Theories of Aesthetic Distance and the (probable) Need to Reform Corporate Worship

by John Ellis

Our church does a good job of providing a well-rounded Sunday school “curriculum” for adults. Class topics not only serve to glorify God and edify the students (and presumably the teacher), but the classes are also thought-provoking and practical. Starting this past Sunday, my wife and I began attending a class on corporate worship (we missed the first week of class because we were out of town). Yesterday’s class revealed itself to be a fortuitous parallel with thoughts I’ve been contemplating about how theories of aesthetic distance speak to ways in which common forms of corporate worship serve to impede (biblical) worship.

While no longer a theatre artist, I am steeped in theatre theories, and my epistemology remains that of a storyteller. Translation: my perspective on the world is primarily that of a theatre artist. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare claimed, and I believe him. Furthermore, and more importantly, God first reveals Himself in His Word as an artist, and all art is, in fact, storytelling; God is a storyteller – the Storyteller.

God chose to communicate to His people His love for them via story – the Story (specifically His love made manifest in sending His only Son to bear the punishment for His people’s sins after living the perfect life His people are unable to live so that they may have life – eternal Life). The Bible is a story. A unified Story that all other stories either point to or rebel against; that includes the stories of our individual lives – truly, all the world’s a stage.

Those who have either had a conversation about theatre with me and/or read any of my articles about theatre know that I generally eschew what most people consider traditional theatre forms.[1] I believe the staging, lights, sets, costumes, audience placement/involvement, etc. that we think of when buying tickets to our local theatre all serve as obstacles to the communication of the story. For lack of a better term, my theatre theories and objectives with theatre fall under the umbrella of experimental theatre.

Now, because my goal with this article is to provide more of a broadside approach to the topic, I’m going to leave much of my theatre theory unargued/unsupported. This doesn’t mean that this article will be absent all theatre theory, though. And to be blunt, some of it may be difficult to read for those not literate in specific theatre theories (if that’s you, I encourage you to skip the section dealing specifically with theatre theory and head to the last few paragraphs). As far as my own personal theatre theory, you can find other articles on this blog that argue for my position(s). At the onset, I do want to point out that the theory of aesthetic distance that I’m going to present is not really up for debate within theatre. The debate centers on whether theatre functions best when providing aesthetic distance (and what actually transpire within that distance) or when closing the gap. In other words, when I say, “X distances the audience from the story,” that’s not the debate within theatre; the rightness/goodness/helpfulness of that distance is what’s up for debate. Sadly, where corporate worship is concerned, the debate over the rightness/goodness/helpfulness is even less valid in my estimation. And the teacher in yesterday’s (1/16) Sunday school class laid a solid theological foundation for my argument that many common forms of corporate worship actually serve as an (unintentional) impediment to the objectives of (biblical) worship.

Since I didn’t get his permission to cite him, and since he may wish to remain far removed from this article and my argument, I am not going to name the Sunday school teacher. However, whether he wants to disown my argument or not, I greatly appreciated his use of The Song of Solomon as the introduction and meat of his argument for the goal of worship – to draw us close to Jesus.

The Song of Solomon opens with, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Of course, narrative questions abound. For example, who is the “him” in the verse? I agree with my Sunday school teacher that The Song of Solomon is an allegorical poem referring to Christ and His bride (see Ephesians 5, not to mention the entire through-line-of-action of the Bible).[2] The Song of Solomon reveals to us the heart of our Savior; He desires intimacy with us. And in worship, we run to His embrace. The Story of the Bible adds further interpretive confirmation that God desires for His people to come to Him without restraint.

In worship, we should run to Him. Run into His embrace. Jesus paid it all and we are His, and nothing can come between us and His love.

Throughout the Sunday school class yesterday, intimacy and distance were contrasted, both in regards to our relationship with Jesus as well as the objective of worship. That contrast ties directly into the ongoing thoughts I’ve been engaging about aesthetic distance and corporate worship. You see, many (most) of the forms of “traditional” stagecraft/theatre making are designed to create distance. And many of those same forms are utilized by almost every single church I know in their worship service.

Theatre theorist Dr. Daphna Ben Chaim explains that this distance serves “traditional” theatre audiences by providing, “psychological protection from the event.”[3] To use a specific theatre term, it lowers the stakes for the audience.

To illustrate her point, Dr. Ben Chaim uses the example of Othello’s murder of Desdemona. While it wouldn’t be unusual for an audience member to gasp or even shed tears as Othello smothers his wife, it would be unusual, and severely frowned upon, for an audience member to jump on stage and intervene out of the desire to protect Desdemona.

