Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Now, I'm Not a Freak, But . . ."

This is one of the funniest things I've heard. Ever. Period. BlogRodent, a friend of this blog, has posted on "When Worship Goes Awry." Here's the synopsis: a rather conservative visitor to a church notices a member of the praise team doing some holy swaying during service. Believing that what he has seen is out of order (an all-purpose phrase that, let's face it, covers a host of situations), he calls the pastor to bring it to his attention, leaving a rather lengthy voicemail.

But then.

The minister of music gets behind the mixing board and turntables and makes his own response, using the man's own words.

Hilarious. Go check it out.

But . . .this does provide some fodder for discussion (you knew this was coming). As I listened (OK, and listened, and listened . . .) I thought about the gospel music/black church community and our Theology of the Body. These thoughts are still pretty unformed, but I'd be interested in thinking aloud with other members of the blogosphere.

I started thinking about the messages we receive about our bodies and movement and how that affects the way we worship and relate to one another.

On the one hand, I believe it's a good thing to involve your body in worship. We know from Scripture that David, overwhelmed with joy, danced so hard that he danced out of his clothes. He danced in a way his wife found "vulgar." He must have been shakin' it pretty hard, hmmm? Here's the interchange between David and his wife in 2 Samuel 6:

20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!"
21 David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor."

Sounds like David's saying, "Hey, I'm praising God, and it's not about my dignity." I've heard many a preacher attempt to whoop up a congregation by pointing out that they mustn't become too dignified and educated and sophisticated to stand up/clap/shout/"give God some praise!" (Parenthetically, this is kind of uncomfortable for the "dignified, educated, sophisticated" person who worships from a more contemplative posture, not to mention the introvert. Hell-o . . .). So I have the sense that it's important to involve ourselves physically in our worship (cue "Dancing In the Spirit," as recorded on Ron Winans Family and Friends Choir II). That means singing, clapping, swaying, dancing, rocking, etc. as we are moved.

At the same time, how do we make room for the concerns of people like the man who recorded this voicemail (and, true confessions, occasionally Gospel Gal)? His concern, though it sounds petty on his voicemail/remix, is interesting to me, because I think it says something about the tensions (*ahem*) between freedom and responsibilty. He was careful to point out that he's "not a freak," but seems to be struggling with the sense of sexuality that is present in this woman's whole-body worship.

I've occasionally been in settings where the movements, though perhaps in the context of worship, didn't seem appropriate for a church setting. I've seen gospel performances where the dancing (grinding/thrusting/shakin' like a Polaroid picture) would be a bit much, even for a family-friendly mainstream setting. And let's not even get started on some of the praise dance moves and costumes that leave me pitying the poor deacons in the front row. I mean, you'd think that with all that lame', there'd be enough to cover everyone's decolletage. Can I get a witness?

At the same time, I would hate to see the woman referred to in the message called out of line if she's simply keeping the beat by gently swaying her hips in a very natural way. I'm troubled that her movement would seem, to this man, so sexualized that it was "out of order" for church. In that case, it would seem like he was the one with issues, not her. Does that make him a weaker brother who shouldn't be caused to stumble, or someone who needs to grow into a Christian maturity that moves him beyond the ways women's bodies have been sexualized in our culture?

(Which leads to another question: aren't we still sexual beings, even in church? So how is that God-given part of us rightly expressed, or, perhaps, rightly not repressed in a worship setting?) It bothers me when, for example, churches are reluctant to include liturgical dance because they are uncomfortable with bodies and dancing, particularly women's bodies and dancing.

You can see how there are a whole host of related issues that can grow out of this rather hasty post. But then, that's what the comments section is for. There's a lot of food for thought in those three minutes of voicemail. Comment away!


R.G. said...

Very interesting post. I really would like to see the movements in question, to make my own determination :-). In the attempt to be relevant and embrace the surrounding culture (I am fully supportive of appropriating whatever is redemptive and demonstrates the grace of God), we sometimes over-reach and fail to realize that there are some practices which are not appropriate for church.

A more common issue that I have addressed is that of dress. I hate to pin another issue on the sisters, but the reality is when it comes to the question of clothing and sexuality, women are the primary subjects. The sexuality of men is not typically expressed overtly through what they wear. Whereas women, especially in these times, are very likely to wear clothing that accentuates their curves and gives exposure to certain body parts. It is not uncommon for the wardrobe of the dance club to be used as the wardrobe for the church.

I'm not advocating we return to the days of ancient Israel or adopt certain Muslim customs still alive today, but for the sake of all of us "weaker brothers" in the faith, please err on the side of more clothing than less, when it comes to church. Brothers are just trying to praise God without catching sight of what the good Lord gave you swaying in our peripheral vision.

LaTonya said...


