephen, a man filled with the Holy Ghost, that his face was as the face of an angel (Acts 6.15). Spiritual joy will affect appearance, and the fervent singing which has been associated with revivals is undoubtedly another aspect of this truth. The man who was healed at the gate Beautiful went into the temple ‘walking and leaping and praising God’ (Acts 3.8). We learn of the converted, drunken tin-miner, Billy Bray dancing with joy, and in the 1859 Revival in Scotland read of ‘the
preachings at which sometimes an entire large assembly seemed as if one molten mass of humiliation before God, the prostrations (the “fallings” of 1742) under an overwhelming sense of sin, the trances and unconscious hours of soul struggle, called by those who passed through the experiences “being drunk with the Spirit”, and the strange ecstatic “dancings” mostly among the fisher-folk, all these were certainly connected with lifelong spiritual transformations, though doubtless also connected with physical and psychological excitements and impacts’.” These manifestations however associated with revivals have little relationship to the kind of activity against which we have argued above.
4. It is necessary at this stage to make two relevant points. The first is that in a brief article it is not possible to deal exhaustively with all the Biblical evidence. The second is to remind readers that our primary interest is with dancing and drama in worship and evangelism and that the issue of their place in society as a whole is only of incidental interest to us in this context.
A considerable weight in the arguments for dance and drama is placed on the Old Testament. It is relevant therefore to comment on the great difference that exists between the Old and the New Testaments. In Old Testament times there was much that was outward and physical involved in worship. Thus there was a temple built with hands, in which worship was to be offered, there were material sacrifices, and a priesthood with special garments. The whole administration had an external character. Things were done which affected the eye and impressed men on a physical plane. The temple itself was a magnificent building in which vast quantities of gold, silver and fine timber were used.
This however was only a preparation for a more spiritual administration. This is clearly revealed in the Old Testament itself: `Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest’? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word’ (Isaiah 66.1,2). This is even more clearly seen in the New Testament. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ states, ‘The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father … but the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.21-24). Paul repeats this principle, ‘For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh’ (Philippians 3.3). Just because a particular activity was a legitimate part of worship in the Old
Testament it does not mean that such an activity is necessarily allowable under New Testament principles. New Testament worship is different and in certain aspects is radically different from worship of an Old Testament character.
No one would wish to deny that on occasion dancing of a particular kind was part of Old Testament worship. But it must be pointed out that references to such activity are comparatively few. Such verses as Psalm 149.3, 150.4, Exodus 15.20, 2 Samuel 6.16 refer to joy in God being reflected in such physical activity. It is also necessary to remember that one of the greatest defections of the children of Israel was associated with dancing. And it came to pass, as soon as he (Moses) came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot …’ (Exodus 32.19). Here the Lord was being worshipped under the form of a golden calf and in conjunction with dancing of a thoroughly depraved character. This ‘worship’ was very popular and received the consent of the vast majority of the Israelites. But it was violently repudiated by Moses who stood quite alone against the carnal maj ority.
The New Testament itself provides no warrant for dancing in worship. The only dancing of which we read in the New Testament is that of Luke 7.32 and that of Salome. As a consequence of the latter John the Baptist had his head cut off. It should be said that anyone who has any experience of the world knows that dancing is associated with a vast amount of depravity and corruption, with degradation and iniquity. This together with the history of John the Baptist furnishes a solemn warning against introducing into the worship of a holy God that which on so many occasions is evidently of the devil.
Those who wish to justify this activity seek to do so by an appeal to the use of the body, ‘God is teaching me and many others how the physical body He has given to me (the only means of expressing myself on earth) may rightly, reverently and joyfully be used to express love for Him’.’ Certainly we may express our love for God through our bodies. We do this when with our bodies we obey His commandments. We recognize that there is nothing intrinsically evil in the body since Christ Himself had a fully human body. Our bodies are to be the instruments of good in the world, with them we may visit the sick, minister to the needy and engage in other activities which are such an important part of the Christian life. But where in the New Testament will you find justification for such statements as the following’? ‘Dance and drama can be “like windows, offering a clearer view of God’s truth”.”Singing can be part of the response whereby people praise God in music and words and dancing can be also part of it, whereby some praise God using the language of the body’.’ The fact is that the New Testament with its emphasis on the spiritual in worship provides no warrant for such statements, nor for the introduction of such activity into the
worship of God. How easily is eros (physical love) confounded with agape (Christian love)!
