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Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue

Todd E. Johnson and Dale Savidge
Published by Baker Academic in 2009

Billed as the first full-scale exploration of theatre and theology, Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue by Todd E. Johnson and Dale Savidge endeavors to find anexus between the previously distinct worlds in which both of the authors participate. Johnson, the theologian, and Savidge, the theatre practitioner, desire to create a new form of the dialogic in an academic book that funnels practicality and theory through its pages by having each of its authors write chapters in response to each other. The short study (175 pages, 26 of which are the endnotes and index) succeeds on many fronts, chiefly in connecting the academic worlds of theology and theatre, as well as advocating how Christian theatre practitioners can produce Christian theatre and still remain in a world saturated with the liminality of the virtual. However, the writers’ oft inability to find historical nuance, the disjointed nature of trying to write independent chapters from two traditions, and the diffident nature of their findings, limit the book’s potential to spell out independent connections and elucidate predictions.

Part of the “Engaging Culture” series of Baker Academic, the publisher seeks to help Christians respond with theological discernment to our contemporary culture. Each volume explores particular cultural expressions, seeking to discover God’s presence in the world and to involve readers in sympathetic dialogue and active discipleship (2).

Previous editions have explored theology in music, theology in film, and theology in pop culture, as well as other cultural phenomena. Earlier books in the series have also had multiple authors, but none purport to write a dialogue; and while these authors’ attempt is fresh in many ways, only the introduction and last chapter are truly dialogic, bringing in both positions for balanced input. The middle four chapters (two written by Savidge and two by Johnson) seem oddly disjointed from the rest and often do not succeed in building a justifiable and innovative argument (in fact, they build three arguments). Reviewing the book will also prove disjointed since only the chapters written by Johnson overtly connect.

Anyone with interest in either theology or theatre might take umbrage with the presuppositions the authors use in the introduction to set up their arguments. For instance, in placing their case in a postmodern context, the authors state that “ours is a time of harmony between theatre and church, at least to the extent that the church enthusiastically uses theatre for its own ends” (13). One has only to enter a more conservative church, parachurch organization, or traditionalist Christian academic setting to know that although often television and film are often embraced for their ability to broadcast widely theatre proper still holds a tenuous relationship with religious producers, especially at the university level, with little academic freedom to be had at many institutions. The authors even go so far as to call the twentieth century the “New Medieval Church,” in that the medieval church “embraced” theatre for educational devices. Little or no historical or regional context is given, especially in the next chapter which reports on theatre’s unpleasant history with the Christian church.

This chapter, “A Survey of Christianity and Theatre in History,” is a broad retelling of theatre history from a Christian’s perspective. While this might seem appropriate on the surface, Savidge starts again with a loose understanding of how theatre was used both in the middle ages and before, sometimes ignoring what has moved against the grain of typical, what is sometimes known as an “Oscar Brockett” type of history. Brockett’s History of the Theatre is the most widely used theatre history textbook in America. In fact, often Brockett’s text is referred to as the “Theatre History Bible.” The problem with telling a Brockett-style history is that it fails to find the nuanced nature of Christianity’s relationship with theatre and the peripheries of hackneyed historical underpinnings. Furthermore, this history has been told in many versions already; the question is why these authors need to tell the history again, especially when the “Engaging Culture” series is not a historical survey. It seems that it would have been better to problematize the familiar perceptions from a Christian point of view. Savidge’s lateral move is reasonable, but a vertical shift by the author would swing the study into original and innovative ground, placing this Christian theatre history chapter into fresh scholarship.

On the other hand, the author does present a very interesting reading of the Bible froma theologically informed theatrical perspective. This is new scholarship and the author shouldbe commended for delving into the “activities of the ancient Israelites that were either theatrical or actually theatre” (25). This is the type of history that Christian theatre academiciansand artists crave and is very useful in the classroom or teaching laboratory. In fact, togetherwith two sections of a later chapter that frame advice for Christian writers and actors, thispart on theatre history in the Bible would prove useful to any theatre or religion classroom.

