When I was an awkward teenager I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out ways to get girls to like me – hardly a surprise, I know. Unfortunately, I was a wannabe-punk rocker and part time Dungeon Master living in rural Nebraska, so my basic lack of appeal to the opposite sex was hardly surprising. Rather than connecting the dots and trading in my Hot Topic spikes and polyhedral dice, however, I ended up acquiring a bunch of “skills” that I was sure would do the trick. I learned to play guitar, memorized poetry, and got good at card tricks. I also, in a particularly ill-conceived move, decided to learn how to dance.
Now by dancing I don’t mean that I figured out how to slow dance at prom. I mean ballroom dancing, big band swing and tango. I started by watching videos on the then-infant internet; when it became apparent this wasn’t working, I took lessons at a ballroom in a nearby town where the classes were made up half by people in their 60s and half by others as socially clueless as me.
While I eventually got decent at dancing, at least enough that in college it was a skill I used to help woo my now-wife, as a gangly 17-year-old I was something of a trainwreck. Being the sort of person for whom “learning” meant “reading a book,” I endeavored to master the right moves. With great focus, I nailed the footwork and how to lead a partner. I thought I had it down. But when the music started, while I executed the moves with technical precision, the magic wasn’t there. Instead of grooving to the beat, I looked a lot like a skinny teen stiffly executing a series of memorized movements. I knew the steps, but I hadn’t begun to learn how to dance.
While stories of my high school ineptitude are good for a laugh, I want to propose that learning to dance is a lot like embracing the Christian faith. In Scripture, “the faith” is often used as shorthand for the truths about Jesus witnessed by the apostles and passed on to us as Christians. One of the identifying marks of Christianity is what it professes to be true about the world – who God is, what He has done throughout history and particularly in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the significance these works have for us as human beings. In a substantial way, believing and proclaiming these truths marks out the boundaries of Christianity.
That said (and it is important to say, as plenty of very smart people today would like to move away from this reality), Christians face a temptation to think that simply getting these facts right means they’ve “gotten it.” We learn a set of ideas. We learn how to defend those ideas. We seek to transfer those ideas to others. This is all good, but in this process we can too easily keep these ideas at arms length. We confuse giving and winning assent with something richer and deeper – learning to perform.
Belief is meant to be performed. On one level, this is simply to agree with the James that “faith without works is dead.” Yet James cannot be understood as placing mere faith alongside mere obedience to generate some greater sum. Rather, he insists that faith and works belong together by the nature of faith itself. Real faith has to be acted upon; failure to do the acting is to prove you haven’t done the believing. Christian belief is not intellectual assent; Christian belief is a shift in how you “hear” the world. It doesn’t just teach you the steps; it plays you the music of creation and Creator and calls you to join the dance. If you’re not hearing this music, you haven’t really believed. You’re just imitating rote movements.
Of course, this doesn’t remove the need to learn the steps; far from it. We have to start somewhere, and intellectual assent and understanding is usually how it begins. Dispensing with the rote memorization doesn’t make you a better dancer; it makes you a frat boy swaying and pumping his fist the same way to every song. That said, this level of learning is where we begin but cannot be where we end. We start with the principles, but we’ve only entered the dance if we end in performance. If the flailing frat boy is unappealing, much more so is the critic who can assess the nuances of a waltz or foxtrot but has never moved through either while staring in a pretty girl’s eyes.
In some ways, all of this insistence upon belief and performance belonging together is the simplest truth. It is the pastor’s oft-heard call to “live out your faith.” However, what makes performance a different picture than simple calls to behavioral change is the way it reminds us of the integrated nature of Christian faith. It is not so much a set of calls placed on an otherwise unchanged life but a calling, a new direction and rhythm for life itself.