Even those who recommend dancing can see dangers in it. ‘Does dance and drama encourage Christians to focus wrongly on the physical?” ‘Perhaps some people are fearful that through watching dance or drama especially in a church setting, sensual feelings will be aroused and that does not feel right.” In Worship and Dance’ the same danger is faced and a lengthy attempt is made to dispel such anxieties. However in neither case is any remotely adequate answer given to this obvious and serious danger Â— a danger, it should be noted, which is likely to be aggravated by the character of the sensual and sex-intoxicated age in which we live.
As we have already seen, early Christian writers seem to have had clearer views on this matter than some today. Thus Chrysostom (Court preacher at Byzantium) expounding the history of Herodias’ daughter in Matthew says: ‘Where dancing is there is the devil. For God did not give us our feet for this end that we might demean ourselves indecently; but that we might walk decently, not prance like camels; but that we may exult with the angels. If even the body is disgraced, which perpetrates this indecency, much more the soul … Dancing is the devil’s invention’.” ‘The eighth Universal Council of the Church (in Trullo) (A.D. 692) enacts: ‘We also forbid and expel all public dances of women as producing much injury and ruin’.”
In summary it must be said that attempts to justify from Scripture dancing in public worship are pathetically weak. The dangers inherent in such an activity are patently obvious to any having an understanding of the spirit of our age. It is not the ‘language of the body’ which is needed but the purifying and glorious presence of the Holy Ghost. It is not by the beholding of the movements of women’s bodies (or men’s for that matter) that the church will be edified, but by the powerful preaching of the pure Word of God. How careful should we be to learn from the New Testament and not to introduce into God’s worship alien elements, just because men happen to think them a good idea. Paul writes, ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6.20); this we do by keeping God’s commandments, not by introducing our own ideas into His worship.
5. When the use of drama in worship is justified an appeal is again made to the Old Testament. Particular weight is placed upon the symbolic actions of Old Testament prophets. The following verses are typical of those appealed to: Isaiah 7.3; 8.1-4; Jeremiah 13.1-11; 16.1-4; 19.1-2a, 10-1 la; 32.7-15; Ezekiel 4.1-4. There are of course many others. Now it is true that the prophets on occasion were specifically commanded to perform actions which had symbolic significance. But this is not the same as acting, where one person is portraying the
character and activity of another. When the prophets performed these actions it was quite clear that it was they who were doing them, sharpening and illuminating their message by an action of a symbolic character. The modern equivalent of this would be the Chinese preacher John Sung who when preaching against sin said, ‘It is no good pruning sin, you must pull it up by the roots’, and then proceeded, quite spontaneously, to pull up various pot plants which were placed near the platform where he was preaching. Obviously similar actions are not to be recommended to preachers, they would merely be gimmicks! In the case of Sung, whose sincerity was transparent, no one would suggest he was acting; all he was doing was illustrating in a somewhat unusual way the truth which he was preaching. The prophets did the same on many occasions, by the direct command of God. But this is not acting.
It is said there was no acting in the New Testament. Actually this is quite untrue. The Greek word for ‘playactor’ is the basis for the English word ‘hypocrite’. So in the New Testament there were some excellent actors and some superb acting. The Pharisees were excellent actors who played the part of the godly with such skill as to deceive most people. Judas acted the part of a disciple of Christ with impeccable conviction, whilst all the time being a servant of the devil. Ananias and Sapphira were another two actors and it was only Peter’s supernatural discernment which enabled him to unmask them. In that sense do we wish to make Christians into actors? Is not our great battle to flee from the hypocrisy which pretends to be one thing whilst in fact being another. We want to be ourselves and stop pretending to be someone else we are not. To set people acting is to set them going in a direction which is the opposite of that in which the Bible leads us. The Lord Jesus never pretended to be someone He was not. We should follow His example.
This problem is accentuated when people are asked to portray what is evil. The protagonists of acting recognize this difficulty. ‘Therefore, whether singing hymns in churches or kneeling to pray or dancing in praise or acting a part, we continue to be “temples of the Holy Spirit”. This can raise problems in acting some character parts such as Judas, or the adulterous woman, or Satan himself.” How can a godly man be asked to act the part of an ungodly person, or even of the devil himself? How can he enter into such a part or learn how to portray an evil character such as Judas? Should he learn to appear to be what he is not?
