Making Drama Into Worship
|Copyright © 2003 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: Jane E. Booth|
God Shapes a Young Mind
Words. I have always been fascinated by them. Ever since the first enchanting moments I discovered what the squiggly lines sounded like underneath the pictures. I remember my Mom reading to me and how I memorized the stories before I actually deciphered what the squiggles said. Words fascinated me, and words meant stories, and stories were the magical door through which I loved to go; partly to escape where I happened to be, partly to learn where other people went and what they did, without the danger of actually going there myself.
Stories also fascinated me, ultimately because people fascinated me. I was a natural observer of everything around me, and words and stories explained the why and wherefore of the inexplicable things these people said and did.
Words alone still fascinate me. Wherever I am, I look for them. If there are words to be read on a sign as I go by, I read them. If there are words on a placard in a library, I want to know what it says. If there are words posted in a museum, look out, I take quite a while to go through an exhibit! I even read graffiti if I don't stop myself in time. I have trouble registering the pictures in the Sunday comics because I tend to just read the words and try to figure out the joke that way.
I learned soon enough that this fascination wasnít entirely the way "normal" people reacted. Many of my schoolmates noted me as a bit of a loner, if not painfully self-conscious and shy. Teachers liked me because I obeyed them without question, and actually listened to their lectures and seemed to enjoy learning. As I grew older, and somewhat less self-conscious, I began to make up my own words, my own stories, based on my own observations and experiences. I remember at first I was surprised that anyone wanted to hear my stories. My sisters would hang on my silly inventions with our Barbie dolls. I never wanted to just dress them up, I wanted them to come alive. I think this was the beginning of my longing not just to make up stories, but to act them out. Acting things out that other people did helped me to be able to act things out in my own life instead of just hanging around the sidelines. For me, stories were access to life.
Then I discovered that the songs my Mom went around singing were parts of movies or stage plays. She bought the soundtrack to West side Story and My Fair Lady. It didnít take long before my siblings and I had memorized all the words to every song and made up our own actions to go along with them, even though we had never yet seen a play. (Years later, when I could occasionally afford to go, I remember going to high school plays and thinking "So thatís what the song really meant!" as the story unfolded.) When Christmas rolled around, my Mom would get out old towels and blankets and we would all dress up as the characters in the nativity and put on our little drama for our parents.
When I got to high school I discovered theatre was an elective course. It took me two or three days of reasoning within myself to get the courage to even sign up for a beginning course. I had never been good at standing in front of the class and could hardly squeak out words through my shaking lips. I was considered the quiet one, unless I was at home in safe surroundings.
But somehow something or someone was pushing me to try this. I knew I loved words, I knew I loved stories, I knew I was fascinated by people and motivations, and I knew that somehow somewhere inside me was a voice trying to reach out and touch someone else; maybe make them laugh or cry or think. Every day I shook as I went into acting class, every time I got on stage I was sick beforehand, but I could memorize the parts well, and could think like someone else and got up there and became someone else. As long as I didnít have to be myself up there I could do it.
No one ever encouraged me to try out for any parts, and I was so off in my own foggy world of fantasy most of the time I never even noticed when auditions were. So the gift lay dormant in me for a long time after high school. I studied writing in college, and cranked out many stories, but didnít turn back to drama until my daughter, an only child at the time, was about six years old, lonely and somewhat adrift in the summers.
God Develops the Gift of Creativity and Drama
I read her fairy tales when she was younger, my favorite kind of literature, and one day we organized a little acting session with the neighborhood kids, it was Sleeping Beauty. They didnít have to learn any lines; I just read the story and dressed them up. The parents loved it; my daughter got her first taste of the bug, so next summer I got busy trying to come up with a fun play for kids to do.
Every play I read in the library was nearly fifty years old and the kids talked like adults. Half the plays I read for kids had no point or even any lines involved. I began to despair of ever finding one suitable for my purposes. I turned once more to fairy tales, and even then realized that I was going to have to write my own play.
