There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.[1]

The dance opened with a quiet exploration of gestural language. My hands circle an imaginary cup and I raise it slowly toward my lips. Imagining the liquid slipping down my throat, a warmth spreads as I trace a crown with my thumbs around my skull and reach upward to pour the liquid in “S” pathways to the floor. I gather it all into my belly and then dissolve the image outward from my center, my body rising into a walk. I place my hands as if on a table – the communion table – and slide them along the surface in one direction and again to the other. I can imagine the strength of the wood and the texture of the grain. Slowly the table dissolves as my body melts, giving way to a posture of prostration, forehead on the floor, arms extended in crucifixion fashion from my sides. My heart waxes worshipful.

Maranda Blumenthal ca. 2011 Amy McIntosh, Eucharistia, at Exchange Choreography Festival, Tulsa, OK.

I spent multiple years embodying Amy McIntosh’s Eucharistia, a dance piece reflective of the eucharist. Dancers emulate the consumption of the bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This became one of the first dances that I performed in which I realized that dance had the ability to deepen my knowledge of God – from the beams of the cross, to the visceral expression of sin growing like a cancer that needed to be expelled, to the action and textures associated with the bread and wine as body and blood. Unlike other forms of art, dance and movement have the power to capture the corporeal imagination. However, the dance performance is fluid, always evolving, and ephemeral like very few forms of art. Such a canvas – the body – allows me as a dancer to physically embrace spiritual formation in a felt way. It is kinesthetic information, perhaps necessary for a more integrated approach to knowing God.

Secularized Bodies Cripple Spiritual Formation

We have a problem, however; people often live estranged from their bodies. It can be strongly argued to be the result of absorbing the secular concept of the body/person split. Secularism claims that there is a divide between human bodies and human persons. Nancy Pearcey explains this in depth in her book, Love Thy Body, by outlining how secular thought historically came to regard the body as existing in the lower realm of scientific and empirical fact and personhood existing in the upper realm of knowing through experience. She calls this the fact/value split or body/person split.[2] Viewing human beings in this fragmented way can lead us to disavow the body from being biologically intrinsic to the person. When we uncouple ourselves from our bodies it can have detrimental effects on how we live our lives. Losing touch with our bodies in relation to who we are can fragment our understanding of faith and our quest to thrive as creations of a Holy God.

Paul M. Gould connects this fragmenting with Miroslav Volf’s concepts of passive and active nihilism. Volf argues that nihilism, which declares that all values are meaningless and unknowable, can be expressed in two modes. Passive nihilism denies the world, causing us to miss all the ordinary moments of pleasure and joy as we pursue meaning in the face of the void. Meanwhile, active nihilism guts the world of objective meaning by treating it as a blank canvas, upon which we declare our values when and how we want as ‘free spirits’ who daily write our own destiny. He draws a picture of Western Christians living in the valley between these modes of nihilism in a disenchanted space. As if split between realities of the mundane and the transcendent, we have no idea how to refashion them back together. “Our innate longing for meaning compels us toward a transcendent, while our longing for pleasure draws us to the mundane. Many of us languish in the valley between the transcendent and the mundane, too distracted and lethargic to commit one way or the other.”[3]Delegating our bodies to our earthly jobs, separated from our spiritual lives, can cut us off from all the information that the facts and experiences of our bodies give us. But in Christianity, there is a unity between the two. It has the potential to deepen the divide between the Sunday fellowship body and the weekday work body. If we are to approach our spiritual formation holistically, in what ways might we make space for the body to know God’s truths revealed? Perhaps we can take a few cues from the dance art form.

Sacred Bodies Nurture Spiritual Formation

Dance, like all art forms, uses its given medium (the body) to develop and convey ideas, engaging the imagination to create meaning. This can be done using narrative and story, line, design, or abstraction through metaphor and motif. Beyond a release of endorphins or even an expanded sense of proprioceptive awareness, dance can give us so much more for adding to our spiritual formation. In other words, both dancing and viewing dance has the potential to offer more to our spiritual lives than simply making us feel good or helping us overcome tripping over our own feet. Dance engages the imagination to create meaning through the designed movement of the body. And the imagination pricks the emotions as a critical aspect of speaking to the whole person. For example, a never-ceasing-to-touch duet can communicate symbiosis. An aggressive hand to another’s mouth can speak loudly of subjugation. Ideas are the fuel of movement performance and have the power to capture the imagination. The body has long been seen as a problematic place for discourse, subject to any given worldview. If we are to approach discipleship holistically, in what ways might we make space for the body to know God’s truths revealed? Psychologist and former professional dancer, Sara B. Savage says, “Our emotions, and our physical bodies which register those emotions, have often been regarded as messy hindrances to the pursuit of truth.”[4]However, she points out that an ignorance of the body, at best, and a disassociation from the body, at worst, robs us of valuable modes with which to engage the truths of God. Considering our bodies in spiritual formation can enrich our understanding of important theological concepts, such as the incarnation of a Holy God into a human person who wept, turned tables, and was moved to heal.