“Well, sure. That’s all well and good, John,” the counter-argument begins. “But people don’t jump on the stage to stop Othello because of things like costumes, sets, lights, and the physical separation of the world of reality from the world of imagination. Theatre attendees don’t jump on the stage because they know it’s not real; it’s a play.”

Yeah? Have you ever been to a haunted house?

This past October, I took my daughter to Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights. The production values were top-flight, as to be expected. The cast committed and believable. And every individual who bought a ticket knew that what they were attending is not real. The grotesquely costumed man running at you with a chainsaw is not a real threat.

Even with that head knowledge, people screamed, jumped, ran away, and some even took futile swings in self-defense. When you change the forms, the audience members’ experience changes.

For the sake of my argument, I want to focus on a specific type of audience experience within the context of the playing around with forms apart from the element of surprise.

Prompting the existential need in audience members to engage the world of imagination as if it’s real is deeper than storytellers using the element of surprise to provoke instinctual, momentary fight-or-flight responses. Knowing that beforehand meant that during that night at Universal Studios my experience was that of an individual curious as to how the event’s stagecraft affects the audience. For me, the real show was my fellow audience members’ reactions.

A palpable energy existed among the audience members that I usually only encounter while on stage with my fellow cast members. That’s because we weren’t just audience members, we were also part of the cast. For those who’ve engaged with my theatre theory in the past, you can probably understand why I was more interested in reactions of audience members than the show itself.

Throughout the evening, the audience responses were much deeper than momentary reflexes. The fear was real, and it carried forward. The need to continuously protect oneself from threats that were known to be “fake” existed because the stakes for the audience were high; the psychological protection afforded by “traditional” theatre forms had been stripped away. The world of imagination was allowed (and encouraged) to bleed into the world of reality.

With the understanding that haunted houses operate with specific forms that do tap into instinctual responses, I mention Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights because it presents a ready-made example of how changing the forms changes the audiences’ experience. I believe that’s undeniable. However, I have a personal anecdote from my theatre making days that illustrates my point.

Towards the end of my career, my theatre making was aimed at breaking down the barrier – closing that distance – between the world of imagination and the world of reality. In one production, I played a defense attorney for rapist. The play consisted of two characters: my character and the woman who had been raped. Throughout the scene, my character was cross-examining the victim, and my lines and intentions were intended by the playwright to highlight how power dynamics in the courtroom frequently serve to revictimize by calling into question the victim’s character and casting aspersions on motivation. In other words, my character was the bad guy in the play.

I didn’t find this out until after that particular night’s production, but during the play the wife of a friend had to physically restrain him from beating the crap out of me. Even though he knew he was watching a play and he was friends with the actor (me), we succeeded in closing the distance between the world of reality and the world of imagination so tightly that he responded honestly as if it were actually happening (because, in a sense, and this is the point, it was actually happening).

I’m going to stay out of the theoretical weeds as much as possible, but the existence of aesthetic distance and its purpose is pretty much a given[4]. In brief, the theory can be traced back to Lord Shaftesbury’s development of Aristotle’s brief discussion found in Nicomachian Ethics of disinterestedness in the arts. A lot of this is the foundation for the existence of “art for art’s sake,” but it also has deep implications for audience expectations. Carried forward by none other than Kant in Critique of Judgment, the noted philosopher argued that disinterestedness is important to truly enjoy art. Art devoid of utilitarian concerns allows us to have an aesthetic response to beauty that transcends the mundane. Nietzsche famously took Kant to task for it.

Partly responding to the problems uncovered by Nietzsche’s criticisms of Kant, Edward Bullough penned his famous essay “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle” in 1912. In it, he wrote:

“Distance does not imply an impersonal, purely intellectually interested relation. On the contrary, it describes a personal relation, often highly emotionally coloured, but of a peculiar character. Its peculiarity lies in that the personal character of the relation has been, so to speak, filtered. It has been cleared of the practical, concrete nature of its appeal, without, however, thereby losing its original constitution.”

And with Bullough, we’re getting closer to Dr. Ben-Chaim’s “psychological protection.” Bullough’s essay, of course, is rich in theory and fairly dense for the uninitiated. While in danger of oversimplifying his argument, for Bullough, distance is an essential part of art; without it, it’s not art. Distance allows us to have a personal response that is paradoxically impersonal; we’re able to intellectually judge what we’re experiencing without the baggage of existential concerns.  

A lot of this is predicated on the belief that humans are primarily thinking creatures – mindcenteredness, to use another term. Sartre, on the other hand, trumpeted aesthetic distance but from within a Husserlian inspired phenomenology of perceptions. While Sartre’s version of phenomenology is a fascinating conversation in its own right, it’s not necessary to understand for my current thesis. To that end – the end of keeping myself on track – I’m going to attempt to summarize Sartre’s theory of aesthetic distance: To begin, and dipping my toe briefly into his phenomenology, for Sartre, the thing perceived and the image we have of the thing are mutually exclusive. The image negates the thing perceived – an image is a negation of the world. In fact, perception is not possible when encountering an image.

That’s quite esoteric, I realize, but I think that seeing how he applies it to aesthetics will help make sense of it, in turn helping making sense of his theory of aesthetic distance. So, for Sartre, a theatre event is a negation of its own reality. In his words, “reality dissolves into pure appearance. Yet these false appearances reveal to us the true laws governing behavior.”[5]

Right. So, let’s drill into that a bit. Thankfully, earlier in the essay, Sartre has this to say:

“The spectator never loses sight of the fact that what he is being presented with – not even excepting historical plays – is something unreal. … This means that the spectator does not believe – in the full sense of the word ‘believe’ … The result is that the feelings resulting from participation in the imaginary and the representation of the imaginary on stage are themselves imaginary feelings, for they are both felt as things defined but not real … and are not necessarily representative of the spectator’s real emotional state.”[6]

Sartre firmly believed that, “This is the meaning of theatre: its essential value is the representation of something which does not exist.”[7] Contra that, Sartre scolded bourgeois theatre (what I’ve termed “traditional” theatre) for attempting to present fiction as reality. Setting aside discussions/explanations of his own perversions/misunderstanding of Husserl’s phenomenology and his accompanying philosophical agenda, Sartre scoffed at the contradictory nature of the bourgeois theatre. Considering that the very forms of theatre create and foster aesthetic distance – an unreality locking spectators within their own image, which Sartre believed was true freedom – it’s foolish for theatre practitioners to attempt to impart reality while believing they can effect change outside of the image. Change, for Sartre, is and only is internal. It’s not communal and it’s not real – it’s a negation of the world.

In “Myth and Reality in Theatre,” Sartre contrasts a variety of theatre artists – Ionesco, Beckett, Jean Genet, Artaud, and Brecht – to further his point. Each of those artists played around with the traditional forms of theatre, but the constant was the existence of aesthetic distance. Theatre forms make aesthetic distance an inevitability. While fascinated by his theories, and harboring some profound disagreements with Sartre, I find agreement. At its core, our agreement, can be found in the nuts and bolts of theatre theory. I, too, believe that aesthetic distance is an inevitability of “traditional” theatre forms, even when presenting true stories/non-fiction. I also – and I want to tread lightly here and ask some indulgence considering the limitations of the blogging medium – believe that he’s peeking into a central truth about the desired communal nature of image bearing. I understand that on multiple levels because even when I was an atheist I couldn’t ignore the communal nature of image bearing, especially as it related to theatre.

In my twenties, I began to question that distance. I wondered why were we theatre artists making aesthetic choices that intentionally separated the world of reality from the world of imagination? The falsity of almost the entire enterprise seemed to me to be working at cross-purposes from our intended and stated objective as theatre artists. Completely unaware of the theories of aesthetic distance at the time, it seemed to me that we were making it harder on ourselves to connect with the audience and effect change via storytelling. Much of what we – much of what I – did began to appear self-involved and isolating, for both actor and audience.

I have since learned that one of the more important conversations in theatre is this very thing – how, when, and even if to use aesthetic distance. As I wrote earlier, what aesthetic distance is and accomplishes (or destroys, depending upon your perspective) is not really up for debate. Its value is debated. Setting aside the theatre debate and moving into corporate worship I believe that the debate not only has more at stake but is clearly weighted in one direction.

The ways in which our churches engage in corporate worship owe a debt of gratitude to stagecraft. The ways in which lights and sound are used in corporate worship find very close parallels in what’s taught in theatre classes. The placement of the “audience” and the “performers” is an obvious parallel. Even our church spaces are constructed with an eye towards theatre theories of aesthetic distance. I have (and have read) a book written by Dr. Jeanne Halgren Kilde titled When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America.

My purpose in mentioning When Church Became Theatre is twofold: 1. I ain’t making this stuff up. Real scholars have and are interacting with this very thing, albeit with somewhat different concerns than I have. 2. I realize that this article is woefully underwritten and poorly argued – by design, to be clear. My objective with this present article is to help me begin to articulate my thoughts and to hopefully prompt others to begin thinking about this. Because of that, this article should be written as a better researched, better cited, better argued book. I doubt I’m that guy, but maybe some seminary student with a background in theatre has just now realized that she now knows what she wants to write as her PhD thesis. If that’s the case, if that’s you, I recommend including Dr. Kilde’s book in your research[8]. And I hope that someone writes that book because our modes/forms of corporate worship need to undergo a severe reformation, if not downright revolution.

If one of the primary objectives for corporate worship is to encourage us to draw near to Jesus, why are we utilizing modes/forms with aesthetic distancing in their very nature? The modes/forms of theatre are intended to create space between the audience and what’s happening on stage. Likewise, if an important objective for corporate worship is to help God’s people mutually encourage one another via corporate union, why are we using modes/forms with aesthetic distancing in their very nature? The perceived union of theatre audience members when they laugh together or cry together is mostly an illusion, and, when harboring any reality at all, a product of the aesthetic distance unintentionally breaking down in the face of the ontology of image bearing. In the main, though, just because I laugh when you laugh doesn’t mean we have a shared experience. If prompted by “traditional” forms of staging, we have parallel experiences, but not necessarily communion. That applies to when we sing “together,” too.

I’m aware that what I’m saying is radical and threatening. Please know that I’m not asking anyone – be they a pastor, worship leader, or church member who has been convinced by this article – to make changes based on what I’ve written above (making changes isn’t going to be that simple). I want Christians – be they pastors, worship leaders, deacons, regular ol’ church members – to begin to confront themselves with the possibility that theories of worship are not as simple as they may have otherwise thought. Likewise, I want us to begin to be willing to take the hard step of really evaluating what we do in worship and why we do it. What’s our objective and does what we do and how we do it aid that objective or serve as an obstacle?  

In answering those questions, we may find that our corporate worship needs to be completely reworked. An experimental corporate worship, if you will. My experience in theatre tells me that the willingness to question long-standing norms of practice and the word “experimental” are anathema. Sadly, I suspect that the same fear will hold as much sway when discussing corporate worship, too.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] I use the descriptor “traditional” begrudgingly. Part of my complaint is that the expectations of most theatre audiences (and many theatre artists) is not traditional but fairly new. There are many great theatre traditions throughout history that eschew aesthetic distance.

[2] I recognize that not everyone agrees that The Song of Solomon is an allegorical poem about Christ’s love for His bride. I don’t believe, though, that the claim that corporate worship’s objective is to draw us closer to God is dependent on The Song of Solomon. I believe that those who disagree with my interpretative lens of The Song can (and many do) still agree with me in the main about the purpose of corporate worship.

[3] Daphna Ben Chaim, Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), ix.

[4] With that said, you’ll be hard pressed to find many actors who have actually interacted with the theory of aesthetic distance (or are even aware of the discussion). Much of the theory is accepted practice. Even those who gravitate towards Grotowski, for example, are often unaware of some of this. At best, you’ll find some literacy of the theory and subsequent debate in those who were forced to read and respond in their MFA program to Edward Bullough’s essay “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle.” This not necessarily a knock on actors; it’s a reflection, I believe, of how craft/practice heavy and theory-lite many acting programs are – even those programs that delve into theory generally do so with an eye towards craft/practice.

[5] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Myth and Reality in Theatre” Sartre on Theatre ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka trans. Frank Jellinek (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976)

[6] Sartre, “Myth and Reality in Theatre,” 141.

[7] Sartre, “Myth and Reality in Theatre,” 143.

[8] I don’t agree with everything in the book and believe that she has some substantial gaps in her knowledge of theatre history and theory, but her book is a must read if you want to take an academic dive into this topic.

One thought on “Theories of Aesthetic Distance and the (probable) Need to Reform Corporate Worship

  1. This is interesting to me, especially in the wake of COVID and the changes in corporate worship it seems to be bringing about. Which in at least some cases seem to be pushing congregations, especially smaller ones, towards less formal gatherings, more like prayer meetings/small groups. Maybe.

    Along these lines,you might be interested in a short book by Ron Highfield: *Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned* Keledei Publications, 2021


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