David, Salome, and Dancing with God

At the heart of today’s readings are two dances, two VERY different stories about dance.  We have David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, and we have Salome (who Mark mistakenly calls Herodias, which is her mother’s name.  We know her name was Salome from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time.)  Salome dances before her stepfather-uncle. The family sexual dynamics in this story are pretty wild.  Reading the commentary on the story of Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Salome is a bit like reading the transcript of “Real Housewives of Galilee.”  I am going to skip the sleaze for now.  I want to focus on the dance.  Today before us we have David’s dance of praise and Salome’s dance of seduction.  I think these dances have something incredibly important to teach us today.  The dances teach us about our bodies.

Dancing is about the most bodily thing you can do.  How we dance teaches us about how we are in our bodies.  When was the last time you danced?  I expect for some of us, it has been awhile.  We have before us today two VERY bodily texts, scandalously bodily.  David uses his body to praise the Lord.  Salome uses her body as well.  The results are less graceful.
If we are going to talk about bodies, right off the bat we have to acknowledge a fundamental inequality present in these stories themselves.  I’m sure I don’t have to point the inequality out to you, but bear with me.  I am speaking positively about David’s dance.  David is a man.  Salome’s dance, her body, is used for immoral purposes.  Salome is a woman.  We have a problem.  I mean that, collectively.  Our culture historically, biblically, has cultivated a suspicion toward women’s bodies.  The bible reflects that suspicion, because the Bible was woven from the fabric of culture.  But the Bible does more than that, because we have woven so much of our culture with the stories of the Bible.  The Bible perpetuates a misogynistic view of women’s bodies.  We need to acknowledge the Bible’s complicity, if we are to work against the prejudice.

On the whole, women struggle far more with body image than men.  You can see this clearly if you go to the gym.  On the whole, men at the gym spend a lot longer looking at themselves in the mirror, don’t they?  The men are staring at their bicep as they make that curl.  You’ve all seen that guy, who walks up to the mirror after every set on every weight and checks to see how much prettier his workout is making him.  Women, on the whole, don’t act that way.  Most of the women I know look for the treadmills that DON’T face the mirrors.  On the whole, women struggle more with body image.  Our culture makes body image harder for women.  That is not to say there are not men who are struggling with body image.  After all we live in the days of “Magic Mike.”

So it is unfortunate, if not surprising, that today’s dances line up the way they do.  But if we take the gender of the dancer off the table (just for the moment), what is the difference between David and Salome?  I think the juxtaposition of these two stories has something very important to teach us about the body, about the body’s proper use and maintenance.

      The second story, the story of Salome, teaches us a bit about the power of a visually appealing body in our culture.  I think it is fitting that we discuss “body image.”  Because “image” is used another way.  We talk about “body image.”  We also talk about “graven images.”  I do not think, for our culture, they are far apart.  Think about how much we display a certain type of body.  We hang banners all over our cities displaying a certain kind of body, a body that very very few of us have the time and the genetic type to produce.  We hold up an image of the body, a body image, a graven image.  We worship six pack abs in this country.  We idolize them.
How many of our work-out routines are designed to tone or flatten?  How many of our diets are meant to target specific kinds of flab?  We have stopped asking ourselves “what will make us healthy?” in favor of asking “what will make me look good?”  “What will make me fit that mold?”  This is the dance of Salome.  This is the dance of body-image.  This is a dance we know very very well.  This is a dance many of us are tired from dancing.  We are tired of dancing this dance.
There’s another dance.  As David brings the ark of the Lord into Jerusalem, he starts feeling the rhythm.  He dances, not to please those around him, but because he is fearfully and wonderfully MADE.  He dances because he knows, deep in his muscles and sinews, that God has created him for this moment.  David dances not to please others with the image of his body, but to celebrate the God who made his body.  He dances because God gave him the ability to dance, and that gift is worth celebrating.

You see David’s dance would have us believe that our body, in whatever state it is in, is a beautiful gift from God.  I know, that is hard to believe in a world tapping its feet to Salome’s rhythm.  David’s dance celebrates God because God created our bodies, without regard to how perfectly God’s creation fits into our image of perfection.  David’s dance uses the human body to celebrate the God who created that body.  How do we learn to dance David’s dance?

Me, my sister, and Baga.
Me, my sister, and my grandmother “Baga.”

What I know of David’s dance, I learned from my grandmother.  Now she never directly referenced this story, but my grandmother knew David’s dance.  I called my grandmother Baga.  I was probably just over a year old when I put the two syllables together, and the name stuck.  Baga even eventually had a license plate.  My grandmother was proud to be my, and my siblings and cousins’ Baga.  What you need to know about Baga, for the sake of the story, was that she lived with Rheumatoid Arthritis.  By the time I was born, the RA was pretty advanced.  Baga was my only living grandparent for the majority of my life.  My father’s parents died in an accident when he was young.  My granddad, Baga’s husband, died when I was five.  Baga was a pretty constant presence.

Elizabeth P. Lanning, Baga’s real name, was fiercely independent.  She lived on her own, with Rheumatoid arthritis, until about a year before she died.  She drove up until the last year or two.  My grandmother had a stick with a hook on it so that she could pull up the zipper on her blouse.  All of the doorknobs in her house had handles.  She had a large button phone.  She got my uncle to put a clothespin around the ignition of her car, so that once she put the key in (step one), she could then use both hands to turn the ignition (step 2), before taking the car out of park to drive (step 3).  It took Baga a lot of conscious steps to do things with her body that you and I do unconsciously.  Baga accepted her body, with its limitations.  And she pushed her body.  She did all the exercises she could .  She stretched and worked, and kept pushing herself.  She knew she would never have a “perfect body,” but she was not going to give up on having the healthiest body she could.

That is how she taught me David’s dance.  My grandmother, though her physical movement was tedious, though I’m sure she was often in a lot of pain, though she was in and out of the hospital to have joints replaced, never complained.  I do not remember her complaining, or wincing in pain.  When she had to ask for help, which was not very often, she did it gracefully.  She gave thanks, every day, for the parts of her body that worked.

She had a great love for food, and wine, and beer.  My grandmother taught me to pour a beer, long before I was old enough to drink.  It was one of the few things she needed help with.  She could maneuver a beer bottle over a glass, but she couldn’t simultaneously tilt the glass to get just the right amount of foam.  She wanted to enjoy her beer with the proper head of foam so she asked for help from her scrawny teenage grandson.

What grace I have in David’s dance, in the dance of accepting and loving, and praising God for the body I have been given, I learned from Baga.   My grandmother laughed through the parts of her body that were hard to bear.  She laughed, and I think there is an invitation to laugh at our bodies.  Bodies are funny.  They make all kinds of weird noises.  If we can learn to laugh at our bodies, laugh with our bodies, we might just laugh ourselves into dancing.  We might work out and eat better to feed OUR body, the body we have been given, rather than trying to make it fit some mold.  The next time we dance, maybe, just maybe, we can dance like no one is watching.  We can dance to celebrate that we are wonderfully and fearfully made, by a God who wants us to dance, not to please some image of what we should look like.  We dance because God made us with bodies that are right for dancing.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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