Is there a place for Christian drama?

A potentially powerful tool for the gospel

John Kendall is associate pastor of the Rockwood and Columbia Gorge Seventh-day Adventist churches in Oregon.

Every day hundreds of thousands of people cherish a new faith. This faith takes them into an other world, from which they soon return. They will then renounce their new faith in part but despite that disavowal, they have been changed.

Many Seventh-day Adventists participate in that journey to another world. Where do they go? Why do they go? How are they changed? Our answers to these questions have pro found implications for the way we worship, preach, evangelize, and live.

Willing captives in another world

Every week millions travel to what dramatists call the "world of the play." For this they juggle their schedules, drive across town, spend money, endure crowds, fight for their share of the armrest, and lean impatiently be tween shadowy heads. Then for the next two and a half hours they battle their own distraction, detachment, and skepticism. Eventually curiosity, be lief, and occasionally something like pure empathy break down every emotional and intellectual barrier. They have been changed.

All of that happens when people visit the world of the performing arts, whether in a public theater or the privacy of a living room. Much of what captivates them is no doubt from the devil. Should it surprise us that our enemy would claim the dramatic arts as his own? Perverting a gift from God into a counterfeit of his own creation is a longtime strategy of Satan. But why should Christians cooperate with the adversary by granting him almost exclusive rights to one of the most powerful communication tools of our century?

Abuse must not cancel rightful and natural use. In fact, it probably makes it all the more necessary. We should be "pulling down strongholds" and "casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:4,5). It's high time to deliver drama from the shadowy world of immoral philosophy and bring it into the captivity of Christ.

People seek out good plays hoping to be changed by being taken outside of themselves. They love to see believable characters with a believable script in a believable performance. And they can learn spiritual lessons in the process.

Much is gained by reclaiming the dramatic arts for Christ. People go to movies for the same reason they go to church: to find meaning in life. That is certainly a worthy goal, and Christian drama is a powerful tool in attaining it.

Drama in the Bible

The Holy Bible is full of drama. Literary critic Northrop Frye analyzed it and concluded that its "emphasis on narrative . . . distinguishes the Bible from a good many other sacred books." Unfortunately, we often view the stories of the Bible as something like cardboard containers for objective truth. Our exegesis is designed to break through the containers in order to res cue the moral gem. We feel homiletically clever if we can serve up a fast-food diet of pure principles, well-divided doctrine, and step-by-step ways to victory. We feel it our modern duty to get these out of the text and to make them as easily digestible as breakfast squares. But this fiber-less diet results only in spiritual constipation. Story-less Christians aren't mature they are just fat.

As children we no sooner talked than we demanded a story. Had we grown up in a primitive culture, we would have graduated from hearing stories to telling them. But in our advanced technological age we imagine we have more important uses for language. "The facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts" is the motto of the information society. But facts are fragments, not the whole. To become whole people, we must rediscover "the rest of the story."

The Bible is the drama of the ages. It is the "whole story" that contextualizes every other story. Paul urges us to "speak the wisdom of God in a mystery" (1 Cor. 2:7). To me that means we proclaim the Christ story within the context of the great redemptive story. We are to use the whole rhythmic pattern of foreshadowing and fulfillment, losing none of the inherent suspense.

Perhaps unaware of that, many preachers pride themselves on "making it plain." That's just what they do. They take the beauty of the divine story and make it plain. They squeeze the whole person story into their doctrinal box. The net result is that Christians become flat, one-dimensional people, more interested in argument than in the poetry of Christ's passion or the art of godly living.

Shall we be shaped by the "debaters of this age," or by the story of the Messiah? An old hymn reminds us: "Tell me the story simply, as to a little child." Another chimes: "Love in that story so tender, clearer than ever I see." Drama is essentially a developed form of story telling. This certainly was true in ancient Hebrew society.

Passion play in the desert

Consider the old covenant sanctuary, which was a dramatic rehearsal and foreshadowing of the real drama of redemption. Priests wore costumes and performed assigned roles. Every action was scripted within the daily and yearly rhythms and patterns of salvation. In the New Testament Stephen recognized the significance of the sanctuary as a "tabernacle of witness" (Acts 7:44), built according to a "pattern," or "type." The author of Hebrews calls it a "parable" (Heb. 9:9, literal) and a "shadow" of good things to come. In good script writing, every thing has significance. The playwright Chekhov said that if a writer puts a gun on the table in the first chapter, somebody has to pull the trigger by the last chapter. In the sanctuary, God laid down a lamb in the opening scene. Someone ultimately picked up a cross.

Job's tragedy

The book of Job bears a striking similarity to Greek tragedy. It has a prologue featuring a divine speaker, a series of messengers who bring news of offstage disasters, a central episode with a cycle of debates between the hero and his opponents, a God who intervenes at the end to reveal His power and resolve the action, and an epilogue to recount the hero's subsequent fate. In form it resembles the tragedies of Euripides. In ethical struggle it is similar to Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound. Similar and yet radically different, Job is not an immortal Titan, but a mortal man. Job gains increased nobility and wisdom, not through a bold defiance, but through a brave submission to divine authority.