Thanks for commenting. I think that your comment raises an issue that is related to the questions in my post, though from a different direction. I'd characterize it as presenting one way in which sexuality is rightly *not* expressed in a worship setting. My hope was to cover some new ground, but I think that discussing this issue can lead to some valuable insights. I had written a response that was gripping and profound, and then the computer ate it *banging head against coffee table*. So, my reconstituted thoughts:

I've been in several Christian settings that are very cautious when it comes to the body, and so I hear the point you make in your comment quite frequently: Women can show respect for their Christian brothers by dressing in ways that don’t tempt them to lust. I think it’s a reasonable and valid point, and I’ve even done a little bit of writing (in a publication geared toward teens) expressing the same sentiment.

The problem I have, though, is that, as you acknowledge in your post, women are the primary subjects of this type of discussion. I would even suggest, though this isn’t the word that you used, that women are frequently the objects of this discussion (Though that may be a different discussion).

Women hear this message in mixed-gender settings, in same-gender settings, and through indirect same-gender censure (“Girl, did you see what she was wearing?”).

But I don’t often hear similar time/energy invested in helping men/young men deal with their expressions of sexuality in a healthy way (The Every Man’s Battle series is a recent exception). I don’t hear too much directed toward men related to their responsibility for interacting responsibly with women in this area.

In my view, this causes a lot of problems: 1) Lust is seen as a problem men deal with (not women.) As a result, women who deal with issues of lust aren’t receiving spiritual guidance (how do you guide people out of a problem that doesn’t exist) –and young girls don’t learn that they, too, are responsible for bringing their thoughts captive to obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). And again, men aren’t taught that they might have some responsibility in this area, or that there are ways they should/shouldn’t dress/move in church.

2) Women are viewed as “temptresses/Delilahs” who are responsible not only for not presenting themselves in an inappropriate way, but also for the results of presenting/being present, period. For example, a friend once came to me, visibly upset by the way one of the middle-aged men (a church leader) in the church we attended responded after they hugged during the hug-your-neighbor portion of the service. He whispered into her ear, “Girl, you’re causing me to lust.” What troubled me was that he didn’t seem to feel any responsibility for his response to her. It didn’t occur to him that he was perhaps tempted by his own desires (James 1:14-15). Nope, the problem was her actions. She was the one in the wrong.

Unfortunately, I think the “appropriate dress” issue often takes this approach. I don’t often hear men telling one another “Hey, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. We have to live righteously, even when that’s difficult.” (Exception: I once heard someone (can’t remember who right now) say something like: “Fellas, when an attractive woman walks by, you get two looks: One, to see her, and a double-take, just to confirm that you did indeed see what you think you saw. The third look is when you’ve got a problem.” I love this approach—it seems to differentiate between the immediate, natural response and one geared toward livin’ naturally and rightly. I should say, also, that I often see, my Christian male friends “bounce” their eyes away from inappropriate material or someone inappropriately dressed. I have a lot of respect and admiration for these friends as a result) A sympathetic response which conveys the same “Men are helpless/women are responsible” idea: “Those poor guys! They can’t control themselves—that’s why we have to be so careful.” I don’t think that response is very respectful to men and their choices and agency. To me, it seems like well-intentioned condescension. I’d be interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts on this.

3)Related to/growing from/resulting from the aforementioned issues, women receive the message that their bodies are inappropriate. I say this because my observation has been that people who talk about appropriate dress in church often don’t differentiate between a woman who has intentionally dressed in a way designed to distract others with her shape and a shapely woman. One is inappropriate, and the other simply is. One should be gently admonished (hopefully by a loving church mother, amen), and the other is a fact of life. I think that the way we understand this distinction is an indicator of health or dysfunction (Gnostic asceticism? Theologians, weigh in).

That issue is one of the sources of my curiosity about the Voice Mail Message That Started It All. Here’s what I mean: If the caller had observed a woman who was clearly auditioning for a BET music video (yeah, I said it!), then, again, I think it would be appropriate for the music minister or another member of the church body to gently carefront her about this. If, on the other hand, he observed a woman, maybe a shapely one, swaying naturally and gently to the music or maybe doing a gospel rock (like choirs do), found her distracting and decided he has the right not to be distracted (that is, to see what the good Lord gave her . . .), then he may need to search his own heart. (And speaking of searching hearts, Brendt makes a good point in his comment back on BlogRodent’s original post: making and sharing a public remix, (though hilarious), is probably not the most effective or appropriate way to deal with this visitor’s concerns . . .)

I’m thinking about your statement that the sexuality of men is not typically expressed through what they wear. I’m not sure I agree. I think much of women’s clothing sexualizes them in ways that men’s clothing does not—but I think that’s primarily true of revealing clothing. But our maleness and femaleness is readily apparent in anything we wear. Even if a man and a woman are both wearing a black suit/pantsuit, it’s likely that a viewer would be able to discern the sex/gender of the wearer, might have an idea of how old the person was, and could even give an opinion on whether or not they found the man/woman attractive.

All this to say: What a great discussion, and I hope it continues. Since we don’t have the benefit of tone of voice here, I’m hoping my readers understand that I’m not ranting . . .I’m just verbose.

