Richard R. Crocker, Ph.D.
July 12, 2009
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29
Both of today’s scripture passages concern occasions of celebration commemorated by dancing. The Old Testament lesson describes the time when King David, after his great victory over the Philistines, recovered the most precious object of Jewish worship, the Ark of the Covenant. (Note to younger generation: yes this was the same ark that Indiana Jones later sought.) As David led the soldiers and the ark back into Jerusalem, the scripture records that he danced. And this was not a slow dance like a march; rather, it was a raucous dance, such as certain football players have been known to do in the end-zone. Scripture says that “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” They were really living it up in celebration. Scripture says further: “David danced before the Lord with all his might. David was girded with a linen ephod.” Now, when people dance excitedly, they get hot and sometimes remove parts of their clothing. Apparently David, in his exuberance, was dressed with minimal decency. And what should happen but that one of his wives, Michal, should see him. “And as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of King Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.” Why did she despise him? Apparently she was embarrassed by what she saw. Apparently David, in his elation, revealed more of himself than was proper. She said to him: “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself.” (2 Samuel 6:20b) – Ah. There’s a puritan in every crowd, isn’t there?
Dancing is an ancient, almost spontaneous form of worship. It is fully documented in the Old Testament as a kind of ecstatic praise. It has continued to be a form of worship in many religions, including Christianity, where, even today, in some Christian congregations, one can expect dancing to erupt during worship as the spirit moves. I said in some Christian congregations, but certainly not here. No, no spontaneous dancing here.
I will tell you a joke that Billy Graham told in 1963 during a “crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, where I, as a high school student, sat in the stands in Legion Field, witnessing the first integrated use of that stadium in its history. I have heard the joke many times since, but as far as I’m concerned, it belongs to Billy Graham. He said there was a man who came to a worship service at a staid congregation (substitute your denomination of choice, but today let’s say congregational). During the service, as the spirit moved him, he began to yell “Amen”, and wave his arms, and finally to stand and move his body rhythmically. At this point, the ushers had to do something, so they came up to escort him out. He resisted them saying- “Leave me alone – I’ve got religion!” To which they replied, “Well you may have got religion, but you didn’t get it here.”
I know your pastor is fond of quoting William Sloane Coffin, as am I. I don’t know is she has shared this one with you; Coffin once said “Most churches in New England are so cold that you can ice skate down the center aisle.” Our puritan heritage does continue to cast a shadow, doesn’t it? So many times we have a joy joy joy joy so deep in our hearts that no one ever sees it.
But let’s look at the other scripture passage for today – the story in Mark about the death of John the Baptist. Now this also was a celebration. It was a birthday party. Herodias, wife of Herod, former wife of his brother Philip, was having a birthday. The major attraction was a dance done by her daughter, usually known as Salome. We know nothing about this dance except that it was a great hit – so much so that it carried her step-father, Herod, away. He promised her anything as a reward. And, of course, at the instigation of her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. This may be the reason why Baptists ever since have been afraid of dancing.
Now I do not mean to make light of the seriousness of the texts before us. I am a serious person. I grew up as a Baptist and became a Presbyterian in my twenties. I proudly bear the names now of Puritan and Calvinist. And these texts do present some serious issues that we usually ignore – issues such as the role of war and violence in our religious heritage and in our conception of God; issues like the role of prophets and civil disobedience. But it is true, isn’t it, that Michal, the “puritan” in the old testament passage, totally missed the joy of David’s dancing, and the dancing of Salome, which has inspired plays and operas, leads many people to be more afraid of dancing than opposed to capital punishment, or to injustice. In other words, it is the peculiar puritan temptation to be distracted from the really important by the relatively insignificant. This is exemplified by the old line, repeated to me recently by one of my Baptist-minister friends, that Baptists are opposed to pre-marital sex because it can lead to dancing.
Don’t you hate it when ministers come back from vacation and tell you about books they’ve read? I know I do, but I’m going to do it anyway.
