The Mythological Traditions of Liturgical Drama: A Review

Christine C. Schnusenberg, The Mythological Traditions of Liturgical Drama: The Eucharist as Theater (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010).

“In the beginning there was theater.” As the last chapter title in the book, this phrase provides a fitting thesis for the book as a whole. On one level, “in the beginning” refers to the cosmogonic myths—the creation myths—at the root of ancient cultures; myths transmitted and expressed through a plethora of rituals, festivals and practices. On another level, “in the beginning” refers to the theatrical reality already present in the most primal myths of ancient cultures. Theater was not something invented by the Greeks and Romans, but a common feature of daily rituals and the stories in which they are situated.

Drawing on the work of philosophers Mircea Eliade and Paul Ricoeur, Schnusenberg structures her thesis around the notion that all humans participate in a foundational (cosmogonic) myth; life becomes meaningful by integrating into a dramatic whole the past myth and present practices. Consequently, the relationship between the myth (muthos) and the participating in the myth (mimesis) is inherently dramatic. Humans are not spectators of these myths but become participants by reenacting the myth in sacred time (tempus) and sacred space (templus).

Schnusenberg explores several ancient cultures to demonstrate her thesis: Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Canaanite-Ugaritic, Israelite, Greek, Roman, and finally, the rise of Christianity. She demonstrates remarkable research in each area, but as a Christian, I was most interested in her portrayal of ancient Israel and Christianity. Regarding Israel, she observes that the Genesis creation account resembles Egyptian cosmogony, both focusing on a mass of water and creation by word. She goes on to show how the creation account is refigured in the primary festivals of Passover, Feast of Weeks, and Feast of Tabernacles, pointing out their similarity to Canaanite agricultural feasts. Regarding Israel’s myths, Schnusenberg concludes: “The narrative of the historical acts of Yahweh constitutes an extraordinary drama” (105). Jesus can only be understood, therefore, within the plot-muthos of ancient Israel, and the Christ event as a whole “absorbs, expands, and augments” both Jewish and Roman cosmogonies and mimetic rituals (217). Consequently, Schnusenberg observes how disciples of Jesus were no different than disciples of other religions, given their imitation of the figure who embodies the foundational myth.

If the essence of Christianity and other religions is already dramatic, however, why were early Christians adamantly opposed to the Roman theater of their day? Although Schnusenberg addresses this in more detail in her earlier book Relationship between the Church and Theater, she deals with this briefly here by stating how the Christian and Roman religions are competing mythological traditions and liturgical dramas. In other words, Christians were opposed to the Roman theater not because they were against theater, but because of their commitment to participating in the theater of God. According to Schnusenberg, Christianity, like every other religion, is inherently dramatic, since all humans seek to make sense of the world by constructing myths and participating in these myths through dramatic rituals and practices. The difference between religions is, of course, the kind of cosmogonies and myths expressed in their beliefs and behaviors, but the common denominator remains the mythical-dramatic impulse of humanity.

As a work of comparative religion, this book is exemplary. Schnusenberg admits that the work of investigating the connection between religious myths and liturgical dramas has only begun, but her research is no doubt groundbreaking in the field. Anyone researching in this area will be absolutely delighted by the enormous bibliography covering eighty pages (279-359!). In addition, I applaud the overall thesis that all religions are inherently dramatic and concur that the mythic-mimetic paradigm drawn from Ricoeur is an appropriate avenue by which to explore this dynamic.

As a Christian, however, I have several strong objections to the overall thesis and several details of this book. For one, and perhaps most obviously, I am committed to the position that Christianity is not simply one myth among many, but the one true myth of the universe, the way things really are. As such, the story of King Jesus is not simply a myth similar to that of the Roman emperor, but challenges and subverts the Roman myth through Jesus’ exclusive and comprehensive claims to kingship. Unfortunately, Schnusenberg does not wrestle with these exclusive claims, and her cursory glance at the gospel stories of Jesus rounds off the rough edges and ignores their subversive character. Furthermore, she passes over the unique literary genre of the gospels and their historical claims, a point easily acknowledged by historians of any religion. Despite these shortcomings, at times Schnusenberg’s textual investigation produces insights that Christians could readily embrace, such as the cosmic implications of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In sum, Schnusenberg is right that the common denominator of all religions is a dramatic myth calling for active participation. But the major difference is that only one of these dramatic myths is actually true, bringing light and life to all who believe and participate. In the beginning there was theater, but not in generic terms. In the beginning was the theatrical, trinitarian God, who created a stage on which to act and humans to act in his image. And eventually, the triune God who is above all earthly drama, entered the drama as the Son, as a human person named Jesus of Nazareth. He is our model performance, our merciful Savior, and the only way, truth, and life.


  • 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. says: Jim

    Wes, thanks for this great review. I am curious what your take is on Schnusenberg’s thoughts about the relationship between Christian and Roman theatre, and how this is translated into our contemporary context. Does the Christian’s participation in the theatre of God also mean that, today, Christians should not participate in some theatre productions? I had thought that the early Christian’s main objection to theatre was immorality often associated with those involved in theatre productions (of course, this is a guilt by association argument and there is no reason why theatre naturally leads to immorality). It seems to me that you (or Schnusenberg) are saying that the Christian theatre of God is in competition or conflict with other theatrical productions that participate in different traditions or foundation myths.

