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Symposium: Using the body brings Scripture, worship to life

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Christians haven’t taken their liturgy to the theater, noted Peter Goerzen, Bethel College campus pastor – but maybe they should.

Goerzen was opening Bethel’s 4th biennial Worship and the Arts Symposium, held on campus Nov. 18.

Of the 2017 symposium theme, “Seasons of the Soul: Enacting the Mystery of Faith,” Goerzen said, “We recognize that the arts give expression to the deepest longings and desires of the soul – meaning, relationships, goodness, truth, beauty, to rejoice, to lament, to praise, to laugh.

“This year, we turn our attention to the role of theater and acting in embodying the mystery.”

The main presenter for the symposium was actor and writer Ted Swartz, Harrisonburg, Virginia, who leads the performance group Ted & Co. TheaterWorks.

Swartz began his latest visit to Bethel College with a Friday convocation, “Life as Comedy,” for students and visitors.

“We all have heroes of the faith, who lead us to a greater understanding of the Divine, and our place in the universe,” he said. “One of mine is St. John Cleese of the Holy Church of Monty Python [who revealed to me] that humor could be that silly and that smart.

“Our creator calls us to be fully human,” Swartz continued, “and one way is through humor,” adding that “humor” and “human” share a common root that means, literally, “earthy.”

The first plenary session of the symposium was largely a demonstration of using theater in church, beginning with Goerzen asking participants to join in a Psalm reading (parts of 67 and 68).

“Many of the Psalms have theatrical elements such as call and response, and antiphon,” he noted. Later in the morning, a participant noted that the simple acts of “standing, speaking and paying attention” changed the experience of Scripture.

Swartz spent much of his time walking the audience through an exercise in how a group can start the process of writing a sketch from a passage of Scripture, in this case, from Mark 2, the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the ceiling for Jesus to heal.

The discussion brought up a topic that arose again later – the difference between “church drama” and “theater.”

“‘Church drama’ too often tells us what we already know,” Swartz said. “[My former theater partner Lee Eshleman and I] learned early on that it’s a waste of time if it does that rather than make us see things differently, ask questions, be confused and/or be disturbed.”

He also criticized “church drama” for “too often setting the bar low, with the sense that ‘just because it’s in church, it’s good enough,’ and they’re ‘not going to walk out on you.’”

Workshop options ranged from an examination of the new (in process) hymnal for Mennonite Church USA, with two members of the committee, pastors Cynthia Neufeld Smith, Topeka, and Tom Harder, Wichita; to exploring ways of activating a congregation’s physical bodies in worship, with Laurel Koerner, director of theater at Tabor College, Hillsboro; to analyzing Scripture for literary elements and practicing its performance, with John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel professor of communication arts; to hearing artist Jerry Holsopple, Harrisonburg, Virginia, talk about the process of creating his exhibit “7 x 7: Laments for an Age of Sexualized Power,” mixed-media paintings, which opened in Bethel’s Regier Gallery during the symposium.

In the final plenary session of the symposium, Patty Shelly, Bethel professor of Bible and religion, moderated a panel in which she, Koerner and McCabe-Juhnke made comments on what they had heard during the day, with responses from Swartz.

“I’m reminded of a quote from Raymond Brown,” Shelly remarked, “who says when we’re in the Scriptures, we’re in our Father’s house, where the children are allowed to play. This was our experience this morning. I’m grateful for how theater can open up the Bible to us.”

When thinking about “theater in church,” Koerner said, “Church is theater – it’s a dramatic act and structured to be that way. Art can be a kind of church in that it can carve out space for and activate the spiritual dimension of our lives.”

She also pointed to quotes she found helpful, including one from Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

“That aligns with how church and corporate worship can function,” Koerner said. “We come together and hear the Word in order to be able to take it out into the rest of our lives. Worship and art can do the same kinds of ‘refreshing and reminding’ work.”

McCabe-Juhnke mused that his work with theater in prison bears some resemblance to bringing theater to church.

“What happens when you bring something free and open, that is about questioning, into a place like prison that is controlled and about following all the rules to the letter? It’s like a clash of cultures. Bringing the theater to church is also that way. We’re so used to the structures in which we have ‘always done’ church.”

At the same time, he said, “Enacting [as found in the symposium title] is about making things take bodily form. Bringing bodily creativity to worship can open and enhance it.”

Koerner offered another quote, this one from writer Anne Lamott: “Perfection is shallow, unreal and fatally uninteresting.”

“Trying to be perfect while also trying to be vulnerable, real and honest just won’t work,” she said. “What I took from Ted was that we need to embrace the mystery and the imperfection.”

“ [In creation,] God said, ‘It is good,’ not ‘It is perfect,’” Swartz said. “That means it’s in process, it’s evolving, it’s on a journey, it has somewhere to go.”

He continued, “We sometimes insert theater into church, but maybe art is church.

“I don’t think I can understand the mystery of God without [accepting] the mystery of God. I’m not going to give a succinct answer to who God is, but I’m going to write a play that helps me understand how I feel about it.

“Nobody has been able to explain why and how art can point us in the direction it does. Nobody can explain the mystery of God. Art has saved my faith more than once.”

The symposium included an artist reception for Holsopple’s exhibit, which remains in the Regier Art Gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center through Dec. 7, and closed with a hymn festival-style worship service of Scripture performance, congregational singing and pieces by the Bethel College Concert Choir and a mass choir of Bethel choral groups and community members.

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.