In the opening chapters of The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers begins her dense treatise on God and art by writing, “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently [this]: the desire and the ability to make things.” As artists in the church, my husband and I feel the essential creative connection to the God of the Bible, and believe that artist or not, art is an integral part to how Christians understand and worship their creator.
In March of last year we started the Artist Fellowship at Christ the King Somerville, and our goals were twofold: to provide a place for artists within the church and the Somerville (and greater Boston) community to connect and have opportunities to share work; and to provide opportunities for the congregation at large to engage with art. It’s important to us that the monthly artist gatherings are not simply another place where artists are encouraged to talk about art, but rather a place that incites artists to do and share their work. Producing artistic work is often lonely and difficult, no matter where you live, and having a place to receive feedback and collaborative opportunities can make a huge difference.
However, my own personal journey as a theater maker has led me ever deeper into the desire to bring artistic experiences to those who may not classify themselves as artists, and I want to spend my time here sharing about the recent production of Midwinter, an Advent play performed in December 2018. As part of our mission to create opportunities for the congregation at large to engage with art, we have provided architecture walking tours and movement workshops, but the vision for Midwinter went beyond these events. Our goal was to provide a place where the congregation could encounter Advent—something many have grown up experiencing year after year—in a way that looked afresh at the themes of the season.
There is a rich tradition of sacred theater (and other types of art) that the modern western church has largely lost. In the high medieval period, churches would often gather the community to recreate scenes from the gospels or the Old Testament, dividing up the roles not based on talent, but on the specificity of calling. For example, the bakers’ guild might be in charge of staging the scene of the last supper, and the fishermen’s guild in charge of portraying Jesus walking on the water. Together, the church would use theater to remember and contemplate the truths of the Bible.
In today’s world, where theater is something done only when one is especially talented, it’s hard to reorient the purpose back to this original intention, and see theater not as purely a means of entertainment, but also as a way of working together to learn or exposit. Midwinter provided a glimpse of the fact that sacred theater is still relevant and still needed.
Most of the six women who performed in the play had little to no acting experience, and yet the passion with which they threw themselves into the work was inspiring. Moving between personal connection with the characters and the words of scripture, and a desire to give the audience a chance to really hear words they’d heard many times before was encouraging and uplifting to my own craft. During the rehearsal process the women had a chance to move and think through the scriptures in a way that isn’t possible while sitting in a pew. The emphasis moved from performance to sharing a communal experience.
It’s harder for me to gauge what the audience took from Midwinter, but with more than half of them attending from outside the CTK family (and a huge range of beliefs present) we came away from Midwinter grateful for the chance we had to share this piece of truth, and eager to continue building on the precedent it set. Judging from the comments I received afterwards and the enthusiasm with which audience members engaged during the performance itself, it seemed like it was not only the performers who were able to use theater to experience the story of Christ’s birth in a unique and meaningful way.
The more chances I can get to put theater (and art in general) into people’s hands and encourage them to use it and to get it dirty, the better. The range of tools God has given his church to experience community, share truth, and connect personally to his word is much wider than we might think. In the months and years to come, I hope to continue to invite the CTK network and the Boston community at large to consider reorienting their perception of themselves and the usefulness of theater and other forms of art in their own and their families’ walk with God.
Ruthie Buescher and her husband Bruce are members of CTK Somerville and involved in a wide variety of artistic pursuits. If you would like more information about the Artist Fellowship, you can e-mail Ruthie at firstname.lastname@example.org.