Word Become Fresh: Finding God in Theater

By Burge, Kimberly | Sojourners Magazine, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Word Become Fresh: Finding God in Theater


Burge, Kimberly, Sojourners Magazine


Prelude: Live theater first enraptured me with a burst through the sanctuary doors of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Blytheville, Arkansas, in the mid-1970s. My father, a volunteer youth minister, directed the youth group in a Passion play for Easter weekend. I tagged along to rehearsal each night for weeks, appointing myself Dad's de facto stage manager and memorizing everyone's lines.

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In a clever bit of staging, Dad had "Peter" and "John" throw open the back double doors and race up the sanctuary aisle crying, "He is alive!" "He has risen!" Having seen all those rehearsals, each time I looked back and waited for Terry Watson and Joel Blakely to make their entrance. At their first performance on Good Friday, Terry and Joel sprinted in on cue, running and shouting, and an audible gasp arose from the congregation. Two pews in front of me, Mrs. Greene clutched at her heart and inhaled sharply, eyes wide in shock before a small smile crept across her face. It was almost as if the Good Lord himself had come through those doors.

I was hooked.

With these living, breathing characters in our midst, the air inside the church felt charged. Terry and Joel disappeared, and Peter and John sprang up in their places. Though neither of us would have put it this way, Mrs. Greene and I discovered something in that sanctuary: Theater is incarnational, an experience of word becoming flesh right before our eyes. In that sense, it mirrors the very essence of the Christian faith. After all, Jesus not only used parables, stories, and dramatic reenactments to convey his message--his very presence was the message.

ACT ONE: Despite this inheritance, Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with theater. Although many early church authorities forbade theater for worshipers due to its supposed pagan connotations, the medieval church embraced it in the form of the "mysteries," as they were called. These 15th-century plays comprised three cycles: the Hebrew Testament, the New Testament, and the lives of the saints. The mysteries' authors were not strict literalists; their interpretations encompassed scripture, story, truth, and legend and were passed along orally. The mysteries flourished in France, where they also grew from brief scenes to lengthy and sometimes marathon performances. Arnoul Greban, canon of the church of Le Mans, and his brother Simon, a monk of St. Riquier, collaborated on a mystery, Acts of the Apostles, that included 62,000 verses. The performance lasted 40 days.

The Passion play--the drama that first entranced me--became the celebrated form of the mysteries. Possibly the most famous performance of the Passion, and certainly the most enduring, is performed in Oberammergau, Germany. Suffering from the plague and the destruction of the Thirty Years War, the people in this town swore that if God would deliver their community, they would perform the Play of the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ once every 10 years. They kept their promise beginning at Pentecost 1634 on a stage set up over the cemetery, above the fresh graves of plague victims. The year 2000 marked the 40th performance. More than 2,000 Oberammergauers participated as actors, singers, instrumentalists, and stage technicians in a show that ran six hours.

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So in medieval times and the Middle Ages, Christian theater basked in the spotlight. And then (stage direction: this dramatic moment would occur just before the curtain came down on Act One) the Reformation happened.

ACT TWO: There had been earlier skirmishes, the original "culture wars" perhaps. In 1548, the Parliament of Paris, under the influence of the early French Protestant believers, attempted to put the kibosh on theater, forbidding production of The Mysteries of the Passion of Our Redeemer and Other Spiritual Mysteries. The mysteries upheld Roman Catholic doctrine; that was enough to get them banned.

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