    1. says: Wes

      Thanks for the question, Jim. You have rightly pinpointed one issue that was part of the mythological-mimetic matrix of Roman theatre. Schnusenberg does not discuss this immorality in this book (I think she does in her earlier book), but it seems to me that the issue is not just the presence of immorality, but the rationale for this immorality as rooted in their cosmogonic myth. Also, her point is that theatre was much more connected to religious ritual and liturgy than it was to entertainment or art as such.

      Transitioning to Christian participation in theater today, I guess the question would be: is it wrong to participate in theatrical productions that are rooted in or expressing non-Christian myths? But even before asking this question, one would have to ask how it is possible to know the potential mythological emplotment of any given theatrical production. Is it the playwright who decides? Is it inherent in the script or do the actors decide? What is the role of the audience? This is a conundrum I hardly have space to get into here, but let’s just assume that a particular theatrical production is firmly rooted in and expressing a pagan myth and liturgies? Is it legitimate for Christians to participate, either as actors or audiences?

      My short answer is that it depends. Because fiction and reality are easily blended on stage, I could foresee problems with a Christian acting a pagan sacrifice to gods or spirits, or even participating in this as an audience member. That being said, as long as Christians are able to maintain their primary trust in the triune God and commitment to the triune drama of salvation, I think we are free to engage with art imbued with pagan mythology. I think this is an area of Christian discernment that requires practical wisdom, and not one where we can lay down black and white rules.

      Do you have anything to add?

      1. says: Anna

        I think this is an area where we should also be concerned not to cause our christian brothers and sisters to stumble. but that’s just a one-line addenda to your answer, Wes, which seems to be both commonsensical and spiritually wise.

      2. says: Jim

        I agree with the way you put things and with Anna’s addition. This is all remarkably interesting in relation to Paul’s suggestion to early Christians that they are free to eat food involved in pagan sacrifices, but that this might not be the wisest choice depending on how other Chrisitians may view these actions. I suppose the really interesting question is what does it mean for a particular theatrical production to be firmly rooted in and expressing a pagan myth and liturgies? I don’t know the answer to this question. Does anyone else out there have any thoughts?

        As an anecdotal aside, I was once in a folk dancing class at a Christian school, and we were informed that, as part of the syllabus, we would learn the Tango. When it came to the actual day that we would learn this dance, the teacher told us that after much thought and prayer she decided we would not be learning this dance because it developed in South American brothels (these are her words, I am not sure how accurate this is), and so is rooted in an improper understanding of human sexuality. In other words, the dance itself was somehow “dangerous” for us because of the way its physical form and movement was shaped by its original context.

        At the time, I thought the teacher’s choice was a little strange, though not unexpected at a Christian school. I think I even wrote a paper for the course about Paul’s recommendation for early Christians who want to eat food involved in idol worship and suggested that this meant we were, in the right context, free to dance the Tango. I don’t remember what she thought of this. But I found this especially puzzling given that many of the dances we learned were developed through ancient pagan rituals (think the Maypole dance) that, like brothels, Christians would be uncomfortable participating in. And yet she was not worried that we might become pagans by learning these other dances.

  2. says: Wes

    Thanks for the addition, Anna, and for your further thoughts, Jim. You are wise to point out Paul’s advise regarding food sacrificed to idols, and maybe we can post on this passage in relation to cultural engagement at some point.

    I’m glad you brought up the tango, and this is actually one of way my wife and I met, and we have a special love for this dance. I think more important than origins (did tango really originate in brothels?) is the actual use of tango in contemporary culture. In my experience of dancing tango in different places around the world, the focus is not an inappropriate expression of sexuality, but the expression of the beauty and pain of relationships.

    Now, if tango was actually connected to certain sexual rites, then yes, it would be inappropriate for Christian to dance the tango with anyone but a spouse. And I think this was Schnusenberg’s point. It was not so much that Roman theater merely originated in certain myths, but theater was an actual participation in the myth and continuation (refiguration, to use Ricoeur’s term) of the myth in the present. I think this is different than acting in a production or dancing in a dance that may have had some original immoral connotations. Does that make sense?

    1. says: Anna

      Wes, i really appreciated your answer to Jim’s question. I did want to take up this idea of the origin of the “tango” a little further….

      At one point you offer a caveat…before your argument:
      “if tango was actually connected to certain sexual rites”

      what about the idea of redemption of culture? does that fit in here? What about those who have no compunction over the Maypole or halloween? The timing of Christmas for example occurs at the same time as ancient pagan ritual but marks and celebrates the coming of the King. doesn’t the way in which we change how we perceive and mark these ideas have an effect here? I’m just trying to figure how we relate and care for those around us. Is there a risk of legalism here that is not about gentle corrective but rather assignment of cultural (not necessarily biblical) norms? I liked your statement:

      “That being said, as long as Christians are able to maintain their primary trust in the triune God and commitment to the triune drama of salvation, I think we are free to engage with art imbued with pagan mythology. I think this is an area of Christian discernment that requires practical wisdom, and not one where we can lay down black and white rules.”

      But after your latest comments would you leave it as it is, or would you alter it?

      1. says: Wes

        I think you may have misunderstood my statement about if tango was connected to sexual rites. What I meant was I think there would be a problem if dancing the tango necessarily meant engaging in certain sexual rites. Obviously this would not be permissible for Christians. Of course, tango isn’t tied to sexual rites like this, and so the point was merely rhetorical.

        So to your suggestion of redeeming culture, I think you are absolutely right, as long as this does not lead toward some kind of triumphalism that expects to see the culture completely “won” for Christ. I do not think our main mission as Christians is the win culture wars, although I do think when we are participating in God’s mission we will have an impact on our culture.

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