Whether they like it or not, actors and preachers have a great deal in common. Many churchgoers see the truth in the old saying that links preachers and frustrated actors, though few preachers seem eager to acknowledge the family resemblance.
Performing the Word destigmatizes the approach to preaching and shows how the experience, skills, and modi operandi of actors and their performance arts may be applied to preaching.
Childers addresses the following topics:
"Preaching and theatre share a great deal of ground, whether we care to admit it or not. Though the terrain where rhetoric and preaching meet is exceedingly well trod and the intersection of literary criticism's concern with homiletics' concern has been carefully mapped, the vast, fertile country where preachers and actors may tip back their chairs in the sun and enjoy what the other knows is largely unexplored. We preachers have not, in fact, cared to admit that it is a territory that has anything much to do with us. We know a dubious neighborhood when we see it and we are happy with our own little zip code. We will gerrymander the district, if necessary, to keep it out.
"If we were to organize an expedition into such territory, we would have to set aside a couple of fears and one or two key misconceptions. We would have to accept the burden of a few fat questions. And it would help if we could muster a better reason to face the climb than that 'it's there.'
"This book wants to encourage the reader in all those things. I hope we will be able to make a rudimentary map, start a discussion, and let go of a few inhibitions along the way. But most of all, I hope that those who take the trip will discover some new, useful muscles and a richer supply of oxygen to fuel their efforts.
My own foray into the world of the arts began twenty-five years ago, and it saved my life. If it didn't literally save my biological life, it did save my soul. Raised within the narrow walls of mid-twentieth-century American Pentecostalism, I was choking for air when I met M. James Young in the fall of 1972. The aperture he opened for me was larger than the proverbial windowma double-wide cosmic garage door, perhaps. The universe loomed, it seemed to me, on the other side.
"I suppose I had thought of 'art' before in terms of decoration. Rococo motifs and colored paper streamers were equally uninteresting to me. Under Professor Young's auspices I came to see art as a way of making sense, a way of making meaning, a way of having both the bedrock of faith and the spiritual lava I needed. In art, and in theatre in particular, a young Christian girl didn't have to choose between head and heart, orthodoxy and ecstasy. You could have them both. Theatre delights in juxtaposition, mbiguity, and tensiveness.
"During the three decades since I began my own pilgrimage, preaching and the arts have been making a long slow move in each other's direction. Theologians Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox nudged from one angle, homileticians Charles Rice and Eugene Lowry from another. Paul W. E Harms and Leroy Kennel advocated for '"drama' in preaching. First-person sermons gained popularity; bathrobes and sandals found their way into the pulpit.
"Seminaries began to see the value of teaching 'drama skills' to their students. W. J. Beeners built a studio in the upper reaches of an Irish Gothic building on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary and began hiring instructors from the New York stage and from the prestigious regional theatre, the McCarter, located just across the street. On the West Coast, Wayne Rood directed plays at the Pacific School of Religion, founded the Bay Area Religious Drama Service, worked with artists at intersection, a San Francisco project for religion and the arts, and joined forces with scholars Jane Daggett Dillenberger and John Dillenberger at the new Graduate Theological Union. In New York, Union Theological Seminary hired the accomplished actor Robert Seaver to work with its budding preachers.
"The religious drama movement, already being funded in several places by Rockefeller money, gave preaching what was perhaps the biggest nudge of all. In the sixties, the NatiOnal Council of Churches sponsored 'The Religious Drama Workshop,' bringing together such great figures of church and theatre as Harold Ehrensperger, Argyle Knight, Blaine Fister, Kay Baxter, Robert Seaver, E. Martin Browne, Jim Warren, and Jim Young. When funding for such events ran out in the seventies, 'Ecumenical Council on Drama and the Arts' was born. Headquartered in St. Louis, it subsisted, in the time-honored tradition of the theatre, on a shoestring. During this time also, the professional association of theatre educators, ATHE, responded to the growing interest by forming a religious drama subgroup. And in the eighties CTA, Christians in the Theatre Arts, was founded. As the church-and-theatre movement peaked and settled, the gap slowly closed between preaching and its cognate art.
"Preaching had been going through its own changes. The kerygmatic preaching of the sixties gave way in the seventies to an interest in inductive preaching. The eighties brought an emphasis on narrative and imagination. By the nineties few people were shocked when preaching was referred to as an art. An interest in performative speech, spurred by the insightful work of Charles L. Bartow and Richard Ward, was growing, leaving little to keep an impertinent young West Coast homiletician from raising the question of preaching's consanguinity with theatre.
"This book is my attempt to start a conversation about preaching and its closest cousin. I approach the intersection between preaching and theatre as a student of the art of theatre, an actor and director myself, as one who holds a high view of theatre's art, but most of all as a homiletician. The questions raised here come not from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist or a dramaturge; they are not prompted by or pursued under the auspices of the performance studies movement. I raise these questions as a preacher and an actor who sees a kinship between her arts.
"I am painfully aware that some of the language that is helpful to me in this enterprise---a word such as 'performance,' for exampie--is foreign and even offensive to church folks. I hope the arguments presented here will help to redeem such language from the unnecessarily negative connotative use that has become so common in the church, and that the lexicon of theatrical language employed here will be useful to homileticians in talking about what we have euphemistically called the 'delivery' end of preaching. Most of all, I hope that those who enter the conversation will discover the kind of fresh air I discovered in Jim Young's theatre all those years ago." - from the Preface by the author, Jana Childers.
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