I picked up Cinderella in its original form, and began to study it. Fairy tales do often have morals; but the characters are never well developed. Hey! This was something I knew how to do. I would take these cardboard characters and make them into someone more real, I would make them learn something, too, and I would put a theme in the story if one was missing. All my years of fascination with "dressing up" and words and stories and people clicked into writing plays and producing them. This diversion would not only use my own personal gift and fascination and please myself, it would help my daughter find a reason to spend time with friends and work together with them as a team (no one in our family has ever been interested in sports!).
As love, diligence, and tradition settled in we ended up putting on a play every summer. Eventually my daughter became all the princesses in every major fairy tale, and once, a flighty fairy, complete with braids and wings.
My husband supported us in our endeavors, although he didnít like me dressing up and playing a man when there was none available [editorial note from "the husband": this was based on my immature misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5]. I did once play the father in our adaptation of Caddie Woodlawn. My husband helped entertain the parents when they were waiting for us to come "onstage" in our living room, laughed loudly at all the right parts, and applauded when he was supposed to. He encouraged me to try to publish my little dramas, and extend our summer escapades into the church setting. He reviewed all my theology, helped me figure out how to make strange props, and even played parts if they required more reading than memorization. His expressive, deep voice could always be counted upon to play the part of a prophet, even if he didnít care to wear the outfits I diligently researched and sewed. I was always listed as the director, but he was surely the producer.
Drama Enters the Church
My daughterís friends in school combined with her friends at church, and I began to note the introduction of skits into church services occasionally. She played in more than a few of these. Myself being fascinated with words and stories and being an English major who was married to a teacher of the Word (not to mention avid and endless discusser of theology), I naturally tended to critique many of these church skits, Iím afraid sometimes rather harshly. Where was the characterization? Where was the theme, for goodnessí sakes? What were they trying to accomplish with this blithe little scene, was it really designed exclusively to provoke laughter rather than to teach? For awhile we went along with the laughter mode, and wrote one or two Star Trek skits, my husband having a gift for satire as well as a strong partiality towards science fiction. But we always had a theme going behind the laughter, an admonition or two that hopefully would sink in just after the applause.
My church decided to put on a dinner theatre, I suppose to go along with the then-current trends in churches; and the fact that they had just constructed a new gym (excuse me, recreation facility). I attended the first meeting and volunteered to help find a good play with a Biblical setting for the Christmas season. The other person on our play "finding" committee thought most of the stuff out there was too fake, and had rejected most of the musical offerings heíd reviewed.
Most of the "biblical" plays I looked at were either for children or just readings of the Bible with people dressed up in bathrobes walking onstage to pose in a nativity scene. Again, I thought, where were the characters? Where were the people behind the story? In our next meeting, I mumbled something tentative about writing the story ourselves. Everyone looked at me in disbelief. I mumbled again in what I hoped was a humble way that I had possibly written such things before, although I would need someone else to write the musical parts. Everyoneís jaw dropped, and someone mentioned in a lackadaisical way that absolutely no one there could write music!
I suppose I have forgotten to mention before that when challenged to do something I tend to rise to the call better than when I am simply asked. I have always liked being different, and being mostly a quitter in my youth, had resolved in my adult life to attempt more, and not to admit defeat before an attempt was even made. I will admit to a minimal amount of musical training and perhaps to having written a song or two in my past. At any rate, lyrics werenít hard for me. I thought if I wrote the lyrics, perhaps God would send someone along with the music in his or her heart, and then the arrangement, and possibly someone to even volunteer to play the stuff.
Thatís when How Can I Believe? came to be written (the most sweeping and complex of all my plays, and most personally satisfying), hopefully more on an urging from the Lord than a challenge to my own pride! I wrote the thing, concentrating on the actual characters, trying to make them live and be dynamic, and learn, trying to make the Bible come alive to the reader rather than be just some type of folk tale with no particular relevance to today. The lyrics to the songs came from the characterís motivations without much effort, and the music just seemed to come in my head when the words went onto the computer. There was a lot of work after that, trying to get someone else to put the notes down on paper, and arrange the piano part, and recruit people who would admit to being able to sing as well as memorize lines; but that was the beginning of my little adventure of making drama into worship.
