In the world of the arts, the church needs to begin learning how to deal with the gritty, dark, and sinful areas of life without condemnation nor judgement but with love and acceptance. Any attempt of the Church at producing quality art needs not only those Christians who are artists to learn how to portray truth in a whole way, but also for the Church to recognize true art for true art. The Church Community, needs to, through the art of Theatre, embrace Vulnerability.
Nothing seems more ambiguous than the terms vulnerability, church community, and theatre, however; and an attempt at a balanced and well founded critique of them, then seems a little over ambitious. Understandably, I am a little anxious as I begin. A Healthy and Honest fear of it though is just that – Healthy because there is something Holy about each of these things and one does not approach Holy ground except without having unstrapped one’s sandals – and that is the Honesty I am speaking of. I am talking about a bare nakedness which we, in a way, all strain for. That nakedness of Adam and Eve in the Garden which was a sign of purity, intimacy, and vulnerability before their maker. Honesty is the only way an approach of these subjects should happen. And that’s all I can give, an honest and sincere proposition for the betterment of the society in which I am a part of. I do not claim absolute authority on this subject, but rather I come humbly asking for a reevaluation of our preconceived notions and biases of art and community.
Church, Theatre, and Vulnerability
There is a need for a common ground to be established for the key terms and concepts because it is my understanding through my experience that Church, Theatre, and Vulnerability are not cold sciences but rather Arts (Truth lives in Art as much as it does in the Quantitative Data of Science). And Art, though indwelled with truth, is a little less apt to be quickly defined and explained. So the definitions that I attempt here are hardly complete:
Church Community is probably the biggest term that I am wanting to make use of. My definition of the “church community” is not only the the local congregations of Bible believing Christians but also the global Church, that is the compilation of God’s children, the Bride of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. My understanding of the Church, though is limited to the traditions of the American Protestant Evangelical Church in which I was brought up, though I have spent much time exploring the ancient Eastern traditions of the Orthodox Church, and these experiences have very much influenced my view of holiness and Christian ritual. When I say the Christian Community I refer to all Bible believing Christians within the Easter Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions.
Theatre is another vague term that ought to be defined. My view of theatre is similar to that of Dale Savidge when he says, “The essence of theatre is thus a player and someone to experience the performance; a story for the player to tell is also assumed. Everything else (a formal script, scenery, costume, etc.)is a welcome but not essential accoutrement of the interaction of actor and audience.” (Johnson, 21) I would rather us look at theatre as a general kind of art that itself defies limitations of space, place, content, mode of performance, etc. Though theatre needs these things theatre does not need a Theater to perform in or a script per se but rather happens as life happens, that is, in many different ways.
Vulnerability is probably the most important concept underlining this critique, ironically, it is the most vague and hardest define. I hope that through the thoughts that I outline throughout this essay, the reader finds the tangible definition of this complex idea. For now I hope that it suffices in saying that Vulnerability is a practice of Honesty that forgoes holding to emotional or spiritual defenses or blocks but is rather an opening up of oneself. Vulnerability in my mind is equatable to a kind of social, spiritual, emotional, or psychological nakedness before others. Melissa Hawkins, an adjunct Drama professor at The Moody Bible Institute explains it in her classes with the imagery of “exposing the jugular.” Vulnerability is, as I hope to show, a necessary ingredient for the existence of good Theatre and real Christian community.
When I approach what I call “church hostility” I feel compelled to admit that this is a very complicated subject for me to handle. I don’t want there to be any doubt that I love the Church and because I care for it deeply. However, sometimes the church needs a little ‘tough love’ and I think it’s important to point out what I see, this is the problem:
There is a definite stigma that surrounds artistic endeavors made by Christians. It’s usually just bad art. Madeleine L’Engle an influential speaker and author writes on the interplay between Faith and Art in her book Walking on Water. She appropriately points out the church’s misunderstandings of art and how it relates to the Christian Faith. (Not only would I have to recommend this book, but I almost feel that its reflections are essential for any artist who recognizes art’s connection to the spiritual) She says, “Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.” (L’Engle, 5) So if according to L’Engle if most art that is produced by those that claim to be disciples of Christ is bad, then it’s a horrible witness to the life choice we Christians have chosen.
