I’ve been meditating on two things that my brother Jonathan Martin said during our rave sermon at the Wild Goose Festival a week ago: “The Trinity is a dance” and “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is no inhibition.” I realize that at first glance, these two statements might seem like the kind of flippant blasphemy that confirms the worst stereotypes about a progressive Christian gathering like Wild Goose. Make God into your personal art project; give yourself over to whatever self-indulgence suits your fancy and say that you’re worshiping God by doing that. But that doesn’t do justice to the spirit in which Jonathan said these things or the ambiance of Wild Goose in general. The people there weren’t any less Biblically literate or passionate about holy living than at other Christian gatherings I have attended. What was missing was all the posturing and policing that keeps most Christian theological conversation from being a dance party without inhibition.
Is it wrong to call the Trinity a dance? If your way of assessing what’s right and wrong theologically is to do a keyword search on “dance” at biblegateway.com, then you will find that sure enough the Bible doesn’t have any references to God as a dance party. Yet it does teach us that God is most fundamentally not an individual but a community of three persons sharing the same essence, whatever that means. And one way of capturing this strange tension metaphorically might be to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three dancers who move in sync according to the rhythm of the same song. The image that I chose to accompany this piece is a sketch of the Trinity made by Romantic poet William Blake that makes God look like a trio of dancers.
What is the song that God dances to? Well, the Bible does say that God is love, and while many Christians qualify that by saying that God’s love isn’t the way the world understands love, there’s a pretty clear definition for God’s kind of love laid out in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
So many Christians seem to be very nervous about allowing God’s love to be that benevolent and unconditionally accepting toward us. At many Christian gatherings that I’ve been to, there’s a palpable guardedness in the conversations that take place. It’s like we all have checklists inside our brains of catch-phrases that we’re listening for in the speeches of others and gestures that we need to make in our own speeches. Indeed, many Christians believe that this posturing and policing is our duty to each other as a community, and they have the Bible verses to support this belief. But I think that a life of permanently walking on eggshells and anxiously trying to prove our legitimacy to each other is the opposite of what God had in mind. I believe that we are saved from all of the posturing and policing by trusting that Jesus has justified us through his cross.
At Wild Goose, I encountered a community of people who seemed to have experienced this salvation from posturing and policing by trusting in an unconditionally loving God who isn’t glaring down at us with a lightning bolt ready to heave at each person who makes a doctrinal error. I talked openly with other people about topics that you’re not supposed to talk about, one example being the longest, safest conversation I’ve ever had about speaking in tongues with my friend Heather. When you speak in tongues, you’re not supposed to question whether it’s really God doing it or you faking it, because you just know. Well, I don’t “just know” anything because I overanalyze everything. And because I don’t come from a charismatic background, I don’t have any resources for understanding this strange part of my prayer life that seems to bubble up every now and then. So Heather gave me some really helpful insights for understanding what’s going on with me when that happens.
Speaking in tongues is actually a good example of the two ways that the Christian life can be lived: as an uninhibited dance with God or a never-ending, exhausting campaign of posturing by which Christians strive to prove their legitimacy. When speaking in tongues is made into the mandatory evidence of spiritual regeneration, then it becomes the charismatic form of posturing, no different than the young restless Calvinist who tries to incorporate the five points of the TULIP doctrine into every paragraph that he says. But when there is no legitimacy to be gained or lost by speaking in tongues, then it’s simply a strange thing that happens when you’re deep in prayer and you have things to say that are too emphatic for words. It’s a weird goofy dance without inhibition in the safety of God’s arms, like the silly nonsense babble of a toddler who feels completely safe and loved. And when we become silly toddlers in God’s arms, the Holy Spirit is able to do other things with us that can’t happen when we’re filled with inhibitions and trying to prove ourselves to other people.Now let me say more about inhibition, because I think some Christians think that the life of holiness that we’re supposed to be pursuing is about embracing inhibition, rather than casting it off. I would make a big distinction between inhibition and discipline, though both involve forms of restraint. Inhibition means that our fears and anxieties hold us back from acting freely and decisively. People who do irresponsible, destructive things with their bodies and their lives are not living without inhibition so much as they are living under compulsion. A dance party where people are filled with sexual lust and drug addiction is a completely spiritually inhibited space. It’s a place where people interact according to very boring, predictable social scripts. It’s a place where everyone feels pressured to act like they’re having a good time. They’re not really enjoying themselves; they’re mimicking how “happy” people are supposed to talk and act, according to the script. I know because I lived that script!
To gain the freedom to live without inhibition requires spiritual discipline, which involves restraining ourselves in order to not be restrained by ourselves. Through discipline, we restrain ourselves intentionally in order to kill off the idols inside of us that create fears and anxieties which are ultimately behind our inhibitions. The more discipline we gain, the more we are able to live intentionally as something organic that we don’t even have to think about. Instead of settling for cheap pleasures that fill our hearts with spiritual baggage, we live a rich, imaginative life that gives us the deepest, most meaningful joy. That’s what dancing with the Trinity is about. To me, dancing is a great metaphor for the obedience to God (or, as I prefer to say, inspiration by God) that isn’t repressive and self-negating but rather liberating and self-transcending. Because what this obedience looks like is not being stiff and timid when God’s song is playing, but instead surrendering to its rhythm in a way that is shameless, fearless, and beautiful. It’s losing ourselves in God’s song and thus gaining our true spiritual identity.
There are two ways that we can be inhibited at the dance party of love that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit never stop cranking out. Some people are so filled with idols that they’re dancing completely out of step with the rhythm of God’s song. It’s like going to a club with your own personal ipod and really powerful earbuds that drown out the sound from the club speakers so that you’re dancing to country when everybody else in the room is dancing to reggae. The other problem people can have is that they’re standing on the edge of God’s dance floor watching with their arms folded and criticizing all the clumsy mistakes that everyone else is making because they’re so afraid to let go and start dancing themselves. These people might be total hipsters in their ability to analyze the dynamics of God’s song and write long blog posts about it; they’re just too hipster to actually dance with God.
Whatever else Wild Goose was, it was a place where people danced without inhibition. I’m sure there were some awkward-looking dance moves that took place. I’m sure there was idolatry mixed in with the true worship. Perhaps there were times when correction should have been offered and wasn’t. But I really think that true worship is more likely to take place in an environment that’s mostly liberated from the posturing and policing that plagues so many Christian gatherings. At Wild Goose, I felt a different kind of “peer pressure” motivating me to pursue a holier way of life. I wasn’t coming from a place of worrying about other people criticizing me and telling me that I wasn’t a true Christian. Instead, I saw beautiful spiritual fruit embodied in the lives of kingdom-seeking people whom I longed to emulate, especially among the young radicals at the Carnival de Resistance. They weren’t any less zealous about throwing off worldly idols and sinful lifestyles than people at the more conservative evangelical gatherings I’ve been a part of, but I didn’t feel judged or policed by them; I felt invited to dance. And so that’s what I did and that’s what I’m going to keep on doing.