The Deus Vult Hymnal, part the third (a): Lord of the Dance

Proposed by aetherfilledskyproductions. Amazing, but I don’t think this tune has yet come in for brotherly correction on this blog. We will need to fix this oversight before giving it the Deus Vult treatment. Thus, Part the Third (a) shall review this song; we shall see what can be done to properly weaponize it in (b). 

Lord of the Dance: This needlessly long song suffers from a couple obvious flaws:

  1. Speaks in the person of the Lord. Whether we like it or not, whether we can intellectually justify it or not, on a direct simple level we have a hard time thinking or feeling like we are praying when we speak in the person of the Lord all song long. We may be charmed, or even inspired, but this practice all but prevents prayer. For a song used at Mass, this is not a good thing. (Before you mention the ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ parts of the psalms, merely note that the Lord sayeth his peace, and then the psalmist gets on with it.)
  2. It is too cute by half, and is trying too hard. It would take far deeper poetic gifts than are on display here to make this work.
  3. Salvation is likewise portrayed as a dance. In the hands of a great mystic, this might work. In the hands of Sydney Carter, not so much.

This concept – Jesus as Lord of the Dance – possibly traces back to a song written in the Middle Ages. Based on internal evidence, it is supposed to have been associated with mystery plays. This is believable. Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day, which I append to the end of this post,  is a masterpiece after the fashion of the didactic purposes of mystery plays. Each verse lays out in 4 lines some fundamental teaching, yet frames it as completely personal. the refrain is:

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

…where we, each one of us, is the beloved of Christ, Who expresses his love AND explains what His Dance entails through the example of His life, death and resurrection. He is Crucified for us – AND that Crucifiction is part of the Dance that He is inviting us to!

In other words, as you will see when you peruse the medieval text, quite a bit deeper and more challenging than Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance.

Speaking of Mr. Carter, it seems Shiva, the original Lord of the Dance, was as much an inspiration as Jesus:

In writing the lyrics to “Lord of the Dance” in 1963, Sydney Carter was inspired partly by Jesus, but also partly by a statue of the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose) which sat on his desk,[3] and was partly intending simply to give tribute to Shaker music. He later stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”

The sort of Christianity Mr. Carter believes in is not what the Church believes – it is a sort of syncretist Jesus-light Hindu flavored Arianism. So, in the last song, we had a Church of Christ heretic, not to put too fine a point on it, teaching us about the Eucharist. Here, we have a syncretist teaching us about how Hinduism and Christianity are a lot alike, especially Hinduism.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like he’d be inclined to equivocate on Jesus’ unique divinity or anything….

[Aside: a perhaps unintended consequence of Vatican II was the driving out of many folk devotions in favor of ALL devotional activity needing to be included in the Mass. Thus, while previous ages had songs for pilgrimages and processions, oratories, and devotional activities such as the mystery plays explicitly for use outside the Mass, we seem to think it essential that any and all devotional fervor find expression in the Mass itself. Much of the less heretical stuff we do today at Mass, from rock bands and their goofy songs, through liturgical dance, to many of the more scripturally based St. Louis Jebbies songs would be perfectly fine things to do – outside of Mass – for the people who like that sort of thing. Indeed, this extending of our personal devotional lives to our time outside Mass is one of the good things to come out of the Charismatic renewal, it just has as yet to spread far enough. Lord of the Dance might be acceptable accompanying a mystery play or sung on a pilgrimage. It just doesn’t really belong at the Eucharist.]

It is set to a modified Shaker tune, perhaps best known from Simple Gifts. Shaker tunes do have a certain charm, and are not as utterly inappropriate for use at Mass as many other styles, but – maybe I’m a snob – they are not great music. We can do better, but, hey, we can and certainly do do much worse. In the folk tradition, the tune is merely beaten into submission whenever the text doesn’t quite fit it.

Let’s go verse by verse again.

Lord of the Dance

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And 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’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he
This has a rustic charm to it, and is not strictly heretical. He echos the first chapter of John, except that Jesus here dances in creation, instead of *creating* creation. The world was not just passively ‘begun’. Weak. His Divine Nature is omitted, as one would expect from a syncretist.
 
