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

I received the script a week before the class, and I began to read over the lines. It was an excerpt from a scene, so I entered the picture with little context other than the obvious conclusion that I was a therapist and the other character was a grief-stricken Vietnam veteran. The lines themselves were just words on a page until I inhabited them, and they even changed in their meaning and in my interpretation once he inhabited the lines too. When we finally sat down across from each other to rehearse the lines, something magical happened. Our human connection led us to an embodiment of the lines that would not have been possible from mere memorization of the lines or detailed consideration of each move or the tone of each line. The lines and the script took on new meaning because it was us that performed them.

As we began, I assumed that I was the therapist who had come to help the afflicted man. I played the part decently well, given my ministry background, but it was too easy to just nod my head and mouth the lines. I didn’t feel the lines. Then my acting coach asked me, “Todd, have you ever tried to help someone in trouble? Why did you do it? How did it feel? Did it make you feel good about yourself?” Then he instructed me to say the lines again. This time, the lines seeped from my head down into my soul so that I performed them differently. As I was performing them, I became aware that the real power of this scene could only be revealed when I realized that the other character did not just need me as his caregiver– I needed him as my patient. Now we were vulnerable to each other, and that’s when the magic happens.

I learned a lot in church for which I am grateful — the name of the oldest living man, the words of the 23rd Psalm, and how faith looks when it meets disease and death. I learned Scripture and how the Christian faith has been understood and lived for two thousand years. But what I have learned in acting class that I didn’t learn so much in church is how to become someone that I’m not by becoming more and more myself. That task is not one that belongs to the actor alone. The task of becoming someone we are not is one that belongs first to the realm of faith where we disciples are on a quest to become Jesus Christ in the world. Notice that I didn’t say “like” Jesus, but to become the very body of Christ in the world. Discipleship first and foremost is not a matter of learning the traditions of the faith or coming to know more facts about Scripture, though all of that is part of the process. Scripture and traditions shape the content and character of the life given to becoming Jesus in the world, but those are only foundations for the process of transformation into another character, the character of Jesus.

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.

So what is it that I learned in acting class that I should have learned in church? That we become another character when we become most ourselves. The truly great actors do not become “like” another character, but they become that character as they bring more and more of themselves into the role. For example, Merryl Streep is at her best, not when she is trying to play Julia Child, but when she is Merryl Streep playing Julia Child. The character we seek to play is embodied in us — not the opposite way around. The more we understand and are aware of our experiences, the more we can become like the one we seek to become. So a lot of acting class is as much exploring our own experiences as it is attempting to become the character. I AM the character, then I can play the character. And yes, we even discover new things about ourselves, and about Jesus, when we are in the holy presence of another person.

This is not far from that famous declaration of St. Paul, “I, not I, but Christ, living in me.” Paul affirms that there still is an “I” that is living, but now that “I” is inhabited by the spirit and person of Jesus so that “I” am becoming transformed into the likeness of Jesus and the highest form of myself. I am not deleted, canceled or replaced. In fact, I am never more fully alive than when I am inhabited by the person of Jesus in the presence of the Spirit. That’s why Ireneaus wrote that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Yes, it’s true: the actor has to know his lines. You have to understand the lines. That’s a given. It’s also true that Christians must do their homework to know the teachings of Scripture and the traditions of the faith. But we understand in acting class that knowing the lines is just the homework. When it’s time to perform, you shouldn’t even be thinking about the lines. You should embody them. To do this, the lines must meet experience so that we bring both to the performance. The powerful performance happens when we go deep into ourselves so that we bring all of our experience to the character we seek to become, and we work from that experience — and not in spite of it.

This means that we first of all have to be aware that our experiences matter as much as knowledge of the lines. In acting class, we talk about those experiences openly as an entry way into the development of a character. “Have you ever loved someone and been rejected?” “Have you ever wished secretly that you could murder someone?” “Have you ever not wanted to live?” “Have you ever loved someone so much that you felt chills down your spine?” “Have you ever felt you were about to lose everything?” “Have you ever been so drunk you felt out of control?” Now, if we are in a safe place of becoming, we can answer those questions honestly so that we can move on to the task of becoming the character. The acting performance is transformed when our experiences meet the “words” on the page and the person across from me.

But if I refuse to answer because I fear that others will know the true me, if I don’t feel safe in confession, or if I am unwilling to deal in the highs and lows of human life, I cannot become the character I seek to become. It will appear that I am trying too hard, faking it, or simply mouthing words that I do not feel. And the audience will know it. Actors not in touch with themselves often write down every physical move on their scripts, think carefully about every position, and practice every smile or frown. At the end of the day, it looks like they are trying too hard. You’ve seen those performances, and they don’t win Oscars. Oscar performances happen when an actor has entered deep into themselves and come to embody the person they seek to portray so that it appears almost effortless to the viewer (see Merryl Streep as Julia Child in “Julie and Julia” in the porch scene where she learns that her cookbook is being published by Knopf as a great example).

And that’s what it means to become Christian and to be a disciple. To finally become so much ourselves that we forget ourselves in order to transform into Someone else,namely Jesus Christ. Becoming, forgetting, transforming. That’s the rhythm of the Christian life, and it happens when Word meets Experience, and when the Self meets Spirit.

Tomorrow … possibilities for spiritual formation in the church, university and classroom that embody human experience and spiritual transformation.

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. (Gal. 5:25, The Message)

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

    Great post Todd. Being vulnerable, expressing our full humanity–this is where we find freedom, and I’ve found Christ makes this possible for me. Starting with the script and then connecting with a living experience–that moves faith from our heads to the whole of our lives.

  2. Phillip says:

    I think this is a great analogy. It is not about pretending (another kind of “acting,” Jesus condemns, i.e., hypocrisy) but about living into or becoming what we are called to be. Thanks for this.

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