Embodying the mystery with theater in church

Bethel symposium: Using the body brings Scripture, worship to life

Nov 27, 2017 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Christians haven’t taken their liturgy to the theater, noted Bethel College campus pastor Peter Goerzen, but maybe they should.

Goerzen was opening Bethel’s fourth biennial Worship and the Arts Symposium Nov. 18.

Mennonite Worship and Song Committee members Cynthia Neufeld Smith, co-pastor of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan., and Tom Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., lead a workshop Nov. 18 at a worship symposium hosted by Bethel College. The committee is working to create a new hymnal by 2020. — Vada Snider/Bethel College

Mennonite Worship and Song Committee members Cynthia Neufeld Smith, associate pastor of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan., and Tom Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., lead a workshop Nov. 18 at a worship symposium hosted by Bethel College. The committee is working to create a new hymnal by 2020. — Vada Snider/Bethel College

“We recognize that the arts give expression to the deepest longings and desires of the soul — meaning, relationships, goodness, truth, beauty, to rejoice, to lament, to praise, to laugh,” he said of this year’s theme, “Seasons of the Soul: Enacting the Mystery of Faith.”

“This year, we turn our attention to the role of theater and acting in embodying the mystery.”

The main presenter was actor and writer Ted Swartz of Harrisonburg, Va., who leads the performance group Ted & Co. TheaterWorks.

Swartz began his visit to Bethel with a convocation, “Life as Comedy.”

“We all have heroes of the faith, who lead us to a greater understanding of the Divine, and our place in the universe,” he said. “One of mine is St. John Cleese of the Holy Church of Monty Python [who revealed to me] that humor could be silly and smart.

“Our creator calls us to be fully human, and one way is through humor.” The words “humor” and “human” share a common root that means, literally, earthy.

The first plenary session was largely a demonstration of using theater in church.

“Many of the Psalms have theatrical elements such as call and response and antiphon,” Goer­zen said.

Swartz led an exercise in starting to write a sketch from a passage of Scripture — in this case, from Mark 2, the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof for Jesus to heal.

The discussion brought up a topic that arose again later — the difference between “church drama” and “theater.”

“ ‘Church drama’ too often tells us what we already know,” Swartz said. He and his former theater partner Lee Eshleman “learned early on that it’s a waste of time if it does that rather than makes us see things differently, ask questions, be confused and/or be disturbed.”

Church as theater

Workshops included Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Church Canada hymnal committee members Cynthia Neufeld Smith of Topeka and Tom Harder of Wichita exploring ways of activating a congregation’s physical bodies in worship.

Tabor College director of theater Laurel Koerner analyzed Scripture for literary elements and practiced its performance with Bethel professor of communication arts John McCabe-Juhnke.

Artist Jerry Holsopple spoke about creating his exhibit, “7 x 7: Laments for an Age of Sexualized Power,” which opened in Bethel’s Regier Gallery.

In the final plenary session, Bethel professor of Bible and religion Patty Shelly moderated a panel in which she, Koerner and McCabe-Juhnke commented on what they had heard during the day, with responses from Swartz.

“I’m reminded of a quote from Raymond Brown,” Shelly remarked, “who says when we’re in the Scriptures, we’re in our Father’s house, where the children are allowed to play. . . . I’m grateful for how theater can open up the Bible to us.”

Koerner said church is theater.

“It’s a dramatic act and structured to be that way,” she said. “Art can be a kind of church in that it can carve out space for and activate the spiritual dimension of our lives.”

Art can also cleanse the messiness of daily life.

“That aligns with how church and corporate worship can function,” Koerner said. “We come together and hear the word in order to be able to take it out into the rest of our lives. Worship and art can do the same kinds of refreshing and reminding work.”

McCabe-Juhnke mused that his work with theater in prison bears some resemblance to bringing theater to church.

“What happens when you bring something free and open, that is about questioning, into a place like prison that is controlled and about following all the rules to the letter?” he asked. “It’s like a clash of cultures. Bringing the theater to church is also that way. We’re so used to the structures in which we have always done church.”

But things won’t always go just right.

In creation, “God said, ‘It is good,’ not ‘It is perfect,’ ” Swartz said. “That means it’s in process, it’s evolving, it’s on a journey, it has somewhere to go. We sometimes insert theater into church, but maybe art is church. . . .

“I’m not going to give a succinct answer to who God is, but I’m going to write a play that helps me understand how I feel about it.”

He said nobody has been able to explain why and how art can point us in the direction it does.

“Nobody can explain the mystery of God,” Swartz said. “Art has saved my faith more than once.”


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  • Joel Nofziger

    Just to note on the opening line, “Christians haven’t taken their liturgy to the theater,” there is a rich church history of theatre as worship, especially coming out of the middle ages. Noting that this is outside of my expertise, but as
    “pagan” (read greek) theatre was outlawed by religious authorities, religious drama took its place. Most relevant here were the liturgical plays which very much fused theatre and liturgy (the Obergammerau passion play might be the most famous of this type, but there are many other examples). Liturgical drama, and mystery and morality plays were the primary venue for ordinary people to learn about their faith (partly as drama was more accessible and partly as the dramas included vernacular). I am glad to see current interest about refreshing worship through theatric elements, but it is not something new, it has a long and rich tradition. A proper medievalist could address this better.

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