Everything I Should Have Learned in Church, I Learned in Acting Class, Part 2

Let the experience flow over the words. Eric DeGama, My Acting Coach

And from part 1: Scripture is the script, traditions are the props, but those are all meaningless if the actor does not become the character — in this case, if the disciple is not transformed into the likeness and person of Christ.

When was the last time you left Sunday School and felt that your life had changed because of it? Not that you learned something new about the Ur of the Chaldees. Or that you understood the context of the Sermon on the Mount better. But that your life literally had been transformed because you were there? That the teacher or the class somehow helped you understand your life and your experience in a new way that will help you improve your life and how you live, love and serve in the world? When was the last time you heard a sermon that actually caused you to live better as a result of hearing it? I”m waiting … I would like to hear the stories.

Of course, there are teachers, classes and sermons that have changed our hearts at times, and I do not wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. But let’s be honest about it: On most Sundays, does this happen? If you’re like me, you often leave classes or sermons with the feeling of “That was nice.” Or one that I often heard repeated in my childhood, “He really knows his Bible.”

This is why it’s time for a reevaluation of church adult education, sermons and the Christian university religion curriculum. Most are rooted in an heretical Platonic model that separates the spiritual from the secular, knowledge from experience and the holy from the experiences of real life. What we need is a return to incarnated Aristotilian embodied knowledge where experience flows over the Word.

We get this when it comes to the curriculum for children. There are a few Bible Bowls and flannel boards that emphasize Bible facts, but for the most part, we understand that children need experiences to grasp and live the faith. So we show videos, we have puppet shows, we construct elaborate sets, we involve them in theater, and we expose them to images and stories that help them learn Scripture and the life of faith. But once these students graduate from high school, they enter into an adult education curriculum that is completely devoid of experience other than the occasional retreat or small group. Everything returns to the safety and security of a classroom where the Bible is studied, but experience is ignored or spoken of only in the most superficial of ways to preserve the safety of the room and the privacy of our lives. Rarely do we experience a vulnerable moment from our classmates or church members where Experience and Word meet in the moment so that we all are transformed.

One of my good friends recently served on an adult education committee at one of my previous churches, and he became discouraged with his service because the planning committee kept reverting to Bible study classes despite their understanding that the Christian faith is not “taught, but caught.” He presented ideas for experiential classes in prayer, the arts, service and character formation. The committee rejected them all and reverted to normal Sunday School class approaches because it’s safe. Evidently most of us demand this kind of curriculum, either because we have to reveal little of ourselves, or because we assume that if Christians just know more, they will become more. Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Spirit, experience and relating are involved in the process of becoming. Knowing is just the script.

This truncated experience of being begins in the worship service itself. Catholic traditions largely center the worship experience — and I do emphasize the word “experience” — in the Mass, the experience of the Table. Images, physical movement, sounds and smells are abundant. Sermons are a side note. Catholics went too far in their emphasis on experience in worship. The Protestants then went too far in their emphasis on Scripture and the sermon while eliminating experiences from the worship. Some, like Zwingli, eliminated art and image altogether, and others eliminated the stirring experience of instrumental music where music glides over text to seep down deep in our souls. For Protestants, the expository preaching of a Scripture text became the primary purpose of worship and the penultimate moment of the worship service. In most of these churches even today, the sermon might last 30 minutes while the experience of the Table is dismissed entirely or might last 5 to 10 minutes. It was the Anglican tradition, and the Episcopal Church, that understood that Word and Table should be equally balanced in the worship with an equal emphasis on experience and text. The worship service is literally divided in half between these two experiences: the first half involves the reading and preaching of Scripture, and the second half involves the preparation of the Table and the experience of it.

Sermon structure also typically works from Word to human experience — if it has time to get to the latter. Scripture is exegeted and exposited, but not our lives. What if the sermon began with our experience? “Have you ever felt that God was targeting you because of all the bad things unfolding in your life?” “Do you often live so that the glass feels half empty instead of half full?” “Is there someone you just can’t forgive?” We don’t just ask these questions in the sermon, but we explore their depths. The preacher describes the human experience with the darkness and the mystery in personal or narrative style, and THEN opens up Scripture where “experience flows over the words.” We often begin in the reverse direction because we assume that Scripture should interpret life, not life interpret Scripture. But this overlooks the radical nature of Incarnation where the Word has become flesh. We live in a God-inhabited world where common grace flows among us, and so we also can look for truth to reveal itself in our experience of the world and not just in the text alone. Now experience holds the possibility to reveal something holy, as does Scripture, and the two dance together in the streets to create a powerful moment of homiletical transformation.

