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.