Theatre + Theology = Apologetics

by John Ellis

When many Christians think of Apologetics, a formal debate is what comes to mind. On one side of the stage, in their mind’s eye, sits a sartorial atheist who, no doubt, is a professor at the local state university. Maybe a philosophy professor. Maybe a sociology professor. Whatever he it is that he probably teaches, the whiff of academia is unmistakable. Perched on a stool across the stage from the atheist is a Christian who is equally sartorial. No doubt, the Christian is a seminary professor or maybe an Anglican priest. Whether he lectures grad students or delivers high church homilies, the whiff of academia is also unmistakable. For the moderator’s part, within this visualized scenario, he undoubtedly has a bushy beard perfumed by pipe tobacco.

While punctuated with occasional pejorative outbursts and invectives, the debate is structured and civilized – if civilized were wrapped in smugness, unmasked disdain, and tweed, that is; not to mention the three-dollar words and highfalutin phrases bandied about. As a matter of course, though, official and formal apologetic debates tend to reinforce the various opinions and beliefs of the audience. The atheist scores some points. The Christian scores some points. At the end of the event, the audience retreats to their preferred enclaves/gastropubs and debates the merits of the formal debate. The atheists, while convinced that they would’ve better handled the Christian apologist’s sharper jabs, are more convinced than ever that God doesn’t exist. Likewise, the Christians, while convinced that they would’ve better handled the atheist apologist’s sharper jabs, are more convinced than ever that God exists. Having been part of the former group, feel free to now count me among the latter group. I enjoy a good apologetics debate as much as the next John Frame fanboy (and I say that as someone who has been aided immensely by Frame’s books).

However, my enjoyment of apologetics hasn’t translated into my participation in any official apologetics debates; never even been asked (to be clear, I’d say “no” if asked). I have had multiple informal worldview conversations with atheists and agnostics, though. And while those conversations have held points of contact and parallels with official debates, the discontinuity is greater.

Informal conversations are not bound by official rules and expectations. No doubt, as any and all readers of this article can attest, informal conversations with people with whom we disagree are often not even bound by unofficial cultural expectations of politeness and kindness. The checks and balances built into official debate rules are nowhere near the kitchen table, living room, café, or anywhere else informal conversations take place. In turn, the conversations are messy and disorganized, often cutting off through-lines-of-action and leaving many good points dangling in a conversation nether land while chasing the more contradictory and sensational points. At times, the conservations turn ugly and unproductive.

Like me, most Christians are never going to be asked to pit their wit and knowledge against that of an atheist in an official debate. However, and again like me, many Christians are going to encounter non-“professional” atheists and agnostics in their everyday life and work. In those instances, what value does the discipline of Christian Apologetics hold?

Well, quite a bit of value, in fact. While I’m not here to praise official apologetics debates, neither am I here to bury them. One obvious point of value is in providing apologetic content. Thankfully, professional philosophers and theologians have done the heavy lifting of working through arguments and problems and coming up with answers and proposed solutions. For example, neither you nor I are required to find solutions to any of the apparent contradictions in the Bible; that’s already been done for us (check out Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer, for starters). In the 21st century, we are blessed with nearly 2,000 years of Christian knowledge and Church history that has answered the hard apologetics questions put forward by skeptics throughout the ages. Formal apologetics – books, debates, and lectures – help provide the layperson with faith-affirming information that helps them better obey the command in 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have (NIV).”

That being said, while acknowledging the value of professional apologetics, the academic discipline contains a trap, though.

Too many of us enter conversations with our atheist and agnostic family, friends, and acquaintances with a level of false confidence in our own dialectical abilities as well as an overvaluing of the effectiveness of the arguments and facts we’ve memorized. Our expectations are shaped by formal debates and books that don’t contain the sharply personal rebuttals from our “debate” partners who cut us off mid-sentence. In other words, what most of us experience when engaged in apologetic conversations is a world away from what read and see from the likes of William Lane Craig and John Frame.

While having felt the pain of many brothers and sisters in Christ who have found themselves in the middle of a contentious conversation with unbelieving friends or family, I have accumulated, by God’s grace, some tools over the years that I believe are useful in helping educate others towards a better approach to informal apologetics. Namely, my theatre/acting skills combined with my love for theology and philosophy.

