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Performance on the stage of God

by
11 March 2016

Martin Warner finds hints of new ways to revitalise religion

Theatrical Theology: Explorations in performing the faith
Wesley Vander Lugt and Trevor Hart, editors
The Lutterworth Press £21
(978-0-7188-9384-2)

 

IN THE time between Christmas and Easter (a limited one, this year) the theatrical world is in the season of pantomime.

Pantomime is essentially a morality tale. Good triumphs over evil, young love is given the hope of future flourishing, and we are all invited to cast our vote by the acclamation of boos and hisses, or cheers and applause. The panto derives its power from an instinct within us that accepts that what the actors mime for us on stage has some fundamental connection with what we experience in our own life.

Against this backdrop, Theatrical Theology: Explorations in performing the faith comes as a welcome collection of papers from an international conference hosted in 2012 by the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, at St Andrews University.

Apart from the benefit of making these excellent papers available to those not present at the conference, any reviewer should applaud this publication as evidence of the vitality of theological inquiry in the academic world. The Institute in St Andrews, and a similar enterprise at King’s College, London, demonstrate how much our understanding of mission can benefit from academic theologians, and we marginalise their contribution to the detriment of our evangelistic confidence and credibility.

The authors of these papers represent European and North American schools of thought. There is a gap concerning how drama features in non-Western contexts, although there is some reference to that in the paper by Richard Carter and Samuel Wells, which refers to the work of the Melanesian Brotherhood.

The papers are properly theological, in so far as they focus mainly on discourse as it narrates the performance of God in creation and redemption. Some of the great 20th-century narratives feature, as we would expect: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s monumental Theo-Drama, and, interestingly, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume 4.i, on reconciliation.

This collection offers diverse explorations into how the drama of God’s performance touches our human instinct for mimetic behaviour: how we rehearse hopes for liberation, assimilate grief and loss, respond to enigma and the passing of time, apply the wisdom of God’s self-revealing to our moral behaviour, and respond to mystery in worship.

The Empty Stage, by the theatre director Peter Brook, informs many of the contributions. Marilyn McCord Adams builds on his work to explore the drama of liturgy. It is possibly the most obvious arena of theological drama, but it gets least attention in this collection. That is a shame, and might even prompt a call for a second conference to redress that deficit.

Connecting the energy of these conference papers with the tiredness of liturgical life in many parts of our Church could be a source of considerable renewal.

That fusion could take us far beyond the scope of liturgical committee work, or the plodding labours of faculty application for reordering the sacred stage of our liturgical drama, which is too often based on a template of thin theological vision, and minimal financial expenditure. It could help move us from being an audience spectating at a service to being a holy people performing the faith.

 

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

 

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