Theatre and Theology: Addendum and Apocrypha

A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about theatre and theology, in preparation for my coverage of the (now-defunct) Spiritual Fringe. Since I’m gearing up to start writing reviews of yet another spirituality-themed theatre festival, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit some of my thinking about the subject. After all, I’ve had two years – two more years of wrestling with my faith and my career, and I think I’m better equipped to articulate some of my thoughts again.

First of all, I consider my faith to be the center of my life and work. My thinking and writing about other subjects – politics, art – is a direct result of my thinking about more metaphysical issues. I suspect that this makes me something of an aberration within my profession – I would characterize the attitude of most local artists towards religion to vary from a kind of vague disinterest to outright hostility, with a few pockets of warm enthusiasm. Though I would argue that all of my plays have a religious subtext, there’s rarely anything explicit in the work. Yet another reason that I’m drawn to fantasy – metaphor is a powerful tool for examining ideology.

Yet I, like most, find the Bible-thumping fundamentalism of the neoconservatives to be actively repugnant, a fusion of religion and politics that capitalizes on the worst of both. So I spent some time exploring the more left-wing, social-justice-driven religious movements, and found myself kinda wanting to thump a Bible. Why? Aside from my own contrary nature?

I suspect that, in an age of globalization, the defining artistic movement is fusion – fusion between different disciplines and specializations, fusion between cultures. Religion has not been left untouched by this movement, and many of the more progressive churches have proudly absorbed many of the tenets of Eastern thought.

I’m no stranger to Eastern philosophy – and I suspect that, having seen China up close, I’m more willing than most to acknowledge the dark side of Confucianism. That said, I have a profound admiration for the writings of Lao Tzu and the Pali Canon. Attempting to summarize the whole of Eastern thought is a dangerous and foolish endeavor – roughly equivalent to, say, trying to sum up the single message of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – but if I had to try to single out what’s drawn *me* to those particular texts, it’s the idea of the self as a self-created illusion. The bulk of our suffering is self-created, and the things that cause us pain are the things that we cling to unnecessarily. That’s a huge, towering, terrifying idea, if all of the implications of it are examined closely.

So I’ve been to the churches that consist of people lounging around on couches, and I’ve read the (could they be more ironically titled?) self-help literature – I’ve heard priests preaching the power of positive thinking, and watched their congregations practicing their healing affirmations. Now, some might say that a Catholic upbringing damaged me too deeply to properly appreciate these behaviors; others might say that it effectively armored me against what a seductive school of thought this is. But I can’t avoid the observation that Americans – the most self-centered people in the history of our species, and oh do I love us for it – have taken these texts, built a new religious movement, and placed the self directly at the center of it. These movements revolve almost entirely around self-affirmation – around making *you* feel better. And that’s not the fulfillment of Eastern thought – that’s its ultimate perversion.

And then the Bible-thumping minister in me rears his head, and says – religion isn’t supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you feel *bad*. It’s not supposed to tell you to be content with yourself just the way you are – it’s supposed to urge you to strive to be something much *better*. God forbid, maybe a little fire-and-brimstone would be good for us. Especially living in an age of apathy and affirmation.

And the end result is that it takes the philosophy of liberalism, and *tries to articulate it as a religion*. It boils down to little more than the welfare state with Jesus’ smiling face stapled on top of it. And, yeah, that’s every bit as repugnant as neoconservatism. More so, if only because it strikes me as being more dishonest. Affirming for me why I choose to avoid getting sucked into the two-party struggle. Right-wing, left-wing, no-wing; jackboots are one-size-fits-all.

So this is a big part of my struggle with religious theatre – it so often boils down to little more than political diatribe in the trappings of religion. I *have* to believe that meaningful fusion is at least possible, even if it’s almost impossible to find. In any case, I’ll be exploring the ideas for the next month in this space.