Jesus Didn’t Dance, Did He?
Last weekend, our family headed up to Drumheller, AB to attend The Canadian Badlands Passion Play, a dramatic portrayal of the story of Jesus in a natural amphitheatre in the central Alberta Badlands. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I had heard good things about the production, but to be honest the main reason I went was because I received a “pastor’s discount” in the mail. And I’m very glad that I did, because the play did a magnificent job of humanizing Jesus and capturing what it might have been like to experience the events of his life narrated by the gospels.
This year’s production was based specifically on the gospel of John. On one level, this is not the most obvious of choices. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are much more action-packed narratives than John’s, which is characterized by lengthy portions of dialogue and teaching. But the writers and directors did a great job of mixing lengthy sections of discourse with the central events of Jesus’ story.
One of the earlier scenes in the play was the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle—the turning of water into wine (John 2:1-12). The scene looked more or less what I imagine a first-century Jewish wedding would have looked like—lots of eating and drinking and singing and dancing. An uproarious and well-lubricated party! At one point, when Jesus was, wine glass in hand, exuberantly participating in an ad hoc line dance, my son leaned over to me and said, “dad, Jesus didn’t dance did he?”
Well, yes, yes he probably did. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, actually… And he spent a fair amount of time with whores and tax collectors and various other unsavoury types… And he was a general irritant to the most of the respectable and well-schooled religious types of his day… And he caused division and confusion nearly everywhere he went. Dancing was probably among the least offensive and/or uncomfortable things that Jesus did! Not exactly the kind of gentle Jesus meek and mild you typically get in Sunday School class.
Jesus often behaves very differently than the Jesus we expect, the Jesus we think we know, the Jesus we prefer. This is just as true for smarty-pants pastor-types as it is for eleven-year-old boys. As the play wore on, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with this Jesus and the way he spoke and acted. Especially in John’s gospel, Jesus’ language and behaviour is just so downright baffling at times. For some reason seeing this portrayed on a stage, as opposed to reading about it in words on a page, brought this out in a new way for me.
As I listened to Jesus talk about “living water” to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), for example, or watched him write indecipherable words in the sand in front of the woman caught in adultery (8:6-8), or tried to make sense of him spitting in the dirt to make mud to heal a blind man (9:6-7), or mused about why, exactly, he said “before Abraham was, I am,” (8:58), or tried to follow the conversation between Jesus and his disciples who wanted Jesus to “show us the Father” (14:5-14), or restlessly listened to him offer evasive half-answers to Pilate and Caiaphas prior to his execution (18:19-38), or heard him telling the crowd that unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood they had no life in them (6:52-59), I found myself growing increasingly impatient with Jesus. With the disciples, I, too, found myself saying, “This is hard teaching [and behaviour!]. Who can accept it?”
At one point, about 90 minutes into the performance, as the toll of 30 degree heat was increasingly making itself felt on my weary body and brain, I wanted to yell out, “Seriously, Jesus!! Why can’t you just speak plainly?! Enough with the bizarre metaphors and cryptic comments about who you are and where you come from and about the nature of your authority!! Enough with the bewildering references to yourself in the third person!! For God’s sake, why can’t you just be a bit more direct?!?!
Like my son, I was encountering a different Jesus than the one I typically walk about with in my head. And, just as it was for my son, the experience was a bit disorienting, a bit confusing, and a bit uncomfortable. Not unlike it would have been for those in first century Palestine, come to think of it.
The more I reflected on the experience, the more I began to wonder if perhaps my son was right all along, if in an unexpected way. Jesus didn’t and doesn’t dance—at least not in the sense that his first hearers or we would like him to. He doesn’t dance to the tunes we play, and doesn’t respond to our preferred choreography for how he ought to speak and act and be in the world. He didn’t fit the profile of a Messiah back then, and he very often doesn’t fit the profile of divinity for us either. He is a relentlessly stubborn Saviour who refuses to behave himself for the sake of our comfort.
It is we who must learn to dance to his tune, not vice versa.