I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Three On the Aisle,” a show in which three NYC theater critics discuss a range of topics. While I always find them extremely well informed and very interesting, I was especially excited about the topic of this particular podcast: “Problematic Shows and Those Who Love/Hate Them.”
The critics presented more questions than solutions, and as is to be expected, their opinions were colored by their own personal preferences. When discussing whether Carousel (problematic because of the ways it seems to justify, and in some ways glorify, a wife-beater) should still be performed, one of the critics, Elisabeth Vincentelli, claimed that it was simply too beautiful to cease performing it. They had similar opinions on My Fair Lady, though they did not shy away from discussing the problems they saw in both shows.
As I listened, the question rattled around in my own brain, and it has continued to do so. Should shows that are considered “problematic” be performed? As the next logical step in that train of thought, I asked myself, “Who is deciding what is problematic?” And then, of course, the inevitable question which is always where I seem to end up these days: “What is the real purpose of theater?”
The only way I could begin to answer that question was to start with what I know theater is not: it is certainly not for an elite few who have the jurisdiction of saying what is problematic and what is not. I have recently been brushing up on my theater history, and one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is how many times theater was recognized for the revolutionary force that it is, and an attempt made to either stamp it out or control it. In each attempt, it eventually came back with more to say and a farther reach.
I have not been shy with my opinion that mainstream American theater has reached a breaking point, and is at a crossroads. It can no longer continue along the trajectory it’s been following and be relevant to the population, and like the melodramas of the early nineteenth century, traditional realism and big-production stage theater will eventually become a relic. Of that I have no doubt. But considering what the next trend will be is much more interesting, and I think it starts with the very questions Three on the Aisle was addressing.
A few months ago I read a fascinating article by American Theatre about the dearth of conservative theater. It highlighted a number of problems, including the fact that some artists claim they have been ostracized because of even the most tangential associations with conservative politics in their shows, and in the case of one woman, a festival she ran in an attempt to provide an outlet to playwrights who couldn’t get their work done anywhere else (even though she herself was very politically liberal.) I’m not going to harp on this topic, though I do feel this is something theater artists need to take a long, hard look at amongst their own ranks. I’m much more interested in the larger point of the article, which was that most conservatives feel no compulsion to go to the theater because they know they won’t see themselves or their opinions reflected onstage.
I believe being approached with new ideas and opinions is one of the essential and sacred tasks of the theater. But I also believe that the core human need and desire with any type of theater, through any age of history, is and has been to find connection. To not see oneself, or a reflection of some part of oneself in a performance is to be completely unmoved by it. Think of the shows that mean the most to you; I know my own most beloved shows are those in which I have found a deep and profound connection to the characters and the journeys they travel.
I am not trying to make a political statement, but I know for a fact that if there is a large percentage of the population that does not feel they can attend the theater because their stories are not being told, we as theater artists are failing. To be honest, I’m not even sure how we got here, because I know plenty of people who identify in other ways (as people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, women) who also feel that their stories are not being told. So whose stories are we telling?
Back to the topic of this piece. Should theaters tell the stories of people they do not agree with? Should plays that seem problematic to some, or to many, be performed? For many (most?) theater artists, the answer is probably no. It seems unethical to ask artists to be part of narratives they do not support.
I often feel that I walk a very fine line between worlds, and for a long time now I have been fascinated by the fact that I have friends and colleagues on all sides who sincerely feel that they have been marginalized and squeezed out of the conversation. Friends who are extremely liberal who feel silenced and judged by the society at large. Friends who are very conservative who feel that they couldn’t even consider a career in the arts. (And to be honest, they probably couldn’t.)
I am not sure what the solution is, but with all my study of theater history, I am beginning to wonder if the problem is not necessarily what is being presented, but how it is being presented. Maybe if, as in Shakespeare’s and Moliere’s times, audiences were allowed to express an opinion, more people would be compelled to participate in performances. Maybe if, as with Commedia dell’Arte and medieval mystery plays, people were a part of the action, they would feel more agency in the dialogue. Maybe if we just lowered the effing ticket prices.
I am a bit of a theater revolutionary--not necessarily in content, but in style. I’m ready to chuck the whole thing out, and start again with workshops and devised plays and shabby theaters and day jobs. But I know what that means for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t wish disaster on anyone. I just wish people in American could see their own bodies as vessels of story, their own narratives as worthy of communal performance and a little bit of reflection. I hold desperately to the idea that if we can just stop doing such shiny theater, maybe they will.