Performing faith reminds us that the Christian life should be natural – not as opposed to “supernatural”, but as opposed to artificial. A call to brute action is simply about the motions; performance is about music and movement. If belief teaches us the song of creation, Christian obedience requires that we let the music pervade us. We rejoice because we see glory shining through the cracks of our broken world. We give because we experience the bounty of creation and Creator. We love because God first loves us. Granted, there are times when we struggle to hear the melody and must dance nonetheless. However, if Christian faith is a performance of a divinely-originating dance, the only long-term way to live into this call is to constantly return to the music and let it move us anew.
Performing faith also reminds us that faith should touch our whole beings. Our performance is not just shuffling our feet; it’s letting ourselves enter into the music. There is a way of doing Christianity which truncates our humanity. It cuts off the limbs and torso and only leaves the head. We are whole, human creatures, creatures who eat and sleep, laugh and weep, dance and stroll. Too often, faith is articulated as an additional set of behaviors added to that list. However, when we let Christ call us into the dance, we recognize that it is instead a new way of doing all our living, a truer and better way rather than just an addendum.
Finally, our performance of faith has an element of personal improvisation. I want to camp here a minute because this is a significant weaknesses in how we often conceive the Christian life. There is a tendency in too much of modern evangelicalism to make assembly-line Christians. We have some sense that, the more we look like Jesus, the more we will look the same. Heck, I remember a campus pastor once telling me that personality was a result of the fall and that, in heaven, everyone would essentially be identical. (Incidentally, I got the distinct impression that this meant everyone was going to be a lot like this campus minister.) While we might not all fall prey to these extremes, the modern cults of celebrity and spirit of pragmatism in the church often drive us to assume that becoming a better Christian means we should look like someone else.
This depersonalization stems from the assumption that Christian obedience is programmatic. It acts as if there is some divinely-ordained list of specific responses in heaven which cover every situation in exacting detail. While we don’t put it in such blunt terms, we often feel there is some exact percentage of our income to give to some specific distribution of charities, or some list of priorities with commensurate slices of our weekly schedule which must be devoted to them. The assumption then becomes that Christian obedience is divining this program and implementing it in our lives.
However, if Christian life is performance, this approach simply does not work. A floor full of dancing couples will not all be doing the same thing; a church of faithful Christians won’t either. The biblical picture of the church is a body, not a factory. Every member has a part to play which is fundamentally unique, and we need to call people to live the Christian life in a way which fits this uniqueness.
This is where the idea of improvisation comes in. Contrary to popular belief, improvising isn’t unbounded imagination. Rather, it is responding in creative but appropriate ways to a given situation. Appropriateness is key – not every move fits equally well with those that come before, not every step follows as naturally from a given musical moment. However, appropriateness doesn’t destroy creativity. Good performance fits the music, but it isn’t dictated by it.
If the Christian life is more like performance than wrote memorization, then learning to live out faith necessarily means learning to improvise. Christian obedience consists in movements of love, worship, truth, hope, repentance and joy. We need to let our movements fit the moment, to respond appropriately in the times and places God places us. Yet we must never confuse these movements with choreography. God’s will is that I love my neighbor, and I must seek to work this out in concrete acts of grace and mercy. However, the “how’s” and “why’s” of this concretization aren’t scripted, nor should they be. I must respond to Christ’s unchanging commands in constantly-changing circumstances and as a uniquely-crafted creature. I have to improvise.
Two thoughts on how this helps us live the Christian life and I’ll be done. First, improvisation sets us free from trying to live someone else’s Christian life. We can gain great help from the wisdom of others. Indeed, we won’t dance very well if we only do it in our locked bathrooms. We find aid in counsel and good advice. That said, counsel can not become choreography. We need not feel the guilt of not looking like someone else, because God’s call is for us to dance as ourselves. Second, we must also be careful with how we regard the dances of others. Again, there is room for critique; there are inappropriate improvisations and movements than don’t fit the music. We can give counsel, but we cannot assume that others should follow our exact steps. We have our partner, our place on the floor. It is ours and ours alone. We can help those around us learn, but just as our goal shouldn’t be mimicking them, we shouldn’t expect them to turn into copies of us. We should rather join the music and give thanks for the unique ways that others do the same.