I danced for the scribe
And the pharisee,
But they would not dance
And they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen,
For James and John
They came with me
And the Dance went on.
Ever wonder why pharisees don’t enter into our Mass songs much? As Chesterton brilliantly points out in The Everlasting Man:
 
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of  humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does  indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the  popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.
Here we have the interjection of the gentle side of Jesus that the Church rightly presents to her children the vast majority of the time into a situation in which He was not gentle. A modern pharisee or hypocrite, confident that he is unlikely to run into the “petrifying petrifaction” of Christ’s face in wrath just around the next corner, might very well comfort himself with the idea of Christ merely dancing an invitation to the pharisees, rather than rebuking them and – gulp! – judging them. 
 
Can’t have that.  It is too horrible to contemplate. The nice syncretist Jesus of our cowardly imaginations would never rebuke us! He is our brother! Our Friend! 
 
Our ultimate Judge, too: 
 
That Guy. The One His Holy Mother is diverting her eyes from. He appears to have smiting on His Mind, and doesn’t seem too interested in excuses.
Verse 1 has watered down Jesus of the Scriptures to an acceptably tepid level. 
 

I danced on the Sabbath
And I cured the lame;
The holy people
Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped
And they hung me on high,
And they left me there
On a Cross to die.
In a similar vein, note how it’s not the hypocrites who “said it was a shame” but the holy people. We needn’t stretch too far to see the blanket condemnation of anyone even trying to be holy in any conventional manner in favor of those who are simply willing to dance – as equal partners, of course – with Christ. 
 

I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.
While the ‘devil on your back’ image is certainly evocative, I note that this lyric does the opposite of what the Church does when it commends the Crucifiction to our contemplation: we are urged to focus on our role in Christ’s death, how He died for our sins. 
 
But that would be, like, a total buzz kill. Better to redirect attention to the devil. 
 

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you
If you’ll live in me –
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

“Cut”? Odd word. 

In general, this is just not a good song, not overtly heretical, but subtly so. I would find better things to complain about if it were sung around a campfire or as part of a procession, even though even then we could do better. But as part of Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – no. Just no. 

Next up: give it the Deus Vult treatment. 

Appendix: Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Chorus

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.

Chorus

The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.

Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

Chorus

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.

Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

Chorus

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

8 thoughts on “The Deus Vult Hymnal, part the third (a): Lord of the Dance”

  1. I wonder if “Dancing Day” might be fitted to the tune of “Lord of the Dance”? As a protestant I’ve heard worse music (and even drastier theology!) in some of our church songs, but you’re right: the doctrinal sloppiness of Lord of the Dance is far better suited to a Saint’s-day parade (probably St. Pat’s) than to the rigorous reverence of the service of worship on the Lord’s Day, with Eucharist or without.

    1. The little I’ve read about St. Patrick suggests he was a pretty scary fellow to cross. I don’t think I’d be up to attempting to honor him with Lord of the Dance.

  2. “… not overtly heretical …”
    Speaking of the charismatic renewal, not long ago a friend whom I’ve known over forty years from shared membership in a local charismatic renewal community offered this bit of folk wisdom which has never left me. Apropos of movies in the context, but widely applicable: if you find yourself saying to someone else, “it wasn’t THAT bad,” maybe you should consider that, yes, it is exactly that bad.

    There are so many of these songs (not this one, maybe) that would be fine playing on the stereo in the background while doing housework. Which is a distracting thought to have at Mass.

  3. How do you find non-heretical, Catholic hymns that are worth singing? Any time I search, all I find are: awful, heretical, Protestant, or all of the above. A Gregorian chant. And while I love chant, it doesn’t instruct my children–who do not speak Latin–in the Faith while letting them sing.

    1. You can sometimes find old Pius X hymnals lying around in back rooms of older churches…

      The Watershed Hymnal is good, although they do include some musically weak modern tunes (I suspect to get the hymnal past the parish committee members who LOVE Eagles Wings). It is here: http://www.ccwatershed.org/projects/

      All the Watershed stuff is pretty good.

      1. We have the St. Michael Hymnal, which has the robust old, non-PC wording to those robust old hymns.

  4. We also have “Spirit and Song”, which replaced the old OCP “Gather” for the contemporary music-minded. It has the advantage over “Gather” that it’s actually explicitly Christian. And the songs are written in the modern “Praise and Worship” style, so it doesn’t have that dated 1970s sound. It won’t sound dated for another 30 years. And it shares with “Gather” the deficiency that one really has to be a gifted and trained singer to sing them well.
    “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” is only 250 years old and will never sound dated. “Te Deum” is only fifteen or so centuries old, and will never sound dated. THAT is real praise and worship music.

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