I would never ask an artist to work on something they do not agree with. But I do know that feeling ignored is a large part of why so many of the political trends we’re seeing today are happening, and any kind of true change only comes about by extending a loving opportunity to everyone--even those we don’t understand or particularly like. Theater’s primary purpose is not to give voice to the right ideals, but simply to give voice. Scary as that may be.
For those inside the theater world, the state of contemporary theater is hotly debated. For those outside of the theater world...it is not. In fact, outside of popular shows such as Hamilton and Wicked, it’s safe to assume that the average American, especially age 35 and under, has very little idea about what’s going on in the world of theater.
Since the rise of films, this has been a losing battle for American theater. After all, why pay $50 to see a play, when one can pay $10 to see a movie? (And, for that matter, why pay $10 to see a movie when one can watch Netflix on a large screen TV?) In a culture that largely values realism above other forms of representation, movies and television present a much more complete and immersive experience of reality. Live theater, for all its ingenuity, will always be less realistic than a film.
Over the past 70 or so years, theater’s--and in particular Broadway’s--response has been to attempt either greater realism (look at how detailed and realistic our set is!) or greater feats of spectacle (as in Julie Taymor’s infamous project, Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark.) In some cases, such as a much more successful Taymor project, The Lion King, this has resulted in beautiful and moving pieces of theater. However, the ultimate result of this quest to compete with cinema and television is not the success of live theater, but rather the death of it. In order for theater to be relevant to the culture of America and to engage the average American, there needs to be a dynamic shift in the way theater is understood.
Before contemplating the solution, it’s important to understand the depth of the problem. On the surface, it may look like simply a lack of ticket sales and a marketing problem, but the sickness of the American theater runs much deeper. Let’s start by considering content. A survey of shows currently running or soon to open on Broadway reveals a number of musicals based on movies (such as Frozen, Aladdin, and Mean Girls), a handful of shows that are star-vehicles (such as Jimmy Buffet’s Escape to Margaritaville and Springsteen on Broadway) and a large number of revivals (such as My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, and The Iceman Cometh.) There is a sprinkling of new shows, but the majority of the shows are revivals or plays that producers know will sell tickets based on fan popularity.
In addition, the prices of tickets are enormous. With shows like Hamilton setting a precedent of prices in the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per ticket, people attending shows on Broadway expect to pay at least $100 for seats in the back of the theater, with the average ticket price in 2016 at $303. While prices in regional theaters are nowhere near Broadway ticket prices, across the nation the starting cost of a ticket is somewhere between $30-40. With an average American income between $27,000 to $50,000 even that is a pretty prohibitive number to make seeing a live theater show a regular occurrence.
However, the recycled material and high ticket prices are not the only symptom of an ailing American theater. As the 2010s have worn on, there has been more and more talk about the changing theater practitioner, and who it is that is actually making the art. The Guardian released an article in 2016 in which it cited a study done by the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths College that found that only 27% of actors come from a working class background and that the “profession is heavily skewed toward the privileged.” Dames Helen Mirren and Julie Walters have warned that “acting is becoming the preserve of those with wealthy parents.” This point hits especially close to home for me, as a theater director who has often felt the frustration of not being able to pay the thousands of dollars for a workshop or training that also requires one to take weeks off of work. Combined with the expense many theater artists are paying for undergraduate and masters degrees, working a 9-5 job to pay off school loans is often essential. The connections and important training to be attained by learning with the theater elite seems to have become the provenance of the rich.
It is at this point that an understanding of theater history becomes essential, and contrary to other forms of art, I would argue that theater has historically been the provenance of the poor. There have certainly been celebrity actors as far back as Greek theater, but the true purpose of live theater has always been as either a mouthpiece for new ideas, or a way to interact in community.* There is no space for theater to become exclusive to the wealthy. Even Shakespeare, for all his masterful wordplay and heightened language, considered the peasants who thronged to his shows and made sure to access their experience, writing with an eye as much to the common person as he did the king. Sophocles, exposing some of the most complex emotions known to man, included a chorus to help the audience along. And in both cases, the theater was widely accessible to whoever wanted to attend.
Taking it a step beyond Shakespeare and Sophocles, I believe theater at its best--in its most important form--has always been done on a small scale. To me, the most compelling examples of live theater include Commedia dell’Arte--troupes that began in Italy and traveled around Europe performing in marketplaces, encouraging audience engagement; the sacred theater of the Middle Ages, in which whole towns would take turns reenacting the events of scripture together with the priests; or Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in which the audience became “spect-actors” and were required to create alongside the performers in order to incite lasting social change.
