The Theatre and Spiritual Offence

Morris Ertman
August 22, 2016

Theatre at its best isn’t a one-way presentation: it’s a meeting place for artists and audiences to experience the places they easily come together and discover distances they still seem miles apart.

On our stage right now is Tent Meeting, a play that celebrates how music can release the Spirit while simultaneously offering characters antagonistic to a church’s well meaning, but often off-putting invitations to relationship. On the surface, it’s a church oriented play. After all, it’s called Tent Meeting. We’ve had a wide range of responses, through, which means it isn’t so easily categorized. It's an opportunity for discussion. So as a starting place, we’d like to share where we’re coming from, particularly with this piece.

Jesus is very dear to us, and we present what we present out of love for Him and for our audience. I’ve been a Christian since I was 6 years old, brought up in the faith in a rural Alberta Baptist church. Tent Meeting is a tribute to the saints of that church, and to the power of community to heal relationally.

It was also in that church that I saw my very first play. It was a play about a missionary in Russia, who was martyred because of his faith. In the play, there was a moment where soldiers took the missionary off stage and a gun-shot was fired. I don’t know how they did it, but it was jarring and scary and “real” to my young ears. They then dragged the man on stage, blood pouring from a wound in his chest - dead. The altar of our church was the place where arguably the worst possible sin - murder - was depicted in all its gore and cruelty. I’ll never forget that moment. And, I’ll never forget the power of a story portrayed by amateur-acting, Bible-believing farmers that dared to illustrate the horrific along with the good.  

One could ask why such a grotesque portrayal? Not only the sin, but the detailed depiction on the altar of the church. Was it necessary? How can such a thing be justified?

I’ve spent the better part of my life wrestling with how to express the grace of Christ in the theatre. I’ve looked through scriptures to find a model for using it as a divine expression. The Bible says nothing about theatre. It says much about music, but nothing about the theatre. There are, however, many instances of people using theatricality to communicate.

The Lord told the Prophet Isaiah to strip naked to illustrate to Israel that putting their trust in the might of Egypt would lead to unspeakable shame. God asked His prophet to embody the unspeakable so people would understand the gravity of the situation. I’d surmise that many who saw Isaiah would have found his illustration distasteful - even sinful. They would have herded their children down another street to protect them from such a vile sight. But Isaiah did what the Lord commanded so people could not ignore the message he was called to deliver.

The writer of the Psalms did not edit out David’s sexual relations with Bathsheba and consequent assassination of her husband. The Bible does not soften the slaughter of innocents or the destruction of entire cities like Jericho, saving only a prostitute most likely looking out for her best interests. The Bible, as arguably one of the most important story-telling book ever written, shares stories of the desperately sinful, often with grotesque accuracy, so we can see the work of God and the sometimes repentant, sometimes not, response of humanity.

In Tent Meeting, George is so angry at God and at the church that he uses God’s name in vain. Why? Because he is deeply angry and held captive by wounds of betrayal. If we dare to express the miraculous love of God, we must also dare to honestly illustrate the darkness of people who are embittered towards Him. In the crucifixion, Jesus was senselessly beaten, stripped naked, and executed. Modern depictions insist on covering Jesus with a loin cloth. But God wasn’t concerned with modesty in that moment. Nor are our quaint depictions of Mary holding baby Jesus a true representation of that bloody exhausting exuberant birth. Could it be that the profane is the human part of the stories we know to be sacred? Are the depths of grace illuminated by the horrifying nature of humanity?

When we smell something wretched, we instinctively turn our face away. It’s our instinctive defense to distance ourselves from that which offends. When faced with people and actions we find distasteful, isn’t it easier to turn away than ask ourselves if we are culpable and capable of the same crimes?

The mandate that governs our choice of plays is as follows: "to produce professional live theatre that illustrates the beauty and complexity of life through an inclusive and grace-filled perspective...” Every show we do is accompanied by both accolades and criticisms depending on the perspective of a given patron. But who draws the lines? When it comes to content and convictions, how do we know what will provoke, what will inspire, or push someone away? When we stick to pleasant stories easily categorized we wander away from the example Scripture itself provides. As Artistic Director of this company, I promise you we enter into all our presentations with prayer, extensive discussion, and the hope that God multiplies our offerings in works of His grace.

I’d love the chance to dialogue further about this, if anyone so desires. There’s a place below to leave comments and continue the discussion. As long as there’s respect and care for each other, there’s room at the table for all perspectives.

And Blessings and gratitude for all the audiences engaged ... let’s keep telling all our stories.

The Theatre and Spiritual Offence

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Morris Ertman