Music, Carnality, And The Incarnation
Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party? – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?”, Uniting Grace, September 10, 2015
As a wedding disc jockey, my job is simple: I create an atmosphere in which people can celebrate. Weddings in particular call for celebration. Two families are now joined. Loved ones cry both from happiness as well as sorrow. Whether or not a couple has been together ten days, ten months, or ten years, a wedding is an outward and visible and legal declaration not only of love, but of a willingness to be together no longer as single individuals but as a couple. Food and drink and music have been part of wedding celebrations across cultures and time. Taken on their own, each element is important. Together they create conditions in which people, inhibitions loosened, can release their feelings of joy and sadness, of love and commitment; they do so together in a community of shared joy.
Without the music, a wedding reception would a feast with drunk people sitting around. With music, the sated and slightly tipsy become something different. They dance and sing, in pairs or groups, the music and alcohol and good food overwhelming their sense of normal propriety. What people would never consider doing otherwise the atmosphere of a wedding reception offers them the opportunity to do. I think it is no accident that Jesus set one of his parables at a wedding celebration; what could better portray the joy and celebration of the Kingdom of God than a wedding reception?
No art form effects the whole person in the way music does. It not only brings about particular actions in the brain; the whole body is involved in the musical experience. Sound is physical. A person can feel music, especially if it’s loud enough or low enough. I remember being at a Rush concert and feeling my pants moving because the sub-woofers were so powerful they were pushing a column of air across the arena. The rhythm and meter make you want to tap your foot or, in the case of heavy metal, shake your head violently, wave your arms. I’ve emerged from concerts hoarse, not realizing how long and how loud I’d been screaming, singing along, and generally celebrating the joy of the music. Of course we all know the whole ringing ears phenomenon. I’ve been to a few shows where I haven’t heard the first musical note; it was so loud, in order to adjust to the new situation, my brain shut everything down for a second as it acclimated itself. Even, perhaps especially, at symphonic concerts there can be moments if such sublime beauty and power, listeners close their eyes, the music transporting them beyond the moment, the sound becoming all. Music is a whole body, whole life experience.
Picture yourself at a wedding reception. In walks this guy, just a regular looking guy. He gets a beer at the bar, then stands there people watching. He’s smiling at what he sees as the crowded dance floor bounces, the heat of all those human bodies raising the temperature in the room by fifteen degrees. He nods his head along with the music, watches as the lights play across the bodies dripping sweat, smiling or mouthing the lyrics of the song. A young woman rushes to the bar to refill her glass, sees him standing there and invites him to join her. Don’t you think he would?
Drew McIntyre asks a question that gets at the heart of how we understand the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Most of us, I think, have more than a touch of Docetism in our thoughts about Jesus. Despite our Doctrine of the Two Natures – that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – we tend, at the very least, to draw lines around particular human actions (like body functions; do we really want to wonder if Jesus farted?) and activities. Years ago, I asked a fundamentalist if he thought Jesus got all hot and bothered when he heard the 1st century equivalent of “fuck”; his response was that Jesus would have been a moral scold. At the very least, there’s a moral Docetism when we consider the Incarnation. As much as we profess belief in Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, we actually have a hard time picturing Jesus doing normal, human stuff; in his dealings with others, many would prefer a Jesus who insisted on moral probity from the drunks and prostitutes and tax collectors and other social outcasts with whom he spent time. All of which begs the question we always hear from Jesus: Who do you say that I am?
Among the charges laid against Jesus was that he consorted with whores and drunks, accepted social outcasts and the ritually unclean. Hazarding a guess from the thin testimony of the Gospels, I think Jesus was probably a great listener. He probably spent time listening to these folks’ complaints about everything from the price of bread to the holier-than-thou attitude of the religious elites. I doubt he said much beyond pleasantries; his presence would have been more than enough to create a community of the moment, people sharing their fears and frustrations, their sorrow and desire for acceptance. I bet there haven’t been too many people who could read people’s faces and body language, see their “tells”, and help them say what needed to be said so that healing – and real community – could begin. He wasn’t a drunkard or a solicitor of prostitutes; he wasn’t corrupt like the tax collectors or unclean like the lepers and Samaritans. What he was, well, was probably the best people-person ever. Which is why I think picturing Jesus at a party is not only easy, but necessary.
The celebration of carnality at a party, a concert, a rave, or a wedding reception is not anything negative. Why shouldn’t we enjoy our bodies, the changes a full belly, some good adult beverages, and excellent music bring about? These are the bodies God created. They are what God called “very good”. It was a human body, with all its physical faculties and failings, its moral prowess and smallness, in which the Son of God was pleased to dwell. For all the denunciations of carnality in church history, we forget that Jesus was as much a man as he was the Second Person of the Trinity. To feel alive, especially at those moments at which we are most aware of our bodies and the joy we receive from being enfleshed creatures, surely that was part of the life taken up in to the interpenetrating Life of the Trinity, redeemed and made new. To be “carnal” does not mean to revel in overindulgence; it is only to love that we have bodies with all these feelings, the ability to move to sounds, to appreciate the smile of someone who catches our eye. All of this and more were all part of the life Jesus lived.
If we can’t picture Jesus at a rave, or with his hands in the air at a rap show, then we don’t accept the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Invite Jesus to a party? He’d be the life of the party. I’d want him at all of them.