At the root of all these forms of theater is the human impulse to create and to make sense of the world, and this is what has been taken away by the spoon-fed spectacle of contemporary American theater. At its core, theater should encourage its audience to speak, to share the same room with living bodies who are presenting something in a way that can be engaged with. Theater is shouting back at the clown, it is challenging oneself to dialogue instead of simply imbibe. It is all the things that were lost when Richard Wagner turned the seats in his theater to face the stage, shutting the audience out of both the process and the product.
Coming back to this idea of small, tangible, process-oriented theater is the only thing that can make it relevant again to a culture that has lost interest. Theater as an industry has not only denied the concept of communal theater, it has even denied the idea that the theater maker is in charge, and placed control in the hands of the producer. While that may be well and good for other forms of entertainment, it does not work for theater (the short term gains of Hamilton, of course, excluded) and in the long run this kind of businesslike view is stifling and killing the art.
What does saying goodbye to this way of doing theater look like? It means much lower ticket prices, which in turn means no more massive theaters, no more elaborate costumes and excessive sets. It means no more trying to compete with the scale of films, which is a losing battle anyway. It means no more trying to attract audiences with a cheap appeal to star-power or expensive lights. It means the end of actors going into the business in order to become rich and famous.
But it also means the advent of audiences who find themselves engaged and called upon, and in an era when the only audiences that are attending live theater are beginning to die off, this is desperately needed. We have realism in its most complete form on our TVs. We need something else in our theaters; we need a communal experience to break people away from their screens. Moving American theater in this direction means changing the perception of what an actor is (read: we are all actors) and focusing less on a polished product and more on facilitation. It also mean helping people understand their physical bodies and their role as members of a community in a much more profound way.
The movement has already begun; Broadway is dying, and small, engagement-focused theaters are on the rise. And yet, imagine what kind of outpouring of life-giving theater could occur if the money that’s being dumped into the dying remnants of the 19th and 20th century beast that is American theater was instead poured into creative initiatives in our schools and communities. It’s time to stop living under the illusion that the theater we’ve been ingesting and supporting is salvageable, and start engaging in theater as it should be.
*Though I believe this is largely true for theater in other cultures as well, it should be noted that I am speaking primarily about the Western theater tradition, which includes European and North American theater.
Like many Millennials, I sometimes think about Hamilton. When I do, it’s almost always the very short phrase from the song “Satisfied,” that goes, appropriately: “I’ve never been satisfied.” That’s it--just one short phrase, musically repeating in my mind.
When I met my husband, the phrase in my mind extended to include the further lyrics: “You’re like me. Never satisfied.” I remember thinking throughout our year of dating that one of the truest and most immediate similarities between us was our underlying drive. I don’t think he saw it right away because I tend to mask mine more, but I knew it immediately, and it’s what made me first know to hold onto him. I felt instinctively that this mutual lack of satisfaction made us fundamentally compatible. After all, it’s what made him choose to pursue architecture and music, what made me move to New York and Boston and become a director, what keeps us both up at night, typing and painting away. But it’s more than that.
This lack of satisfaction is my truest and oldest companion. I remember lying awake at night, staring at the twin red lights of electric towers over the distant rooftops, trying to make up a reality that would satisfy me. I pretended the towers housed magical twin sisters, spinning beside their lights. It would be years before I read my first George MacDonald story, but my heart already knew his same obsession with, and was utterly convinced of, the unseen.
It was with unimaginable relief that I read the words of C.S. Lewis, years later, from his famous passage in Mere Christianity that describes his desire for something that nothing in this world can satisfy:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
I was suddenly able to give a name and direction to the longing I’d always felt, and suddenly able to find cohesion in the writers I held most dear—McKillip and LeGuin and Chesterton and Tolkien and all the others who so firmly believe that there has to be more. These days I lump Lewis and Chesterton with others like Christian Wiman and St. Augustine in a fellowship of those who, like me and Hamilton, will never be satisfied; who understand the fundamental unrest of living in a world that marries the depressing mundanity of gas stations with a God whose glory is inconceivable. But more on that later.