This is a heart-wrenching thought! There must be something more, because the most real thing in my life is my relationship with Christ. Why then can’t the artists that apparently share my life’s purpose provide the world with art that is a decent witness to the life I have chosen? I have been brooding over this concept for a long time. I first read Walking on Water my freshman year (almost three years ago!) and I was hit by this contradiction, this dichotomy between the quality of the majority of art produced by the Christian sub-culture and the truthfulness and quality of the faith that we have in Christ. They are not completely reliant upon each other or in direct relation to each other but I would suggest rather that there is an indirect relationship. I cannot escape the fact that “Christian” art, that art which is specifically designed to speak to me to administer truth to me, seems cliche or kitschy or just bad.
But why? And what makes it bad? I have a theory, and it seems to be echoed by those way wiser and more experienced than I (which gives me hope as to the legitimacy of my thoughts). As I read Art and Soul in the past month I have had more and more thoughts in regards to the plight of the arts in the Church. It is my conviction that the reason that so many times art made by Christians is bad is that there is hardly an allowance for whole truth. And this is the issue of Vulnerability that I wish to hold off on for a little while longer.
But one more point. It has been my experience and that of others I know to feel a sense of judgement and hostility even to individuals inside the flock. Sometimes it seems that Christian Communities often reject those who do not perform or act just like they do, though those people share beliefs in the same core convictions. It is a much repeated mantra of outsiders of the Church that Christians are hypocrites and judgmental. And sometimes I have to agree. Within some Christian communities there exists an atmosphere where everybody is holy and pure and nobody swears and nobody ever gets sad or doubts or lives normal human lives. Sometimes there is a huge fake-ness to the Christian life. Unamuno “Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.” (L’Engle 28)
The Church vs. The Theatre
The Church has a long history with the Theatre, and it’s never really been a pleasant relationship at that. From the very beginning, Theatre was born out of Religious rite and understanding. In ancient Greece, the theatre was used as and for religious ritual for the god Dionysus. These theatrical performances usually ended with a typical deus ex machina device where the divine beings finally involved themselves with the problematic situation of the play and all was restored to normal. The theatre after the fall of the Greek empire conceding then to the society of Rome, altered and in the beginnings of Christianity the Roman approach to theatre was used to execute Christians, in theatrical ‘performances’ in gladiatorial battles. The Christian church therefore, when it rose in influence in the Roman government was understandably anti-theatre – or at least in the sense by which they had been persecuted. The church banned theatre as licentious and evil. And theatre was forced out of society until the church revitalized it for use in Liturgy during the Medieval times (a return to it’s religious origins). The Theatre quickly became it’s own institution starting in the Renaissance with a return to the ancient plays of the Greek and Roman societies (the Renaissance also brought with it the greatest playwright of all time, Shakespeare). The Reformation period however brought again a deconstruction of Theatre. The theatre was forbidden by and for Christians. Luther and Calvin led the break from the arts in Christianity. (Brand 31)
The Christian Church has slowly been regaining it’s footing in the arts, but in it’s reflection of culture, it generally seems to be about 10 to 15 years behind the times. In it’s approach to the arts, we Christians usually play it safe and tend to downplay the importance of art in worship. It can be seen in our Sunday Services – 10 to 15 minutes of song (sometimes dance, but that’s pushing it) and every once and a while a badly performed skit – then 45 minutes to an hour of a man standing and preaching. We barely give our art room to breathe! Our art is suffocated, dry, starved, and in a state of malnutrition. In Art and Soul the authors point is the same, “It was best to play safe, argued our evangelical forbears, unaware of what meagre cultural crumbs that policy left them with.” (Brand 34)
So again there’s the question of why? Why is our art so seemingly kitschy? Cliche? Bland? Boring? Contrived? Pretentious? WHY? Because of a lack of VULNERABILITY.
Vulnerability. It’s kind of an uncomfortable word? Or at least it is for me. Yet for some reason, there’s a sort of mysterious magnetic attraction that I haven’t been able to shake. Vulnerability. What is it? What does it do? How does it work? How much do you practice? Why? These are all the questions that surround this fearsome social phenomenon. In my personal life, I have learned exactly how invulnerable I am to people. I used to think I was pretty vulnerable, but I learned that a expressive personality doesn’t necessarily equal a vulnerable personality. And I think it’s because Vulnerability is a choice. It’s a choice to be open, honest, and authentic with yourself and therefore with others. It’s a scary thing, because you have to let go of your defenses and your walls. You have to leave yourself open and that means you can get hurt. It’s a choice to not sugar coat the bad stuff and to be ready to admit how fragile, dependent, and depraved you really are.