Whereas Savidge presents interesting readings of the Bible, sometimes he takes liberties in those interpretations without adding that these are speculative and/or possibilities. For instance, in discussing God’s speaking to Jeremiah, Savidge writes that the signs and symbols used to help Jeremiah understand his prophetic nature are, in fact, theatre. Although theatre is built on signs and symbols in that theatre is not what it purports to be, but a once-removed symbol of that feature (see Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign/signifier/signified), perhaps acknowledging this as an exploratory aspect would strengthen the argument and build more intentional biblical corollaries. Furthermore, a very interesting theological semiotic study on the possible meanings of biblical Hebraic performative characteristics would prove useful to both schools of religion and theatre. With his metaphor and semiotic biblical explications, Savidge goes in and out of understanding these phenomena. In fact, in challenging widespread viewpoints equating Jesus’ parables with theatre, Savidge devotes a paragraph to helping audiences see that metaphorical stories do not theatre make.

The next two chapters written by Todd Johnson make moves towards interesting understandings of both how Christianity reflects theatre and how theatre reflects Christianity by asking the question, “[W]hat does theatre mean theologically and how does it do so?”(55). Simple equations are explained, like life as rehearsal, God as writer, Holy Spirit as director, but also Johnson seeks a deeper acknowledgement of theatrical enterprise in light of what theatre does to the Christian and non-Christian alike that is similar to God’s workings. Johnson invokes three straightforward yet insightfully new ways to look at this: incarnation, community, and presence. Without going into Johnson’s complete argument, it is his understanding that simultaneously, theatre summons the Creator for the purpose of story, builds community in a similar way that fellowship does, and brings us into contact with others who are also inviting the creative influence in a transcendent manner. These chapters, “The Theology of the Theatrical Process” and “Live Theatre in a Virtual World,” develop Johnson’s argument in light of these constructs. And while these three aspects are difficult to argue with, the way in which Johnson, a scholar with a long résumé, finds evidence for his positions is problematic. Basically, it seems that Johnson has an argument and then sets about finding evidence to support his conclusion, falling into a somewhat reverse way of understanding scholarship. To be sure, many (if not most) scholars fall into this mode of doing scholarship, generally referred to as rationalism; it is at least arguable that authors should fit evidence into their conclusions only after that evidence is found, saving conclusions for the end.

However, Johnson does a noble job at elucidating disparate areas of scholarship, including Karl Barth (reformed theologian), Peter Brook (theatre theorist and practitioner), and Neil Postman (cultural critic), into a formative study of how theatre works in the realm of Christianity and vice versa. In the portions that seek consideration of audience involvement, though, Johnson would have done well to bring in the reflections of Philip Auslander (specifically Liveness) and his audience reception theories. Additionally, Johnson might have formulated a stronger and clearer argument of theatre’s power in relationship with Christianity if the platitudes of how theatre is the best way to connect faith with practice were shed. This seems to be Johnson’s position in the next chapter and beyond. Although as theatre practitioners we recognize our biases towards the power of theatre, it probably does not aid in winning our audiences when we start from that position.

While chapters 2 and 3 connect Johnson’s three aspects of Christianity and theatre (incarnation, community, and presence), chapter 4 takes a turn again, similar to what chapters 2 and 3 do from the first chapter. In this chapter, “The Christian at Work,” Savidge comes back into the picture to offer focused advice to the Christian writer and actor. Savidge states that these two divisions of theatrical labor are the most important, and while it is easy to agree with Savidge in theory, there are many technical- and production-minded individuals who might balk that their offices are ignored completely. To be sure, however, good advice abounds and the counsel is well articulated and interesting, especially for undergraduates who might foray into the harsh world of professional theatre. The most provoking suggestion is the admonishment to be culture-making Christians instead of only culture-responders, although this train of thought could be developed further (perhaps in the line of Bob Briner’s Roaring Lambs).

The authors take another disconnected turn in the last chapters, one on being a good Christian audience member and then a final conclusive chapter that tries to tie all these disparate notions together. This proves to be the most confusing section of the book in that any one of the chapters (with the chapters on incarnation, community, and presence taken as one study) might be interesting as scholarly examination on their own (and probably should be). The authors simply try to cover too much material in too short of a time, doing so in a disconnected, disjointed manner. Together with the flawed history, the presuppositions and unacknowledged speculations, and the errors in building conclusions, ultimately this makes the book fall short of what it could have been. With that said, it bears restating that there area few recoverable sections that could prove useful in a Christian theatre history or to an undergraduate professional preparatory classroom. Furthermore, the chapters related distinctly to the central argument of what theology does for theatre and vice versa are provocative despite the way the conclusion is built before the evidence.

Cite this article
Kurt A. Edwards, “Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 499-502

Kurt A. Edwards

Indiana Wesleyan University
Kurt A. Edwards, Theatre, Indiana Wesleyan University