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:
- wasn’t Catholic, even in name,
- was (quite literally) a God-hating heretic, who penned poems spitting in God’s face,
- wrote Lord of the Dance to reimagine Christ as a Shiva-like Diety instead of as Jesus,
- acknowledged it was heretical and only vaguely Christian, and
- 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.