This essay follows my earlier contribution in Part I, in which I argued that Christian embodiment is too often one of hierarchical dualism, alienation, and social separation. As those called to live in the reality of God’s redemptive work, we should seek out for ourselves, and inculcate in students, an embodiment of whole-ness, emotional and social connection, and physical-spiritual integration.
Theater as a Way of Knowing
In May of 2017, I was just concluding my seventeenth year of teaching anthropology at Wheaton College. The work had always been satisfying, but there is no question that any such long-term endeavor can pose a challenge of staying connected to the institution, one’s colleagues, the work, and the students. In other words, it can all get routine. But this particular spring, I found a surprising answer to the routine-of-it-all when I signed up for a faculty development seminar hosted by our theater faculty. Entitled “Theater as a Way of Knowing,”1 this three-day workshop consisted of attending some live theater (this was in The Before Times), discussing a few essays, and doing some of those silly theater games in which you pretend to pour tea, or wave your arms like an owl, or “explore space.” The plays were excellent, and the essays were fine, but these silly games were, frankly, revelatory.
There were approximately 15 of us in the group, mostly senior faculty, so it was often awkward and even embarrassing to engage in these physical movements or auditory explorations together. At the same time, it was a kind of embodiment I had not experienced for a long time. It is important to note, this was a kind of play (a topic recently explored in a series of posts on this blog). We were not preparing a performance, or seeking to prepare for the approval of others, and simply having this ludic space was a relief in itself. At the same time, were also always required to attend to our own bodies with unfamiliar focus. This brief, 3-day experience was a profoundly positive embodiment that was an unexpected gift at that time in my life.
The next year, one of the leaders of that seminar, Mark Lewis, announced he would be leading a year-long program in which we would mostly engage in these theater games (and that would culminate in a performance of a sort, though that was much-downplayed throughout our time.) It was a year of silly games, with his expert guidance. 2 Just as I had glimpsed the previous spring, it opened up an embodiment that was new, somewhat destabilizing, and invigorating.
The silly theater games were embodiment in a new register with the aim of revealing how to live in one’s body deeply, honestly, and fully. For example, the beginning of each session with our skilled guide, we were typically invited to “walk with breath” through the length of our room. As we paced our long, rectangular room, back and forth between the far walls, we would be invited to consider the others in the room, or a spot on the opposite wall, or the entirety of the space, as we moved, breathing, in our space. Occasionally, we would be invited to inhibit another’s progress, standing in their way, or gently nudging them with a shoulder, though others could always indicate their desire to be left alone, by holding arms across the chest as they walked. I know even as I write these words, it can sound a bit woo woo. Is this a room of PhDs, distinguished faculty, pacing in the room, breathing deeply, occasionally looking around or nudging each other playfully? Yes. Yes, it is. It is a silly game. It is also an occasion for creating an embodiment with deep implications for understanding ourselves as individuals, part of a collective, and bearers of God’s Image.3
Embodied Knowledge of Self, Others, and God
As Mark would say, this kind of work is vital to the actor’s craft. Prosaic activities such as walking, breathing, and noticing are part of an embodiment in which actors learn to attend to their own feelings and thoughts in the moment, taking in the room and those in it, learning to react or not react in ways that make sense of others in the room. Such activities are, as my first encounter with this made clear, a way of knowing; knowing ourselves, others, and the world at large. There were many exercises in which we engaged, all creating spaces in which the embodiment was one of attending to the many bodies in the room, our own and others, for the sake of understanding.
On one level, we all do this throughout our lives. That is, we learn about the world through our bodily interactions with and perceptions of the world. Business anthropologist Simon Robert uses the process of driving a car as a familiar example of this embodied knowledge.4 When we begin to learn how to drive, we attend carefully to each motion of our bodies – the pressure of our foot on the pedal, our hands on the wheel, our eye motions and head position. But, if everything goes well, we soon do all these things without giving it a conscious thought. Indeed, if we try to go back to our days of intentionally thinking about each part of what it takes to drive, we’re likely to drive more poorly. (Like getting “the twisties” on our way to the store.)5 Our knowledge of how to drive is more in our arms and legs and back and shoulders than in our brain. This is knowledge that is in our body and of our body.