Neuroscientists Minton and Faber claim,

Emotions are generated, stored, and connected to meaning. They are produced in response to a stimulus that is evaluated unconsciously, followed by physical responses, and culminating in conscious experiences and actions. More precisely, emotions are based in the body. Emotional thoughts with their expressions and actions are found in body postures, facial expressions, and vocal tones.[5]

Audiences and artists alike absorb ideas, true or false, by comparing the witness of art to our embodied lives. When we see persons of different skin tones dancing together, our biases and affirmations are revealed. When we see tenderness, it recalls memories or longings to have those experiences for ourselves. Yet, the converse is also true. When we see bodies in dysfunctional relationships or performing perverse actions, we connect to some sliver of divine longing for healthy relationships, and we know that what ought to be has been disrupted. Calling this ‘person knowledge’, Sara B. Savage defines this as the ways in which we can know the truth in our person in relation to other persons.[6] ‘Person knowledge’ includes individuals, communities, and, ultimately, Christ. She points out that person knowledge is not personal knowledge (perspective or knowledge of self). Nor is it to replace intellectual knowledge; rather, it enriches our understanding for a fuller acknowledgment of truth. Dance is one way to see, feel, and know through the body on our way to a more complete understanding of a Creator God.

Dance can open us up to the kinesthetic delight of the body and its design, as well as encourage our own personal embodied expressions in prayer and worship. I would extend that to our ‘everyday movings-about’ as well. We can attend to the warmth of the sun as we sit with a loved one on a park bench. We can feel longing when we witness our child’s focused extended arms reach up to us as they emphatically express a desire to be picked up and held. These physical experiences of emotions and of aesthetics have spiritual applications. We can delight in the beauty of the warmth of the sun God made and we can translate our child’s efforts to be held into a posture with which to approach our Father God. The human drive to create and appreciate beauty is connected to our relationship as creatures to a Creator God. It is a divine dialogue and one primarily experienced through our bodies for understanding His truth in totality.

Toward the end of Eucharistia, we revisited the gestures that explored the textures of the cross and brought them into our bellies. Each dancer took rotation in canon to part their clasped hands from their center, opening into an upward prone position, willing the space to also open with the opening of our chests born to God. At this moment, I experienced a revelation. It felt like the veil that separated the outer temple from the Holy of Holies was parting and I was walking forward into the impact of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I worked to express that tonal change in my body of what it might have felt like when God’s light and plan were revealed in the renting of the veil.

Maranda Blumenthal ca. 2011 Amy McIntosh, Eucharistia, at Exchange Choreography Festival, Tulsa, OK.

This is not to say that dance is a formula for understanding biblical precepts or stories; nevertheless, kinestheticinformation can expand our understanding and experience in our lives with God. You don’t have to take a dance class or be an artist to develop this aesthetic awareness in the body. Yet, taking the body and its physical experiences for granted can cut off a facet of biblical understanding unnecessarily. Physical experiences are not re-interpretations of what scripture claims about God’s story; rather, they are symbols and visceral ways of knowing through kinesthetic dance language that enrich our potential spiritual formation.

When Dry Bones Dance

Our bodies are designed for movement. We were designed to spiral into the outside world from our mother’s womb with a divine choreography to take our first breath.[7] And so are our souls (towards God in a personal, relational exchange). We were made with the capacity for communicating with God. Dance can give us back access to our bodies, that we might worship as whole beings. If we don’t mend the body/person split and restore a holistic approach to our spiritual lives, particularly regarding our bodies, Christians are in danger of missing out on a facet of the biblical message when we fail to embody its truth in word and deed. Dance can be an effective kinesthetic tool for awakening us to see the transcendent felt meaning in the mundane and approach the world as watchful and waking pilgrims.[8]

Scripture is full of examples of bodily felt meaning. John the Baptist leapt in utero when Mary approached Elizabeth pregnant with the Messiah (Lk 1:44). Ezekiel enacted prophetic performance art on behalf of God (Eze 4). Jesus died bodily, was buried, then was raised in that same body; He ate bodily, and He still bears the nail scars in His hands. Bodies are important for knowing the truth, deepening our understanding of God. It was one such moment of bodily importance in Luke 7:13 that captivates our attention as Jesus comes upon a funeral procession. This is a choreographed dance of lamentation as a widow, likely on the verge of destitution, is mourning the death of her only son. Happening upon this grief-stricken scene, Jesus sees the woman and is moved to empathy for her. He brings her son back to life and returns him to his mother.[9] It is this place of felt response that tills the ground of understanding to know Jesus more fully and deeply.