Many Christian universities are built around this same assumption that students will become Christian while at the university by knowing more about Christianity. Universities pride themselves on “daily Bible” or the number of courses offered in religion over the four year curriculum. This is certainly not a bad thing, but the problem is that it only has minimal relationship to the maturation of students into disciples. To shape the mind into a Christian one is a truncated view of what it means to be “Christian” in the first place. If the objective of the Christian university is to form students into the likeness of Christ to be leaders and servants in the world, then this won’t happen through the education of the mind alone. No amount of Old Testament, New Testament and Christian theology will guarantee this objective. Christian formation happens when the university understands that experience and imagination matter as much as knowledge. This means that we must see every aspect of university life as an education of the whole person in becoming like Jesus. Students will become more and more like Jesus when a university rejects the values of sororities and fraternities and constructs a different social reality for students built around the love of the disabled, the economically disadvantaged student, the not so pretty, and the those not so cool. Christian formation happens when students observe the ethics and businesses practices of the university as much as when it takes a class in Old Testament. Students should not feel that their university is greedy, nor should they observe the mistreatment of staff or faculty. A Christian university encourages students in spiritual practices through service and prayer, and it helps its students experience faith through classics of literature, theater, music, film, and art where the experience of faith is embodied in stories and images that capture the imagination and not the mind alone. Christian universities should be places of redemption and not condemning punishment for bad acts. Suspending and expelling students for drinking or sexual experimentation leads students in exactly the wrong direction, away from community and often away from faith, at a time when they most need tough love and forgiveness. “You will not have these experiences here” is often the message that is communicated by administration. What if those experiences became the vehicles for transformation to happen so that we could speak of them openly, engage them, and let the “Word” flow over them?

If churches and Christian universities only encourage environments devoid of human experience where words must be parsed, honest thoughts and feelings withheld, certain ideas punished, and human experience must be “cleaned up” for our hearing, we cannot become Christian. If imagination and experience is seen as secondary to knowledge, we will not become more like the Character but just more knowledgeable of the Script. If we can’t speak openly of our experience — even the dark side and our tragedies, we won’t be bringing our full selves to the table, and any attempt at “acting Christian” will look like just that – an acting job. It will not be organic and embodied but noticeably fake and measured. Christian formation in which we are becoming more and more ourselves while we become more and more Jesus has a lively, organic and energizing quality about it that does not appear “acted.” That is why Paul writes in Galatians 5 that legalisms — detailed rules about when to stand, where to sit, and when — produce only qualities in us that are too consumed with ourselves. We care too much about how we look on stage and how we appear to others, and ultimately we become judgmental of the performances of others too. That’s the fruit of legalism and too many notes on the script. In acting class, we often say when this happens, “You need to get out of your own way.” Legalism and an over concern about “performance” is really a selfish act. Something powerful happens when we forget ourselves and let go so that can become more of ourselves and ironically more the Character we seek to become.

Paul writes that the best qualities of Christ-inspired faith are ones that are “fruits” of the Spirit’s embodied presence in us. When we become most fully human through the presence of Christ in us, our imago Dei qualities emerge such as kindness, generosity, and love. As the life of Christ seeps out of our transformed experience, informed by the script, we become more and more like the Character of the one we seek to emulate and be.

Church experiences in worship and class often taught me to deny myself or be like someone else instead of being more and more myself. We spoke of Abraham, or Jesus, or William Wilberforce as people we should become. But we did little exegesis of our own lives so that we are fully self aware when the words of the Script-ure flow over us. But we can’t end with just self-awareness. Jesus says that the real powerful things happen in our lives when the seed falls to the ground and dies. When we carry our cross. When we finally “get over ourselves.” Then we are set free to become our true selves and the body of Jesus in the world. Rather than memorize and rehearse the script over and over again, we come to breathe the lines, embody the movements and become the Character.

When I leave acting class, I sometimes cry. I often have a spring in my step. I feel empowered in a new way, not just to act, but to live. It is because I’ve so deeply entered into some experience, memory and truth that it is nearly overwhelming and always transforming as these experiences meet the words on the page. The class meets me in every dimension of what it means to be human: physically, emotionally, imaginatively, spiritually and cognitively. All of ME was brought to the table, and all of me was transformed when I allowed myself to become more and more human in order to fully become another person.

What kind of adult education, worship services and universities can engage us as people of faith at all those levels? Perhaps more centering prayer, more retreats, more small groups, and perhaps even simulated role play experiences? Certainly more art, theater and film. Certainly more emphasis on mentors, spiritual direction and common experiences. It’s time to scrap the Platonic project. Embodied truth is the vehicle for Oscar-winning performances, and the only way to live extraordinary faith.

3 Responses to “Everything I Should Have Learned in Church, I Learned in Acting Class, Part 2”
  1. Ron says:

    Another good balance-thanks for writing from your heart. For you and others I recommend Thomas Groome’s “Sharing Faith” and his model of “shared Christian praxis”. It takes seriously Jesus’ teaching of God’s kingdom and situates it in the context of our daily lives in a shared community. When I’ve been in that kind of community is when my faith has growth the most (and when I’ve been the most real and transformed). Thanks for shining a light toward the right path forward.

  2. toddbouldin says:

    Ron, I read that book in seminary, and I also recommend it. I suppose that much of what I have written here shares some of the assumptions of liberation theology but not necessarily its economic context or assumptions.

  3. Phillip says:

    Good thoughts again, Todd. Along these lines, I have long been interested in Deuteronomy, in part for its emphasis on passing on faith to the next generation. I am amazed at the means that are used to keep the word alive in the community. There is teaching, to be sure, but also putting the words into practice, worship, monuments and symbols, giving, recitations, festivals that are reenactments, etc. (I have an excellent book on Deuteronomy, by the way, that you can read some day if I can find a publisher).

    I have a great deal of faith in the power of the preached/taught word, as the power of God to transform. However, it is not the only means of conveying the faith, and does not accomplish its purpose until it is embodied. But I don’t think that having a transforming moment or moments regularly is necessarilty an indicator of the effectiveness of the sermon/class.

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