In the context of these silly games, we gain such an embodied knowledge. This is knowledge of ourselves, the others in the room, and even knowledge of God. In terms of this latter knowledge, Mark does not often bring explicit God-talk into the room, yet, these bodily acts are all geared toward a shalom, a peace and wholeness. In the context of a Christian context like a Christian university, these actions become unmistakably Godly. That is, we are meant to learn about God in our bodies, to experience a kind of Godly embodiment, where knowledge of Jesus is through and in our bodies themselves. By way of example, I can cite an occasion where Mark did articulate something overtly theological, though subtly so. I recall the day he wrote out John 1:48 on the small, portable white board and wheeled it into the room:
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree…”
This became an invitation to notice one another, and engage in what Mark called “stealth honoring,” in which we would furtively adopt another’s posture, movement, or expression in the room. We would notice someone’s bodily actions and incorporate them into our own. Our Christ-like behavior was to honor another in our body, consider our own bodily state, and bring those together for the love of God, imitation of Christ, and love of one another. Tacitly, this became a moment of feeling noticed, by Jesus himself, just as Christ noticed Nathanael. We were noticing with our bodies, experiencing an embodied Being Noticed, and connecting our individual bodies, the bodies in the room, and living as a member of the Body of Christ. If theology is Faith Seeking Understanding, this was Faith Seeking Embodied Knowledge.
The entire experience of our faculty workshop led me to join the students through the 2018-19 school year, participating in a long-established student group devoted to just this kind of embodiment. The group started under Mark’s predecessor at Wheaton and was known as Workout. Given the way Mark has come to run the program, with a sense of joy, an emphasis on freedom and choice, and as little pressure to perform as could be mustered, the name has become a kind of irony. Workout is not running lines or preparing a show. It is a place of silly games, movement, and coming to know one another as full people in our bodies.
For the students, Workout has become a site of profound theological knowledge. Through the embodiment of these silly games, they come to understand the presence and being of God in new ways. Consider, for example, this testimony from a senior student who participated in four years Workout. Reflecting on her first year in Workout, she wrote:
My eighteenth year, I made it a habit to pray for God to somehow “hug me.” And then, a year later I believed that God had answered my prayer. Suddenly, the wind wasn’t just wind anymore—I told Alyssa as we walked from dinner to the Theater one day, “No human can ever make me feel like the breeze feels! It’s sort of magic. The wind, then, must be God’s hug!” She nodded yes quick, and explained how the sparrows have been that way for her too. And so, I sought in the wind that year for comfort. I saw it as Holy—I still do6
This extraordinary part of the Wheaton College curriculum, I would discover, was a site where a Christian embodiment was happening every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Students were coming to experience themselves, their bodies in the world, in ways that informed their relationship to their own bodies, the bodies of others, and to God. Perhaps theater, in forms such as Workout, is the very thing our curriculum needs to begin filling the space left by the absence of the body in Christian higher education.
As I will explain in part III, this is not a call to impose required theater classes, or sign every Christian student up for tap-dancing lessons, in preparation for their big debut in South Pacific. It is both more modest, and more urgent, than that.
- This title is one I first heard from my colleague Michael Stauffer, a long-serving member of the Wheaton faculty, an award-winning stage director and set designer. He is working on his own project by this name, one I eagerly look forward to reading.
- The term “silly game” is not my own, but Mark Lewis’. It was introduced to us through a story of an acting workshop he had attended with renowned Russian director and teacher, Slava Dolgachev. Mark told us the story of how this eminent artist would occasionally introduce a theater exercise with a dismissive wave of his hand, saying (with Mark providing the thick Russian accent), “It is just a silly game. Silly game.” The purpose, Mark would later surmise, was to alleviate the tension among the participants and to provide the kind of levity and informality needed to create a more positive and creative experience.
- Some of these exercises, such as Walking with Breath, were easily mapped onto popular practices of Mindfulness. Certainly, much of what makes mindfulness popular is congruent with, or at least adjacent to, what we did in these theater games. This was a mindfulness with structure, and often more explicit purpose than many forms of mediation or kataphatic (or apophatic) prayer. I have no doubt, however, that neurologically, there are similar processes at work.
- Roberts, Simon. Power Of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them. London: Blink Publishing, 2020.
- “The twisties” recently became a common term as gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic competition as a result of a mind-body disjuncture in which she temporarily lost the bodily perceptions necessary for the highly advanced maneuvers of her sport. See Tokyo 2020. ‘Gymnastics: What Are the Twisties?’ Accessed 13 October 2021. https://olympics.com/tokyo-2020/en/news/what-are-the-twisties.
- Although she does not explicitly reference Workout in this excerpt, this was written for a performance of reflections on the work Confessions, by Augustine. All the members of the cast were also members of Workout, and in subsequent conversation, the author affirmed to me that she was explicitly reflecting on her experience with Workout.