Inspired by Balthasar, Kevin Vanhoozer, Sam Wells and others, many theologians are working within a theatrical model of theology and theological ethics. The theatrical turn has some classical roots (e.g., Calvin’s idea of the world as the theater of God’s glory), but recent work has pressed the model much further than before. 

Wesley Vander Lugt’s Living Theodrama (Ashgate, 2014) is one of the most systematic treatments of the topic. He takes theater as a “model” for Christian theology and practice, by which he means “a state of affairs with metaphorical potential to explain reality in relation to divine revelation, expand theological knowledge, and exert practical influence’ (24). 

As Vander Lugt describes it, the theatrical turn is a lot of turns rolled into one: from monologue to dialogue, from narrative understanding to dramatic performance, from application to improvisation, from an individual to a communal focus, from theory to practice to theory, from scientific to aesthetic standards for judging the “fittingness” of theological and ethics. The theatrical model presents, in short, a comprehensive setting within which theologians theologize, preachers preach, catechists catechize, Christians walk in the way of Jesus.

One of Vander Lugt’s important contributions is his focus on disponibilite, a concept found in Balthasar who found it in Gabriel Marcel, Disponibilite names the readiness, openness, availability that should characterize Christian performance. As Vander Lugt develops it, it includes openness to the Triune God - the Father as Playwright, the Son as Protagonist and Chief Improviser, the Spirit as Producer-Director; openness to the Script-ures as both record of classic performances and script for future performances (transcript and prescript); to the Christian tradition and the performances of saints; to others, both believers and unbelievers, and to the cultural situation in which we find ourselves. Disponibilite is not a neutral or passive stance; it is active readiness to follow God’s will, and thus has a built-in orientation. Those who are guided by disponibilite are not blown here and there by doctrinal winds.

Vander Lugt criticizes some classical uses of theatrical analogies. Christian performers should be responsive to the roles they are given, but they are not provided with a fixed set of lines to deliver. Christian performance is more like improv than like presented a fully scripted play. Working through the analogy with improv brings out the evils of stage-hogging performance (the bad acting of many pastors!) and emphasizes the need to avoid “blocking” and to “accept” and even “over-accept” of others’ performances. Disponibilite includes the readiness to incorporate others’ gestures and movements into one’s own performance.

The theatrical turn in theology and ethics is promising, not least because it might help to break through some traditional doctrinal logjams (e.g., justification might be considered role-assignment that needs to be enacted). 

My one caution is that models often  turn into battlegrounds, with minor differences exaggerated and strife over ownership (witness the debates inside the “theological interpretation” movement). So, work out the implications of the theatrical model, press them as far as you can, but hold it loosely. It’s one model, a highly fruitful one, but not the final word in theology.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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