My lack of satisfaction has always been a point of angst for me, and I struggle with the question of how much I am allowed to feel this way. I went through a very long period as a teenager, as I started to get serious about my faith, in which I felt guilty for the fact that I was so restless. It is indeed a fine line, because it’s so easy to confuse drive and a spiritual awareness of the already-not-yet with plain old malcontent. I do feel that my impatience and tendency to always look to the next thing are often excuses for a heart that seeks fulfillment in every place besides it’s true place--as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”
However, true rest is not a possibility yet, and though the call of the Christian is to quiet her heart and seek contentment in the Lord, it is a lifelong battle. Recently, I have been thinking carefully about this never-ending restlessness and how it is as natural to me as breathing. Whereas in the past I have constantly told myself to stop seeking, and to find rest, I am wondering if perhaps, as so many of my favorite writers and musicians and artists and thinkers have shown, this restlessness, if approached thoughtfully, is actually a good thing.
It is certainly a good thing when it comes to being a creative. In fact it is impossible to create without it. The hallmark of an artist is not someone who finds placid contentment in the things she sees, but one who has a constant desire to interpret, comment on, or question the world. At a recent talk I attended, I heard poet Sarah Chestnut speak about the “I must” impulse of the artist—the constant voice that challenges one to create, not for renown or gain but simply because there is a fundamental urge to do so. I believe this impulse is God-given, and as creatures made in his image, it must be part of his character as well.
I am now beginning to believe that this quality does not stop with artists, but that it is something all Christians are called to. By the very fact of being sojourners, we are not permitted to find full contentment in this world, and Lewis goes on to say this in the rest of the Mere Christianity passage:
I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.
This sentiment is echoed consistently in the words of Christian thinkers from Bonhoeffer, to the apostle Paul, to my personal favorite, Rich Mullins, who was a poet of constant yearning. My soul has been encouraged time and time again by these and many others who have gone before, and it is time I stopped feeling frustration with my lack of satisfaction, and started embracing it as the Holy Spirit reminds me that this world is not my home.
Of course, the temptation remains to confuse the feeling with dissatisfaction in what God has given me, or a desire to fulfill my yearning with the work I do on earth, rather than in the only true satisfaction: God himself. But if God is who he says he is, and the world we see only a microscopic crack in the wealth of his character and glory, and if it really is true that we have been offered the ability to know him and become like him, how can we cease to be constantly searching, desiring, and creating in our thirst to drink from his bottomless well?
It was this that Bruce and I spoke of on our second date, sitting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, surrounded by Monet paintings. Though I didn’t know it yet, I think that was the moment my heart became his. As Lewis says, we are all called—not just husbands and wives, but every person in the church—to remind each other of the holy lack of satisfaction that is, ultimately, a wild and important gift.
I keep hearing a tiny voice in the back of my mind. At first, it was just a whisper, mumbling incoherently as I came closer to understanding some kind of truth. But during the last week it has grown so loud and insistent that I can hear it speaking to me clearly:
You can’t buy love.
And, more importantly:
You can’t buy love when it’s already been freely given to you.
I’ve only been married for 45 days—a tiny drop in the ocean of experience many other people boast. But I don’t consider what I’m about to write to be specific to people who are married; rather, I think that marriage has been the means through which I have begun to realize this reality. For others, it will be through different means: a friendship, a sacrifice, a family member. For me, these 45 early days of marriage have started to show me something I should have realized long before.
I noticed first the feelings of insecurity. As I got used to spending so much time with another human—sleeping in the same bed, eating breakfast and dinner together, having to make eye contact on a regular basis—I noticed how unaccustomed I was to having someone observe me so completely, and then I realized that I was constantly wondering how I was being perceived. I began to observe, watch, and try to know what Bruce was thinking about me. If he responded with silence to something I said, did it mean that he thought I was foolish? If he wasn’t complimenting me, did it mean he didn’t find me desirable? I craved affirmation that he was happy, that he was content, that he was satisfied. I needed to know, because if that was not the case, then it meant that I was not doing a good enough job.
And then the voice, thankfully, intervened, and said very sharply, It’s not always about you. Lesson one: relax, and stop narcissistically believing that the way another human behaves is a direct consequence of your own actions and words. While relationships often do contribute, the self-centeredness of my belief that I am the sun around which Bruce’s world revolves is idiotic and appalling.
But the problem runs much deeper, and as he and I have begun to settle into a rhythm of being together, I understand that marriage is merely the magnifying glass through which I can see in large print what was only a tiny scribble before. That I, through the years, have somehow become firmly convinced that I am capable of buying, or bribing, love from my friends and my family, and now from my lover. That if I take care of them, and counsel them, and love them hard enough, they will return the favor. And I will know that they love me because their love will look like mine.
