Theatricality in Church?

Theatricality in Church? February 20, 2019


Paris in the evening
A view of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Pont de la Tournelle, which is to say from the east southeast. The Quai de la Tournelle is visible on the left.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I try not to eavesdrop.  I really do.  But sometimes it’s almost impossible to avoid.


Sitting in the airport in Richmond, Virginia, this morning, three people sitting beside me and across from me were having a vigorous conversation at pretty high volume.  They were all Episcopalians, and one of them has been serving on the search committee tasked with choosing a new bishop for an Episcopal diocese somewhere.


He was particularly excited about one candidate, who, he kept repeating, has a background in theater and drama.  Not surprisingly, her sermons are “exciting.”


Now, I know nothing about the woman.  Perhaps her sermons are also deep, profound, inspiring, very orthodox.  Perhaps they manifest deep discipleship and motivate to Christian living in daily life.  I have nothing to say about her beyond what I heard from the somewhat elderly man beside me.  But he mentioned none of those other attributes.  He simply kept saying that her “performances” at the pulpit were “exciting” and that this was because of her background in drama and the theater.


It made me think of an essay by Hugh Nibley — is it included, perhaps, in his wonderful book The World and the Prophets? I would check, but the Maxwell Institute website appears to be down at the moment — entitled “The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else.”


Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the delivery of the “talks” given in local meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can sometimes be less than riveting.  And they’re not always especially fresh or profound.  But I’ve also seen and heard plenty of sermons from other traditions where the delivery was stellar, but the content was minimal and, evidently, something of an afterthought.  Where the appeal was to emotion rather than to the mind or, if you will, to the Spirit.  And I distinctly remember the service in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 15 August 1970, commemorating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.  The sermon was given by the then cardinal-archbishop of Paris (it must have been François Marty).  I don’t remember it, but I remember vivid green lights and spectacular organ music.  It was remarkably theatrical, and very well done.  And I felt manipulated.  I’ve also heard a few sermons that were highly intellectual but also so abstract that it was difficult to know where the preacher was going, or how it was supposed to be applicable in the lives of ordinary people.


Given the choice, I’ll go with simple and unaffected, I think.


Posted from Richmond, Virginia



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