CACE Seminar Evangelicalism Reflections. The Fourth of July is upon us.
Along with the traditional trappings of a holiday occasion likely to bring oddly constructed groups (like families) together, this July 4 brings a rising anxiety in many about the conversations that will occur at these red, white, and blue .
A cursory search on how to ‘survive’ a holiday gathering with extended family (at a time when NPR/CBS News reports that 6 of 10 Americans dread the inevitable and often uncomfortable conversations that are likely to ensue), is quick to provide a number of strategies for getting through these occasions. I was not at all surprised to learn that many of articles counsel, simply, to arm oneself well; come in with your research done and your facts straight, and then prepare to overwhelm Gramps or obnoxiously certain Cousin Charlie with enough ‘truth’ to force them to “Cry Uncle” over dessert.
I was once again grateful to attend this year’s CACE Seminar, to read our assigned book (‘Still Evangelical?’), and to engage with colleagues and notable guests for three stimulating and perspective-providing days. I was relieved to find the tone of the dialogue respectful and often humble (as well as sometimes humbling.) Blithe answers were, thankfully, not abundant, and there was plenty of expertise and insight offered from various disciplinary perspectives. I found myself happy (and a little proud) to be among colleagues and friends who so beautifully articulate their thoughts and convictions on difficult topics. Cousin Charlie was not in the room or, if he was, he remained silent.
As the seminar progressed, I found myself wondering (as I sometimes do in groups of Wheaton faculty) what my specific disciplinary contribution as a theater-maker and teacher might be. Related questions emerged:
- is the heart of the work I undertake with students?
- How do the conversations we engage in regularly in Wheaton’s theater program help students to become the kinds of Christians prepared to engage not only with Cousin Charlie, but with many whose views on critical issues are very different from their own?
- How do we walk with students as they seek to navigate the territory between ‘Secular Elites’ and the ‘Heartland Evangelicals’, groups so clearly described by Tim Larsen on the first day of the CACE Seminar?
Describing theater pedagogy, particularly the teaching of acting, can be an elusive task. Methodologies vary…wildly. Yet, the process of articulating for myself the way I go about it within the particular context of Wheaton’s mission has been an invigorating process in the weeks since our seminar. And, remarkably, it does not seem to me that difficult to describe. Simply stated: in Arena Theater actors learn to value, tell, receive, and hold stories.
Valuing a story means simply that an actor has to believe that she has a personal story worth investigating. And, if she is a Christian actor, she accepts the fact that her story is an extreme one. In the words of Tim Keller, a Christian is someone who believes that their sin is bad enough that God had to die and that they are precious enough that God was willing to die. Why is investigating one’s own story with the intent to share it important for an actor? Simply because acting-craft teaches us that it is these stories that we use to build a bridge to the characters we play. Our own examined life experiences are what we use to lend authenticity to the stories we tell as actors. We may not live our lives making the choices that our characters make, but we have to believe ourselves somehow capable of these choices in order to represent them well.
One of the things that renders our proverbial Cousin Charlie difficult to engage is that there are quite a few stories that he does not believe himself capable of telling truthfully. He only sees himself in part of the picture. This makes Cousin Charlie a pretty insufficiently aware actor and (if he is a Christian) a Christian who is probably not able to see himself as simultaneously fallen and precious. He cannot tell very many stories effectively because, in his perception, they are about someone else. The scope of his own failures seems to him either extraordinarily small when compared to those of others, or so massive (and secret) that he would never allow them to be known. His salvation, in his own eyes, is either inexpensive or impossible. These are indications of how Cousin Charlie values his own story.
Learning to tell a story well comprises the most obviously recognized part of an actor’s process. Communicating well through an instrument (the actor’s body and voice) that is ‘relaxed and ready’ takes years of training and practice. This awareness of breath and of presence go a long way toward making an actor compelling to watch. A successful actor learns to work in a way that expends just enough energy to accomplish the goal: learning from the adage that ‘it is not appropriate to swat flies on the forehead of a friend with a hatchet’ can factor well into this process. Beginning to work in this way also prepares the actor to do something that is vital in the life of an actor, and almost always eludes Cousin Charlie. That is to listen.
Listening well, or learning how to receive a story is a key element in learning to act well; it is even, arguably, the most important element. I recently heard Dr. Dan Allender of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology say that we should strive to be Christians who are able to listen both with genuine curiosity and with an absence of contempt. This is a good description of the way well-trained actors are taught to listen. In Arena Theater, we often speak of making ourselves ‘big targets’. While in life we often listen defensively in order to get out of the range of arguments, growing actors strive to be permeable listeners who are easily affected by the words and actions of others. Listening in this way leads to questions asked from a place of curiosity, rather than contempt. In the articles I read recently, one useful strategy offered to engage with relatives and friends about difficult subjects is to ask them to offer a story from their own life experience about why, say, they voted the way they did in the last presidential election. An actor’s job would be to listen to the story offered so that she could repeat it in a way that would honor the telling. Questions—real ones— arise from this kind of listening and retelling.
Cousin Charlie doesn’t often listen in this way; too often, I don’t either. I am especially un-curious and contemptuous when receiving stories in which I perceive I have something—pride, status, the solace of being right—to lose. Politics, religion, being asked to defend whether or not I am an evangelical. And, honestly, the day-to-day of my marriage: these are all conversations in which I must work diligently and prayerfully both to acknowledge and confess the Cousin Charlie who lurks in me.
Finally, an actor learns to hold a story. The stories I hold well are stories that I value enough to carry. Dr. Jim Young, who founded Arena Theater at Wheaton, walked the mile or two to work each day praying for students, former and present, according to geographical landmarks he passed on his way to school. One day he showed me the backstop of a baseball diamond; it reminded him each day to pray for me. In this way, Jim was holding my story. If you are a person who holds stories well you know it, in part because you find lots of people inviting you to hold theirs. If no one ever asks you to hold a story, perhaps it is because you do not hold them well. Closely. Confidentially. Respectfully. Prayerfully. In Arena Theater, actors learn to advocate for the stories of their characters. You cannot advocate for a story you are not holding well.
Cousin Charlie doesn’t hold stories particularly well, especially those beyond his experience. He dismisses out of hand what he cannot easily comprehend. (I have already identified myself as Charlie, haven’t I? I am not always him, thankfully, but I do understand and identify with him better than I might care to admit.)
The decisions we make, both as individuals and collectively, to identify as evangelicals going forward will be based on what stories we consider to be essential to our faith. Will we remain mindful that we are both fallen and precious? Will we listen to others with curiosity and a lack of contempt? Will others see us as agents of grace or mistake us for Cousin Charlie?
May God grant us the grace to value, tell, receive, and hold our stories well.