I’ve been looking around me in the last few weeks, now that this has become so clear to me, to see if I am alone in this. I have found that I am not. It seems to me that we are all constantly trying to purchase each other’s love, whether it is through my own type of nurturing, or through any of the thousands of ways each individual creates currency. Financial security. Intellectualism. Being a trendsetter. And I feel so small and so sad as I look around and see how tired everyone is of trying to buy one another’s love, and not being able to, and feeling like failures as each one’s definition of love goes unfulfilled.
The reality is that Bruce will never love me like I think he should love me, and I can’t buy his love—because he has already given it to me for free, and the way he loves is different than the way I love. I can’t purchase something that has already been given as a gift, and when I worry about the fact that his love doesn’t feel like I imagined it would, I am limiting the bounds of love to my own very narrow definition of it. And, more importantly, I am neglecting to consider how he desires to be loved, and instead trying to wrap him up in my own conception of what love should look like.
I asked him how he wanted to be loved the other day. The answer was remarkably simple—he described things like acts of service and allowing him to have time to create. Things that I am more than able to do, and as I have made an attempt to stop showering him with words of affirmation and physical touch (my love languages), I can feel us drawing closer. He has his own discoveries to make about how to love me well. We both have much to learn, but I see now that the first, most important step, is to stop seeing myself as the expert, and to allow love to be free and explorable. It is both harder and much easier than I imagined it would be.
Had I realized this truth years ago, I can see how it would have benefitted my friendships and family relationships. I can see how I have smothered people, or unfairly accused others of not appreciating my service and love. I can see how selfishly I have spent time placing myself at the center of everyone else’s worlds, and allowed the inevitable insecurity to overshadow how I see myself and how I see others. And, because it always comes back to this, I can see how the way I have treated other humans is just a pale reflection of how I have treated my relationship with God. I am constantly trying to buy a love that has been given to me freely; constantly trying to earn God’s favor, when all he wants is for me to calm down and let him show me how wide his love really is.
Ultimately, the freedom and security I crave is found there—in the reality that I am already loved more than I know, and I can’t do anything to lose that love. That is a concept I pay large amounts of lip service to, but if I truly let that sink into my soul and marinate long enough, how could that not change the way I see myself and treat others? I couldn’t buy that love if I tried, but it has been given to me. There is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to take away his love for me. I am overcome.
Whatever relationships God has placed in our lives, may we stop trying to buy love, and start seeking to honor and discover the depth of the love given to us by God and by his people.
I’ve recently been feeling defeated by recurring tendencies of mine—patterns of thought and anxieties that seem like they’ll never go away; aspects of my character that I don’t like; things that I really hoped would no longer be a part of me by this time of life. It seems like every day I’ve been having to relearn and retell myself things that I should have learned and moved on from yesterday.
A couple days ago I was doing yoga in my room, and the mantra was, “I surrender.” Usually I don’t pay much attention to the yoga mantra, but this one stuck in my head. It was while I was face down on the mat in child’s pose that a thought suddenly occurred to me: some of these tendencies are never going to go away—not until I am glorified. Some of the anxieties or sins I find myself frustrated by every single day are going to be a constant for the rest of my life. They simply will not disappear.
I realize how self-defeating that might sound to some, but as soon as it came into my head, I felt a calming freedom wash over me. And as soon as the yoga video was done, I went to Romans 8 to confirm. The 7th and 8th chapters of the book of Romans are a wealth of hope and honesty, and as I re-read the words, I found my conviction strengthening. In Paul’s words there is no outline of a step by step program that produces results. There is only the honesty of the helplessness of our souls, and the promise of a God who understands.
It’s hard for me to explain the combination of grief and hope this revelation has given me. I can see, now, how I have so often approached these sins in my heart as something that I can overcome with enough prayer and attention, expecting myself to be free of them in a month, or a year, or a few years. But Paul writes with utter sincerity when he cries out in Romans 7:24-25: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
The heresy inherent in my thoughts is complex. It is wrong not to believe that as I walk with the Lord, he will sanctify me and I will grow more like him. Promises of this are littered throughout the Bible. But as Paul goes on in Romans 8 to preach the deepest hope of the gospel, saying in verse 2 of that chapter, “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” he keeps a distinctly Christ-centered focus. Nowhere does he encourage us that, apart from glorification, we get to move on entirely from the sins that have a grip on our hearts. Yet he does urge us to remember that “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We are promised life, but we are promised a life of waiting for redemption as well.
