Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America
Reviewed by Steven W. Wood, Theatre and Communication, Indiana Wesleyan University
Jill Stevenson has made a considerable contribution to evangelical theatre scholars and practitioners – and the larger academia interested in performance studies, theatre criticism, and American theatre historiography – by coining the term “evangelical dramaturgy” (4). American evangelical dramaturgy, Stevenson argues, is a broad-reaching approach to theatre making that is “founded upon the principle that live performances … function [for both the performer and audience] as powerful religious tools” (25). So few scholarly books have been written about evangelical dramaturgy because until recently, most scholars have failed to understand how evangelical theatre events and performative media act as devotional activities. (This was particularly true with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Stevenson begins, and little has changed since 2004.) In response to this poverty of scholarship, her book rightly situates evangelical dramaturgy as a continuum of the sort of “affective piety” (18) practiced during the Middle Ages: specifically the action of engaging in Christian iconography and imagery in order to “maintain certain spiritual identities” (17) while helping make “belief” (22).1 For Stevenson, however, evangelical dramaturgy is more than just devotional praxis. It is also her critical model.
Evangelical dramaturgy, as she defines it in her introduction, explains how evangelicals assume “certain interpretations of representation, realism, enactment, spectatorship, and presence, in order to achieve particular aesthetic, ideological, and experiential efforts” (4).2 Theatre, in Stevenson’s words, affords “rhythmic” (24) possibilities between the actor and spectator’s body. But other performative elements (scenery, lights, and so on) also produce such rhythmic “encounters” (24). With this understanding of the rhythmic dynamic between performance and spectator in place, and after introducing the key methods/goals of evangelical dramaturgy, the subsequent chapters parse out these tactics (or rhythmic encounters) by examining various theatre sites: Holy Land Experiences (chapters 2 through 4), the Creation Museum (chapter 5), and urban Megachurches (chapter 6). It is briefly worth noting that all of these genres are reflective of the broader evangelical strategy of reappropriating popular culture for religious purposes. This first tactic of evangelical dramaturgy is directly related to what she identifies earlier in the book as evangelical “entrepreneurialism” (11).3
For those readers interested in the socio-political dynamic of her work, Stevenson’s evaluation of evangelical commerce throughout the book (indeed all of her theatre sites – including Megachurches – are arguably driven as much by economics as Christian devotional practice) provides useful insights into the practical underpinnings of how American religions fit in free-market enterprise. Evangelicals have unapologetically tapped into their corporate spirit of entrepreneurialism to help them commodify their devotional practices and become a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture (96). This is not a new argument for many scholars of course, but Stevenson’s is one of the first published books to use theatre as a lens.4 For the sake of her argument, the Holy Land Experiences, Creation Museum, and Megachurch phenomenon exemplify the entrepreneurial extent of evangelical dramaturgy. In chapters 2 through 4 (and certainly in chapters 5 and 6), Stevenson considers how evangelicals strategically frame their dramatic narratives in realism. She clarifies that the goal of evangelical dramaturgical realism is to provide both the actor and audience with a “‘religiously real’ re-representational encounter” (38). If this strategy seems densely worded (and it is), it is helpful to summarize her thoughts thusly: when evangelical devotees visit Holy Land Experiences and see Passion narratives – particularly the crucifixion scene and Last Supper communion – play out, they participate in an act of “anachronism” (39) that affirms faith by providing powerfully emotional “felt experiences” (83) with God. This strategy, Stevenson argues, is also part of the affective intimate scripts evangelical dramaturgy prefers. Indeed, all of the sites Stevenson explores are affective intimate scripts in that they aim to provide emotional connection – through the agency of a performer, performance space, and spectator – to belief. In effect, seeing (the actor portraying) Jesus walk among the crowd embodies God’s presence for those spectators already rhythmically prepared to participate in such an experience.
There are several strengths to Stevenson’s book, particularly her grasp of the nuanced beliefs shared among evangelicals (though more could have been said about those beliefs) and her sympathetic reading of evangelicalism in general while remaining an outsider to it.5 Despite these strengths, however, there are some important questions that I believe went unanswered.
