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Saturday, February 26, 2011

The case against Lord of the Dance

One of the songs on my list of questionable pieces in GIA's forthcoming version of Worship IV is Lord of the Dance, the lyrics having been written by Sydney Carter.  Inasmuch as the song has been a part of GIA's repertoire since the days of Worship II, I was hoping that the publishing house would finally purge the piece out of its rotation.
While the Shaker melody may not necessarily be the ideal music for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the lyrics, themselves, I believe, border on heresy.

Here are the lyrics:

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, then, 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 Pharoah 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

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

Dance, then, 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 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

Dance, then, 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.

While these words may seem innocuous, that may not necessarily be the case.  Upon doing some research, I found similarities to the heretical Acts of John, which purports itself to have been written by the beloved Apostle, himself.   This particular "Acts" is part of the writings of the gnostics, a misguided group of souls that believed that the body was bad and that only the spiritual was good. What this song does is, in effect, reduce the salviffic acts of our Redemption to a mere prancing around the global stage and does not take the glorious work of Jesus very seriously. It makes light of Jesus' supreme sacrifice.

Here is the section from the "Acts" in question:

Grace danceth. I would pipe; dance ye all. Amen.

I would mourn: lament ye all. Amen.

The number Eight (lit. one ogdoad) singeth praise with us. Amen.

The number Twelve danceth on high. Amen.

Whole on high hath part in our dancing. Amen.

Whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. Amen.

A door am I to thee that knockest at me. Amen.

A way am I to thee a wayfarer. [amen].

96 Now answer thou (or as thou respondest) unto my dancing. Behold thyself in me who speak, and seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries.

Thou that dancest, perceive what I do, for thine is this passion of the manhood, which I am about to suffer. For thou couldest not at all have understood what thou sufferest if I had not been sent unto thee, as the word of the Father. Thou that sawest what I suffer sawest me as suffering, and seeing it thou didst not abide but wert wholly moved, moved to make wise. Thou hast me as a bed, rest upon me. Who I am, thou shalt know when I depart. What now I am seen to be, that I am not. Thou shalt see when thou comest. If thou hadst known how to suffer, thou wouldest have been able not to suffer. Learn thou to suffer, and thou shalt be able not to suffer. What thou knowest not, I myself will teach thee. Thy God am I, not the God of the traitor. I would keep tune with holy souls. In me know thou the word of wisdom. Again with me say thou: Glory be to thee, Father; glory to thee, Word; glory to thee, Holy Ghost. And if thou wouldst know concerning me, what I was, know that with a word did I deceive all things and I was no whit deceived. I have leaped: but do thou understand the whole, and having understood it, say: Glory be to thee, Father. Amen.

97 Thus, my beloved, having danced with us the Lord went forth.
Here is more from the false "Acts":

101 Nothing, therefore, of the things which they will say of me have I suffered: nay, that suffering also which I showed unto thee and the rest in the dance, I will that it be called a mystery. For what thou art, thou seest, for I showed it thee; but what I am I alone know, and no man else. Suffer me then to keep that which is mine, and that which is thine behold thou through me, and behold me in truth, that I am, not what I said, but what thou art able to know, because thou art akin thereto. Thou hearest that I suffered, yet did I not suffer; that I suffered not, yet did I suffer; that I was pierced, yet I was not smitten; hanged, and I was not hanged; that blood flowed from me, and it flowed not; and, in a word, what they say of me, that befell me not, but what they say not, that did I suffer. Now what those things are I signify unto thee, for I know that thou wilt understand. Perceive thou therefore in me the praising (al. slaying al. rest) of the (or a) Word (Logos), the piercing of the Word, the blood of the Word, the wound of the Word, the hanging up of the Word, the suffering of the Word, the nailing (fixing) of the Word, the death of the Word. And so speak I, separating off the manhood. Perceive thou therefore in the first place of the Word; then shalt thou perceive the Lord, and in the third place the man, and what he hath suffered.
102 When he had spoken unto me these things, and others which I know not how to say as he would have me, he was taken up, no one of the multitudes having beheld him. And when I went down I laughed them all to scorn, inasmuch as he had told me the things which they have said concerning him; holding fast this one thing in myself, that the Lord contrived all things symbolically and by a dispensation toward men, for their conversion and salvation.

The heretical Acts of John aren't necessarily clear what this "dance" is.  It seems to me that both this gnostic text and Carter's lyrics reduce the great acts of our Redemption to a leap and a prance. That does not make for good Catholic theology.   Unfortunately, gnosticism rears its ugly head ever so often. Lord of the Dance is just one of those instances.

The Passion of Jesus is not something to be taken lightly. Jesus did not float through the Passion, as this song would suggest. He didn't waltz through the agony. He didn't promenade throughout the beatings, the scourgings and the humiliation. The Blessed Mother wasn't dancingnd  around in front of the Cross, nor were Sts. John and Mary Magdalene for that matter.

The Lord of the Dance is based on some heretical and alleged gnostic text, but, it is not the true Gospel. As St. Paul tells us, he is not preaching to us some cleverly concocted myth. He preaches to us Christ crucified. Crucifixion means suffering and wounds, not some tip-toe through the proverbial tulips.

To reduce the Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ to some prancing and dancing is to entirely miss the point of everything He endured for us. It is to make a mockery of his sufferings. 

When Sydney Carter was interviewed about the piece, even his own explanation and justification was somewhat odd.  Here is what he says:

"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."

Evidently, he also seems to have also gotten his inspiration from a statue of a dancing Shiva that he had on his desk.  I do not believe that is how inspiration for composing music used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass works.


  1. BGal,
    Love the zeal and depth.
    But methinks thou doth protest in excess.
    I've never encountered a soul, or have knowledge of a soul who's scampered out of The Church or the church due to Carter's little allegory.
    Not saying it ought to remain a hymnal staple for another half century, but affective/effective heresy?
    Try "I, myself, am the bread of life," that has traction.

  2. Both songs are bad. At least GIA had the sense not to include the insipid "I Myself, am the Bread of Life" in Worship IV.

    The reason I spent time on "Lord of the Dance" was because someone asked me to present him with arguments as to why it's a bad song, other than my feelings about it.

  3. Well, as I said, I love the depth. That's the kind of analysis I'd like to see applied both to text and music at MSF/Cafe etc.
    Good on ya.