"God's Great Dance Floor," Or, Why You Don't Need Ecstasy to Have an Ecstatic Good Time
On New Year’s Day 2013, I filed into the lower deck of the Georgia Dome along with more than 65,000 evangelical Christians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. We were all there to attend a four-day concert event known as the Passion Conference, which occurs in Atlanta each January. Each day, conference attendees spend nearly four hours singing along with their favorite evangelical artists from Passion’s own sixstepsrecords label, along with hearing sermons and participating in Bible studies with fellow conference goers. During the second night’s festivities, multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning worship artist Chris Tomlin launched into a song called “God’s Great Dance Floor,” the lead single off his new album—which, of course, was available for pre-sale exclusively at this event. About halfway through his performance, Tomlin turned toward the audience and the following scene unfolded.
Many of the gestures of this particular moment seem to reference the musical subculture of electronic dance music or EDM. This song is styled with a four-on-the-floor electronic dance beat, a repetitive synthesizer hook & funk-derived guitar riff, and in the middle of this clip, we see Tomlin instruct the band to “build it boys,” which results in a clear musical and visual evocation of “the drop,” a central feature of many beat-based musical formal structures. Additionally, the stage design, lighting, and even the contours of the video itself—which was designed to promote the 2013 Passion live record on which “God’s Great Dance Floor” was the title track—borrow a visual and gestural language that is heavily informed by dance music.
A Christian co-optation of EDM might seem surprising for any number of reasons—not least because the Southern Baptist denomination to which most of these evangelicals belong would still place dancing alongside drinking alcohol as a dangerous sign of moral degradation in society—but perhaps, given Christian music’s oft-maligned borrowings and appropriations from mainstream popular culture, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to us at all. In fact, co-opting, adapting, and transvaluing elements of popular music seem to have been the primary modus operandi of evangelical Christian recording artists for at least the last half century (if not significantly longer than that). A broad caricature of the ways that this process is typically understood might go something like this:
(Step 1) A popular music subculture creates a new musical style
(Step 2) Christian artists empty that style of all its offensive “secular” content
(Step 3) Christian artists replace that content with more explicitly “Jesus-y” content
(Step 4) Sell millions of records
According to this caricature, the thing that fundamentally sets “Christian Punk” or “Christian Metal” apart from its mainstream secular counterparts is that mainstream punks sing about punk stuff, mainstream metal bands sing about metal stuff, but Christian punk and metal bands just sing about Jesus. As religious historian Randall Balmer observed in his landmark study of the American evangelical subculture:
With few exceptions, [evangelical music of the 1970s and 1980s] was derivative and predicable, reflecting a kind of “me, too” approach to secular music. Countless evangelical groups aspired to mimic the folk music of Peter, Paul, & Mary or the popular ballads of Simon and Garfunkel. Amy Grant and Sandi Patty were the Belinda Carlisle and Barbra Streisand of evangelical music, and as long as heavy metal remained part of the secular music vernacular several evangelical bands, like Petra, Stryper, Guardian, and Whiteheart, sought to baptize that, too (Balmer 2006:299-300).
For Balmer, Christian popular music constitutes nothing more than a religious alternative to the mainstream, “secular” entertainment business. This alternative Christian popular music industry runs parallel to and makes many of the same moves that the mainstream industry makes, but it is set apart by the explicit faith of its lyrical and biographical content.
Although this well-worn narrative of co-optation and appropriation by Christian artists undoubtedly contains more than a few grains of truth, it doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on in the “God’s Great Dance Floor” example. In fact, if we attempt to understand “God’s Great Dance Floor” as a copy of EDM, then the copy is undoubtedly poor: Chris Tomlin and his band do not sonically approximate the contours of EDM. However, I argue that this is not because they are simply out of touch or inferior musicians, but rather because they are not trying to. In fact, even the most self-consciously EDM-derived portions of the performance I mentioned above—including the central build-climax-drop format—have much more to do with arena rockers like U2 or Bruce Springsteen than they do with rave culture. What is important here, however, are the ways in which the EDM drop is evoked—through the dance performances of worship leaders, the constant hyping of the crowd with “are you ready to dance?”, the “build it boys” comment that precedes the final climax, the visual laser-light and strobe effects, the ways in which official audio and video performances are edited together, etc.—despite the song’s somewhat tenuous sonic relationship to EDM as a style. Even without a strong aural connection between “praise and worship” and EDM stylistically, the performative connections are still crucial to maintain. I would argue that the subcultural system of meaning-making that EDM provides is more crucial to Christian artists than the actual sonic style attached to those meanings.
Indeed, in the case of “God’s Great Dance Floor,” the subculturally-defined context of the “dance floor” seems to play an essential role in the spiritual meanings that the song makes for artists and fan-worshippers. We can see the ways that this is mapped onto the physical space of the Georgia Dome by Tomlin in his performance. Tomlin explains to the crowd that the stadium is undergoing a transvaluation from a “dome” into “one massive dance floor.” Similarly, the gatherings of people close to the stage are refigured from mere congregation or fans into “the praise pits.” Martin Smith, the British songwriter and worship leader who wrote “God’s Great Dance Floor,” has continually foregrounded the concept of the “dance floor” as an essential part of the impact he hoped the song would have on the Christian community.
We've realized that when a community gathers together, it has to have that sense of freedom and expression. That is at the heart of gospel. So “God's Great Dance Floor” is common to everybody, it doesn't matter where you come from. Now's the time, let's get back on the dance floor. And this is not about professionalism. This is about getting down...“God’s Great Dance Floor” is about grace. It's about everybody's welcome. Everybody. And that's the great thing about “Dance Floor,” is it doesn't matter how good or bad you are, you can always give it a go. And I think that's God's heart. I think the dance floor is the threshing floor, where God does a lot of healing in us (MacIntosh 2013).
