April 06, 2004

The Passion as Drama (1)

We live in a visual age. We also live in an increasingly anti-literate society.
Obviously there are many exceptions to those statements, but as blanket summaries, they are generally correct.

How can we reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a society that places a premium on fleeting sound bytes and easily assimilated visual imagery, but is less interested in reading and thinking?

One answer, suggest many in the modern church, is to utilise the amazing and God-given gifts of technology in evangelism. After all, the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 drives us to develop culturally and to master new and exciting technologies to enhance human quality of life and to glorify God.

Where would we be without many of the modern technologies that we so readily take for granted? Email instantly connects missionaries and supporters; video conferencing enables networking, meetings and online fellowship; mobile telephony is now almost indispensable.

Our libraries are augmented by CD-ROMs, e-books, online texts and DVD presentations; our sermonic exposure is unprecedented – through RealMedia, Windows Media and mp3 files, we have access to many of the greatest biblical expositors and evangelists of our time either as they are streamed, or saved for future enjoyment.

We rejoice in the goodness of God that makes available almost the whole of historic and current Christian thinking either at the click of a mouse or the push of a button. We rejoice that the Internet can be used so readily for evangelism and teaching. We rejoice that Christianity Explored, The Bible: Book by Book, and other audio-visual resources are widely available for purchase. If we may rework a biblical quotation, we have no desire whatsoever to despise the day of new things.

The burning question in relation to The Passion of the Christ, is whether the long established medium of film can be an effective tool for spreading the gospel, or indeed, whether it even should be. Even more basic to our thinking, is whether the dramatic arts – including mime, puppetry and dance - can be drafted into gospel service.

Many churches and churches have embraced them gladly and virtually without reservations.

Mark James, a drama coordinator at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is one of many optimistic voices:.

“Drama offers a visual aid that people remember longer. It also assists in communicating subjects that may be difficult to relay in a 30-minute sermon.”

Such quotations could be endlessly multiplied. Their thrust is that our day demands new methods and more culturally relevant approaches than previous eras ever have; if we are to reach Gen-Xer’s, Baby Boomers and Busters, Unchurched Harry and Sally etc etc, then we need to move with the times – we need to respond to our shifting culture with an astute, yet shifting methodology, biblical in foundation, yet pragmatic in application. We need to translate the Parable of the Good Samaritan into modern evangelistic vernacular, and scratch where people itch. Preaching may be legitimately supplemented and supported by other methods as we seek to win souls and teach Christians. A second barrel to the shotgun, if you will.

Reformed Negativity

Surely we must applaud the desire of such Christian congregations as they long for a greater gospel impact and influence on our generation. As far as motive is concerned, we stand foursquare with any desire to see Christ preached. We in Reformed evangelicalism are very quick to cry ‘Heretic!’ in the face of creative thinking, and perhaps should be a little more willing to dialogue with our seeker-sensitive or purpose-driven friends, in order to learn mutual lessons. We should certainly commend zeal.

In respect to this, there is, at the heart of much British Reformed Christianity, a deep-seated unhealthiness. In our desire to be accurate and honouring to God, a critical and uncharitable spirit has grown up. In the very place where the fragrant flowers of charity and grace should be found, there is a festering fungus of censure and condemnation. Ministers are labelled and libelled for their usage of certain hymnbooks and bible versions. The spirit of the witch-hunter can be perceived on the pages of Christian periodicals and in certain ministers’ conferences. Suspicion replaces trust as introductions are made and friendships engendered.

The thrust of this article is not to sling more mud or malign more brethren. Nor is it to withdraw from the world of the modern to a deliciously nostalgic longing for simpler times. We are called to the kingdom for such a time as this – we have to minister to modern man whether we like it or not!

A brief scan of lead articles in our flagship publications or a survey of our publishing houses reveals a disturbing antiquarianism – an obsession with the past that has little modern relevance or application. Of course we must safeguard the deposit of theological treasure from years gone by! Of course we must remember the heroes and heretics of history in order to better understand our current theological dilemmas! Unfortunately, all good medicine tends to have unwanted side effects. In our case, irrelevance and an unbiblical traditionalism are but two of them.

