Avoiding Deadly Doctrine

“It is the immemorial dream of the talentless that a sufficient devotion to doctrine will produce art.” -David Mamet, Theatre

The American playwright and director David Mamet does not mince his words. He detests arrogant intellectuals who claim they can thoroughly theorize about a play from their comfortable offstage position. By ‘doctrine,’ Mamet is referring to any theory related to theatre or acting. The problem is that many of these doctrines or theories may be about theatre, but they do not actually impact theatre or acting. Mamet gives the example of an “anti-Stratfordian” who “hobbies away his time collecting proofs that the fellow named Shakespeare did not write the Shakespearean plays.” In the meantime, actors get on with the business of performing Shakespeare, most of them blissfully ignorant of, or at least apathetic toward, anti-Stratfordian doctrine.

Christianity has its fair share of anti-Stratfordians: people who care more for theories about the theodrama than the real theodrama, people who care more about right doctrine than right living. In theology, just as in theatre, doctrine can easily degenerate into irrelevant dribble, a dangerous distraction. We might call this deadly doctrine, doctrine disconnected from the art of performance and from daily discipleship. Doctrine is deadly when it seeks to understand God and his action in history as an end in itself. But doctrine is living when fused to discipleship, when understanding the theodrama leads to fitting performance.

This pattern also works the other way around, because the more we perform our part in the theodrama, the more we understand the play. We learn as we act, which means the best way to grow in the art of following Jesus is to follow Jesus. In an earlier book, David Mamet maintains that acting cannot be learned in a classroom. He writes:

“Acting, like any art, can be learned, finally, only in the arena. One can read all one wants, and spend eternities in front of a blackboard with a tutor, but one is not going to learn to swim until one gets in the water — at which point the only “theory” which is going to be useful is that which keeps one’s head up. Just so with acting.” David Mamet, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor

And just so with Christianity. No amount of doctrine is going to help us perform the faith until we actually begin to perform the faith. Don’t get me wrong: doctrine is immensely important, and each participant in the theodrama holds to certain doctrines, whether intentionally or unintentionally. But doctrine is either deadly or living, and the difference is whether it is informing and being informed by the art of faithful Christian living. To be more precise, doctrine can be deadly not only when it is disconnected from performance, but when it leads to poor performances. Living doctrine informs faithful and fitting performances, not just any performance. What is more, sometimes the problem lies not with the doctrine itself but with our feeble grasp of the doctrine. Sometimes doctrine should keep one’s head up, but it doesn’t because either one hasn’t tried or one didn’t realize it could.

Of course, God is the one who ultimately keeps one’s head up, which is the heart of living doctrine. But we won’t really know that it’s true until we’re in the pool and starting to sink.


  • Wesley Vander Lugt is the former editor of Transpositions. He earned his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (ITIA), where his research focused on the dynamic interplay between formation and performance in the theodrama. Currently, he is lead pastor at Warehouse 242 and Adjunct Professor in Christianity and the Arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC

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1 Comment

  1. says: Marina Albertyn

    This makes me so happy! A wonderful piece of writing. I so often find theological principles in theatre writing and this is such a great example of this. Well done!

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