Theatre as Cultural Church

This is fragmentary concept, inspired by T.S. Eliot, and prompted by a visit to a Mars Hill campus back in 2013.

Church and theatre are two of the most comfortable and uncomfortable spaces. The exist in the tension between the real and the imagined, the experienced and the hoped-for. It is difficult to get butts in the seats of either building. Those who know the beauty and importance of the theatre and the church respectively go. Those who doubt, distrust, or can’t be bothered to care don’t go.

Theatre and the church embrace all the broken, knobbly, and shard-like parts of humanity and reconcile them with a larger story, a vision for a bettered humanity. Both are honest. Both are truthful. Both operate by parable and metaphor. Both know the power of a story.

The Christian can no more separate himself from the theatre than he can separate himself from the historical spectacle that is the Bible. We live in the greatest story and will be judged at the Curtain Call by how faithfully we acted our part in accordance to the One who cast us and will lovingly direct our paths into scenes of blessing and peace if we will but attend His voice.

The theatre and the church serve to enchant. Fueled by the deepest longings of our imagination and driven by the magnetic and rhythmic pull of ritual, these institutions waft under our spiritual noses (for we are spiritual beings as well, don’t forget), olfactory inklings of Paradise. And yet, the stench of heart-rottenness lingers underneath the rose petals. There are no blossoms without the mulch. And here, my friends, is the crucial difference between the theatre and the church. The theatre can only hint at, toy with, and suggest alternative paths for the depravity of mankind to be cleansed and restored to the life we were made to live but are incapable of achieving because of our enslavement to our desires.

Only the church can both acknowledge the original innocence of the Desire for Love, Peace, Joy, Identity, Acceptance, and the like and claim to possess The Path to salvation and sanctification. Because the church has got hold of the best all-supernatural medicine of all time: The Story. The Story has been set upon the ultimate stage: the universe. It is told through the most honest and moving actor: Jesus Christ (who transcends being “convincing” and actually becomes His character, “GodMan,” to the chagrin of the most earnest Method actor). And it is performed for the most ornery and resistant audience imaginable: Humanity.

So should the Christian abstain from the theatre if the church already has access to the perfect story? By no means! Theatre should inform our church and church our theatre. We must go on telling lesser stories with great excellence and honesty so our hearts and the hearts of our audience members may be receptive to greater and greater and greater stories. T.S. Eliot believed that the theatre was a kind of “cultural church” (my term) that could teach and purify the culture through the telling of poetic tales. Christianity creates, redeems, and empowers culture. Our Lord Himself told stories. How dare we neglect the Word that spoke the world into being and wrote His own death scene so that our tongues would be loosed with the fire of the Holy Spirit to take the Great Story to the ends of the earth? Pentecost gave men the ability to speak in native tongues so that the gospel might be told to all who would hear. I speak in the “script” of “Scripture.” Act well your part. For there all the honor lies.

 

Addendum: Theatre is also like church in the sense that you have a bring a friend, an outsider, to expand the population. It is a relationship of experience, invitation, and growth.

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