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Too Little Drama in the Church?

Aug 02 2011

The Certificate includes coursework in music, drama, dance, visual art, and literary art. Drama courses offered at Wesley include Tools for Drama in Ministry, Religious Themes in Drama and Biblical Storytelling. Deryl Davis writes here about incorporating drama as a messenger of the gospel.

I’m sure there are people who think that the church has enough drama these days, as many denominations wrestle with everything from doctrine to polity to the best way to serve dinner on the grounds. However, I’d like to suggest that the church has yet to take full advantage of another kind of drama at its disposal: that is, proclaiming the Word through the physical and imaginative expression of the entire person - not just voice, but gesture, movement, facial expression, dialogue, and interaction between individuals.  

Most of us recognize that drama came out of the church and that many of our holiest rituals are themselves sacred dramas. Think of the communion meal, of baptism, of confirmation, and the laying on of hands. What are these but sacred dramas recalling and re-embodying the example of Christ and the teachings of the early church? Alas, somewhere along the line, the church became suspicious of drama and drama became suspicious of the church. The art form that had played a key role in re-membering and re-embodying the experience of the church moved outside and into the public square, where it took on more mundane but no less thorny subjects.   

With the passage of time – and the Reformation – the church attempted to snuff out drama and live theater altogether. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare had occasion to mock Puritans in his comedy Twelfth Night. The men and women in all-black were enemies of his stock in trade.  Unfortunately, antagonism between church and playhouse led to a complete separation that has lasted for centuries. Time was, and sometimes still is, when the church wouldn’t think to sponsor drama, and the theater only engaged matters of faith in order to poke fun at them. No surprise that one of the most popular figures in eighteenth century drama was the bumbling country parson – likeable enough, but completely ineffectual at his own stock in trade, should anyone wish to inquire about it.

The theater has done plenty of inquiring over the last century, and a few figures – notably T. S. Eliot – have attempted to create a modern religious drama. But these attempts are understandably limited in a world of competing ideologies, beliefs, and practices. The secular theater may engage matters of faith, but it cannot be expected to affirm them. That is the role of the church, and the time has come for it to open its doors to the artistic step-child who escaped its precincts so long ago.

I recognize that “drama” is a scary word for many in the church. It may recall silly youth sketches, boringly repetitive Christmas and Easter pageants, or poorly executed sermon teasers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, drama in the church can be as simple (a word used advisedly) as a creative presentation of a scripture reading or as complex as a full-blown play with sound and lights. For most churches, simple – meaning well-rehearsed and well-executed – is the way to go. A good place to start is with the scripture reading. How can a familiar passage be presented so that it appears fresh to the hearer?

One answer is to change the method of delivery. Who says that one person, or one voice, has to read the scripture passage . . . from a lectern . . . at a raised point . . . in the front of the sanctuary? As long as there is consistency and purposefulness in the division of lines, the delivery of almost any scripture passage can be enhanced by multiple voices and simple gestures. This is especially true with biblical poetry and character-driven narrative. Take for example the exceedingly familiar lines of Psalm 23. With its beautiful imagery and neat parallelism, this Psalm invites a contrast of voices, perhaps in a call and response fashion (A: The Lord is my shepherd/B: I shall not want. . . ) or as a series of individual voices enumerating the various ways that God cares for the Psalmist. Certain thoughts, lines, or verses might be spoken in unison by the entire group, such as the speaker’s affirmations that he or she will “fear no evil” and “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” 

This choral method of presenting scripture is a good way to begin using drama in a church or ministry setting. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Drama can make a good sermon teaser or a good sermon, but like a well-crafted homily it requires meditation, study, imagination, good writing, sufficient rehearsal, and preferably, memorization. When time and resources are tight, those who wish to use drama can turn to liturgical readings such as those created by The Wild Goose Resource Group of Scotland’s Iona Community. Inspired by biblical passages, themes, or characters, these readings generally do not require significant movement but often involve worshipful liturgical elements such as candle lighting, procession, or simple dialogue between characters, which can be holy in itself.

Drama, as we know from stage and screen, can be a powerful messenger. The question for today’s church is whether drama may again be a fully engaged and acceptable messenger of the gospel.

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