A Review of “Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue”

Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue by Todd E. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“”Performing the Sacred” is written as a dialogue, alternating chapters between a theologian and a theatre artist. This is a more contemporary, and significantly more accessible, installment to the canon of work on theo-dramatics, and focuses on application rather than new theory. As a result, there really isn’t any new theological ground covered here. What the authors do well, however, is synthesize existing sources into a cohesive whole for a modern intersection of theology and theatre.

Of course,  I’m immediately fascinated by interdisciplinary work, and this is no exception. Savidge’s history of theatre’s interaction with the institution of the Church is thorough, though unfortunately written in a somewhat dry and academic tone. Ironically, Johnson’s theological discussion is written in a more lively tone, and is just as thorough. Both interact not only with previous modern discussion in the theo-dramatic canon (such as Harris’ “Theatre and Incarnation”), but also with such theological greats as Tillich and Kierkegaard, as well as working through the philosophical underpinning of Plato and Tertullian, and how these thinkers have impacted the theatrical arts.

Johnson identifies three theological components of theatre: incarnation, community, and presence. Again, the thought here is not drastically new for anyone who has read any theological treatments of theatre previously. What Savidge and Johnson do, however, is speak to the modern implications of this thought. The biggest take-away for me by far is the argument to the higher validity of theatre over more “virtual” arts (such as streaming media, or even film and television). The authors argue, rightfully, that the substance level of most television programming is not only far inferior to theatre, but also loses effectiveness in becoming an imitation of a more real event, in the way that speaking with someone face-to-face is more real and conducive to good communication than is a phone conversation. Thus, theatre is always more real an event than film or television, because an audience interacts with a theatrical performance in a manner that makes each performance unique. This is accomplished because the performers are present in the same space as the audience. The only aspect of this throught process that I find to be problematic is that film and television are not entirely vacuous, and good art exists in both mediums. The authors almost leave the reader with the impression that both are forever inferior to theatre. Also problematic is established rhetorical theory that claims an observer of any static artwork forever alters both the work and themselves. However, in fairness to the authors, the implied superiority of theatre that I mention is just that: implied; it is never overtly stated and the book does not leave room to treat the issue at length.

I found the final chapters a bit prescriptive at times, but thought provoking overall, for both artists active in the theatre, as well as any person of faith engaging with theatre from the audience.

Anyone with a theological bent would find this book informative, especially if he/she has not explored the intersection of theology and theatre before, in which case this book is very readable and will provide you with a launching point and direction for deeper reading.  Any theatre artist who is practicing from a faith-informed worldview will appreciate this book as well. Slightly academic, but still a good read, and worth having on your shelf.

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You can purchase “Performing the Sacred” here.

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