Robert Bishop

Creation as Theater

Robert Bishop

The doctrine of creation is rich in what it tells us about God’s relationship to creation. [1] Nevertheless, engaging theater as a way of knowing caused me to reflect on God’s relationship to creation and what insight we might glean from creation as God’s theater. For example, when we hear that the creation is designed, the first image we usually think of is an engineer as designer. Artistic design maybe occurs to us much later. In contrast, the Bible often describes God’s work in creation in poetic or other artistic terms.

What would it mean to see God as the director of a theatrical production and creation as theater? A good director does not override or ignore the uniqueness or talents of the actors, but enables and channels those unique abilities towards purposes of the production. Similarly, God works alongside and through natural processes to shape and direct the grand production of creation. Just as the actors’ embodied choices and actions genuinely contribute to the theatrical production, so, too, through its relative freedom does creation genuinely participate in God’s cosmic production.

Theater is often messy and complex, sometimes appearing awkward and ungraceful, while at other times beautiful and grace-filled, often surprising and unpredictable. Yet, everything serves an overarching purpose and contributes to the drama. In particular, something we learned in the CACE seminar is that an actor has to go through a process to fulfill the calling to genuinely take on a character or a physical action or a piece of dialog to make it become what it is–its own physical reality–in an embodied way. A director supervises and, along with the other actors, costume and set designers, enables the actor to fulfill this calling. Theater is an enabled process under supervision. Similarly, an element of creation becoming itself–fulfilling its calling of contributing to the grand production–is a process superintended by the Son and enabled by the Spirit and the rest of creation.

The actors’ processes of working out the character, dialog and action is not the model of efficiency, a feature we routinely associate with engineering design. As we learned in the seminar, developing the appropriate movements and actions and then getting these into one’s body to be able to perform repetitively yet with a creative freedom takes a very different process than engineering. The skill, guidance and big-picture view of the director along with the collaboration of other actors enables an actor to work through what often seems to be a very awkward and risk-taking process to eventually embody the character in an authentic way. Similarly with creation. When focusing on engineering design, we tend to only see the end product, marvelous as it is. But we miss how important the process of getting to that product is. Creation is much more about processes superintended by the Son and enabled by the Spirit on its way to the consummation the Father has called it to.

When we think about engineering design, precision typically comes to mind. A theatrical production requires precision, too. Think of the design and building of the set and costumes, placement and use of props, lighting, the timing of the delivery of lines and pauses, the exactness of moments of action and inaction. The director provides important guidance and inspiration for all of this precision to contribute to the fulfillment of the production’s purposes. In similar fashion, we can make sense of creation’s precision as it participates through the Son and Spirit in the fulfillment of divine purposes in God’s grand drama of redemption leading to new creation.

Whether you are actor or audience, you are always a co-participant in a theatrical production. This is one of the intentions of the director. The drama is incomplete without this participation. In the seminar, we learned that theater is about choice. For instance, the actor has to choose to associate with and advocate the character if the drama is to be genuine. As seminar participants, we began to experience what it means to identify with a person in a story and be their advocate, to use our agency to bring that person and that moment to life in an authentic way. Similarly we are co-participants with the rest of creation in its becoming what it has been called in Christ to be. How often do we pause to reflect on our agency in creation, that we are actors called to associate with and advocate in God’s creation? In a society where we default to thinking about creation as a collection of resources to meet our needs and desires, the privilege and responsibility of being co-participants through Christ in creation’s fulfilling its calling can serve as a much needed corrective to this default.

Finally, while an artistic production is not deterministic, it is guided. Everything we have discovered about creation through scientific investigation is consistent with creation not being deterministic, yet still guided. A focus on engineering design sometimes leads us to think of creation as a grand machine. In contrast, thinking about God leading creation as a director of cosmic theater gives creation space to breathe and for us to participate in its calling of bringing forth (Gen. 1) that reveals our Creator Redeemer.