Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kierkegaard on Worship as Theater

Of course, being a pastor, I can't help thinking of the connections between theater and worship. A friend reminded me today of Kierkegaard's musings on that subject.

“Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolish of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as the actor, and the listeners  as  theatergoers  who  are  to  pass  judgment  upon  the  artist. But the speaker is not the actor–not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each  listener  will  be  looking  into  his  own  heart.  The stage  is eternity, and the listener, if his is the true listener (and if he is not, he  is  at  fault)  stands  before  God  during  the  talk.  The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern –is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers  the  word  to  the  listeners. But  the  main  concern  is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of the address. The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed for. If the speaker has that responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fall  short  in  his  task.  In  the  theater,  the  play  is  staged  before  an audience  who  are  called  theatergoers;  but  at  the  devotional  address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense God is the critical theatergoer,  who  looks  on  to  see  how  the  lines  are  spoken  and  how they  are  listened  to:  hence  here  the  customary  audience  is  wanting. The  speaker  then  is  the  prompter,  and  the  listener  stands  openly before  God.  The  listener,  if  I  may  say  so,  is  the  actor,  who  in  all truth acts before God.”

It is natural to think of worship as a kind of performance, with the liturgist, musicians, preacher, etc., as the actors, and the congregation as the theatergoers. Not so, Kierkegaard says. The liturgist, the ushers, the choirs, the pastor, the organist et al, are the prompters. The congregation are the performers-- they listen and observe the worship and stand before God as they do so. It is God who is the audience, the one for whom our worship takes place.

And this too makes me think about my experience of getting hung up with/ lost in "my own stuff" while attending a play. Can that happen during worship? Of course.

In 2008 I attended the Festival of Homiletics (Preaching) in Minneapolis. The first preacher was a legend, Tom Long, and he preached on the very passage on which I preached for the very first time as a Master's student in Boston, John 4, the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

As I listened to the opening words of the sermon, my inner monologue went something like this:

"Hmmmm... this is interesting. I wonder why he started there? Huh.

Oh. Oh, ok. 

OH, now I see where he's...

Oh, niiiiiiiiice. Well done.

Oooh... oohh, yeah...."

(I realize that the sentences typed above could describe... let's just say.... a number of different kinds of human experiences.)

Somewhere around this time, the "Me that is Preacher and Wants to Do It Better" switched off, mercifully. That is because the art of the sermon, finally, captivated me. It lifted me out of myself, and helped me to turn off my critical, self-conscious, observing self, and to simply be, in the presence of the Word proclaimed. I stood before God. Long wasn't performing for me. He was the prompter, so that I might have an experience of the Living Word-- or, as the passage would have it, Living Water.

And I did.

1 comment:

  1. It is so easy for me as someone trained in church music and liturgy to get analytic during liturgy. I find it difficult to switch off. Sometimes, though, the music, prayers, or homily of my own save the experience for me when what is being presented is crushing rather than uplifting.