This essay is the third, and final, part of a series on embodiment and the Christian liberal arts. In the First Part, I argued that mind/body dualism has left students, and many Christians, inhibited in their ability to fully love God with their whole selves. Embodiment is largely a negative experience, in which shame and anxiety around the body leave us crippled in experiencing the fullness of our Christian walk. In the second part, I presented my own encounter with “theater games” and the program Workout at Wheaton College. I argued that the embodiment in these activities formed a counterpoint to the experience of the body widely normalized in the white, evangelical context. In this third part, I suggest that by promoting theater arts (and other performing arts), we can bring positive embodiment into our Christian liberal arts curriculum.
Theater and Divine Knowledge
It is unfortunate that “theater,” the term and concept in the Western context, has become something rather limited in our social imagination. For most U.S. Americans, the term evokes a show or some kind of production of lights, costumes, make-up, and sets. It is often seen as a kind of elite activity, expensive and inaccessible, both economically and socially. And, in my own experience, many seem to consider those doing theater-like things to be a very particular type of person, with particular talents and likely a specific personality that causes them to crave the limelight. When I describe some of the silly theater games that are part and parcel of this embodiment, friends will comment that this sounds like a vision of Introvert Hell. It is true that these activities pose different challenges to each person. Some, like me, gravitate to them and enjoy them immediately. Others find the prospect of being seen, being in the room in such a way that you invite others to look, as a unique form of torture that would surely be prohibited by the Geneva Convention.
But like doing math, reading literature, writing philosophy, or performing chemical experiments, the effort it takes to improve one’s knowledge and ability in a specific area has educational power, perhaps especially for those who struggle to embrace the learning at the beginning. And unlike those disciplines that rely predominately, or overwhelmingly, on the mind, theater teaches in and through the body. It necessarily moves us beyond the Brains-on-a-Stick model of education, to one in which our arms, legs, and heart are the site and source of knowledge. When Jesus quotes the schema to love the Lord with “all our heart, mind, soul, and strength,” he is not simply enumerating the components of devotion in the Christian life. Rather, he is calling on all those who heed his words to bring their whole selves to God. We cannot love God as partible people; we love with our whole being.
Theater in the Curriculum
If Christian education is, as James K.A. Smith would argue, about the formation of our desires, personhood, and habits as much as our thoughts, then we must find these ways to bring our bodies into the work.1 Workout, the acting/theater seminar for students at Wheaton College, provides a model for us. Should such a thing be a compulsory part of the curriculum? Hardly. As its leader, Professor of Theater and former professional actor Mark Lewis has argued, the aspect of invitation, and the possibility of refusal, is intrinsic to the process. Can such embodiment be woven into the already-existing work we each do in our classrooms? Perhaps, to some extent. I am a professor of anthropology, not theater or dance, yet I have found ways to bring practices of the body (rituals and other material experiences) into my classes in productive ways.2 But I am not the expert guide. I have not (yet) engaged in the years of reflection and introspection in which my colleagues such as Mark have invested their professional training and lives. For students to learn what theater, acting, or dance can provide to their education, they need faculty of theater, acting, and dance.
Consider, for example, the exercise discussed in part II, known as “stealth honoring.” In this activity, the individuals in the room are invited to attend to the others in the room, mimicking their movements in themselves. Mark describes the activity, its practice and consequences, this way:
In this activity, [the students] are to secretly tune in to the physical practice of another individual in the room, and then to seek to honor that person by imitating a piece of that physical practice. Of course, they must do this without being caught- it is Stealth Honoring after all! Subtly, I can witness the physical life of the room change. As one person stealth honors by, say, spreading their feet wide, leaning over and splaying their palms on the ground, another might catch the stealth honorer in that practice and begin to incorporate it. I ask the students to let the imitation be as precise as they are able to. If they are honoring breath cadence, they need to focus in such a way, and for such a period of time, to fully make that change. I also ask them to be fluid- it is perfectly acceptable to move from one ‘stealth object’ to another. As the student’s individual practice changes, the room changes.
This kind of insight and rigor comes from years of leading students through such work. When Mark says “the room changes,” he is observing how the dynamics of community change, the embodiment shifts from individual to communal and even cosmological. He is creating in the students an understanding of their lives in other lives, and self as more than isolate. His is a scaffolded experience of embodiment honed over years of teaching. Like my own teaching in anthropology, where I consider myself something of an expert, the teacher of movement, of breath, of body is one who has studied, considered, and refined the work over time.
More than a Show
In any good college theater program, there are productions in which this kind of work will literally be on stage. But for those who only see the product (i.e., the show), it may be easy to believe that the work was primarily memorizing lines, building sets, and blocking characters. The acting, the attending and responding and embodied expression of other’s experiences, are often chalked up to intrinsic abilities, i.e., “talent.” The growth, the embodied learning and subsequent knowledge, are less visible. We, outside these performing arts, may not understand how students have learned in the processes of embodying the characters, emotions, and histories of their performances.
I do not provide a specific proposal to address this vast lacuna in our students’ education, complete with bullet-points for administrative action. Nor do I mean to suggest that participation in such activities and physical learning would, by itself, solve the cultural and theological problems of embodiment. But, what I can say is that we must not minimize theater (or any of the performing arts) as trivial, extraneous, or lacking centrality to the educational mission of our schools to educate whole people, integrating faith and learning. We must do what we can to staunch the bleeding of theater, dance, and other physical arts from the presence of our institutions. Even the once-common requirements for physical education—the “activity course” of old—has often been shed, or at least trimmed, in our neoliberal context of a commodified education, where we compete for the consumer by emphasizing the Return on Investment of the degree, focusing on ever-more efficient ways of delivering the product. Economic realities do press on our decisions, but the disciplines promoting the body must be valued for more than the number of majors they can attract.
Knowledge is not in the brain more than in the body. Our bodies not only keep the score, but they save the knowledge of where we’ve been, who we have been with, and how God has accompanied us along the way.3 In order for our students move from shame in their bodies, or anxiety in having a body, into appreciation of the knowledge held there, they must come to see their own bodies and the bodies of others in just such a way. This embrace of an embodied knowledge leads towards loving the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. We must not be satisfied with two out of four, nor only conceive of heart and strength as immaterial qualities of character. A Christian embodiment, rather than a gnostic, or dualist, or idealist embodiment, requires this practical and focused attention to the body. And it may be, in this case, the play really is the thing.
- See, for example, Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 2009.
- For examples of non-embodiment specialists bringing such practices into their classrooms, see Smith, David I., and James K. Smith A, eds. Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2011.
- Bessel Van Der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score.” Trauma 2 (2003): 50.