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

Wes Vander Lugt’s thesis on the ‘theatrical turn’ in Christianity concludes below. To restate his thesis in full:

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.

performed by ecclesial companies…

This dialogical divine drama occurs not just between God and individuals, but between God and the entire company of God’s covenant people. Nicholas Lash, who argued in Theology on the Way to Emmaus (1986) that biblical interpretation is best oriented toward and discovered through everyday performance, also highlighted the communal nature of this interpretation and performance. In fact, a theatrical model highlights, as Todd Johnson and Dale Savidge have shown in Performing the Sacred (2009), the nature of human identity as individuals-in-community, enacting together our relational roles as image bearers of a relational God.

who, having received new roles as children of God through union with Christ…

Of all the roles humans play in the theodrama, the most important role is one received as a gift from God on account of his infinite love: the role of being his children and partners in performing his mission of love. Without a robust understanding of God’s adopting grace and the necessity of being united to Christ’s justifying death and resurrection, the theatrical turn in theology will be endangered by moralism and over-confidence in our own performances, draining the theo out of theodrama.

rely on the Spirit’s direction to form Christ-like character…

Another way to keep the theo in theodrama is to recognize the Spirit’s role as director and producer of this drama. In God’s Theatre (1991), Timothy Gorringe proposes that God is not a deterministic director, but one who guides human actors without resorting to force or manipulation. The Spirit does not just guide our actions and decisions, but works in and through the Christian community to form the character of Christian performers, as Stanley Hauerwas has demonstrated in Performing the Faith (2004) and elsewhere. More recently, other scholars such as Jennifer Herdt in Putting on Virtue (2008) are exploring how growing in virtue is an inherently theatrical process, since it requires “putting on” character until it becomes second nature, a process that exists in mysterious concordance with being clothed with Christ.

and to improvise with creativity, freedom and fittingness to the triune God, Scripture, tradition, one another, an unbelieving audience, and local context.

As Sam Wells explains in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (2004), to improvise in the theodrama means to do so within the liberating constraints of the biblical drama, the church, and every other condition of earthly, finite existence. This builds on N. T. Wright’s proposal that Scripture is like an unfinished script that records the first four Acts of a play but leaves us to improvise the fifth Act in ways that fit with the developing plot. This biblical improvisation must also bear fittingness to the context in which we are performing, as Vanhoozer emphasizes in his work. In my own research, I have expanded this notion of improvisational fittingness so that it is oriented not just toward Scripture and local contexts, but also toward the triune God, Christian tradition, fellow actors in the ecclesial company, and unbelieving audiences. Consequently, I contend that improvisational fittingness is oriented toward trinitarian, biblical, traditional, ecclesial, missional, and contextual dimensions.

By unpacking this thesis, I have only shown a few key figures and themes in the recent theatrical turn in Christian thought and practice. I hope it has been evident, however, that exploring theatre as a model for Christian thought and practice has the unique potential to explain reality in relation to divine revelation, expand theological knowledge, and exert practical influence in the lives of those who are seeking to realize their roles and perform the faith with fittingness to the glory of God.

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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7 Comments

  • Josh Edelman says:

    Wes, you’re presenting this argument in the most thorough, thoughtful way possible. But I have the same question for you that I have for Vanhoozer: if we can understand Christian life on the model of of a theatrical drama, what does it mean for Christian life when theatre changes? Today, performance doesn’t mean what it used to in Stanislavski’s time (or Brecht’s, for that matter). We have postdramatic theatre as a European mainstay. Relationships between actors, directors, playwrights, texts, and audiences are being constantly – and productively – renegotiated. I think anyone who wants to use the theatrical analogy – sociologist or historian or theologian – should take account of that.

    It seems like your analogy is not to theatre (or to ‘drama’) as such, but to a particular, late-high-modern conception of it that had its heyday from perhaps 1930 to 1970. It didn’t exist in Ibsen’s day, and it’s declining in ours. But presumably, you would want to argue that your conception of Christian life is not so temporally limited. Why this particular model of theatremaking? Why not the Elizabethan company, or the tradition of training and classic text in Noh or Kathakali, or the contemporary collaborative, devising ensemble?

