Volume 5 Number 1
Preaching As Theatre
by Jana Childers, professor of homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary, author of Performing the Word: Preaching As Theatre (Abingdon, 1998), and PTS Class of 1982
Loving the theatre has made all the difference in my preaching. But it is not in regard to skills learned or techniques picked up that it is has been so valuable to me. I had started working on many of preachingís key skills long before I discovered acting. I already knew, for example, about internalization, the art of outering what you inner; I had learned to connect my feelings to my face in the Pentecostal church I grew up in. Vocal projection and modulation were learned from a youth choir director. And I first began to understand how important timing and snappy introductions are in a ninth-grade public speaking class. No, it was not the mechanics the theatre teaches that turned out to be so important, it was the ethos.
I did not appreciate the nature of preaching until I fell in love with the theatre. Before that, I didnít have a category for what preaching and theatreóat their bestóare. I could only think of them as craft: persuasion, pontification, propaganda, exposition, harangue. I needed to learn what art was before I could appreciate what preaching was and, as it happens, I learned that in a college theatre course. "Art does not teach, it reveals; it is more about illumination than lessons, more about epiphanies than persuasion," Wheaton College theatre professor M. James Young used to say. What I learned in his classes was deepened a few years later in Bill Beenersís studio. Preaching is a theatre-like art, Dr. B showed us: it requires discipline and intentionality, and it is far better to be conscious of what your voice and body are doing than unaware of the messages they are sending.
This is the point where many people get stuck, of course. Do we really have to be conscious of what we are doing? Isnít it better to be lifted out of oneself, to be an empty channel, a pristine vehicle for The Word? As soon as we are conscious of the effect we are creating, arenít we in danger of manipulation and egocentricity? It is in theatre that I find the best answer to these questions. "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," Stanislavski advised. It is the artistís equivalent of "Sin boldly." It is also good theology in and of itself. Authenticity, the most prized of all the pulpit and stageís effects, is not a result of the performerís oblivion or denial, it is the product of disciplined self-givingóthe product of love. A preacher can learn about love and art in a number of places; I learned them in the theatre, and I am grateful.
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