Dancing with Culture

by Kyra Riley Daniels

Do you like to dance? I absolutely love it. Dancing is such a joy that I rarely pass up an opportunity to move my body to the music. While I am not a professional dancer (though in my imagination I am), I can identify some characteristics of proper dancing techniques. First, strong dancers are skilled observers. They look at the choreographer’s routine with a critical eye, dissecting every 8-count. Second, good dancers have authority. They are always in control of their bodies and guide them to do exactly what the choreographer teaches. Third, strong dancers are original and playful. After observing and learning the dance, they respond in a unique and fun way. They are flexible and improvise, creating their own spin and pivoting within the established framework of the choreography. The techniques of dance can be applied to how Christians respond to culture. Dancing with the complexities of culture should consist of observation, authority, and play.            

The American church is deeply divided. Cultural ideologies and movements have caused splintering among Christians. We don’t often have patient conversations where we listen, learn, and share. Instead, we explode in disagreement, perpetuate half-truths, or shy away from any tension entirely. This reality in the church arises out of a misdirected relationship with culture. We wrap our identity up in the ideologies and movements of the time. These things define us and serve as the basis on which we judge others. We choose one side of the cultural argument and become rigid in this box, shutting ourselves off from engagement with another point of view.  

Rigidity has divided and distracted the church from the gospel mission. But, approaching culture like a dance will bring unity and focus. In other words, like a dancer learning choreography, we must observe culture with intention and a critical eye. We can study the work of culturemakers like artists, scientists, politicians, and academics. We should know all sides of a debate and humbly seek understanding when our knowledge is limited. We should consider whether aspects of culture contribute to human flourishing, alleviate suffering and inequality, and reflect the gospel. With the authority of a dancer, we can bring each position under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We don’t let our bodies go in whatever direction the culture is leading. Rather, we recognize we have the call to glorify God in all areas of life, so we only affirm and follow culture when it serves as a vehicle for loving God and others. Like a dancer improvising and displaying his or her uniqueness, Christians can also be innovative culturemakers. With our God-given talents, we can play and create within our cultural contexts. The Christian life has much freedom as long as it holds to an ultimate identity in Christ and embodies the hope of Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection.  

In his book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch identifies “postures” that Christians take on when engaging in culture. He argues that we fall into rigid patterns of condemning, critiquing, copying, or consuming culture. Rather, these stagnant “postures” should be more like fluid “gestures.” Christians should constantly shift between condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming culture because these are the natural responses to engaging with a glorious yet fallen world. Like the flow of dance, we should move from one step to another, or from critiquing to affirming culture and back again. Through observation, authority, and play, the church can together focus on the work of redeeming culture through the gospel instead of dividing itself because of fleeting ideologies and movements.  

How did the early Christians navigate the challenging culture of their time? We see an example in Acts 17 when the Apostle Paul confronted pagan worshippers in Athens. First, Paul walked around and saw their objects of worship. He affirmed their religiosity and the insight of their poets (Acts 17:22, 28) but condemned their idolatry and called them to repent. He ultimately pointed them to God’s plan of redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ. Paul’s dance consisted of observing: He noticed the Athenian way of life. It included authority: He held to the truth of God. Finally, Paul’s dance incorporated play: He creatively copied the worldview of the poets and used it for the gospel.  

In navigating culture, we truly need wisdom. Scriptures tell us we can seek the wisdom of God in prayer, and He will give it to us (James 1:5). James 3:17 states, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without pretense” (CSB). With the Lord’s wisdom, we can dance with culture in a way that restores the unity of the church. We can engage with the world and, at the same time, glorify God and love others who think differently. Like the joy of dancing, dancing with culture can be a joy, even in conflict, because through it, we can rejoice in the supremacy of Christ and the truth of the gospel.   

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