We need to wake up! Listen to these quotations from leading Reformed evangelicals in the UK:

“There is no merit in deliberate obscurity. Pride in being incomprehensible is almost as bad as an addiction to modernity. When remoteness from everyday concerns becomes a badge of faithfulness, something is far wrong”.

Peter: Eyewitnesses of His Majesty, p52, Edward Donnelly, BOT, 1998

“… I believe no greater disservice can be rendered to the Christian faith than by giving the impression that the gospel is out of date. Some Christians are in danger of doing this by insisting upon religious traditions inherited from the past that are in no way essential to the faith.”

Foundations Magazine, Issue No.45, Autumn 2000, Paul EG Cook, “The Pastor & Contemporary Culture, p19.

Our desire is not that we avoid cultural engagement, unaware of the thinking of current society, not that we become finger-pointers and armchair critics, and not that we wish to promote uncritical traditionalism. Our desire is to examine the validity of drama and theatrics from a biblical perspective.

What is the biblical warrant for using drama in evangelism and worship?

Our first observation is rather obvious. Nowhere in the bible do we find anything even closely resembling plays, sketches or theatrical productions. Nowhere do we find finger-puppets, Mosaic mime, nor Pauline Punch and Judy as stock in trade ministerial practice. In other words, whatever dramatic mandates we may wish to claim, we cannot appeal to programmatic evangelistic parallels in the Scriptures.

So what do we find?

Drama in the Old Testament

Our God is a God of communication. As Schaeffer aptly puts it, ‘He is there, and he is not silent’. He is a God who reveals himself constantly and clearly on the page of the OT.

What we do not find, is the widespread use of drama in the history of revelation. Two examples exist.

Jeremiah wears and hides a linen waistband (13: 1 – 7), buys and breaks an earthen pot (19: 1, 2, 10-11), and possibly wears a yoke (28: 10).

Ezekiel’s drama is mentioned in less than 40 verses of the book bearing his name. Chapter 4: 1 – 17, 5: 1 – 4, and 12: 1 – 7 are the nearest approximation to anything bearing the name of drama in our modern definition.

David Watson homes in upon the second in his major defence of drama in evangelism, speaking of Ezekiel as:

‘a master of street theatre, with prophetic and symbolic mime or drama forming an integral part of his God-given ministry’.

David Watson, I believe in Evangelism, Hodder and Stoughton, p140

What we must notice is that these prophets did what they did in response to the direct and clear command of God. They obeyed specific instructions at a specific time by specific command, and are the sole examples of anything that could be vaguely construed as drama in the whole of their ministries.

The whole of the rest of the OT revelation is restricted to preaching, prophesying, and visions. None of the other OT vehicles of revelation had any inkling of drama in their ministries.

If we are looking to the OT for a mandate for drama as teaching and communication, our hermeneutical lifeline is somewhat tenuous.

Drama in the New Testament

When we come to the NT, advocates of the use of drama find no help. Nowhere in any of the 27 books of the NT do we find any usage of drama whatsoever.

Of course, the preaching of Christ was deeply visual – but it was not in the perceived sense, dramatic. Jesus preached messages, not acted out pantomimes - hence we have the Sermon on the Mount rather than “The Mime upon the Mount”. Jesus commissioned preachers rather than actors to spread his message. The dramatic element in the ministry of Christ was depicted verbally and descriptively, with pathos and power, not with facepaint and costumes.

Nor did the apostolic band use drama, which for some is rather surprising. After all, you would expect the New Testament to be replete with drama, if the apostles used today’s evangelistic formulae. One of the most frequent encouragements to include drama in evangelism and worship is on account of the fact that because it is part and parcel of modern culture, people will understand and relate to it.

No period in human history other than our own has been so obsessed with drama, plays and acting, as that covered by the 1st century Early Church. Greek and Roman tragedy was rich and diverse, and well established in society. The option of presenting truth through drama was freely available to the Apostles as they brought the Gospel to cities with amphitheatres and a long tradition of using the dramatic arts. The people were used to religious and moral themes being presented to the populace in this way - it was the supreme cultural relevance - yet they did not ever do so.

Instead, they preached.

Posted by pencils at April 6, 2004 03:28 PM | TrackBack

I think that you need to close the bold typeface in your HTML...

Posted by: Al at April 7, 2004 05:28 PM
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