Why “Lord of the Dance” Should be Taken Out of Church

Growing up, my favorite “hymn” was Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance, because I found it upbeat and catchy — to be quite frank, it wasn’t far removed, musically, from a lot of popular children’s artists. Raffi, for example, could easily have been a folk-Christian writer, by tweaking his lyrics slightly. Today, I still can see the musical appeal of Lord of the Dance, and certainly, when I remember the other hymns from growing up, I can see why I liked this one. The most damning indictment that can be made of the lot of modern Church music is that the songs aren’t hymns, but attempts to write Christian pop (or folk, or light rock) songs, and failed attempts. They’re trying to create worldly music, and failing even by those standards. It’s like spiking the punch with Diet Coke.

Today, I was reminded of Lord of the Dance, which I haven’t sung – or thought much of – for years, because I came across Sydney Carter’s obituary. It provides more than enough reason for the song to be banned from every church:

The number’s success stems from two elements. It has a lively, catchy tune, adapted from an air of the American Shaker movement. But the optimistic lines “I danced in the morning when the world begun/ and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun” also contain a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.

Carter himself genially admitted that he had been partly inspired by the statue of Shiva which sat on his desk; and, whenever he was asked to resolve the contradiction, he would declare that he had never tried to do so.

However, he admitted to being as astonished as anyone by its success. “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord. . .

“Anyway,” Carter would continue, “it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”

I don’t see any way, given this information, churches could continue to carry the song as a Christian hymn. The image of a dancing Christ isn’t even found within the Bible; the image is very much that of the Hindu goddess Shiva. The lyrics are also, as the obituary writers note, vaguely pagan. And given that the hymn’s author acknowledges that both the inspiration and text of the hymn are heretical and “dubiously Christian,” how could anyone possibly defend keeping this as a Christian hymn? At another point, he said, “By Christ, I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other lords of the dance.” I think the question Christians have to ask themselves is this: is there any requirement above “it sounds pretty, and maybe mentions God” to be considered as a hymn anymore? Because if so, I think leaving this “hymn” in is indefensible.

To make all of this worse, Sydney Carter is also the author of another pretty disgusting “hymn” called Friday Morning, which has the shockingly blasphemous lyrics:

You can blame it on to Pilate,
You can blame it on the Jews
You can blame it on the Devil.
It’s God I accuse.

“It’s God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me,”
I said to the carpenter,
A-hanging on the tree.

The “hymn” manages at once to deny the Divinity of Christ and curse God for not stopping the Crucifixion. Later, it says, “And your God is up in Heaven / And He doesn’t do a thing, / With a million angels watching / And they never move a wing,” before (I kid you not) damning God to Hell. It’s the sort of thing you might expect at a summer camp for the most bitter anti-theists. Yet stunningly, even this God-hating song somehow briefly made it into hymnals. Carter’s obit says:

The Conservative politician Enoch Powell and the Daily Express called for his poem Friday Morning to be banned because of its lines “It’s God they ought to crucify/ Instead of you and me. . .” The American Armed Forces even announced that they were having this removed from their hymnal. “Until somebody rang me up to say it had been taken out, I didn’t even know it was there,” Carter commented.

The bizarre notion of churches singing songs damning God is a reminder of modern Christianity’s disastrous flirtation with the most deadly of heresies, and the jarring way in which heretical music in particular often slips under the radar even at many otherwise good churches.

So given that Carter:

  1. wasn’t Catholic, even in name,
  2. was (quite literally) a God-hating heretic, who penned poems spitting in God’s face,
  3. wrote Lord of the Dance to reimagine Christ as a Shiva-like Diety instead of as Jesus,
  4. acknowledged it was heretical and only vaguely Christian, and
  5. admitted that his own version of Christianity was as warped as his hymn’s,

…any guesses as to how he was treated by liberal Catholics? Two ways you can figure out the answer. One is to read his obit, which says:

He remained a regular contributor to Christian journals, including the Roman Catholic Tablet, where his wise and often humorous contributions were much appreciated.

The other is just to check out the popular “Catholic” hymn books: for example, the Gather hymnal, which still features him, or Oregon Catholic Press’, which even allows you to buy the hymn by itself or as part of Rise Up & Sing. Let’s pray for the day that the restoration of orthodoxy is complete, and we can be free of this terrible stain on the Church.

18 Comments

  1. A disappointing comment on Friday Morning, Joe.

    Friday Morning is definitely one of the most uncomfortable songs i’ve ever had to listen to, but as song’s composer said – faith without doubt is foolish arrogance.

    I’d be pretty surprised though if you could find a church that had ever sung Friday Morning.

    1. How very sad, and ugly, that you perverse the uplifting joy of dance. Dance praises God’s heavenly rhythms and those of the universe He created. Dance lifts us into the Light & soaring of Gid’s heavenly angels.

  2. There is an incredulity of faith which is natural, and which can only be overcome by spiritual assistance. Mark 9:24 captures this beautifully, when the father of a possessed boy says to Jesus, “I do believe; help me with my unbelief!” There’s a real humanity, and humility, within that paradox. The man has at once come to Jesus for a miracle, and balks that what he hopes for could really come true.

    In contrast, Sydney Carter built his own version of Christianity contrary to what the Bible taught and contrary to the faith of any Church in history, and wrote a song damning God to Hell because of Carter’s own inability to answer the question of theodicy. I would say that, rather than an undoubting faith, is the foolish arrogance.