First, Stevenson is not clear if she means that every act of evangelical theatre making is best defined by evangelical dramaturgy, though she is clear that she does not mean that the elements of evangelical dramaturgy are singularly unique to evangelicalism. Are there counter examples among evangelical theatre artists that do not aim to be devotional experiences? How would those alternates resist or alter her rubric? It is difficult to say because she does not suggest further inquiry.6 Second, Stevenson’s coda (final chapter) about the Tea Party’s evangelical dramaturgy seems oddly out of place especially since she notes being “cautious about eliding evangelicalism with political conservatism” (232). I would not be so cautious; why is she? Although I certainly agree with her that not “all evangelicals are politically conservative” (232), I disagree that evangelical dramaturgy can be so easily divorced from political conservatism. In fact, earlier in the book she rightly argues that the Creationist Museum participates in constructing a “particular national identity” (157). In an effort to give evangelical dramaturgy a fair shake, is she too modest?7 Indeed, modern American evangelical identity has been (perhaps permanently) blurred between political ideology, imagined nationalism, and particular articles of belief in such a way as to make it hard for some evangelicals to distinguish the kingdom of God Jesus spoke often about from the myth that the United States is (was it ever?) a nation under God.
While there have been several important books written over the past decades about religious (read: evangelical) popular culture,8 few scholars have addressed the ubiquity, popularity, accessibility, and controversy of evangelical theatrical performance. Evangelical engagement in theatre and other popular/performance media stands at a precarious crossroads within the current climate of theatre studies in evangelical higher education. In recent months, a few noted member schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities ended their theatre major as an answer to trends in declining enrollment. Conversely, in 2014 many popular films made by Christians (or films dealing directly with Christian themes) – Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Noah, Heaven is for Real, and Mom’s Night Out – have confounded critics and reignited Hollywood’s interest in faith-based films. Stevenson’s timely and thorough contribution to scholarly discourse about evangelical dramaturgy has earned her an especially important and immediate place on the bookshelves of those who teach theatre in Christian higher education. Perhaps her book (along with Fletcher’s) can begin an important conversation between theatre professors and administrators about the value of promoting evangelical dramaturgy both within Christendom and beyond it.
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- Stevenson explains: “Religious objects, spaces, events, and performances in the Middle Ages functioned effectively not only because they communicated doctrine in accessible ways and gave the laity greater agency over their piety…but also because they supplied believers with devotional encounters that fulfilled their needs, and in doing so, as I will argue, helped resolve their problems….The same is true of evangelical performative media today” (26). It is somewhat curious that Stevenson does not identify or root this point in an understanding of sacramental theology.
- To support this provocative thesis, Stevenson further lays out her definition of dramaturgy in chapter 1 as “not just the philosophy (or theology) that undergirds a form’s creation and design, but also the principles that spectators bring to the artwork, as well as the ways that each live encounter between audience member and performance impacts the work. This definition encompasses the horizon of expectations that impinge upon a work during its creation, production, and ongoing reception. … Dramaturgy helps us recognize the many different elements that contribute to a religious mode of performance” (27).
- Perhaps best illustrated by the popularity of the Left Behind novel series/merchandizing.
- See also John Fletcher, Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013).
- It is unfortunate at some level that the two current scholarly authorities on evangelical theatre – Stevenson and Fletcher – do not identify themselves as evangelical. Collectively, their works provide a fair and useful criticism about evangelical theatre, but fall short of establishing an authoritative theory of evangelical theatre.
- Similarly, she could have said more about intentionally exploring theatre sites that are distinctly produced by white Christians. So little scholarship has been directed towards African-American evangelical dramaturgy: for example, the urban theatre circuit plays done by artists such as Tyler Perry.
- Fletcher, in contrast, is far bolder in insisting in his thesis that evangelical theatre is a form of activist political theatre.
- See Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004); Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003).