Can Christian Values Survive in the Stories we tell?
Does religion belong in the theatre? Does it still? Theatre as I was led to believe emerged from tribal rituals among the ancients from the Bantu tribesmen to ancient Greeks. If anyone has ever been to Sunday Mass at a cathedral in any major metropolitan city in the world at around say 11:00am, it is akin to the grandiosity of an opera house. The singing on the other hand, depends but you get the point. If you go to a mega church celebration also in any major city in the world, you may also see or experience the frenzy of an endless Broadway musical number up until the homily. Then you have your neighborhood yoga studio with the gongs and new age music and exaltation of silence, akin your avant-garde black box theatre studio.
As a kid, I remember our family moving to a neighborhood where our mother who loved attending daily morning mass was awoken by the morning chant at the nearby mosque. What an amazing call that was. I feel like we heard that from a mile away.
As an adult I find myself more compelled to being silent than outspoken about my faith – my Christian faith to be exact. I feel like I miss the mark so much that I’d just rather not come off like a hypocrite. But when it comes to religion, my allegiance is with the Lamb of God.
I am in this new place, existentially. I am as grown as I hoped to be. Not necessarily as accomplished but definitely have been alive enough to understand my way of life sets an example. I really should have arrived at this point long ago but denial… is not just a river in Egypt.
My training and expertise, despite professional exploits (or lack thereof) is in the craft of theatre. Usually, it bleeds into film and TV but I figure, if you are reading this you get it. And one passage in scripture that always stands out to me in the Gospel (Matthew) is the “salt of the earth” metaphor. Christians are to be the salt of the earth. The flavor that makes life palatable. By our actions we are supposed to inspire people to want to follow the Christian Way.
Cut to: the Letters of Paul to the Romans & Corinthians where he talks about everyone having their own roles within the body of the church and so we are to respect our gifts and provide for the faith according to our gifts. Then in the first chapter of Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he chastises the gifted people for being so connected to the divine yet wasting it in idol worship and indulgence or aggrandizement, seeking to worship themselves as gods.
“Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things God has made. So those people have no excuse at all! They know God but they do not give him the honor that belongs to him, nor do they thank him. Instead their thoughts have become complete nonsense, and their empty minds are filled with darkness. They say they are wise but they are fools; instead of worshipping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortal human beings or birds or animals or reptiles.”ROMANS 1:20-23
Upon reading this I could not help but wonder if he was referring to the artists of the day. Roman civilization was famous for having its own mythological system (derived from the Babylonian/Kemetic canon), and ritualistic celebrations from the Coliseum to the Lupercalia. In reading the surviving works of Aeschylus or looking at architecture that has survived the millennia, it is clear there was working concept around the divine. But Nazarenes (as early Jewish Christians were called) would have had to be more vigilant.
Now the tone of the Apostle Paul strikes a highly pontificating note, which is sure to stir or repel. But Christian faith is not defined by Paul’s tone but by Christ’s touch. Christ’s touch is supposed to be evident by the acts of his followers.
Back to the theatre (or film/TV): There are several shows and films out there in the mainstream and independent media that have made bold endorsements of Christian theology – The War Room, God is Not Dead I & II, Tyler Perry’s early filmography. While these films have been major financial successes, they often get clobbered critically, for being preachy. A term that the well-versed minds use to suggest that the artists or filmmakers are merely well-intended zealots. I get it. Preachy is annoying especially if you understand and agree with the fundamental principle that is being expressed on perhaps too high a pedestal or too loud a megaphone. Calling someone’s work preachy is almost like saying; “I feel you but calm down. No one is trying to hear that right now. We are discussing other (more important) things.”
If you are familiar with the readings of the gospels and the epistles (letters) following the gospels you are familiar with the warnings from Christ and his disciples that the “Good News” will be rejected by many so the early apostles and preachers were advised to have thick skin or pick up their cross. So the question is, if rejection is to be expected when sharing the gospel is there ever a time when sharing Christ’s message would not be perceived as preachy?
Let’s go back to the earlier examples of the yoga studio and the black box theatre (many of which have Buddha statues in their dressing rooms), the cathedral and the opera house and the mega church and the Broadway show. Through civilization we have proven that spiritual expression rooted in ritual, works. So what is the hold up? Where are Christians falling short?
I suspect the answer to that question is not one to take on with righteous accusation but with opportunistic curiosity. The Christian message for the most part is not easy to practice thoroughly. All the people who profess it fall short in major ways. But I am starting to wonder is that a reason to stop?
Let’s take a look at some other ideologies that take advantage of the theatrical highway for their messaging: For the people who profess Marxist/Communist leanings do they actually live in places or with people whom they share every aspect of their lives with? Do they refuse to grow their earnings until everyone around them earns exactly what they earn? I highly doubt that. Let’s take a look at the people who profess the ideology of self-indulgence, self-love and freewilldom, are they free from the comfort of belonging to group and the thirst for virtue when everything and everyone around them is on a self-absorbed? Those who swear by money as their god; do they escape the emptiness of a loaded bank account with so many people to love but no one to trust? Around us today, several notions use theatre as a means to get their message across. Many are just as preachy too.
But my question is; for those of us who are Christian, what are we afraid of? If we are in fact the salt of the earth perhaps we need not be afraid of being added to the recipe if we know we are going to improve it and rather we should be so singular in it that our addition to it will appropriately season the field we participate in. Theatre need not be an exception for theatre is clearly a diet staple of civilization.
by Jude Yong, Founder and Editor of XULAIMA