    Looking forward to this fall’s conference.
    Josh

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for your comments, Josh, and I’m glad you raised the importance of drawing from a full range of theatrical theory and practice for Christian thought and practice, something I enthusiastically support. In my research, for example, I draw on both Stanislavski and Mamet in counterpoint and comparison to flesh out a model for character formation and role realization. In addition, the concept of disponibility (a practice of multi-dimensional availability or receptivity drawn primarily from twentieth-century improv but with similar resonances in different traditions, including commedia dell’arte and Noh) factors prominently in my work alongside more ‘late-high-modern’ forms of acting. In fact, part of the reason why I prefer to speak of ‘theatrical theology’ rather than ‘dramatic theology’ is to recognize the presence and important of ‘post-dramatic’ theatre.

    While Christian thought and practice can and should glean insights from every and any form and tradition of theatre, the theologian in me recognizes that some theatrical forms and traditions provide models that are more consistent with Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. For example, although everyday life resembles director-less improvisation, orthodox theology, which I am committed to sustain, confesses that God is the director of the world theatre with a plan that participants ignore to the their peril. When I employ theatre as a model for Christian theology, therefore, I glean from both improvisational theatre and collaborative ensemble and other theatrical traditions that feature a strong director. When engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue between theatre and theology, of course, there is a delicate balance between allowing theatre to provide new insights and directions for theological inquiry while not allowing theatrical models to contort creedal Christianity.

    That issue aside, I should also say that the thesis I articulated in these posts is largely a summary of various trajectories within the theatrical turn as represented by the scholars I mentioned. It is no way exhausts what theatre has to offer Christian thought and practice, and there are many more promising avenues to explore. That is why I am so looking forward to the Theatrical Theology conference in August, and I am sure your own paper will contribute to deepening the conversation.

  • Josh Edelman says:

    Wes, I appreciate the honesty and clarity of that – you’re looking at certain models, those with a strong but nontyrannical director, because they more closely adhere to your understanding of orthodox theology. It’s a good reason. Of course, I come from a very different place on (or even off) the theological spectrum, so I have different concerns – I’m more interested, for instance, in using performance to help us understand what we *don’t* already know theologically. In an important sense, that’s not your job.

    But your position seems to scream out for Foucaultian scrutiny. Why is it that *these* theatrical forms in particular speak to the condition of what you consider to be orthodox theology at this point in time? Can we show that contemporary Christian orthodoxies and late-modern processes of theatremaking share a common intellectual root? I think we can, and that root is German romanticism – I would love to see you engage with some theological readings of Schiller (if such a thing exists – I can find only a 1986 book on Schiller and Swabian pietism – if not, it should).

    That doesn’t invalidate your analogy and the good work you’re doing with it by any means, but it does make it a bit circular (‘Amazing! Frank and Jane have the same eyes!’ ‘Well, they’re cousins.’). But then, isn’t that the case with much theological scholarship?

    Looking forward to the autumn,
    Josh

    • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

      Thanks for these ideas for further scrutiny and investigation, Josh, and I would love to have the opportunity to engage theologically with Schiller. Ultimately, I would want to argue that theology and theatre are both rooted in God’s revelation, which is inherently theatrical or dramatic (something done, interactive, dialogical, covenantal, etc.). So, although a good amount of Foucaultian scrutiny is a good thing, I am most concerned with putting my scholarship under the scrutiny of God’s Word and Spirit.

  • Clay Davis says:

    Wes, I admire the specific realms you recognize for improvisational fittingness – trinitarian, biblical, traditional, ecclesial, missional, and contextual dimensions – and your emphasis on the trajectory end of it all – the glory of God.

  • Clay Davis says:

    Which NT Wright work are you referencing here? I’d like to check it out!

    • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

      Thanks for your comments and encouragement, Clay. Wright initially introduced this idea of an unfinished five-Act play in New Testament and the People of God (I think it’s around page 80 or so). But you can find a newer and slightly revised version of his proposal in Scripture and the Authority of God and the chapter “How to Get Back on Track.” I think you’ll enjoy it!

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