The poignancy of that grief is very real for me right now. I feel that I am in a season of groaning, chafing against the confines of my un-glorified state. I hate being patient. I hate knowing intellectually what it might look like to be a person who loves, and who waits, and who is fulfilled by nothing but the truth and the Spirit, and yet I cannot force myself to become that person. With Paul, “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:23).
Yet there is a counterintuitive hope in this realization that these sins will be with me for the rest of my life. It is not a disbelief that God is at work in me, or a denial that they could indeed by lifted completely from my heart. But it is an acceptance that I have no checklist to tick off, no date by which I must be free of these burdens. It is an invitation into the nebulousness of God’s timeline, and a call, as Jerry Bridges (and probably a lot of other people) said, to preach the gospel to myself every day. To come down from the mountain of ego that makes me believe someday I won’t need these groans. Short of glorification, these groans are here to stay, and though I see the same sins rearing their heads time after time, their presence does not mean God is not at work.
And the very good news (which, let’s be honest, I will need to tell myself again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next) is that I do not groan alone. Paul goes on to write, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). I want to submerge myself in this truth and stay underwater for as long as I can. I don’t even know what to pray, half the time, and the longer I am a believer, the more this becomes apparent. Sometimes I feel that I know less about God now than I did as a young believer, because the longer I am in him the larger he becomes. Like Aslan, growing bigger in size as Lucy grows older, I find that the more mature my faith is, the less I feel I know about the God I serve.
And yet, paradoxically, the more I feel I am known. Perhaps that is a truer way to approach the grief of sin—by ceasing to measure my progress, and simply letting myself groan, knowing that the Spirit groans with me. What a very good hope that provides.
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…” (Matthew 1:1-2)
In the Spring I did a study of the book of Matthew where I skipped over every part that didn’t specifically mention women, and only read the parts that did. It was fascinating to flip page after page, skipping over huge swaths that don’t speak of a single woman, wondering what it would feel like to be a man and have my experience be the norm, rather than the exception. But even then, I remember thinking that it was strange to have women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ. In such a man-centric world, why were they included? And why those five women? Now, in the midst of the season of Advent, their stories seem especially important.
The first to be mentioned is Tamar. Her story is one of the stranger ones in the Bible, found in Genesis 38 (and not to be confused with the story of a later Tamar, found in 2 Samuel.) She is a widow, promised children and a husband by her father-in-law, Judah, and then denied what was promised to her. Judah wrongs her by breaking his word, and it is only through deception that she is able to have the child she was promised. Yet her boldness is rewarded, and Judah ends up says, “She is more righteous than I,” (v 26). It is through this act that she finds herself in the genealogy of Christ.
I’ve never been quite sure how to take the story of Tamar. She is clearly to be applauded, but the way she seduces her father-in-law seems a little icky, to be honest. And yet she is praised and held up as a sign and symbol through her inclusion in the genealogy. There must be something important about her strange story.
After Tamar, the next woman mentioned is Rahab, the gentile prostitute who hides the spies when they come to Jericho in Joshua 2. I don’t know much about the cultural standing of women like her in ancient Jerichoan society, but I’m pretty sure that there’s never been a culture that holds her profession in high regard. But Rahab is one of the most personable and engaging of all the women whose stories are told in the Bible. She lies flawlessly to save the spies’ lives, and her eloquence is beautiful. “As soon as we heard it,” she says to the Israelites in verse 11, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”
Rahab is one of the clearest examples I can find of being unashamed of the journey. She doesn’t seem embarrassed about what she has done, or resentful of the cards she’s been dealt. Instead, she humbly and fiercely advocates for herself and her family, and the Israelite men respond to her requests generously. Her courage and ingenuity are recorded, and she too is tied into the line.
Next to be mentioned is Ruth, who was also an outsider. According to Deuteronomy 23, the Moabites were under a special curse, and yet Ruth clings to Naomi and the people of God with a tenacity that is profound. There are parallels between her and the woman in Matthew 15, who asks to be included in the kingdom, and when Christ responds cryptically, she says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” The boldness with which that woman demands to be redeemed is like Ruth’s, first attaching herself to Naomi and then demanding from Boaz the rights she is owed. Ruth has nothing--no people, no husband, no way of income. But her compassion is deeply rooted, and not only is she given a place among the Israelite people, she is included in the lineage of Christ.
