Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

by Cole Matson

Well, I’ve done it: I’m now a Roman Catholic. At the 5:45 p.m. Mass on May 16th at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, I was received into the Church by Bishop William Kenney. It was a remarkable experience to be able to participate fully in the Eucharist for the first time, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. (I also now have four rosaries – all the confirmands received one as a gift from the Chaplaincy, and I received two others from friends, added to the one I had been given by a Dominican friar friend earlier.)

I thought I’d celebrate this event by starting the series on a Benedictine theatre company that I promised here. This series will look at the Rule of St Benedict, and how its principles could be applied to the constitutions of a theatre company. I’m going to go chapter by chapter. Let’s try this as a thought experiment; I acknowledge that not every chapter will apply equally well to our goal. I’m going to use the edition of the Rule available on the Order of St Benedict’s website, which you can find here.

Prologue

L I S T E N  carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

And first of all,
whatever good work you begin to do,
beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
that He who has now deigned to count us among His children
may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
For we must always so serve Him
with the good things He has given us,
that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children,
nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions,
deliver us to everlasting punishment
as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

***

I’d like to focus on this last paragraph, especially the phrases, ‘whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,’ and ‘we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us.’ A Benedictine theatre company must always have as its goal the service of God. This mission should inform not only its choice of productions, but also its behaviour towards its artists (both permanent and for-hire), audience, and the wider communities of which the theatre is a part (e.g. civic, artistic, etc.).

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College, doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist.” I’ve been meeting up with several Christianity and the arts folks while here, and tomorrow I’m having lunch with a guy named Dan Roche, who started a theatre company called Bird & Baby. The Bird & Baby Theatre Company (named after the pub at which the Inklings met every Tuesday morning for beer and talk) “commits to producing at least one play in each theatre season written by or inspired by one of the Inkling authors” (from the company website). They also focus on producing shows that are family-friendly.

I’m hoping to discuss with Dan tomorrow a question I’ve been thinking about as I work on this thesis: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an explicitly, or simply implicitly, Christian theatre company?

If you’re explicitly Christian, you’re flying your flag. If your work is excellent, you’re helping to fight the connection between “Christian theatre” and “mediocre” that is unfortunately commonplace. On the other hand, mainstream audiences may avoid you, either because they think your work will be poor, or aggressively evangelical, or just not for them. And Christian audiences may insist that your shows avoid profanity, mention of immoral situations or choices (even if they’re portrayed as incorrect), and violence, or assume you’re a church drama ministry and should act accordingly.

If you’re only implicitly, and not explicitly Christian, you’re much more likely to give mainstream audiences time to get to know you on your own terms. And, you can also demonstrate that stories don’t have to be obviously Christian in order to be deeply Christian (e.g. Lord of the Rings). You also have greater freedom to tell the stories that move you, without having to limit yourself to being squeaky-clean and appropriate for children. On the other hand, if you want to engage with Christian audiences as a Christian, as well as engaging with mainstream audiences, you may find it more difficult, as they may ask what exactly is Christian about your company, or accuse you of hiding your faith to kowtow to the theatrical establishment. It may not be obvious that you’re making Christian theatre.

There’s also the evangelical aspect. I think that art that is explicitly Christian and art that is only implicitly Christian can both lead people to Christ, which I obviously think is a good thing. Good art made by Christians, but which is accessible to the non-Christian, can serve as a proto-evangelion, a preparation for the Gospel, and a baptism of the imagination. Later, a person may seek to know more about Christ through explicitly Christian art.

I’m more comfortable creating art that is only implicitly Christian, partly because I did not grow up in an evangelical milieu and am uncomfortable with direct evangelization, unless the person I’m in dialogue with asks to know more about my faith. (This may be a fault, or an attribute of temperament, or both.) I do not want to denigrate the gifts and mission of those who can do direct evangelization effectively and compassionately. Preach it! But that’s not the type of theatre I want to do. Nor am I interested in doing church drama ministry (which, again, there is a place for, especially when it’s well done).

On the other hand, I’m aware that non-Christians who enjoy art created by Christians in which the Christianity is implicit may feel betrayed when they learn about the religious meaning that lies below the surface. (I’ve certainly heard this from people who enjoyed both the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings.) The sense of betrayal seems to stem from an original belief that the author had just created a good story, now replaced by the belief that the author was secretly trying to sneak in religious belief, in an attempted brainwashing in which the story was just a pretext for nefarious dealings. Now, that’s not how Lewis and Tolkien wrote their stories, though I wouldn’t say that attempted brainwashing hasn’t been tried by others. But for both of those authors, the story came first, and any evangelical effect on their readers’ imaginations was a happy, even if not directly intended, by-product. (Although I do think the evangelical effect of his fiction was more on Lewis’ mind than on Tolkien’s.) Like them, I just want to tell stories that bring some good to the world. After that, it’s up to God, and I know He’ll use them as He will.

This is a question I’m still struggling with. What do you think?

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