I have explained all this biographically because I am a writer of stories. My husband actually asked me to write an article defending why drama should be used in the church. Naturally, I would prefer to simply put my dramas onto the website and let them explain themselves, being a writer of fiction rather than a teacher. But the biographical approach will explain at least one thing: how God, in His grace, can develop and nurture a gift in someone until it can be used for His glory; how He can sovereignly work even when someone is not yet a believer to direct them to a course of action which will lead them to Him and to the good works He has prepared for them to do. How He is merciful with our mistakes and shortcomings, and forgiving of our selfish motives, and basically, how He can use anyone He wants; weak or strong, in any way He wants, whether they are fully willing or not. How He can use even something with such a worldly reputation as acting for His own glory and purposes.
Drama As Worship--Church Tradition
Should drama be used in the church, and if so, how? First of all, I would like to note that drama has been used in the church for a very long time already. We tend to think of Shakespeare when we think of medieval plays, but before he came on the scene, the church used drama to express Biblical stories during holy days. There were guilds who trained specifically to do these dramas. Text came mostly from the Scriptures, but were also influenced by menís tradition, and some of the plays were about Catholic saints and their deeds. Often the same people would play the same parts year after year. These morality plays had definite themes, and some are still being done today as passion plays (the story of Christís death).
Fast forward a bit to traditional Christmas plays in your local church, usually the story of Christís birth, read aloud by a narrator, with children dressing up in bathrobes and scarves (often with tennis shoes sticking out the bottom). Few have a problem with these Christmas stories, but again, it occurs to me that we often think more about how pretty Mary is this year or why our kid didnít get chosen to play an important part than we do about themes.
But church tradition does not dictate biblical propriety. And so we come back to our question, can and should drama be used effectively in the church worship setting? For the past ten years or so, many drama groups have been springing up in our local churches. Everything from skits to dramatic sermons to dinner theatre have been performed. While there is little question as to whether these dramatic moments are entertaining, there may be a question in some peopleís minds as to the biblical appropriateness of these moments!
A few years ago evangelical churches started employing drama heavily, usually on coupleís retreats, generally with a point if not a theme, in order to catch the congregationís attention about a teaching that was to come. This began getting more serious, and now we have drama groups, stages, lighting, elaborate costumes and dinner theatres, generally used as an agency to attract people to our church and hope they come back again next Sunday. Are these legitimate uses of worship time? Does drama have a place in the local church? Is the word "skit" or "play" even mentioned in the Scriptures?
The answer is partially yes, and partially no. For one thing, the word "skit" is not in the Scripture! In my dictionary it is defined as a short, usually comic theatrical sketch. How you define "worship service" and whether or not you recognize the purpose behind a drama, and the content of the drama are all determining factors of whether a drama is biblical worship. I think a lot of people view skits mainly as advertisements for bible studies or vacation bible school. These skits/commercials may have a place in the worship service as creative announcements of activities coming up. But is that all drama can do?
While skits and plays or even dramatic readings are seemingly not mentioned in Scripture (with the exception of Ezekiel's "drama"), we need not conclude that these performances are forbidden. After all, microphones, amplifiers, speakers, overhead projectors, PowerPoint slides, air conditioners, electric lights, pipe organs, and pianos are not mentioned either. Yet we use these tools every week in our worship services. Granted, all the technology we use to promote music is easily explained, since singing and instruments are mentioned in the Scriptures as legitimate and necessary parts of worship. Yet drama, in any form, is nowhere forbidden. Since it is not forbidden by God, could it not also be used to glorify Him?
Drama As Worship--Biblical Tradition
To assume that drama was never used by Godís people in ancient Israel or in the 1st century church may well be a mistake. Letís take a look at the Scriptures and see where drama actually was used. There are many instances of what we call "dramatic readings." The book of the law was read aloud every week in the synagogues. Moses read the entire law to the all the assembled population of Israel as described in the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus certainly did public readings.
"Öthe scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written: ĎThe Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lordís favor.í Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him." Luke 4:17-20
We have many Scripture readings in the back of most of our hymnals. These are opportunities for the written scripture to be read aloud, and read with genuine meaning (NOT in a holy monotone!).