During my vacation in Maine last week, because it rained all the time, I read even more than usual. One of the books I read is called The Unlikely Disciple. Its author is a young man named Kevin Roose, who graduated just a few months ago from my alma mater, Brown University. The book is the story of the semester he spent under-cover as a student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He himself grew up as a nominal Quaker in Ohio. His aim in going to Liberty was to explore the evangelical, conservative Christian world – to blend in and pass as a member of that world,, while all the time gathering material to write a book about it. I was very interested in this book. As Roose says, Brown and Liberty are polar opposites. Brown, despite its Baptist heritage (or maybe because of it) is one of the most liberal colleges in the country; Liberty is one of the most conservative. Brown is one of the most diverse, Liberty one of the most homogenous. Brown has very few rules, Liberty has many. For example – at Liberty University, there is no coeducational housing, no visitation at all in residences of the opposite gender, no dancing (of course) and no physical contact with a member of the opposite sex lasting longer than three seconds. This is called the three second rule. All students are required to take courses in Bible, as well as in creation science, and a general education course teaching about the proper relationships between men and women. At Liberty there is required chapel attendance and required church attendance. None of these things apply at Brown.
Kevin Roose went into this whole hog. He sang in the choir at Thomas Memorial Baptist Church. He went willingly to the nightly prayer meetings that were organized on his hall. As a writer for the campus newspaper, he conducted an interview with Jerry Falwell the week before Falwell died. Roose’s friends and family were more concerned about his semester at Liberty than they would have been if he had traveled to remotest Africa. They felt that he was in danger. But he had a different experience. Although he never became comfortable with the political atmosphere on the campus, nor with the some of the views of Jerry Falwell, nor with the overt homophobia on the campus, he came to appreciate the sincerity and goodness of most of his fellow students. He came to enjoy praying. He looked forward to prayer groups. He enjoyed the services at Thomas Memorial Church. He had really known nothing about the Bible, and he enjoyed learning about it, in detail. He stopped swearing. He was chaste. He enjoyed waking up on Sunday mornings without a hangover. He came to respect the genuineness and sincerity of many students. But, to his parents’ relief, he never became an evangelical Christian. He never got saved. And he returned, with some relief, and some regret, to the different concept of “liberty” at Brown.
Here is one sample passage. As he reflected on a speech given by Dr. Falwell at the college chapel, Roose says: “… it reminds me that there are really several kinds of purity Liberty cares about. The first two … are the sexual and spiritual purity of its students, concepts that seem to be fairly intertwined. But third, and arguably more important, is the emphasis on institutional purity. Liberty takes great pride in defining itself as the Christian university that has held itself staunchly upright, remaining true to its evangelical mission while the colleges around it are blown about by the changing winds of culture - so much so that Dr. Falwell has instructed Liberty alumni to come back and burn down the school if it ever turns liberal. What Liberty fears most, in other words, is not losing its accreditation or seeing its endowment shrink. It’s turning into Brown.”
Or, we could say, Dartmouth. As you know, the Tucker Foundation was named in honor of William Jowett Tucker, Dartmouth’s last minister president, and charged by its founder, President Dickey, with furthering “the moral and spiritual work of Dartmouth College.” Obviously, Dartmouth has a very different conception of moral and spiritual work than Liberty University, just as some churches have very different view of what constitutes the essence of Christianity. The central challenge facing the Tucker Foundation, and colleges like Dartmouth, and maybe even churches like this one, is to speak clearly and honestly about what our moral and spiritual work is.
But, to close, I return to the topic of dancing. Though many conservative Christians have opposed it, there was one rather conservative group for whom dancing was essential. I refer, of course, to the Shakers – named for the fact that their worship involved shaking – or dancing. These Adventist Christians, as you may know from the villages in Enfield and Canterbury, led celibate lives. Men and women lived in common, but separately. They had no children, since they expected the imminent end of the world, but they did take in and raise orphans. On Sunday, at worship, they entered the simple worship building through different doors. As they sang, they danced. One of their tunes, called Simple Gifts, also known as Lord of the Dance, has infiltrated almost every hymnal, but not yours. So, as so often, we have to turn to the Presbyterians. I encourage you to sing it, and even to tap your toes. It tells us to dance, wherever we may be, but let’s not get carried away with that. But let us not allow our concern about dancing – or not dancing – distract us from what we know to be most important about our Christian commitment – our concerns for justice, healing, non-violence, and eternal life, Amen.