A Thesis on the Theatrical Turn in Christian Thought and Practice [Part One]

Due to circumstances outside our control, Josh Edelman’s post has been moved to Saturday. Today, please enjoy Part One of Wes Vander Lugt’s A Thesis on the Theatrical Turn in Christian Thought and Practice.

Christian theologians have always drawn on theatrical metaphors and models to describe Christian existence. The Apostle Paul wrote about how the apostles had become a spectacle (theatron) to the world (1 Cor 4:9), John Chrysostom described God as the audience who will judge the human drama, and John Calvin confessed the entire universe as a theatre of God’s glory. At the same time, the use of theatrical metaphors in Christian theology was limited by an enduring antitheatrical prejudice rooted in Platonic suspicion of representation and imitation and the church’s concern to avoid idolatry and immorality prevalent on stage.

As this antitheatrical prejudice has crumbled in recent years, however, an increasing number of Christian theologians, ethicists, pastors, and artists are discovering and articulating the intrinsic theatricality of the faith, so much so that it is possible to observe a “theatrical turn” in Christian thought and practice. By way of summarizing this theatrical turn, this two-part post offers a thesis on how to view Christian existence through a theatrical lens, highlighting a few key scholars and prominent themes along the way. The thesis is as follows:

Christian existence is a dialogical, divine drama performed by ecclesial companies who, having received new roles as children of God through union with Christ, rely on the Spirit’s direction to form Christ-like character and to improvise with creativity, freedom and fittingness to the triune God, Scripture, tradition, one another, an unbelieving audience, and local context.

Christian existence is a drama…

Social scientists were describing human life as a drama for several decades before theologians started to catch on. New fields of study such as psychodrama (Jacob Moreno), sociodrama (G. H. Mead), and sociological dramaturgy (Erving Goffman) began exploring human identity in terms of role-playing, improvising social scripts, and performing the self through interaction with others. By the late 1970s and the rise of performance studies, it was common to refer to humanity as homo performans—a phrase coined by anthropologist Victor Turner—and to view everything as a performance in a constructive rather than pejorative manner. What Goffman, Mead, and others did for social science, Hans Urs von Balthasar did for Christian theology, showing in his five-volume Theo-Drama (1988-98, English translation) the inherently dramatic nature of Christian existence.

Christian existence is a divine drama…

Rather than merely claim that Christian existence is a drama by observing human life, however, Balthasar claimed that Christian existence is a divine drama because God’s revelation is dramatic. In other words, Christian existence is part of a theodrama, the drama of God’s communicative action in dynamic interaction with his creation, culminating in the appearance of the incarnate God on the world stage, as explored by Max Harris in Theatre and Incarnation (2005). Other theologians have built on Balthasar’s theodramatic approach, such as Kevin Vanhoozer, who argues in The Drama of Doctrine (2005) that God writes, directs, and acts a covenantal comedy of cosmic proportions revealed through Scripture and invites us to participate in the same drama today.

Christian existence is a dialogical, divine drama…

Both Balthasar and Vanhoozer are concerned to maintain God’s sovereignty over the theodrama as well as his intimate involvement and covenantal interaction with his creatures. Karl Barth articulates a similar perspective, asserting in his Church Dogmatics that God’s revelation is not just something we watch, but a drama in which we have an acting part. Raymund Schwager also emphasized the covenantal, conflictual nature of the salvation drama, as in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation (1999). In fact, most theologians would agree that Christian existence is only dramatic or theatrical if there is real, relational, dialogical interaction between God and humanity.

Wes’ thesis on the ‘theatrical turn’ in Christianity will conclude tomorrow.

Wes Vander Lugt is in the process of completing a PhD in theodramatic formation and performance at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Wes blogs at Theatrical Theology, reflections and reviews devoted to faith seeking performative understanding.

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4 Comments

  • David Taylor says:

    Looking forward to reading part two, Wes. Well done.

  • Clay Davis says:

    Discovering the role we play as children of God through the direction of the Holy Spirit on the cosmic stage, and especially your emphasis on dramatic improvisation, is a compelling way to think about discipleship and the Christian life. It is highly invitational and communal as we consider the part we play in the theatre company of faith. Your thesis is provocative, Wes! It makes me eager for the upcoming conference!

  • Bruce says:

    Wes – as a spouse of a professional actor we have spent a lot of time mulling over the story of Christianity and the world of drama. So few Christians have a great grasp on this…and so few actors find a home in the church. So thankful for your thoughts here.

    • Tony says:

      on the troubled history of the Church and theatre, including actors, see the Prolegomena (Volume 1) of Balthasar’s 5 volume Theo Drama… fascinating history, to say the least…

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