TIME Religion

What Can Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Tell Us About God?

Singer Pharrell Williams performs his hit song "Happy" at the Walmart annual shareholders meeting in Fayetteville
Singer Pharrell Williams performs his hit song "Happy" at the Walmart annual shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas June 6, 2014. Rick Wilking / Reuters—REUTERS

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

You like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, don’t you? Of course you do. The song is catchy, plain and simple. Or maybe not so simple––new evidence suggests that “Happy” isn’t just catchy, but that when we hear it, we’re hardwired to get up and dance. And while it might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, I think this study gives us a glimpse of how God has hardwired us to join in His “dance” on earth, too.

Hardwired to Dance

The “Happy” music video, currently sporting over two hundred and seventy-two million YouTube views, flips through shots of people dancing around the world. It’s spawned a worldwide imitation video phenomenon. So why does Happy make us want to dance?

In a study published last month, neuroscientists in Denmark explored this question. They created a survey asking people to rate a variety of drum patterns, selecting ones that made them want to dance the most. Some were simple rhythms with regular beats (think Drum Class 101), while others were complex, layered rhythmic patterns with lots of unexpected gaps where regular beats should go (think of Chad Smith in a drum-off).

Then there were beats that avoided both extremes, “patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity,” explained the study’s leader, Maria Witek.

These were the beats that made people want to get up and dance, worldwide. And “Happy” is full of them.

So why do these beats affect us? Witek’s explanation is fascinating: “there’s enough regularity to sort of perceive the underlying beat, but also enough complexity to sort of invite participants to synchronize to the music.”

As NPR’s Michael Doucleff puts it, “it may be more about what’s missing from the song than what’s there.” Witek elaborates: “Gaps in the rhythmic structure…. provide us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies.”

A Dancing God?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis introduces the image of a God who is always dancing. Every member of the Trinity is ceaselessly adoring, serving, and “dancing with” every other member: “In Christianity God is not a static thing… but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life… a kind of dance….” God created us to live into this self-giving dance with Him, worshiping him, serving each other, and experiencing the joy of the Trinity. “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us… [It’s] a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.”

When we become Christians, we realize how we’ve turned away from the Divine Dance. We demand that other people serve us and dance for us, but we don’t want to do any serving or dancing.

Then suddenly we sense, to mix Lewis and Witek’s words, “the underlying beat at the very center of reality.” And we find it so attractive that we can’t help but get up and dance. We realize that everyone, worldwide, is hardwired to join us.

Filling in the Gaps with Our Own Bodies

What’s fascinating about this study, of course, isn’t that we like to dance. It’s that we’re attracted to songs with missing beats.

As Christians, we sense the rhythm at the heart of reality, but we also see that beats are missing in our broken everyday lives. God’s song is perfect, but there are gaps in our earthly rhythms. We feel frustrations and longings: why doesn’t God fix the world now? Christ died so we can join the dance––so bring it on, all of it! Why the brokenness?!

But this attitude is, after all, not the attitude of a dancer. God wants us to join in the dance, not wait around for Him to perfect it. Instead, he gives us the power of Holy Spirit. He invites us to do what comes so naturally when we listen to “Happy”: physically inhabit these gaps with our own bodies! God inspires us synchronize the work of our hands, minds, and hearts to the Rhythm of Reality. And rhythm won’t be complete until we join in! As Ephesians 2:10 says, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Or, we might say, dance in them.

Nathan Roberts is an intern at Patheos.

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