Smith identifies the entire ethos of the EDM dance floor––the idea of cutting loose and “being yourself” in an environment without scrutiny or judgment––as an essential part of what the song means in a Christian context. The “dance floor” here is part origin myth, part ethical rulebook, and part eschatology. What is being transvalued or co-opted is not simply a lyrical image, a musical style, or even a way of organizing aesthetic judgments, but rather an entire ethical system of performance, participation, and reception that is associated with the EDM subculture. Dance music is not simply the musical model for the song, it is also the model for any proper understanding of the song. Smith and Tomlin seem to assume and even require that their audience already possess an embodied habitus of dance music participation in order to even engage the song as spiritually meaningful.
Artists like Smith and Tomlin are working in the genre of “praise and worship” music, a subset of the Christian recording industry that focuses on creating pop- and rock-styled music for use in Christian congregational worship. “Praise and worship” differs from other forms of Christian popular music because of its explicitly stated purpose for facilitating experiences of worship. This is music designed for use by Christian believers to actively negotiate their relationships with God. In settings like Passion—as well as the recorded sounds which result from them—worship leaders, like EDM deejays, are entrusted with the experiences of a gathered community and while technical proficiency is obviously important, the standard of quality is ultimately curatorial rather than performative. Like the deejay, worship leaders are judged on their ability to enact a meaningful encounter for the gathered community rather than their ability to correctly realize a pre-determined musical product. This curatorial focus in “praise and worship” music means that what is most often being appropriated from mainstream musical culture is not a particular style or genre, but rather an embodied and culturally situated set of experiences. On “God’s Great Dance Floor,” it would seem, the embodied exhilaration of EDM and the ecstatic devotion of Christian worship are not only one and the same, they are mutually co-dependent.
This observation cuts against both the “neutrality” argument offered by evangelicals and the narrative of simple appropriation that is often posited by scholars and journalists. Evangelical worship musicians are not borrowing styles as “ready-to-hand” tools for outreach and evangelism or even as “present-at-hand” cultural forms which allow for savvy engagements with their fan-worshippers (Wheeler 2013). Rather, artists such as Tomlin are syncretically developing new pop/evangelical modes of musical engagement and using their historically and socially-conditioned systems of meaning-making to convey religious messages to their audiences. The musical and lyrical contours of popular music are not simply a source of new appealing “forms” in which to couch the “content” of religious orthodoxy; in fact, they amount to something like what Steven Feld has described as an “acoustemology” (Feld 1996:97). That is to say, the truly meaningful gestures and moments of these “praise and worship” performances come from a syncretic melding of beliefs and practices from mainstream popular music and evangelical Christianity. Popular music actually shapes the ways that believers come to know themselves as religious subjects in worship.
While nearly all of those evangelical Christian informants, subjects, and ethnographic interlocutors which populate my dissertation responded generously to suggestions of a “syncretic” analysis when it came up in fieldwork conversations, they also understood that syncretism was a very serious charge indeed. Anthropologists Rosalind Shaw and Charles Stewart have observed that within the study of religion, “syncretism” is too often a dirty word (2003:1-25). For religious fundamentalists, syncretic formations signal a compromise of “true” or “pure” belief; they represent a sort of religious half-breed and an exercise in dangerous accommodationism. For post-colonial theorists (including many ethnomusicologists), syncretism is largely discussed as a coping mechanism for those canny indigenous peoples who found a way to resist or subvert the universalizing religion of their oppressors. In both of these cases, saying that a religion is the result of a “syncretic” process is too often simply a way of saying that it was created on the wrong side of colonial expansion—whether that expansion is from Western invading forces or from the inescapable ubiquity of the market under late capitalism. The concept of syncretism is used to explain these beliefs and practices because they cannot be made to fit the established “orthodoxies” of a major world religion but neither do they constitute an act of religious creativity significant enough to constitute an entirely new system of meaning. Perhaps because of this “half-breed” status, concepts of syncretism have traditionally been used in the West to study the “marginal” religious expressions of Latin America, the Afro-Caribbean, the native peoples of North America, and many others.
However, Shaw and Stewart’s approach seems to suggest that we could use the term syncretism to acknowledge the ways that “all religions have composite origins and are continually reconstructed through ongoing processes of synthesis and erasure” (2003:7). In exploring the ways that evangelical Christian theology and practice in the United States bears the marks of syncretic involvement with mainstream popular music, I do not mean to suggest any degree of insincerity or inauthenticity on the part of the music’s devout practitioners. Rather, by describing evangelical worship music through a syncretic lens, I argue for the importance of music as a primary theological discourse which allows parishioners to construct, contest, reify, and transgress the boundaries of official “orthodoxy.” Understanding how contemporary religious communities of practice are always-already shaped by popular music opens up new ways of understanding embodied religious experience as well as the formations of community and identity that congregational music-making provides to so many.
Balmer, Randall Herbert. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Feld, Steven. 1996. “An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea,” in Senses of Place, eds. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
MacIntosh, Dan. “Songwriter Interview with Martin Smith of Delirous?,” songfacts.com. www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/martin_smith_of_delirous.
Shaw, Rosalind and Charles Stewart. 2003. “Introduction: Problematizing Syncretism.” In Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis. New York: Routledge.
Wheeler, Michael. 2013. “Martin Heidegger.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/heidegger.
Joshua Kalin Busman is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he’s currently working on a dissertation about pop- and rock-styled worship music in American evangelicalism. When he isn’t reading or writing, Joshua also works as a teaching assistant at the UNC Writing Center and serves as musical director for Gamelan Nyai Saraswati.