The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > How dance does theology: an introduction

How dance does theology: an introduction


Glorify Performing Arts exists to create productions that help artists and audiences grow in relationship with God. Just how does dance accomplish this? Through the month of January 2022, The Word in the Wings will feature articles exploring some distinctive ways in which dance expresses meaning and generates theological understanding. This introductory article describes the function of art in Christian practice more generally to provide a framework for the rest of the series.


Why art belongs in worship

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright defines “worship” in part as “acknowledging the worth, the worthy-ness, of the one who is worshipped.” This involves taking note of God’s character and God’s activity, observing, remarking on and celebrating it (Wright II.1). Wright explains that all creation, by virtue of its existence, manifests God’s goodness. Creation thereby praises God by pointing to the intelligent, creative power that forms it. Like smoke that indicates the presence of fire, creatures in their beauty and goodness function as indexical signs pointing to their creator. Humans contribute uniquely by attributing the goodness witnessed in creation to God through “conscious thought and expression” (Wright II.I). With our physical senses, we can observe God’s goodness in any created thing; humans have the capacity to articulate the connection between observed goodness and its divine source.

As we engage in naming and celebrating God’s goodness, cognition and emotion each play a role in expressing our experience of God’s reality. Some traditions of Christian worship tend to distance themselves from emotion for fear that extreme expressions are dishonoring to a God who deserves respectful devotion. However, musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie explains in his book Resounding Truth that “the danger” in worship “is not emotion but emotion that is out of sync with the reality we are trying to honor” (296). Christian art may portray earthly realities, heavenly ideals or both, but it does so in a manner that adds sensory dimension to our understanding of these things and thereby evokes emotions that are appropriate in worship as they help us see the world the way God sees it. Namely, the arts can express human experience as a complex and dynamic reality in which God intervenes with ultimate authority. As such, we can use the arts in worship to synchronize emotions with reality and dedicate our emotional lives to the service and glory of God.


Arts in response to God

Our worship comes about because God’s own action prompts our response (Wright III.2). We have knowledge of God’s action through Scripture or through personal experience. In addition, art can convey knowledge of God’s action and evoke a sympathetic response. An aesthetic response to a work of art may be available even when we are unable to respond emotionally, so art provides a pathway for exercising the emotional life even apart from real affecting experiences (Begbie 298). 

As dangerous as extreme, distracting or self-absorbed emotion may be in worship spaces, total lack of emotional response to reality is equally inhibitive to cultivating a relationship with a God who loves and aches for the world. A work of art adds sensory dimensions to our experience of a particular reality and thereby generates multiple pathways for response, whether cognitive or emotional, helping us to move us from recognizing reality to worshipping the God who creates, sustains and rescues it.

By the same token, art-making is in itself an activity of worshipful response. Wright says, “What you do with your body says something about what you are doing with the rest of you” (IV.2). If you lift your hands while singing a hymn, it indicates that your thoughts are oriented ‘upward,’ toward the metaphorical space of God’s dwelling. If you kneel to pray, it signifies that you humbly recognize and defer to God’s authority and wisdom. These simple actions are common in Christian worship, but responsive movement may also develop into dance, or worshipful response may manifest in the physical expressions of other art media.


Intensified understanding: from physical observation to metaphor in art

Christian worship acknowledges God’s worthiness by “telling the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do” (Wright II.1). Telling the story first requires attention to the story, the reality, of what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do.

Because arts use physical media to produce physical works that we observe through our physical senses, the arts “invite us to inhabit our senses and to discover the beloved world of God through our senses” (Taylor 50). Our physical senses convey our understanding of the world around us; we know what the world is because we see, hear, taste, smell and feel it. Art involves intensified engagement with our sensory observation of the world (Taylor, 50). By extension, art allows intensified potential for understanding the world. Dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin agrees when she says that “an art experience” is an activity “that enables people to find the full depth of their humanness” (Morgenroth 31).

