A Christian Theatre Manifesto: Part 2

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(Read Part 1 by clicking here)

by John Ellis

What does theology have to do with theatre?

Well, theology and theatre are connected far more deeply than most people might assume.

For many, whenever theology and art start being bumped together, one of two conceptual extremes are assumed: Art as a didactic evangelistic tool. Or, redeeming the culture.

To be clear, and hopefully removing potential distractions, I don’t believe that art’s primary function is evangelistic, at least as evangelism is most frequently conceived. This seems obvious to me. When well-meaning Christians ask art to serve the Great Commission in explicitly didactic ways, the art that is produced is most often anemic and violates aesthetic standards, not to mention that it doesn’t serve evangelism very well, either. Based on the broader evangelical market, I understand that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ disagree with me.

Franky Schaeffer’s warning from the early 1980s remains relevant, though. “Any group that willingly or unconsciously sidesteps creativity and human expression gives up their effective role in the society in which they live, the son of Francis Schaeffer wrote in Addicted to Mediocrity. “In Christian terms, their ability to be the salt of that society is greatly diminished.”[1]

In some ways, I’m less of a fan of the phrase redeeming the culture than I am of bastardizing art for evangelistic purposes. I think I may be less of a fan for two connected reasons: 1. My fellow Christian artists who believe and create within the framework of “redeeming the culture” are, frankly, my aesthetic tribe. Artistically, we have much in common, but … and, 2. It’s the squishiness of much of the theology of the “redeeming the culture” crowd that I find more discomfiting than the poor aesthetics of the “preach through art crowd.” In the world of false dichotomy, I would choose theology over art. Thankfully, I don’t live nor do I create in the world of false dichotomy.

Sadly, ignoring robust Biblical theology, my artist friends who embrace redeeming the culture frequently do so in ways that call them to soft-pedal sin and ignore the need for personal repentance. That’s a tragic mistake with eternal consequences. In a nutshell, seeking to redeem the culture undermines the Bible’s teaching that it’s sinners that need redemption; humans need to be saved from their personal sin against their holy Creator. Yes, creation groans waiting for the full and final redemption of God’s elect. But there’s a difference between creation/culture benefiting from the redemption of sinners and the redemption of culture.

(I understand that my rejection of both art as a didactic evangelistic tool and redeeming the culture deserve better, fuller treatments. Lord willing, I will write articles in the near future explaining myself in more depth.)

So, if I’ve removed the two primary ways that Christians meld theology and art (theatre, in this case), what do I mean by my assertion that theology and theatre are connected?

For starters, I believe that Christians are called to be a redemptive force in all aspects of culture. By that, I mean that followers of Jesus are commanded to live and work and play in such ways as to always be pointing people to our Creator. There are no meaningless moments in the life of a Christian.

Technically, there are no meaningless moments in the life of any human, Christian or not. There is no such thing as nothing. Interestingly, that statement is a driving force behind my theatre philosophy. More importantly, it’s a driving force behind my faith. However, this isn’t the most substantive point at which my theatre theory and my theology intersect. To find that demands a turn to anthropology.

Theology (my faith) includes anthropology. And, as Peter Brook eloquently stated, “All that is needed for theatre to happen is an actor and an audience.”

Humans are the only necessary component for theatre. Theatre needs an anthropology. Or, rather, theatre, whether the artists realize it or not, has an anthropology. The question, then, should be, from what does a theatre’s anthropology derive?

As a Christian, I strive to have a holistic worldview that has been shaped and is controlled by God’s Word. As a Christian theatre artist, that means that my theatre anthropology must submit to the Bible. And the first thing that the Bible teaches about humans is that we are created.

Being created beings has artistic implications that I won’t flesh out in this article. What’s important for the purpose of this article is that being created requires a Creator. All humans are beholden to someone outside of themselves, someone transcendent. The Bible reveals in Genesis 1:1 that, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth [emphasis mine].”

We’re not called to serve God in the abstract. Throughout the Bible, God reveals His character and His ethical expectations for humans, as well as His spiritual/existential expectations. Sadly, among other epistemological splits, the civil war between modernism and post-modernism has forced much of society to choose sides: ethics or existentialism. You either recognize that you have transcendent responsibilities divorced from pragmatism and/or self-serving needs (reflecting God’s holiness and justice) or you live solely in the reality that humans are walking contradictions that often manifest in inner turmoil seemingly divorced from objectivity. In the first instance, humanity is reduced to the crass materialism of formulas and hard logic. In the latter instance, humanity is reduced to an ever-shifting platform of uncertainty. In both instances, humans are elevated to a position of idolatrous deity: humans are the source and arbiter of all things.

Theatre has the opportunity to reunite the two in ways that reflect who God is. Ethical dilemmas are existential dilemmas and vice versa. And dilemma is another name for conflict.