Let me close with a quote from the late Stanley Grenz’ intro to Lisa Graham McMinn’s book Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World:

“The narrative of Genesis 2 indicates (in contrast to what many of our contemporaries have been led to assume) that the Bible views sexuality first and foremost in a positive light. Being created male and female is God’s good gift to us. While celebrating sexuality as a gift from God, however, the Bible also presents a realistic picture of the human story. The biblical narrative of the human story reminds us repeatedly that we possess the uncanny ability to twist (to our detriment) our fundamental sexuality. The Bible declares that what God entrusted to us as a stewardship and intended to be an aspect of our well-being all too readily becomes an occasion for us to do great harm to ourselves and to exploit, oppress, and injure others. Yet this does not mark the end of the story, for the Bible then narrates the action on our behalf of the God who meets us in the midst of our folly, unfaithfulness, and failure. In Christ, the Bible declares, God offers us forgiveness and a new beginning. Through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Bible asserts, God desires to redeem us as sexual creatures, so that we might be transformed into the sexual people—both male and female—that God created us to be.”

Sounds like good news, doesn’t it?



Bruce said...

GG, good, good. A few comments. Mocking the godly is really a bad thing, see a bunch of the psalms. SO let's lighten up on the "orderly brother."

I love Christian dance in theory, but I can't ever remember (over about three decades) being at peace spiritually about me being there when it happens--until about three years ago, when spiritual growth (mostly) got me over the problem. My usual approach to staying focussed when being provoked was to turn my eyes and let each one serve God as he/she will. I ask myself, "Why should I go to be assaulted in my spirit when I'm trying to worship?" In the same way, I don't go to witness to ex-girlfriends, even though everyone needs to hear the gospel.

We have to admit that scripture really does put boundaries on our sexual expressions. And that we are to worship God with our bodies.

R.G. said...

Thank you for your thorough response to my comments. I find validity in everything you've stated and especially concur that men have to take responsibility for how we respond to tempting situations.

As you alluded, we are instructed to refrain from becoming
"stumbling blocks" for one another, however. In an oversexed society, I do not think it is too much to ask for church to be a sanctuary from the explicit messages and images that constantly bombard us every day of our lives (no matter how hard we try to "bounce" our eyes away).

I'm amused at Dr. M. playfully referring to me as the "orderly brother". Far from it actually. I am just honest about my own weaknesses and people in general. Even though the line between church and world may be thin, it doesn't have to be blurry. It can be clear and distinct when it comes to sex, race, materialism, politics and all other matters of consequence.

I appreciate the dialogue. You are an important voice in the blogosphere.

LaTonya said...

Rod, Dr. M.,

Thanks for your comments. I think each of you make very valid points. Dr. M, I like the way you summarized it: "We have to admit that Scripture really does put boundaries on our sexual expressions. And that we are to worship God with our bodies." I think our challenge is to let both parts of your statement influence and balance our expressions in worship. And let me share, too, that I often share the ambivalence you describe regarding dance expressions, though I've never considered it an assault on my spirit--just something I was/am still figuring out how to think about.

Rod, thanks for weighing in. As I said, I do think the concern you've raised is important and valid--but I think the emphasis is too often on women's dress and behavior and too seldom on men's, which damages both and prevents our churches from being as strong as they could be.

Also, I think Dr. M was referring to the caller who recorded the voicemail as the "orderly brother." I'm not mocking you or your concerns. :-)

This voicemail has provided a great deal of good discussion. And I think one important issue that it raises is the question of how we treat those with whom we disagree, whether we think they are legalists, weaker brothers, etc. While this voicemail really does crack me up, I do think it can be seen as a less-than-respectful way of dealing with disagreement.

This is such good discussion. Thank you both (and whoever else would like to weigh in!).

Good times,

Anonymous said...

Well, I can only say that I've been on both sides of this discussion.

I used to think it was the woman's responsibility to dress modestly and hide as much of herself as possible (elizabethan collars, whatever)

...but I had issues anyway. And had to work through them, with the help of the book you've cited, Every Man's Battle (good book, helped a lot.)

Now I find myself bouncing my eyes regularly away from tempting material. And it's helped tremendously, starving the eyes, and the mind. Given me back a lot of self-respect.

Sure, I'll agree that this is a 2-way street. I have to keep my mind out of the gutter, but it helps me a lot (keeps me from getting dizzy even ;-) ) when I don't have to bounce my eyes as much because the women at church aren't wearing miniskirts and cleavage to their navel. And most of them dress modestly. The rest I'm responsible enough NOT to stare at.
just my 2cents.

LaTonya said...


Thanks for weighing in and sharing your story with us.


Anonymous said...

Hey GG- I am a dance teacher in a so. baptist church and have faced my fair share of criticism about dance in the church. Ironically most of it comes from wives tales that baptist don't dance. (Although no where have I found it in writting)Here's the thing, two of our worship team members "move their butt from side to side" while keeping the beat and occassionally even bounce to the beat and no one complains about that. But cover up young girls in as much clothing as possible and having them worship through doing a ballet dance and suddenly we're Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. People spend too much time being offend and reacting than trying to find out what God really wants. That would be for us to live in obedience and worship HIM!