The Script and the Scriptures
I’ve always been an actor.
What that means, however, has always been in flux. In elementary, it meant performing in Bible-based plays for Juniata Mennonite School (a lovely K-12 establishment with less than 200 students total). These scripts gave third grade Scotty his first exposure to spoken lines. I’ll never forget the thrill of yelling “Let us take them, NOW!” while spearheading a group of Israelites against the prophets of Baal.
Eventually more delicate roles came my way (who knew that Joseph sang a moving, prepubescent-voiced solo after the birth of Jesus?), and in middle school joined the high school drama team.. I was allowed to join because, in short, we were short. Short on money, short on actors, short on an atmosphere of artistic culture. We Mennonites, though we make great pies, aren’t exactly known for our operas.
With secular plays either too expensive or too…secular, and Christian plays too…weird, we did the only thing we could: We wrote our own.
This was a trip. If you corner me, I will swear up and down that these plays were actually good. I know it may seem unlikely, and maybe I’m biased because the playwright was usually my dad, who rapidly cobbled together dialogue and scenes from the muse of our group-brainstorming sessions. But half the fun was that the quality wasn’t the point. First and foremost, we sought to do a ministry. These plays, though not always Bible-based, contained a clear Christian moral or message, a picture of what faith could look like. We were free to forget ourselves. I saw lives changed by these plays, and don’t have space enough to write how blessed I was to work with the many people who wrote and acted and sang alongside me.
Now, cut to Cairn University. I love acting here; it’s been a fantastic, warm experience thus far. It’s also a wholly different beast. I no longer rehearse with the playwright in the room, asking, “Hey, Dad, would this line be better if _____ ?” At Cairn, our playwrights either dead or otherwise absent, we have to decide how to best interpret his or her words.
I also no longer openly proselytize on stage. The Christian morals in these shows are there, but more implicit. Our upcoming production, “The Secret Garden”, bears strong tones of Hindu spirituality: chants, charms, spirits, all that good stuff. But its Hinduism is not for Hinduism’s sake. Rather, in a story of loss, disease, and family strife, the Hindu elements convey values that Christians have always believed: That the darkest things can be redeemed. That life can flourish in death-filled soil. That love, true love, can heal people. These messages should change us.
And all the effort and practice that goes into these shows? That, too, is worship, an opportunity to lose oneself in honoring God. In our rehearsals, our voices will sometimes go suddenly soft mid-song. That’s because Ms. Massie, Mr. Condy, or Sara Mahoney is adjusting our bodies as we perform, moving them maybe half a foot center stage, turning them slightly inward, or just begging us to give more intention, for crying out loud! The bodies, the music, the singing, the sound tech…it all goes into creating a believable world.
I believe this desire for excellence comes from some strange, God-given conviction which tells us part of being creatures is creating beautiful things. To make meaning where none previously existed. Martin Luther once said (or didn’t say), “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship”. Whether he said it or not, I more or less hold to it.
But do we actually reach people? Let me answer with a story.
Last year, after a performance of “She Loves Me”, the cast stood in line outside the chapel to shake hands with the attendees. As I stood there in 1930s European fashion, a woman walked up to me. I had seen her in the crowd. She was older, squat, with short dark-gray hair. As she approached, she looked up so that I could read her all-caps tattoo, “GAY PRIDE” scrawled roughly in blue ink across her face. Needless to say, I had never seen anyone like this at Cairn (much less at Juniata Mennonite).
“Could I get a picture with you?” she asked. I gladly agreed.
I don’t know this woman’s story. Those tattoos may no longer reflect her convictions. Maybe they do. But after she got her picture and walked away, I was left with a question I still have no answer to:
What other event could bring a woman like that to a place like Cairn?
Fellow Highlanders, I’ve benefitted so greatly from your love of beauty. Don’t lose it. In your desire for winning souls, don’t ignore the art those souls create, watch, and listen to. In your enjoyment of consumer-ready Netflix series, don’t forget the value of a craft well-honed. For if we search, we can find splinters of holiness everywhere, even in the search itself.
In the words of poet Noah benShea, you are a man with a lantern who goes in search of a light.