Often Jesus used verbal illustrations (we call them parables and stories--but they are verbal illustrations, one-person drama), sometimes visual ones such as the woman and her only coin, or the boy and his fishes. Pastors often use illustrations in their teaching as well. Drama can be used to illustrate, visually and through words, since in its best form it is simply a story. Jesus told stories. Often. He used them to make points, sometimes very harsh ones, about people. How many times we read, "Jesus taught them in parablesÖ" A story is a form of teaching, certainly, all of Jesusí stories were. The gospels and much of the Old Testament were written in the form of stories, not sermons. Teaching is an integral part of worship, in fact, it is the very point of worship (1 Corinthians 14). We must use our spiritual gifts to edify and teach one another.
So, it is easy to see from biblical example that we are allowed to use dramatic readings, illustrations, story telling, parables, and especially teaching in our worship. In drama we need to be as careful in writing and performing these teachings as any pastor in his preparation of a sermon. The doctrine behind our words must be the doctrines taught in the Scripture, not menís traditions. The illustrations we use in our "skits" or long plays must be given careful study to see if they conform to and teach Godís Word.
Drama As Instruction in Truth
The words we place in our characterís mouths should be real, and should express real human emotions, thoughts, and motivations. The characters should be allowed to grow and be dynamic, just as God allows us to grow and be sanctified. Itís not an overnight process, and we donít always talk like museum pieces or with holy rhetoric. Our characters shouldnít either. After all, they were real people, with real sins and (some) with real faith. In fact, in I Corinthians Chapter Ten the church was given this illustration:
"For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play." Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." (I Corinthians 10:1-12)
Two things are noteworthy in this passage for the purpose of this discussion. First, things in the Old Testament that people did were written down for our INSTRUCTION. This not only makes the Old Testament important to our New Testament-oriented lives, but also points out that stories of people of old, who were real people just like us, are written down for us to learn from. I think we may infer that New Testament stories (which are old to us) may also be used for our instruction today. The second noteworthy thing, or perhaps it is the same thing, is that these stories have a moral, or theme if you will, and should be used for teaching. Drama, when done well, can be another form of teaching of these "old" stories, with a Biblical theme, to better equip us in our present day lives.
Not only can drama be another form of instruction, it is my position that sometimes it is the best form. After all, if drama is done well, it shows visually as well as aurally how a real historical character reacted to the dramatic supernatural events in which they were placed. We see a characterís emotions and their possible motivations when it is acted out before us.
When Mary was confronted with the news that as a virgin she was going to become pregnant, her first reaction was, "but how? Does God expect me to surrender my virginity? Is that not improper and against the law?" We see this confusion because the text tells us she asked a questionÖ"How can this be?" Yet this question was not in rebellion, or the angel might have struck her dumb as he had done her cousin Zacharias. Drama can show this agony and confusion. It can illustrate how hurt Joseph probably was to think he had been betrayed by a supposed wayward Mary. And drama can explain how a loving God has orchestrated all this for the salvation of His people. It can cause the observer to identify with a character, thinking through the events from the characterís perspective (really think it through), and find ways to cope with similar age-old problems of his own.
In Ezekiel 4 and 5 we find that the prophet was called upon by God to orchestrate a year-long, one act, mini play, a tableau. Ezekiel himself was the only living "actor." To read more extensively about this event, go to the article, Ezekiel's Drama.
All this is not to say that drama in the church should only be about the Old Testament, or the gospels. If drama is written from a Biblical perspective and is teaching correct theology, there is no reason why characters cannot be in the present or even the future if you are so minded! There isnít any reason why comedy canít be used in these skits or sketches either, just as any preacher might do. Even satire has its place, if used in a way that people understand the real message, which is not just to poke mean-spirited fun.
Drama As Worship--Conclusion
There are so many exciting ways that drama can be used--as long as the primary principle of the drama is to teach, not just entertain or amuse. For teaching is something we are all called to do, whether it is to our children or our spiritual children, or to a Sunday school class, or even just to a group of parents that come together to see their children in a play.