Dancing in the Streets, a book written by journalist and historian Barbara Ehrenreich, tells the story of joy and celebration. The book focuses on Britain and the western world, but takes the reader back to the ancient roots of ecstasy and ranges widely by drawing insights from a variety of cultures.
In early and medieval times, people’s natural exuberance finds shape and expression through the festivals of the church. Certainly, dancing in churches was allowed and enjoyed in the late Middle Ages. This sometimes posed problems as there was the ever-present danger that celebrating, lubricated and fuelled by locally brewed ale, could spill over into unruly behaviour. When this happened, Church officials, wanting to balance piety with riotous behaviour, had to read the riot act and bring some order into the celebrations. Generally, however, church members and its clergy were out there dancing and celebrating with the best of them.
The party-poopers of the day tended to be the civil authorities and ruling classes who were anxious for two reasons. First, there was concern about social order. Secondly there was a deeper concern that celebrating was potentially anarchic because it lifted the people temporarily out of their humdrum, dreary existence brought about by long working hours and little reward, and gave them a glimpse of what relationships and socialising could be like. The people experienced social and political liberation while the rulers feared civil disobedience. The story of dancing and celebration took a turn for the worse when the Church’s developing theology joined forces with the political philosophy of the ruling classes at the Reformation and public celebration became less acceptable. Communal celebration did not come to an end, but it became increasingly frowned upon.
Apart from occasional events like the Olympics and royal occasions, when do we celebrate together? Urbanization, the lure of the computer screen and the rise of a competitive market-based economy with its accompanying pressures have encouraged an environment where individualism gives momentum to a spiralling isolationism. When this is linked to a climate where festivities are discouraged there will be a negative effect on the mental and spiritual health of the people. In places, society has lost the art of corporate celebration and replaced it with over-indulgence: we, literally, are eating and drinking ourselves to death. Depression, regarded as the second most disabling illness across the globe, becomes more prominent. There is no evidence to suggest that depression (or Melancholy, as it was known before the twentieth century) is a phenomenon of the modern era, but there is evidence to suggest that communal celebration and festivities help alleviate it.
Celebration is in the DNA of the Christian faith. Celebration moves our focus beyond ourselves and our needs. The roots of celebration for the Christian are in praise and thanksgiving. There is the praise of God and thanksgiving for what God has done through Christ because of his love for humanity. Celebrating this energises other celebrations and parties. Celebrating in this way is a politically subversive act because it is rooted in God who is more powerful and influential than the rulers of this world. Therefore, the more we celebrate like this, the less this world has power over us and our allegiances.
Celebration is a form of mission. Are our churches places of real celebration? Are people attracted to our communities because they are places of joy? The point has already been made that celebrating is important from the perspective of individual and communal mental health and so the Christian faith has something to teach a society that swings between little celebration and over-indulgence. When distinguishing Christian behaviour from that of their pagan counterparts the early Christian author Tertullian wrote, ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ It would be a tribute if somebody could say of twenty-first Christians, ‘See how these Christians celebrate and enjoy themselves.’
Editorial for Link (Diocesan Newspaper) June 2014