I was first captivated by the academic pursuit of religion in a course I took my first year of college. The course was Religion, Literature, and Film. I was astounded to learn that religion could break out of the church building in ways that didn't involve mission or conversion. Further, it was eye-opening to learn that religion could critique society, and that the arts could critique religion. (Yes, I know this seems naïve ~ I guess I was somewhat sheltered in small town Texas.) Beyond that, we got to read novels and watch movies in class.
I've come to appreciate the discipline of noticing the intersection of religion and art. Digging into this conversation between religion and art strengthens my faith, especially when the artist is obviously communicating a criticism of my own tradition.
But maybe more than looking for the obvious, I like to decipher theological and religious themes in artwork even when the artist is not (obviously) working those into their work. For this reason, I've always been excited when I've had the opportunity to participate in Theater and Theology. Theater and Theology is a monthly event which brings people from different local Lutheran congregations to the theater (along with whoever else bought tickets for the show that night) to see a play. That's the theater part. The theology part is after the play, when the audience is invited to stay in the theater and the cast invited back onto the stage for a theological talkback.
This seems like a prime opportunity for someone who is relatively fluent in theological language to lead a conversation where moral and ethical and sociological and theological themes in the production ~ especially those themes that many people might not have noticed, or might not have language to understand or articulate ~ can be highlighted and investigated. Unfortunately, though (and this may be because people are interested in the logistics of the production more than the theology), this kind of deeper theological conversation has never happened at the Theater and Theology events I've participated in.
Recently I went to see the Theater and Theology production of To Kill A Mockingbird. The play was fantastic. Unfortunately, though, in the talkback we got caught up in talking about racism and bullying; about the differences between the book and the play; about how much school the child actors were missing. These are great topics for conversation, but they none of them were taken into theological depths, or articulated within a theological framework, which was disappointing for me.
In particular, I would have loved to hear the actors respond to questions of how justice in the face of hatred (which are obvious in the play) might be related to original sin. See, injustice pervades all of our society, all of our lives ~ is this way, it is the same as original sin. How would the actors respond to the question, 'Are we stuck with it?' or “Are our attempts to right societal wrongs futile, because we all sin and fall short of the glory of G-d?” I would have loved to hear the actors, especially those who played Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, reflect on the difference between their character and themselves as actors, particularly as related to our Lutheran Christian articulation of simil justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and saint).
I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm something of a theological geek, and I stipulate that not everyone gravitates toward this kind of conversation like I do. At the same time, though, it seems to me like people are longing for theological conversation, for ways to make religious sense of the world outside the church building ~ and this kind of event seems like a prime opportunity to explore those topics as a community.
Which, I believe, is part of the job of pastors ~ to publicly make theological and religious sense of the world. And if we who are part of mainline and progressive threads of Christianity don't do this more obviously, we relinquish the public voice of Christianity to the evangelical fundamentalists.