Perhaps the most profound inclusion in Christ’s genealogy is Bathsheba. She is mentioned in Matthew’s list not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.” At first, this bothered me. If she’s going to be named, let her be named, I thought. But then I went back and read her story again, and the utter silence of Bathsheba in the story of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11 is thunderously striking. Whereas all the women included in the genealogy so far have been extremely active agents over their own future to an extent uncommon for women in their time, Bathsheba gives us nothing but silence. And it occurred to me for perhaps the first time how much of a victim she is--her rape and the subsequent life she must lead show themselves most forcefully in the silence she gives us, and the way her name has been stripped from her.
It all made sense when I got to Bathsheba: God did not include these women in the genealogy to show that women are generally included in his redemptive plan, but that women in all their specificity are included and made whole. All the archetypes are there: the wronged, righteous women like Tamar; the bold temptresses like Rahab; the courageous, industrious workers like Ruth; the silent victims, wronged like Bathsheba; and finally, the strong and quiet humility of Mary.
I (and, I think, many protestants) don’t give Mary enough credit--or at least, we give her credit for the wrong things. Yes, it would be terrible to give birth in a stable, but not as terrible as being shunned by everyone you know. When I think about trying to convince the people I love the most that the Holy Spirit impregnated me I realize just how fierce Mary’s courage is. To say “Let it be to me according to your word,”--those are hell raising, foot stomping, finger snapping words. I want to give her a standing ovation. Anyone who envisions Mary as a meek and mild woman is just wrong; she was strong enough to put even her husband Joseph--who was a pretty courageous guy himself--to shame.
Each of these women were flesh and blood, breathing, fighting, crying, and smiling. But these women are also, like so many beautiful parts of the season of Advent, signs to us. Women to point to and rejoice with. Their stories have been folded into the genealogy, so that we might know our own stories are also tucked away in the fabric of redemption. So that we can find not just affirmation in the fact that Christ has redeemed the poor, weak, and wronged as well as the mighty, but also that we might rejoice in the specificity of our God. He spoke through stories so that we might believe in the only story that truly matters--the story that is being told backwards and forwards and shoots into every other story in each corner of the universe.
For to us a child is born. To us--the prostitutes, the good girls, the victims, the outcasts, the destitute, and the lied to--a son is given. Rejoice.
(Image by Stabat Mater dolorosa, "Red.")
Recently, my boyfriend and I were having a CS Lewis-inspired gender discussion. (Like you do.) We were really on a roll, knocking down gender stereotypes while still upholding a Biblical understanding of what it means to be men and women, when suddenly he said, “I love what Proverbs 31 says about women.”
My thoughts came to a grinding halt. Part of me wanted to agree with him, because of course he was right. But part of me was throwing my metaphorical Christian woman hands on my metaphorical Christian woman hips and rolling my metaphorical Christian woman eyes. Proverbs 31 woman--bleh. My response was so automatic and so gut-deep that I was grounded. Why on earth was this my reaction to someone who was only affirming scripture?
My boyfriend was confused too. “It seems like a feminist passage, almost,” he said, trying to understand. I tried to organize my thoughts, tried to understand my own reaction. Because clearly this should not be my reaction to a representation of woman that God himself penned. I should be wholeheartedly embracing it.
But I don’t think I’m alone in this response. If I had to guess, I would wager that most women in my age group who grew up in the church are all rolling their own metaphorical eyes at the mention of this passage. I think part of it is due to the simple fact that this passage has been watered down, simplified, and spoon-fed to girls in youth groups by leaders who have mishandled it. And yet it goes deeper than that.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that at its core, it is a question of how women are perceived. This is such a complicated issue, and it’s even more complicated in the church where many women affirm that yes, there are differences between men and women. It’s a fundamental truth for women (Christian or not) that much of our life is spent thinking about ourselves in relation to how men perceive us. It’s part of being the “other”—the non-man, which is how the world has treated women since the beginning. Women seldom feel that they are their own entity, able to fully disassociate themselves with how men see them. Our fallen culture was built for men; therefore women are constantly being measured against how they are different from men, rather than simply who they are.
This grows more complicated yet when Christianity enters in. Women who believe in gender differences and roles affirm that there is something inherent to women that desires to be cherished and pleasing to men—some impulse that is naturally servant-hearted. As a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about feminism and women’s issues, I don’t think it’s dehumanizing or anti-feminist to affirm that women have this fundamental difference from men. Men often tend to be very individualistic, very opportunistic. Every human is different, and there are exceptions on both sides of the gender divide, but in general I am comfortable saying that women tend to be more aware of how their actions affect others. (Some would probably say it’s nurture, and not nature. Different discussion.)