Theatre is dependent on conflict, and this means that the protagonist struggles with a problem. In Hamlet, we see the Danish Prince struggling with the ethical dilemma of avenging his father’s death while also struggling with the existential dilemma of agonizing over if he’s convicted the correct person of the murder. Hamlet fears that he will commit a mortal sin if he executes the sentence on someone who is innocent of the murder. Unfortunately for Hamlet, though, the crisis arrives when he decides to lay aside executing God’s justice and picks up the sword of personal vengeance (this change of stasis happens in Act III scene 3 when Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius when the King is praying; Hamlet wants him to go to hell and not to heaven).

By virtue of living and writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Bard avoided the worst of the philosophical scourge named the Enlightenment. Devoid of post-Enlightenment epistemological wars, Shakespeare does a masterful job of weaving the ethical (the murder justly deserves death) and existential (Hamlet’s initial concern that he condemned the right person that changes to a desire for revenge instead of justice) into a seamless and soul-jarring conflict. Sadly, post-modern theatre has ripped the two apart, steered too far into the existential, and gutted Hamlet of much of its power.

A Christian theatre will strive, by the power of God’s Spirit, to not only resist the urge to divide the ethical from the existential and vice-versa, but also to submit the conflict to God’s perspective of conflict and, importantly, His solution. This requires knowing who God is.

It’s okay to asks questions. Like Hamlet. It’s not okay to ask questions in a way that betrays even the slightest hint of autonomy from God. Hamlet’s ultimate mistake. Seeking even the slightest autonomy from God results in both external and internal unraveling that ends badly. See Hamlet.

Referencing the Bible, Job was personally called to account by God for daring to assume that God owed him answers. While asking hard questions and exploring tough themes, Christian theatre artists will do their best to ensure that the production is not only submitting to God but is also pointing the audience to Him. To do otherwise reveals a desire for autonomy that concludes that either we have the answers, we deserve the answers, or we can manage to navigate the problem/conflict without God.

Don’t misunderstand, this doesn’t require didacticism, nor does it demand outright references to God. The great nineteenth century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky provided a master class of how this works with his novella Notes From Underground.

Originally, after deconstructing the aberrant philosophies around him (not to mention predicting several aberrant philosophies yet to infect the world), Dostoevsky intended the Underground Man to conclude that the only solution to the depravity consuming society is submission to God. The Russian literary censors, however, altered Dostoevsky’s plans.

Unwilling to have God and the gospel of Jesus Christ connected to such a depraved mouthpiece as the Underground Man, the censors balked at Dostoevsky’s original ending. In his genius, Dostoevsky stripped his story of all references to God, trusting that God’s absence would be so conspicuous that the reader would naturally come to the solution. While he doesn’t reference it in his diary, I can’t help but wonder if Dostoevsky had Romans 1 in mind when he made that decision.

As should be obvious, submitting theatre to a Biblical anthropology necessarily extends into epistemology and ethics. Making sure that their artistic endeavors are submitting to God’s Word gives evidence that Christian theatre artists have an epistemology that recognizes that God is the author of all knowledge. And if God is the author of all knowledge, then God, and God alone, determines what humanity’s problem is and what the solution is. In theatre terms, God reveals the Drama’s conflict, hence, what all dramas’ internal conflict should be.

The Bible tells us that humanity’s problem is that all humans are born under the bondage of sin (Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:10-12, 3:23, 5:12) and are ethically separated from their Creator. All suffering, pain, and loss are effects of sin. All unfulfilled dreams, goals, and desires find their derailment in the Fall. Violence, hatred, and racism are products of the sin that resides in the hearts of all humans.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s Mary Tyrone sinks deeper and deeper into the fog of her opium addiction because of sin. It’s the Fall and its subsequent Curse that creates the rotting social conditions in which the horror of unwanted change creeps, almost unnoticed, into the life of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The great Russian theatre theorist and director Meyerhold wrote to Chekhov, “In the third act, against a background of the stupid stamping of feet … enters Horror, completely unnoticed by the guests. ‘The cherry orchard is sold.’ They dance on. ‘Sold.’ Still they dance. And so on to the end. … Jollity with overtones of death.”[2]

Great theatre recognizes, whether implicitly or explicitly, how deeply dredged the hooks of sin are into the human condition. On the front end, theatre can seem to have an honest view of the problem. To be fair, on the front end, theatre often does honestly express the problem, the conflict. Unfortunately, moving past the front end frequently reveals that theatre’s perspective springs from human autonomy.

The irony is that because of theatre’s innate honesty, its anthropology of human autonomy combined with its epistemology of human lordship ends in contradictory bleakness. Only humans can save themselves; humans are unable to save themselves. Sartre believed this.

The famous and oft quoted line from No Exit is, “Hell is other people.” Salvation, on the other hand, is found inside of ourselves according to Sartre’s play. As Garcin puts it while speaking to Inez and Estelle, “We’ll work out our salvation. Looking into ourselves, never raising our heads.”