    Maybe it’s my own inability to understand, but I guess I don’t see how a man who claims to know what Christ really taught, while disagreeing with all the evidence on things like the Divinity and Uniqueness of Christ, and condemning millions of believers he doesn’t know for their supposed arrogance (simply for not doubting the Lord who ransomed them) can be considered anything but foolishly arrogant himself. And unlike Carter, I have more than my own opinion to back up my claims: Psalm 74 twice condemns those who mock God as the fools. Revelation 16 describes the damned at Armageddon as cursing God for their suffering instead of repenting — suggesting this isn’t virtuous from a Christian perspective. And St. Padre Pio, I believe, was the one who said that doubt is the greatest insult to Divinity.

    My point isn’t to condemn Carter, for God only knows if he repented in his final moments, but to suggest that just as their as some artists or musicians who are so counter to what Christians stand for that we avoid even their non-offensive work. We wouldn’t dream, for example, of showing Howard Stern clips in church, even if the particular clip wasn’t vile. Carter ranks up there with Stern, yet churches still carry Lord of the Dance.

    1. Mathew 7:1-

      What would Jesus say about both he and Stern?

      Many hated the tax collector and the prostitute.

      John 13:34

  3. Your comments remind me (a Jew, very familiar with the kindness of christians) of:
    The Indian chief Hatuey fled with his people but was captured and burned alive. As
    “they were tying him to the stake a Franciscan friar urged him to take Jesus to his heart so that his soul might go to heaven, rather than descend into hell. Hatuey replied that if heaven was where the Christians went, he would rather go to hell.”

    Perhaps Mr. Carter wanted to distance himself and Jesus from people like you 🙂
    What happened to his people was described by an eyewitness:
    “The Spaniards found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties … They built a long gibbet, long enough for the toes to touch the ground to prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles… then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.” [SH72]
    — American Holocaust, by D.Stannard

  4. Sarah Q Malone, you have missed the whole point of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s reading of Carter’s poem. Even though you link only to a 1 minute and change portion of his homily, it’s pretty clear that the first thing he says makes it clear that the poem was supposed to be the words of one of the thieves crucified with Christ – and clearly NOT Dismas, the good thief, but rather the one Dismas rebuked, the robber who “blasphemed Him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” And the last thing the good Archbishop says in the YouTube – IS NOT IN THE POEM but rather Archbishop Sheen’s puncturing Carter’s atheist rant/poem – “And it WAS God they crucified…And God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.” Pointing out the very fact that Carter and his fans are woefully ignorant of, the whole point of Christianity.

  5. I have fond memories of my mother singing this tune. When I remember her it seems this song comes to mind. A few years after her death out son was being babtised on Easter Sunday. I felt very sad that Mom wasn’t with us but was sure that she was looking down from heaven and with me spiritually. Just after the baptism our church featured a spiritual dance of angels to this song. I knew then that this was my mom giving me the “spiritual nod”. I still get choked up when I think about the day.
    I’m sure, given enough time that you can condemn whatever you set your mind to. I’m also sure that Christ can use sinners to be fishers of men. To me- it’s a beautiful song of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and his promise to us. Let his light shine in you

  6. If we took every song out of the hymnal by every composer who had ever been tainted with the slightest heretical belief, well…there goes “Mighty Fortress.” Though I have little use for the theology of its composer, that’s a song that I NEED in my head sometimes in order to give words to the hope and adoration in my heart. With your pardon, I’m just not willing to go that far, if for no other reason that I don’t want my own good works judged only in light of the sinful and imperfect creature performing them.

    As to the lyrics of Friday Morning, I will bring to attention an observation of G.K. Chesterton about Christianity: basically that every religion has atheists, but only in Christianity does God Himself, even if only for a moment, becomes mysteriously private even to Himself. During the mysterious moment when God the Father removes Himself from the awareness of Jesus on the Cross, it is almost as though God Himself becomes, if only for a moment, an atheist. (Almost, please don’t forget the almost) I think it’s useful to examine and meditate on the justice of God through the eyes of those who find it ammoral and offensive. Such people are no less fitting objects for our understanding and compassion then our fellow believers, are they not?

    1. Yes to that. Our Lord, inclined me to sing Lord of The Dance, yesterday for a fellowship I was visiting. By His leading it complimented the message on ‘Grace’. By Mr. Joe’s standard, we probably need to remove “It is Well with My Soul” from the hymnals. Surely as Horatio Spafford presented himself as an incarnation of the Messiah in his final years living in Jerusalem.

  7. You seem to have missed the essential irony of Friday Morning. It is written from the perspective of one of the brigands being crucified with Jesus whom Carter gives deeply ironic lines. The brigand wants God to be crucified instead of the man next to him, but we know that that is exactly what is happening. And when he says the line “to hell with Jehovah” the reason he gives is that he wishes the “carpenter had made the world instead,” which, again, we know is what was happening. The man being crucified next to him is none other than God himself through whom all things were made. What the brigand means as curses actually convey a word of truth along the lines of Caiaphas in John 11:50. The song conveys the image of a God who is faced with evil in his creation and who doesn’t sit on the sidelines as some suppose. Rather he get personally involved in it. Just at that moment when the brigand insists that God “doesn’t do a thing” about all the injustice in the world, God is right next to him taking that injustice on himself.

    Once we grasp that the song is dripping with irony, the conclusion becomes clear. On the one hand, the brigand is right and Pippa is wrong: all is not right with the world. But they are both wrong the other count: God is not “in his heaven.” He became flesh and dwelt among; even getting so close as to hear the faint curse of those who think him far away.

    And I can’t see that as “disgusting.” Quite the opposite really.

  8. I love this song and see NOTHING un Scriptural about it
    . Would love to see my children grand children enjoy singing it

  9. Matthew 7:2-3
    2For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye?…

    Luke 18:9-14
    9And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14“I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *