I have a confession to make: When the worship committee at my church asks me to direct a skit for the service, I cringe inside. I say yes, of course, but I’m really Not Into It. I gather up my people, we do the little skit, everyone compliments us very kindly afterward, but, oh, I really hate it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my church. We spent a year of “one morning stands,” visiting basically every church we would even consider attending, and out of all of them, we chose this one. We attend a Mennonite church–not horse-and-buggy, more…postmodern, if you will. The members are incredibly giving, loving, wonderful people. When our son was born, they overwhelmed us with gifts, cards, and food. It’s the kind of church where someone always holds your baby so you can get through the potluck line, where the presenter at Children’s Time teaches at the seminary, where people have respectful discussions about their disagreements and remain friends. The sermons challenge us. The congregation’s priorities align well with our values of service and frugality and lovingkindness. And the food, oh the food. Did I mention the food? Mennos can sure cook.
I’m generally very willing to share my gifts in service to the church. I have taught Sunday school, volunteered in the nursery, served on the annual retreat committee, and written devotionals. It’s just these little dramatic events that get under my skin. My strategy up to this point has been to fervently pray that no one will ask me to participate in this sort of thing, and, when asked, to do the best I can, all the while hoping that whatever I do won’t be so good that I’ll be the natural person to ask the next time they want somebody.
This is really not working. God does answer all prayers, but sometimes, God’s answer is, “No.” I feel like I need to take some time to examine what bothers me about church drama and figure out what, if anything, I could do to make it better.
I’d say, the short version is that they aren’t very good. Scripts that are written for performance as a little part of the service are, almost without exception, terrible. Some of them are a little funny. They might have some puns or smirky punch lines. Even the funny bits, though, lack dimension. My dad’s irreligious jokes (“Jesus walks into a hotel, puts three nails down on the counter and says to the guy, ‘Can you put me up for the night?'”) have more depth. The characters are generally indistinguishable from one another–a big pod of disciples, rather than a rash, intense Peter, a devoted John, a cerebral Thomas. They don’t have doubts or struggles. I really do blame the scripts, too. I’ve seen really talented actors perform them, and even then, they aren’t very good.
The other direction religious drama often takes is an overabundance of pageantry (the original pageants, of course, being church drama). We see nativity scenes with Real Camels, and hellfire scenes with amazing pyrotechnics. These take up lots of money, space, and time, and don’t manage to do the thing that theater still does better than the movies–connect at a direct, human level with an audience. Someday, just out of curiosity, I hope to take my kids to Sight & Sound to see the hundred-foot-long Noah’s Ark, but I have zero expectation that it will really be what I think of as Art.
This is especially disappointing because because the other arts are well-represented, in a serious and moving way, in church services. The music at our church is incredibly beautiful. We have a large group of talented musicians who share their gifts, and the congregation maintains the Mennonite tradition of four-part harmony. The visual elements of the service are always moving and often thought-provoking. A recent sermon series on God’s “I AM” statements (“I am the good shepherd,” “I am the living water,” etc) included a painting for each week, based on one of these images. Each one was created by someone in the congregation. Even writing is usually well-represented. The sermons are well-constructed, and if the pastor or worship leader decides to include a poem, it’s never doggerel, but always Real Poetry, often Rossetti or Donne. All of the arts are contributing to our services…except for theater and dance. The lack of dance is easy to understand; Mennonites don’t really have a strong dance tradition, and, honestly, I’ve never seen liturgical dance that didn’t look kind of silly (sorry). But theater…Theater and religion have, since The Beginning, gone hand in hand (and sometimes, tooth and nail, if you will). The first theatrical performances were probably part of religious ceremonies. The revival of theater in the Late Middle Ages also came out of the church. Why is there so much incredibly good music and visual art in the history of the church, and so little very good theater? Why is the music and art so mature and challenging, while the theater is mostly junk that no one takes seriously?
One piece of this puzzle is definitely the uncomfortable partnership between Christianity and the theater. On the one hand, churches have always used elements of theatrical performance to keep the audience’s attention and share the Bible stories. On the other hand, the Church as an authoritative body has never been very comfortable with what theater is–the essentially dissembling nature of theater, the historically blurry lines between actors and prostitutes, the theater’s depiction of questionable behavior (as I once said, inviting my church to a play I was directing, “This is a play about redemption, and, well…you can’t have redemption without a fall. You probably don’t want to bring children under…thirty.”).
Is there some reason that these scripts aren’t good?
I asked my friend Pam, the genius playwright, what she thought about this question. She thinks that the problem is the images that we use–the way that we are used to talking about God. “We have a lot of language around our faith that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said. She has a point, I think. Pam’s approach to writing around religious topics is definitely to choose a surprising angle on it. During this conversation, I started to tell her about one piece of liturgical drama that I thought was utterly brilliant. “This was a few years ago,” I said. “The teens did this thing that was like the Mary and Joseph story, but they were modern-day Mexican immigrants. It was really different, and thoughtful.” Pam had a funny look on her face. “What?” I said. “Did you see it?”
“I wrote it,” she told me.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Pam’s work always speaks to me, particularly because of her unusual perspective. So Pam has found one way of approaching the problem of drama for church–she looks at it through the fun-house mirror of her mind, and looks through and into it, coming out with something deeply rich and human. She consciously rejects standard tropes–Mary doesn’t wear a blue dress and a beatific expression. Joseph has some doubts and fears. They aren’t thousands of years removed, but travelers in our midst.
Ted Schwartz, of Ted & Co. Theaterworks, some how manages to create Christian comedy that is actually funny. He doesn’t get sympathy laughs; his stuff is genuinely hilarious, while also being moving and challenging. How does he do this? On Saturday night, I saw him perform Laughter is Sacred Space, an autobiographical show about his development as an actor and writer. He describes the challenge of “finding the humanness in the Big Story.” Unlike Pam, he rarely moves his characters from their time or place. He, instead, works by finding the recognizable human perspective on the stories. It’s a little like Pam’s slanted angle, but more situated. In his show about Jeremiah, the prophet says, “It’s hell being a living metaphor,” and I can’t help but think that there’s something so true about that, and wondering if the real Jeremiah thought that from time to time. In Ted’s Bible, the disciples are always a bit confused and tend to misconstrue Jesus’ words, much to the Lord’s amusing frustration. They also have really deep moments–the comedy allows us to love the characters enough to follow them into their questions about the nature of salvation and what it means to start a new religion.
I, personally, have directed one, and only one, truly amazing Bible-based script. It was JB, by Archibald Macleish, at Eastern Mennonite University. In that script, a 1950s businessman experiences the suffering–and the revelation–of Job. The actors were able to enter into this near-mythic Biblical account because the playwright takes seriously the question of what the Job story means. There’s nothing pat about this play, no simplistic moral of the story. Job rejects easy answers.
So, I do have a handful of exemplars of what liturgical drama could look like. They are mature, thoughtful, and deeply honest. Why is this kind of execution so rare?
I think Pam is right about at least one chunk of the problem. As Emily Dickinson wrote, we need to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is that all that there is to it?
I think that another piece of this puzzle is about time. Most of the arts are four-dimensional. Music needs time to unfold, develop, and resolve. Even visual art requires some investment of time on the part of the observer, to take it all in. Still, of all of them, theater seems the most four-dimensional. A story takes time. An audience needs time to fall in love with a character. Theater requires a journey. All of my exemplars take up more time than the five minutes or so we usually give to drama in the course of a church service.
There’s also the prep time. Theater requires both the writing time of a sermon and the rehearsal time of music. Musicians often also can call on their developed, shared repertoire. Actors rarely have a shared repertoire–the canon, especially for church drama, is not nearly as well-developed or established as it is for music. Even in the case of a drama text that everyone involved has worked with before, the odds that they have each previously played the role that they will play in a given production are vanishingly slim. In contrast, a cellist always plays the cello part.
So maybe one piece is to create more time for theater.
I don’t know what else factors in to this, though. I’m really interested in people’s thoughts on this topic, because I want to do it better. I want to have drama in our worship services that takes people’s breath away, like the time when the worship arts committee made yards of brightly dyed silk fall from the balcony, momentarily enveloping the congregation. I want church drama that sends shivers up people’s spines, like the minor tonality of “Oh Thou in Whose Presence.” I want church drama that provokes discussions and raises questions like so many of our sermons.
What do we need to do to get there? I want to know.