Gould writes, “In the Christian Story, there is unity between [meaning and pleasure], offering the possibility of wholeness.” The kind of people we choose to become begins with our perceptions of God and the world he made.[10]These perceptions are aesthetic, kinesthetic, visceral, and emotional. They are the dance of our lives. This is not a case for elevating lived experience and feelings above other forms of knowledge and growth; rather, embodied living balances all the ways of knowing that feed into our lives as embodied human beings. Sometimes we may not “feel” conviction if we’ve inadvertently lacerated our conscience due to our persistent sin nature. Our reason can balance our feelings, guided by Scripture, so that our understanding comes into discipline when our will is in subtle or overt rebellion. A holistic approach seeks unified truth – truth that sutures the upper and lower stories of body and person together.[11] Truth restored will call forth the truth of reason and the truth of personal experience to fully approach God. This is the transformational power that Scripture promises us. 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 (RSV) tells us, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”

We are not meant to travel alone; the Holy Spirit and the Church are our companions in our efforts. Recalling my performance experience in the gestural material of Eucharistia informed my experience of the eucharist with the Church. Recalling the feeling of taking in the Holy of Holies as I passed the rent veil allows me to have my imagination baptized by the Holy Spiritas I bring my full self into deeper worship in the corporate Body on Sabbath. Evelyn Underhill elegantly describes this divine exchange when she writes:

Incited by God, dimly or sharply conscious of the obscure pressure of God, we respond to God best not by a simple movement of the mind, but by a rich and complex action, in which our whole nature is concerned, and which has at its full development the characters of a work of art. We are framed for an existence which includes not only thought and speech, but gesture and manual action; and when we turn God-ward, our life here will not be fully representative of our nature, nor will our act of worship be complete, unless all these forms of expression find a place in it. Our religious action must . . . link every sense with that element of our being which transcends and coordinates sense, so that the whole of our nature plays its part in our total response to the Unseen.”[12] [13]

As Underhill explains, an embodied approach brings my total self, my unified attention of mind, body, and will, to abide before God in all my interactions with Him and His Word.

God gives us, in Himself, a vision for the intersection of embodied movement and faith in Ezekiel’s famous vision of an entire army of dry and worthless bones coming to life again in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Though Israel and Judah had lost hope and were scattered through conquest, God choreographed a prophetic miracle to demonstrate to His people that He would redeem them. In this vision, a valley is laid waste with dry, dead human bones. God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones and demand they reassemble. Ezekiel then hears the bones rattle and watches as the tendons sew them in order, the flesh and sinew wrap around them, and skin swathes them into human bodies once again. As if this wasn’t incredible enough, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy once again, this time to breathe life into these inanimate bodies. And behold, a living army! Verse 14 states, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” Through this vision, God demonstrated that not only would He restore His people physically as one nation to their homeland again, but He would also ultimately bring spiritual restoration through the sacrifice of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Hearkening back to the creation story of Adam and Eve, God put action to His promise in divine, symbolic performance.

His creation responds with movement and art:

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You only

And all the earth will shout Your praise
Our hearts will cry, these bones will sing
Great are You, Lord[14]

This is aesthetic language: we pour out praise, the earth shouts, our hearts cry. I imagine that Creator God dances over the void, at the brink of creative orchestration. He has made me a new creation and raised me from my sin with Christ. I respond to these visceral images: my bones will sing. I will dance.


Citation Information

Rachel Bruce Johnson, “Bones Will Sing: Dance in Spiritual Formation,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 195-207.


Endnotes

[1] Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet,” Poetry Foundation, accessed July 31, 2023, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/41087/how-to-be-a-poet.

[2] Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2018), 13-14.

[3] Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zonderman, 2019), 175.

[4] Sara B. Savage, “Through Dance: Fully Human, Fully Alive” in Beholding The Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (Baker Academic, 2001), 65.

[5] Sandra Cerny Minton & Rima Faber, Thinking With The Dancing Brain: Embodying Neuroscience (Lanham: Roman & Littlefield, 2016), 63.

[6] Sara B. Savage, “Through Dance: Fully Human, Fully Alive” in Beholding The Glory, 64.

[7] Your baby in the Birth Canal, Mount Sinai Health System, accessed July 31, 2023, https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/special-topic/your-baby-in-the-birth-canal.

[8] Terry Glaspey, Discovering God Through the Arts: How We Can Grow Closer to God by Appreciating Beauty and Creativity(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021), 31.

[9] Sandra Cerny Minton & Rima Faber, Thinking with The Dancing Brain: Embodying Neuroscience, 63.

[10] Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 175.

[11] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).

[12] Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 177.

[13] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1936), as quoted in too deep for words, 133.

[14] Genius.com, “All sons & daughters – great are you lord lyrics,” accessed May 15 2023, https://genius.com/All-sons-and-daughters-great-are-you-lord-lyrics.