This problem becomes even more acute when we see that men are asked to act the part of Christ or even of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. It is difficult to see how those who lean so heavily on the Old Testament for a justification of their theories, have not noticed the character of God revealed in the Old Testament. His surpassing glory, His utter holiness, His unspotted purity and His powerful justice render it objectionable that any fallen sinner should pretend to represent Him,
to act His part before men. It might be objected here that Hosea does just that in taking to himself an unfaithful wife. It is true that Hosea’s experiences illustrate in a most painful way the unfaithfulness of Israel. It is also true that Job’s and David’s sufferings illustrate and foreshadow the sufferings of Christ. But this was not acting since their experiences were real and not pretended. Hosea was not pretending to be God, although his life illustrated certain truths about God. From the blood of Abel to the slaughter of Zacharias, son of Barachias, (Matt 23.35), the sufferings of men have foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ. But these men were not pretending to be Christ, they were suffering in a real situation, for their devotion to Him. Let it be said that anyone who acts the part of Christ before men will misrepresent Him; he cannot do otherwise. He is guilty then of idolatry and blasphemy. What is in the mind of a fallen man who undertakes to act the part of the Son of God before men? Knowing his own depravity and weakness and the glory of the Son of God, he should shrink with horror from having any part in such a monstrous charade. Also the experience would be shattering for a believer beholding such a travesty. Knowing that his Saviour is in glory and worshipped of angels and the redeemed, knowing His presence by the powerful work of the Spirit, he would have to sit and watch some misguided sinner masquerading as the Lord of Glory. The angels worship Him and veil their faces before Him; who is the man who will act His part? When Christ is present by His Word what need have we of some sinner to dress up in His clothes?
When the Apostles would do the will of God, we do not find them acting in the temple, nor do we find Paul setting up a church dramatic society in Corinth. According to the revealed will of their Lord they preached the gospel and filled Jerusalem with their doctrine. When men start to introduce these innovations in worship and evangelism it is because they have lost confidence in the Word of God. God’s ordained way of saving sinners and edifying saints is by the preaching of His Word. It would seem this is one of the vital issues involved in this controversy. What does the Bible tell us is God’s great instrument whereby He is to be glorified in the world? It is by His Word which brings new life to sinners and sanctifies the saint. It is by this Word that Christ is to be sweetly and powerfully brought to our souls and that we are to know His presence.
6. It is true that it is easier to see what is wrong with others than to put right what is wrong with ourselves. Whilst rejecting these activities as having no rightful place in the life of the church, we nevertheless need to examine ourselves. When God in His glory appears and builds up Jerusalem, when our churches give more evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence, then it is less likely that people will be led away into such paths. If your wife is present with you, what use would you have for a
photograph which grossly distorts her appearance and misrepresents her character? When Christ is present with us we will not want fellow sinners misrepresenting Him to us. When by the Spirit we worship God in truth we will reject that which is sensuous and which smacks of entertainment. The church’s task is not to entertain or amuse people who are going to hell, but to save them by the preaching of the Word. Let the would-be actor reflect on the consummate acting skill of a Judas or of a Pharisee, and ask himself, Should not my energies be concentrated on being the sort of person God wants me to be, and not on pretending to be someone I am not nor ever will be?
The Word of God has always been the great enemy of Satan and of sin. Sinners, unless renewed and restrained by the grace of God have always desired to avoid the straight preaching of the Word. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness they have become dissatisfied with God’s wonderful provision for their needs. Longing after the delights of Egypt they have rejected God’s Word, being wearied with it, and shown that while their feet were turned towards Canaan their hearts were still in Egypt. Satan will promote and reinforce any tendency which will remove the Word of God from its rightful place. He has always opposed with all his might the instrument by which his kingdom has been destroyed. May God’s Word prevail and the spiritual character of His working be preserved! Many will not be particularly troubled by these issues, but there are others who are perplexed by them. This article is written with the prayer that it may help them to see some of the issues in a clearer light.
1 Praise Him in the Dance, Anne Long.
2 Worship and Dance, J. G. Davies.
3 The Meek and the Mighty, H. Brandenburg.
4 Yale Studies in English, Vol. 20, 1903.
5 Histriomastix, William Prynne.
6 International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Article on Drama.
7 Tudor Puritanism, M. Knappen.
8 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Article on Drama.
9 George Whitefield, Vol. 1, A. Dallimore.
10 Discussions Â— Evangelical and Theological, R. L. Dabney.
11 Banner of Truth Magazine, March 1978,
`Reminiscences of the 1859 Revival’.