Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

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?

7 thoughts on “Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

  1. Chris,

    I will come visit you next time I’m in the States for a period of time that allows it. I look forward to reading through your website, and am very excited to hear about you. Please keep in touch.

    Cole

  2. I’m actually part of a theatre company that I believe qualfies as benedictine. Based at a community of religious on Cape Cod, all adult members have taken benedictine vows. We have actually given quite alot of thought to some of the issues expressed. Check out our website at elementstheatrecompany.org

  3. I’m with you guys. I guess the question I have then is, how do you let Christians who might not normally come to the theatre (because of concerns about content and the moral world view of much theatre) know that your theatre is a “safe space,” so to speak? (Acknowledging, of course, that it won’t always feel “safe.” I’d feel comfortable producing Doubt, but that’s not gonna make a lot of Christians comfortable, especially fellow Catholics.) The content will not always be family-friendly, and they might not agree with everything, but they’ll at least know that those who run the theatre are co-religionists who share at least the same basic world view.

    Also, how do you attract artists who might want to work in an environment of this type (i.e. informed by Christianity, but not limited to explicitly Christian content)? And what’s the language of the mission statement? If you put “Christian” on your website, you drive away a large segment of your audience. If you don’t, like-minded people will find it much more difficult to find you.

    I guess it comes down to, how can you be known as a Christian theatre to those you want to be known to as such, while not being pigeon-holed as “Christian” by mainstream audiences (and artists whom you might love to work with, but might doubt whether they’d be treated with respect in a Christian environment)?

    It seems to me it might be best to leave “Christian” out of the mission statement (though perhaps mention spiritual/theological questions/themes) – maybe putting it on the website on the “About Us” or “History” page – and develop a reputation on only two things: the quality and depth of your shows, and the way you treat people (both your artists and your audience). Let the people who want to learn more about why you choose to produce certain stories and how you can treat people so right ask, and then give them the answer.

  4. I think you know where I stand on this, but I agree with Travis–and I say this as someone who did grow up in the evangelical church, with more of a focus on direct evangelism. It definitely has its time and place–and even in the theatre, there’s a time and place for it–but my instinct is that, in general, that time and place is determined by an individual show, perhaps, or a conversation surrounding a show, rather than by a company’s entire mandate.

    However, I do see the appeal and importance of this sentence: If your work is excellent, you’re helping to fight the connection between “Christian theatre” and “mediocre” that is unfortunately commonplace. It’s true. But I think that even if you do work and have a company mandate that’s not explicitly Christian, but your (in the general sense of the “you” that forms a company) lives are explicitly Christian lives, that bridges the gap in its own way. It bridges the gap of the work, and also fights the perception that Christians don’t belong in the arts scene; or maybe, that Christians don’t want to belong in the arts scene.

  5. I think that your impulse is correct. Explicitly Christian work limits the audience and if you are not specifically mandating evangelism you are going to limit the work itself. I think the model to avoid is that of Christian pop/rock which hasn’t advanced in 20 years because the vocabulary to draw from is so limited.

    Pray without ceasing. Pray that God perfect the work through you, not through cribbing the nether regions of Isaiah and Ezekial.

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