Throughout Church history, theatre and theology have often been at odds. There are good reasons for that, but those reasons aren’t necessarily innate to either discipline. In other words, the tension that has existed has been more a product of the discipline of theatre having been hijacked away from the presupposition of God’s absolute authority than of anything about theatre in its form that requires preachers to pound their pulpits in condemnation of it. Sadly, those times when theatre and theology have been welded together are often characterized by a rejection of legitimate theatre theories (or ignorance of those theories). Didacticism, in its worst forms, most often rules the day in Christian theatre at the expense of God-honoring aesthetics. Possibly exhibiting unparalleled hubris, I’m attempting to buck that by combining two of my favorite things – theatre and theology/philosophy – to produce an instructive, entertaining, and edifying apologetics session. 

Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of leading apologetic courses at a large Christian school located in Greenville, SC – an approach to apologetics that was largely developed by a good friend of mine who is also the Bible teacher who asked me to lead the course. I’ve reposted an article about it I wrote for my previous blog. In it, I provide some details, including theatre theory, about what I do and my existential response to the first time I conducted the course (you can read that earlier post by clicking here).

In short, using my acting skills combined with my experience as a devout atheist, the session is centered around a time of interactive theatre in which I play an atheist (this is different than “role-playing”). The students, who are free to choose their level of involvement, engage me in an apologetics conversation. Prior to the “debate,” I give a brief recounting of how the son of an independent fundamentalist Baptist pastor father and Christian schoolteacher mother left Bob Jones University as an atheist.

After 30-45 minutes of back-and-forth, I hit “pause” on the “debate” and we take a short break. Upon our return, I finish my story, relating how God graciously gave me the gift of repentance of my sins and faith in Jesus. We then spend another 30-45 minutes going back over the previous conversation and finding and discussing better ways in which to engage unbelievers in apologetic conversations.

Up to this point, I have only done this type of apologetic training with teenagers. In the republished post that is linked to above, I confessed:

Moving forward, I’d like to continue making this kind of theatre, Lord willing, with teenagers and adults.

One obstacle that I foresee with adults is that I’m not sure that I can allow them to believe that I’m an atheist. I’m afraid that some adults will feel duped and, in their embarrassment, lash out. Also, along those same lines, I’m afraid that some adults (mainly men) will allow their exuberance to cause them to say things and say things in a way that will require an apology after the fact. While in the high school classroom, me being an adult helped tamp down on the desire to be disrespectful that any of the teens may have felt (if they felt that desire, that is).

One way around that with adults, I think, is to frontload the “audience” with the information that I will be stepping into the role of an atheist. As such, I will be saying things, and saying things in a way, that they may find offensive. I will then caution them about being careful how they engage me. By all means, they should be passionate and not afraid to engage, but they should be careful not to say anything they will regret later.

I see much potential value in this kind of interactive theatre. Without giving away my “lesson,” the opportunity to engage an openly antagonistic atheist in a safe-space is valuable. Being able to dissect and go back over the discussion, learning from missteps and mistakes adds to that value.

Well, I finally have the opportunity to try this out on adults. On January 31, I will be conducting an interactive theatre/apologetics session for adults at Emmanuel Bible Church of Mauldin, SC (more info is provided at this link). The following day, I will be doing the session for the church’s teenagers. The following week, Lord willing, I will be in a local classical Christian high school. Needless to say, I am super-excited about the opportunity and am nervously curious about how the session with the adults will unfold. Over the last three years, I’ve learned that the value of the experience isn’t abrogated by the lack of the element of surprise pertaining to my salvation. There is no need for the adults to believe that I am an atheist. Owing much to the theatre theory of a man named Augusto Boal, the combining of the acting (me) with the non-acting (the students/audience) within the context of a real-world problem works to create a narrative tension containing the urgency of reality while never leaving the land of the safe. No doubt, like with the teenagers, while there will be much for me to learn and ways I can adapt the course to make it more effective, my past experience in the classroom causes me to believe that the adults who attend will leave with the renewed urge to make disciples through apologetics conversations with antagonistic unbelievers. And they will do so with some acquired tools that will help them engage unbelievers in a way that honors God.

The opportunity to help brothers and sisters in Christ develop a better approach to interacting with unbelievers is not something I take lightly. But it is something that I believe I am uniquely qualified to do. As I wrote in the previous post’s conclusion, I would love to expand this and conduct interactive apologetic sessions for more churches and Christian schools. To that end, if you are a pastor or Christian educator and you are interested or simply curious about this, please reach out and let me know. I’d love to talk. Likewise, if you believe that your church or local Christian school could benefit from my interactive apologetics program, please let your pastors and/or Christian school administration know; I would love to talk with them, too. Filling the gap between the realm of formal apologetics and real-life apologetics is needed. Interactive theatre is a great way to close that gap.

Soli Deo Gloria

(For those interested: I am currently developing an interactive theater/apologetics session geared towards non-Christians.)

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