Song of Solomon

Since modern theater is obsessed with love and romance, if we were directing God we would remind Him not to cheapen His spiritual master piece with that overrated box office draw. But we are too late. His pen chant for creativity went wild when He inspired a love poem that literally drips with desire. But it may be more than a poem. What some have called the "holy of holies of Scripture" is arranged like scenes in a drama. The Song of Songs abounds with metaphor and Oriental imagery. But the over all form is dramatic dialogue with responsive chorus. Imagine reading these canticles in dead-panned, monotone monologue. To not hear the give and take, the advance and retreat, the boldness and coyness, of emerging love is to miss what the wise man considered a wonder: "the way of a man with a maid" (Prov. 30:19). And yet this lack of imaginative awe is pandemic in many churches. We boast our butcher-block mentality and proceed to chop Solomon's exalted song into bite-sized explanations, thinking we are doing the lyricist a favor. If we would play it, we might finally hear it. The rich over tones of the whole song just might warm all our relationships, human and divine.

Poetry of the prophets

We might expect a no-frills testimony to be the earmark of the prophets. Instead, we find poetry. These men, moved by the Holy Spirit to pen the oracles of God, wrote not usually in prose, but in metrical rhythms and parallel harmonies. Beyond that, many were actors. Jeremiah, under the Lord's direction, acted out prophecy. Ezekiel was the pantomime prophet. Hosea acted in the prophetic oracle, making it a part of his most intimate life. Through it all, God is the relentless communicator. The media He chooses may be as significant as the message and He chose an art form. Poetry is the language of the heart. "I will... speak tenderly to her," says the undaunted lover of Hosea's prophecy (Hosea 2:14, NIV). Our God is into "heart-talk."

Parables of the Son

If God spoke by the prophets "in various ways," how "by his Son" (Heb. 1:1, 2) did He speak in ultimate rev elation? In parables! The greatest Communicator in the world spoke in riddles! Instead of "making it plain," He used stories, similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and more. Just as Jesus was greater than the prophets, so was His message greater in its "" enactment. All the foreshadowing, all the dreams, all the promises, were becoming "yes" in Him (see 2 Cor. 1:20).

The Gospels are written more dramatically than defensively. There is steady momentum toward a moment of destiny. Hopes run high, but there are numerous foreshadowings that tragedy lies ahead. Christ is welcomed to His city as king, but He will experience tragic reversal. He kneels in a garden and experiences a soul conflict that seals the coming fate. His reversal is completed by the full recognition that He is betrayed by His friends and forsaken by His own. He is paying for the fatal flaw of sin. He never has lifted Himself up in pride, the typical downfall of tragic heroes, but now He is lifted up by an arrogant generation to suffer the supreme humiliation.

This is tragedy beyond all tragedy. Christ is stapled to a cross that belongs to thieves and murderers while lightning bolts from a far bigger God than Zeus highlight the spiritual intensities of the moment. He bears the curse of sin and suffers an agony worse than the mythical underworld of any doomed hero. He descends into the grave. The tragedy is complete. Inconsolable weeping is more appropriate now than at any other moment in history. But the tragedy itself is reversed, and becomes the divine comedy. The tomb is shattered. Principalities and powers are spoiled. Captivity is led captive. Joy comes in the midst of mourning. This is the drama of the ages.

What happens when people really see the drama of the cross? Zechariah described it as a time when the spirit of grace and supplication would be poured out in such a way that people would look upon the One who was pierced, see true significance, and cry with genuine tears of repentance (see Zech. 12:10). Paul told the Galatians that they are like those hypnotized by a magician because they allow the deceptions of legalists to blind them to the cross. He testified to the Corinthians of his determination to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. So he presented Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of a pre-written script in such a graphic way that the Galatians could see the Crucifixion as with their own "eyes" (Gal. 3:1).* Paul proclaimed Christ in a dramatic way because he himself finally understood the script.

Some today fear that dramatic methods of sharing the Christian story will have hypnotic powers over the hearers, but there is nothing more mesmerizing than legalistic religion. Victims become obsessed with the script without ever hearing the story. They are the blind leading the blind. They understand the letter, but miss the spirit. The only way the Spirit can be received is by the "hearing of faith." Faith becomes the eyes that see not only the cross but the poetic script that made it necessary. This was what made Christ's hearers' hearts burn within them (see Luke 24:25-32) on the Emmaus road. This is what "angels desire to look into" (1 Peter 1:12). This is "the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began" (Rom. 16:25).

When people experience "the hearing of faith," it is like a supernatural catharsis. The Holy Spirit comes with the divine story, causing us to identify with Christ's doing and dying as if it were our own. We are taken out of ourselves and grieve "as one mourneth for his only son" (Zech. 12:10). This involves far more than an emotional experience. It is the catharsis that all humanity ultimately will need and

Progress for pilgrims

Following the consummation of the Christ event at the cross, its dramatic implications continued to be controversial. When John Bunyan penned his classic allegory of the Christian faith, The Pilgrim's Progress, his own Separatist brethren accused him of writing things feigned, lacking solidity, and obscuring truth. Bunyan responded that the prophets employed allegory, and Jesus did too. Bunyan implored his readers to "lay my book, thy head, and heart together."

That challenge remains for us to day. Will we allow the drama of the ages to touch our deepest emotions? If we merely condemn what is bad about the theater, we will never meet the genuine need that draws millions through its doors. Let us rediscover and reclaim our heritage in Christ for the sake of the gospel. If we do, people will cross town to hear, see, and feel the drama of that one Life that really can purify and leave us changed.

* The Living Bible, in Galatians 3:1, translates prografo as "waved a placard . . . with a picture on it." The Modern Language Bible reads: "so graphically presented." The word itself literally means "prescripted," but connotatively means "placarded."

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John Kendall is associate pastor of the Rockwood and Columbia Gorge Seventh-day Adventist churches in Oregon.

February 1995

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