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“The Importance of Embodiment”

  • “The Importance of Embodiment”

In this excerpt from my new book, Think Like a Filmmaker, we’re going to examine why the dramatic arts claim a rightful place in worship as we seek to embody our faith, both in worship and in our everyday lives. You’re invited to use the reflection questions at the end as you consider ways to incorporate and value the dramatic arts in your church.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Marcia McFee’s new book [Think Like a Filmmaker © Marcia McFee, 2016]. Find out more HERE.

3D cover no shadowOne of the most important questions I ask of myself as I’m designing worship is “How can we embody that which we proclaim?” We don’t just have bodies, we are bodies. When we come to worship, we experience the story in and through our bodies because it is the only way we connect with the world. Cognitive concepts are embodied because they are shaped by our bodily perceptions and sensations. What we do with our bodies in worship makes a difference for how we understand and connect with God. The church has not always been convinced of this, however. The Enlightenment era (1700-1800) brought rational thinking into view as a sacred edict, bringing with it a decline in a variety of the visual and dramatic arts. The physical and visual was dissociated from the inward and spiritual. For René Descartes, the preeminent philosopher of this time period, what it is to be “human”—in other words the essence of being human—is the capacity to think, to reason. This is the first principle of Cartesian philosophy, “I think, therefore I am.” And so, in the Western philosophical tradition since then, there has been a tendency to insist upon a “gap” which is thought to exist between our cognitive, rational side in contrast with our bodily, emotional side. This crept into a dichotomy of body and mind for the post-enlightenment church.

Although sacred dance had flourished during the Renaissance… in the post-renaissance period the door was firmly closed on its creative expression… As the Roman Catholic church became more centrally authoritative in Rome and published conforming edicts, there was little chance for creative and fresh exploration in the sacred dance. In general Protestant Christians felt that the portals of the spirit were to be entered with great seriousness through the mind and not through the senses (Margaret Taylor, “A History of Symbolic Movement in Worship” in Dance as Religious Studies, p. 29).

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For Roman Catholics, “the liturgy [became] something that is watched by the people from afar” (Winifred Whelan, “Bodily Knowing: Implications for Liturgy and Religious Education” in Religious Education, p. 276). For Protestants, “participation” meant understanding (intellectually) what they were experiencing—mostly an experience of verbal discourse (James White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, p. 152). This also led to attitudes about what kind of bodily behavior was acceptable or “holy.” Christian theology itself was to become associated with liturgical “uprightness,” and the vocabulary of action in worship narrowed, holding more active, and especially ecstatic, expression at bay along with the emotions that accompanied them. For example, the “enthusiasm” of early Methodists was held suspect because “rationalism simply could not tolerate such enthusiasm” (Ibid.). Diverse expressiveness has always found allies in the bodies of those not under the thumb of dominant Western ideology or by those who were, by virtue of class, race, gender or any other marginalizing factors, excluded from “upright” society in the first place (William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, pp. 99-100; see White, Protestant Worship).

This history of the depreciation of bodies has had a lasting effect on some denominations’ worship practices. Many of our congregants still hold attitudes about embodied expression that can be difficult for them to overcome. Because my first career was in dance and drama, I encountered firsthand the resistance to embodied art forms. I realized that I had to learn about thishistory and to talk about it in a way that would invite people to a new appreciation for a fuller incorporation of our bodies in worship. In my studies, I found much from both religion and science to back me up. The biblical texts are full of descriptions of communities praising God through dramatic movement—whether of celebration (drumming and dancing) or lament (wailing and tearing of clothes). Bodily expression in the midst of life’s emotional circumstances have historically found a home in ritual through such actions as exuberant processions or subdued kneeling. The body has given Christians throughout history the ability to encounter God and to act as “the Body.” Scholarly thought is now catching up with that reality as new philosophies and theologies “in the flesh” embrace our embodied nature as the source of knowledge itself. Neurobiological science is helping us understand that rational thought is not possible without the gut reactions called “somatic markers” that come from our intuitive bodies. Somatic markers increase the accuracy and efficiency of our reasoning processes. This is a partnership of cognition and emotion that makes rational thought possible (Antonio Damasio, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pp. 173-175). Our brains are interpreting our bodily experience. How our bodies experience the stimuli in worship practices (music, words, actions) influences the interpretations of the sensory information the brain is faced with in that moment. That information is part of what gets assigned to who God is and how God feels to us.

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We might not think about watching movies as a particularly “embodied” experience, but Clive Marsh reminds us that it is often a visceral experience. Our emotions, cognition, and reactions combine for a “visceral attentiveness” that facilitates concentration and absorption of the story. For Marsh, this is akin to Christian worship as “visuality, emotion and embodiedness” combine and the story is “made real” to us in an incarnational way (Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment, pp. 100-101). When we are a witness to someone singing, speaking, or moving with emotion, we are wired to test out that emotion ourselves.

“Long before we can talk, we are attuned to the shifting sands of [facial and bodily] expression… the eye instinctually searches for emotion in the human face. And we are not passive observers of those emotions. The emotions of others create a matching urge on our part.” (Jon Boorstin, Making Movies Work, pp. 65-66)

Directors of film know that the story comes alive when audiences engage emotionally with it. When movie-goers are having a visceral experience, they are more likely to be responding empathetically to the characters and therefore becoming involved at the level of caring about them. “What a film reveals… is the director’s sense of emotional truth. The director is the one who decides, ‘Yes, that will do, that feels right to me’” (Ibid.). While emotion is not the only outcome we are searching for in worship (if it is, then we have crossed over into the treacherous waters of manipulation), if we want congregations to be motivated to action, we must present the narrative of faith in such a way that we begin to care about how we will respond as disciples in our own contexts. We must strive toward an engagement with story that invites empathy, and therefore, action.

Questions to Ponder:

What role does movement play in our worship each week? What kind of opportunities do we offer for physical embodiment and participation?

Do we feel free to express and describe emotions in worship, as a congregation? If not, what might be holding us back?

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which we’ll be homing in on the four-fold pattern of worship and discussing how the elements of a modern worship service fit in with this ancient order for ritual. If you’d like to learn more about Think Like a Filmmaker, visit the book’s website HERE!

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