28 October 2006

Jesus and Drama

Last week I got a "help" e-mail from a friend who is on a church school board. Plans for the school Christmas program were being stalled because parents of three of the twelve kids in the school would not let their kids participate in drama (presumably for religious reasons).

Having weathered a few of these ridiculous and wasteful controversies, I used the question as an excuse to expound on some of the research I've conducted on drama in the Gospels. I'll include it below for your enlightenment.

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The drama issue was one of the significant things that finally pried me and my family loose from the Pit of Prejudice that I used to attend at Highland, so be careful. You're not really dealing with anything or anyone rational here, which means that there isn't anything in the Bible or Ellen G. White that will change these people's minds.

The definition of a dysfunctional church is one where decisions are based on prejudice, while a productive church makes decisions based upon the leading of the Holy Spirit.

At the time my church was cannibalizing itself, I prepared a number of salient points based solely on the Bible. Again, this doesn't change people's minds in the least, but I'll share them with you anyway.

Pardon the pun, but Jesus was well versed in drama as in other forms of literature common at the time like parable and allegory. Consider Acts 26.14, where Paul recounts his conversion before the court of King Agrippa. "Jesus told Paul, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'"

What is kicking against the goads and what does it have to do with drama? It is actually a famous line from a play by the famous Greek playwright, Eurippides, called "The Bacchae." At this time, Eurippides was considered on the same level as Shakespeare might be seen today. His plays were commonly produced, and taught in schools of philosophy and rhetoric. For someone to refer to "kicking against the goads" would be like someone today saying, "To be or not to be," or "Life's but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more." Now of course it is possible to know these famous lines without having seen "Hamlet" or "Macbeth," but they are significant nonetheless.

It is also interesting to read "The Bacchae" that is referenced by this quote. It is given to the King Pentheus of Thebes by the god, Bacchus. The back story goes that Bacchus's mother had conceived him with the help of the god Jupiter/Zeus. He had successfully proselytized in Anatolia and had built a religious following there, but when he returned to his hometown, he was dishonored: his followers were persecuted, and he was thrown into jail. In a confrontation where Pentheus accuses him of sacriledge and threatens to destroy him, Bacchus asks him, "Why do you kick against the goads?" i.e. Why do you challenge something that will only hurt you? Pentheus ignores him and marches out to imprison the followers of Bacchus (who include Pentheus's own mother). It ends tragically. Pentheus' mother goes crazy (Bacchus was the god of wine after all) and murders Pentheus, chops him up and eats him before she can come to her senses.

This is the drama called to mind with the words the risen Jesus used there on the road to Damascus. (Not surprisingly, early pagan sceptics accused the disciples of basing false stories of Jesus on plays like "The Bacchae.") It is the same way that saying phrases like, "Party On, Dude" or "Isn't That Special" awaken in our generation specific memories of our teenhood.

Personally, I can't explain fully why Jesus used the quote. It seems obvious that anyone growing up in the culture of his day would have been exposed to Eurippides--as were all of the people listening to his sermons in Galilee and Judea. (Ellen White misquotes weren't around at the time to lead people astray, apparently.) He was probably trying to make a culture-related point to Paul--and Paul's subsequent gentile audiences--much like pastors make today.

A couple more parallels.

At the time Jesus was growing up, there were massive building projects in Sepphoris. Now the Bible NEVER mentions this town, even though it was a thriving, cosmopolitan city just four miles away from Nazareth. (It's the equivalent of having the most famous book in the world describe life in Lumberton, Mississippi, without ever mentioning Hattiesburg!) Sepphoris had been leveled in AD 10 by the Romans after the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, and Herod invested tons of money into the city. Among the public buildings he created was a state-of-the-art theater. Would a young, Nazarene carpenter/handyman like Jesus have found work in a place like Sepphoris in the years prior to his ministry? Of course. Could he have worked on the theater--it was the largest building project of its kind, it is highly likely.

The most convincing demonstration of Jesus' familiarity with the theater was the way he used theatrical terms in his teaching. The most interesting of these came in a term he used for his pharisaical opponents. He used a theater term, hypocisys, from which we get the word hypocrites. At the time, actors in the theater wore masks before their faces: hypocisys means "masked men" or "actors." By calling the Pharisees "hypocrites," Jesus was pointing out the fact that they were merely putting on an act for the world to see, even though their hearts were hollow and they could care less for people, among which were "the least of these," the children they were asked to minister to.

Here's an idea:

Encourage the "hypocrites" on your church board to humble themselves and remove their masks of prejudicial Religiousness. Tell them about the children in your church and the wonderful ways that drama enlivens their ministry (kids can't preach sermons, but drama is an early introduction to ministry). Read to them Matthew 18.10, "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones."

Then let prejudice run its course. You're doomed. I hate to say it, but it's true.

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