Emotions are another way by which humans “name reality and…grasp the truth,” particularly when it comes to realities about relationships (Taylor 50). The language of natural speech can identify metaphors that help tease out an understanding of a lesser-known in relation to a better-known, but the arts, being physical and embodied, allow us to experience those metaphors (Taylor 55). The arts put metaphors into practice and begin to realize them. 

Choreographer David Gordon says that while he is setting movements and interactions for his dancers to perform, he doesn’t “know yet what it all means” (Morgenroth 48). The process of manifesting metaphors in movement or another art medium generates new combinations of elements, sparking novel ideas and interpretations. In the practice of art-making, the artist develops a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the ideas they are expressing.


Applying arts for theology

David Taylor asserts that “art brings us into an intentional and intensive participation in the physical, emotional, and imaginative aspect of our humanity” and that “metaphor is a defining feature of works of art” (40-41). The two halves of Taylor’s statement are linked: the physical, emotional, visual and tactile aspects of human experience are the content of metaphor, and imagination serves our capacity to find new meaning in metaphorical comparisons.

Metaphors are multiply allusive: they evoke “all sorts of images, feelings, and associations for the hearer” (Taylor 42). Artistic practice engages with that multiplicity of possible comparisons, digging and probing into the nature of reality to deepen and complexify our understanding of an idea or a phenomenon. Biblical examples abound as biblical authors make frequent use of metaphors, often in clusters, to express “the nature and character of God” through the media of narrative and poetry (Taylor 42). This provides support for the application of artistic meaning-making to the field of theology.


How an art works

Each art medium employs a different combination of elements–areas of potential variation in use of the medium–that give the medium its distinctive capacities for meaning-making (Taylor 43). For example, music has at its disposal such elements as note/pitch, rhythm, and volume/dynamics. These can be combined in certain ways which focus the meaning-making potential of the medium. Begbie writes that music employs patterns in tension and resolution which are limited in specific ways that make a baseline statement about God and the world, forming a framework for the theological interpretation of any piece of music.

As one illustration, Begbie discusses how tension and resolution interact in any given piece of music. Tension generates expectation of resolution, and resolution is only satisfying because it comes as the release of tension. As a result, music assumes and thereby instructs us that we cannot rush over tension but must “find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes, and fractures.” This is analogous to the way Holy Week does not skip directly to Easter and the resurrection but lingers through the anticipation of Maundy Thursday, the suffering of Good Friday, and the grief of Holy Saturday (Begbie 278-279).


Distinctive capacities of dance

Merce Cunningham, a prolific and influential 20th-century choreographer, “believes that movement itself is complete” as a medium for expression, independent of “emotion,” “intention,” or “dramatic narrative” (Morgenroth 11). While dance often incorporates elements of storytelling with which audiences are familiar from other media, movement itself also possesses inherent qualities that elicit associations and generate meaning in performance.

These qualities constitute the distinctive meaning-making capacities of dance and have been explored in great variety by Cunningham and other innovative contemporary dance choreographers. Subsequent posts in this series will engage with the capacities of dance as understood by respected dance practitioners and explore how each of these capacities might align with a Christian theological worldview and be applicable for biblical interpretation.


Art for God’s purposes

Begbie says that music can be “part of God’s work of emotional renewal…remaking us according to the image of Christ’s perfected emotional life” (Resounding Truth, 304). I contend that this is true of any artistic medium, including dance. Worship grows out of the redemption of the cross and is part of God’s ongoing redemption and renewal of people who participate in worship (Wright II.3). Through our response to the reality of God, in our worship and also in our work, we are “bringing God’s new creation into reality” (Wright II.1). Making art is a creative, fruitful, life-perpetuating endeavor that carries forward God’s purpose for humanity as defined in Genesis 1 (Wright II.2, III.1). Not only does art help us grasp our present reality, it also moves us toward the hoped-for fulfillment of all God’s purposes.


Secondary references:

“Freedom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Recovering Biblical Worship,” by N. T. Wright, in Studia Liturgica (2002).

Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, by Jeremy Begbie (Baker Academic, 2007).

Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, by David O. Taylor (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019).

Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft, by Joyce Morgenroth (Routledge, 2004).

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