“Christians in theatre” or “Christian theatre”?

Some reflections on a perennial question by former CITA Executive Director, Dr. Dale Savidge

“What do the terms ‘Christian drama/Christian theatre’ mean and why do many Christians in theatre avoid using them?”

Many people avoid the term “Christian drama” or “Christian theatre” because they are grammatically and biblically incorrect. “Christian” is a noun, not an adjective. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christian art exists in the same sense as Christian cooking. So, early on in CITA, we avoided the labels because our focus was on Christians as people doing theatre, whether that theatre was in/for a religious organization or not. Faith-based schools, theatres, etc. or not. Doesn’t matter. The people are Christians and they are doing theatre. We sensed people somehow sanctifying their theatre by labeling it Christian – so the quality didn’t matter, the spiritual results did. Still hear that in some circles. But this is also said of education, music, literature, etc in those circles. Then people think of Christian drama as evangelistic drama, especially non-Christian theatre people. To them, the label means drama which propagandizes and sermonizes (as other subcultural drama does for other ideologies). Many of us ran away from these connotations.

Now, there is drama/theatre whose content is biblical, about Christianity, etc. So the subject matter is about Christianity and that is often called Christian drama/theater. I guess like Christian music or Christian art is about Christianity (whether written/produced by a Christian or not). So we treat such theatre first as theatre, then according to its content.  The content does affect the style and form and they are intertwined, but it is also possible to see them separately. T.S. Eliot makes this argument in his essay Christianity and Literature. But we can look at this like we look at the way the ideas in plays relate to their structure.  So medieval drama and Brecht’s plays share many similarities. That’s interesting, but we digress…

People now may avoid “Christian theatre” because they want to be seen as part of the larger theater community, to be taken seriously as theatres and artists and not dismissed by non-believers. Some of that is insecurity, some of that is a false sense of persecution, and some is elitism (i.e. “real” theatre isn’t obviously Christian – though it may deal with spirituality or religion). Some of that is wisdom, because in any vocation we don’t (and often shouldn’t) need to wave a Christian flag, post-doctrinal statements on our cubicles, advertise that we are Christians.

It is dangerous to generalize and I don’t want to suspect motives. My own experience is that when I’ve worked in non-Christian organizations (schools, theatres, and conferences) I don’t get the feeling I am looked down upon, second class, suspicious, etc. And I hear from a lot of professionals in the mainstream (even that term is discriminating) that they can make their way as a believer just fine. And I also believe there are times to be very bold and outspoken that we are Christians, that we identify with Jesus Christ the Son of God; when to speak that truth is a matter for  discernment but I think the Bible is clear that as believers we will have opportunities and we are obligated to speak of our faith, not just live it out in silence.

I’m comfortable not calling my work “Christian drama” but I am also fine with people calling what they do “Christian drama” because it means the content of what they are doing is derived from scripture or Christianity and is sometimes paid for by an organization which propagates Christianity. I am also eager to focus on who we are, Christians, first, before looking at what we do. And that has been the focus of CITA since its inception.