Again, this concept of vulnerability is huge. It is the cornerstone from which I am building my thesis. Yet the concept is broad – I mean for it to be so. I think vulnerability is broad, because it is something that can permeate every area of life. I have experienced this first hand. Through an acting exercise called Repetition, part of a technique created by Sandy Meisner, in which one takes down performance and “acting” and makes one honest to his or her impulses and inner thoughts and brings them out into the open with a partner. These interactions as I have experienced have been the most raw and intense experiences of human connection I have ever encountered. It is amazing, and those with whom I have practiced Repetition with I have been able to realize a love that I have nor ever would have experienced were it not for that exercise. But we will return to this later.
Madeleine L’Engle has a lot to say on being vulnerable in Walking on Water. One of the most beautiful assertions she makes on the topic is made when she talks about the ‘madness in the poet’ : “It is a frightening thing to open oneself to this strange and dark side of the divine; it means letting go of our sane self-control, that control which gives us the illusion of safety. But safety is only an illusion ,and letting it go is part of listening to the silence, and to the Spirit.” (L’Engle 5).
This letting go of an illusion of safety is exactly what vulnerability is. It is so natural for human beings as we grow up to learn ‘self-control’ and proper social conduct. But how many times have these interactions bound up in the rules of social expectation led to boring and dead conversations. We are taught to be invulnerable with ourselves and to protect ourselves from a young age, only really giving of ourselves to a select few. Yet I feel that Christ has called us to give of ourselves fully to everyone. I am not saying that we all need to go out and start sharing our deepest darkest secrets with everyone but I think we need to learn how to start being real people who don’t shy away from honesty. We as Christians living in a Christian community can only grow in love for each other when we start to be honest about our lives and allowing ourselves to bear each others burdens (Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”). It is a scary and humbling thing, but Christ has called us to be humble! [“we can only be humble when we know that we are God’s children, of infinite value, and eternally loved.”(L'Engle 73)] Christ is our example in this “in becoming man for us, Christ made himself totally vulnerable for us in Jesus of Nazareth, and it is not possible to be a Christian while refusing to be vulnerable.”(L’Engle 229)
It is a necessary evil to know oneself through and through. “A lot of the time we don’t want to know all of ourselves, our more ignoble motives, our greedy desires, our participations in the stoning os Stephens. But only if we accept all of ourselves, our flaws as well as our virtues do we become useful servants – of our art, of our Lord” (L’Engle 153) I have learned from experience what it is to force my sin to fester in the dark. Our God tells us that sin cannot survive in the light and so it is my theory that if we are intentional about bringing our sin into the light, the more complete it’s demise will be.
Vulnerability Through Theatre
Vulnerability is a skill on which both the actor and Christian are hinged. And the relationship between theatre and christian is an interesting one. The Christian’s approach to Theatre is a barometer, I think, for how vulnerable a Christian is willing to become to his/her and other’s depravity and wounds. If we Christians start producing good theatre and “if it’s good art… and there the questions start coming, questions which it would simpler to evade.” (L’Engle 5) But that is where Vulnerability becomes so important. The Christian becoming vulnerable accepts these questions as necessary and beneficial, though they are not easy and usually cost something of us.
It is this questioning to which I turn. I think it is necessary move forward for the Christian to embrace his/her own vulnerability and to bear oneself to others in their supposedly loving community. I think leading by example is the only way this works and so as a part of my project, I invite all who are willing to come to a performance of mine happening Tuesday May 10th in the Alumni Auditorium. I plan on performing a piece that I have written and in performing this monologue I plan to lead by example living vulnerably in my community. Otherwise I hope to video record it and hopefully I’ll be able to add in the video.
Brand, Hilary & Adrienne Chaplin Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove. 2001
Johnson, Todd E. & Dale Savidge Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids. 2009.
L’Engle, Madeleine Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Shaw Books, Colorado Springs. 2001.
Brook, Peter The Empty Space Touchstone, New York. 1968.
Eggebrecht, David Spirit in Drama Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis. 2004.
Espers, William & Damon DiMarco The Actor’s Art and Craft Anchor Books, New York. 2008.