Yet, the great secular humanist left his characters languishing in that hell. Trapped. Salvation inside of themselves, but out of reach; it’s our role to make sense of the absurd, but we lack the tools to do just that, concluding in a never-ending cycle of despair and absurdist resignation. The play ends with Garcin’s doleful conclusion, “Well, well, let’s get on with it.”

And theatre gets on with it.

You see, there is no such thing as nothing. And, so, theatre, good theatre, ultimately communicates with every ounce of its being the hopelessness of the human condition. Read Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, and Pinter, to name but three. Or read Pirandello, the magical genius who hid humanity’s collective hurt behind ever-folding layers of meta-absurdity. Underneath his mad-cap playfulness, though, is a deep sadness. Even the great comic Moliere oozed cynicism about the human condition.

For all its flaws and rebellion, theatre tends towards honesty. Honesty within its own dishonest worldview, to be sure, but an unquenchable honesty, nonetheless. Good theatre, that is. Deadly theatre, borrowing Brook’s label, on the other hand, lies to the audience in the same way that Bunyan’s Vanity Faire in The Pilgrim’s Progress lies to its inhabitants (a principle that undergirds my disproval of most musical theatre).

The thing is, theatre doesn’t have to lie at all. It can and should have a Biblical worldview that confronts itself and its audience with truth. God’s truth. And this is the mission of Christian experimental theatre.

The Christian theatre artist not only knows the problem, but also knows the solution because God has revealed it in His Word.

The solution, of course, is the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ (don’t discount the importance of the word “mystery” for theatre, but more on that in an article to come). The question becomes, then, for the Christian theatre artist, how to communicate the Christian worldview – conflict/solution – without resorting to the dull, audience-numbing forms of the deadly theatre?

And this is where experimental theatre theories enter. But those are questions, concerns, and answers for part three. As part two concludes, I want to briefly summarize the theology of Christian experimental theatre and then end with a preview of part three:

God is the author of all things, including humans and all knowledge. God created humans in His image and has revealed Himself through and in His Word. Humans rebelled against their Creator, creating an ethical breach between God and humanity. That ethical breach between God and humans caused by sin is the central conflict of the Story and should be the subtextual conflict of all other stories. Sin is the name for when humans refuse to adhere to God’s ethics.

In His love, mercy, and grace, God provided the solution. Taking on the form of man, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, came to earth, perfectly obeyed the Father, died for the sins of those who repent and believe, was raised from the dead three days later vindicating his claim to be the Son of God, and returned to Heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. One day, Jesus will return to complete the salvation of those who are repenting of their sins and placing their faith in him. Upon his return, Jesus will also banish all those who persist in their rebellion to the eternal punishment of hell. Using the parlance of classical theatre, God’s Story has two possible endings for all humans: comedic or tragic.

Accepting God’s solution by repenting and placing your faith in Jesus, you are assured a happy (comedic) ending. Rejecting God’s solution and attempting to solve your problem(s) apart from Jesus assure that your ending will be bad (tragic).

The great task of the Christian experimental theatre artist is communicating God’s Story with and through the stories that he or she shares with an audience. Because, unless God’s Story is communicated, chances are, the theatre artist has accomplished nothing more than making Peter Brook’s deadly theatre. In that instance, the theatre artist has merely managed to entertain the audience. Dazzling them for an hour or two with theatre trickery, causing them to forget that they are characters in a Story with potentially deadly consequences.

Will your life be a Comedy or a Tragedy? That’s the question that the Christian experimental theatre artist needs to confront the audience with. And how Christian experimental theatre artists can accomplish that is the primary question of part three.

In part three, I’ll attempt to rework the quote by Zelda Fichhandler posted below into a working theory for a Christian experimental theatre:

“The central task in the theatre is to objectify, to clarify, to lay bare the wellsprings of human behavior so that we can actually see our own internal feelings instead of just have the sense of them in some inchoate form fluttering around inside us. What the theatre does is to make a shape for the interior life – objectify it in form. The more the audience is able to empathize with this life, the more they can open up places within themselves that have been closed. They come to ‘think feelingly’ about experiences that they recognize on the stage to be their very own. Theatre is a way of describing in space, time, and motion our collective memories.”[3]

There is so much right in that quote, yet so much wrong. It’s reminiscence of how the Bible puts forward Babylon as Serpent-Satan’s perverse, fun-house mirror image of God’s City-Garden. Zelda Fichandler reflects the Divine Dramatist in ways that most theatre artist never approach. Yet, sadly, she also reflects the rebellion of our first parents, the Tower of Babel, and Babylon in ways that are frighteningly sharp. And unpacking all that will be the aim of part three.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1981), 24.

[2] Vsevolod Meyerhold, Meyerhold on Theater ed. Edward Braun (Hill and Wang: New York, 1969), 33-34.

[3] Arthur Bartow, The Director’s Voice: Twenty-One Interviews (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988), 117.

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