All this to say, when Proverbs 31 was brought up all these subconscious thoughts united in my mind and I began to feel that slow, resentful feeling I get when I think a man is only viewing me in relation to himself. Because what does the Wife of Noble Character do? Serves her husband. Feeds her kids. She does it all, man. And coupled with the baggage of years of misinterpretation and sinful cultural stereotypes laid overtop of it, I automatically associate this passage with men who view their significant other as nothing but a shiny trophy of stereotypical Christian womanhood.
There is also, of course, the not-small issue of my own sinfulness, and the struggle of how I see myself. For most people—and Christian women especially—the idea of role and equality is a huge one. I spend so much time worrying about whether I’m getting what I deserve, and being all I can be, and not getting shorted, that of course when presented with a passage that speaks mostly about service, I rebel against it. But this is where the Lewis passage that started it all comes back in. He has a beautiful chapter in his book The Weight of Glory titled “Membership,” and it cut me to pieces. (Really, you should just stop reading this and go read that instead. It’s brilliant.) He has this idea that equality is a necessary evil—that really, we’re all supposed to function as completely unequal but fully valued, but we’ve had to introduce the idea of equality to protect ourselves from our own sinfulness. I’m a little bit afraid that if I start quoting from the chapter I’ll end up quoting the entire thing, but I’ll just share this one beautiful bit of truth:
Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside the world which says “I am as good as you.” It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel. As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more and more necessary.
It occurred to me, during our gender discussion, that it had been at least ten years—and probably more like fifteen—since I’d actually read the passage in Proverbs. Which, first of all, is embarrassing because it means I’ve been picking and choosing pretty severely in my personal Bible-reading. But I flipped open to Proverbs 31 (which apparently twelve year-old Ruthie decided to underline in its entirety #thanksyouthgroup) and read it again. And I will be honest: I cried. Some of what I felt was, I think, due to the fact that I’ve been discovering and growing a lot recently in my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and settling deep into those realizations. But some it was just honest conviction.
It is an incredible passage. It is a beautiful picture of a strong, passionate woman who, even in a time when women were traded and bartered for, worked steadily and confidently. But it wasn’t her independence, and the feminist themes that are present, or even the impressive amount of work that she accomplishes and the fact that everyone likes her that got me. It was the way she is able to just be. She’s not fighting herself, or her society, or her husband. She’s not worrying about whether she’s getting as much respect or independence as she deserves. She is her own unequal piece of the puzzle, and she is joyful.
I don’t think the point of Proverbs 31 is to empower women to be whatever they can be, and I certainly don’t think the point is to make women feel guilty about all the things they’re not able to accomplish. This passage is a lifeline directly to the stressed-out heart of women, and it is telling us to breathe deeply and be who were created to be. For some of us, it will be doctors and lawyers. For some of us, it will be artists and teachers and mothers. But for all of us, we are not defined by who we are in relation to our male counterparts, or whether we are as smart as them or as driven as them or as powerful as them.
Let us leave those discussions for another day, and let us be free.
I turned 27 last week, and with that milestone, I’ve been experiencing a lot of clarity in my life. Some of it has to do with my career, as I spoke about in my last post, and with that very large piece of my life coming into perspective, it makes sense that other things might follow. And yet, as the days go on and Spring seems just around the corner, teasing us with her Winter-speckled dance, I can’t help but think that it might be the other way around. My career and my goals in life may be falling into place because of what I have recently realized about myself.
Every year on my birthday I write down a prayer. Not something of the moment, but rather a prayer that can be the theme of my year. It began, in infamy, on my 19th birthday when I asked the Lord not to “be gentle with my heart.” That was the year that, among many other things, I discovered that I have to be very careful what I pray for, because the Lord may just decide to answer my prayers.
Since then every year has been different. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years of prayers—prayers for pride, prayers for compassion, prayers for prayer, even. Every year when I open up my journal and look back on my entry from the previous year, it’s amazing to see what God has done in answering it. Some years it’s so clear how he answered it. Some years it’s more nuanced. But every year I can look back over the previous twelve months of my life and see that he’s been at work.
This year I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask for until the day before my birthday. There were a few prayers rattling around in my heart. I even considered praying again for the previous year’s prayer. But then I found something out about myself. Something that, I’m afraid, has been the root of many of my prayers over the years, though it hid in the background out of sight. Something that makes no sense, but has had a chokehold on me for a long time. I found out that I have allowed myself to become eaten up with self pity.
I wonder, in our current culture of fear-mongering and the looming threat of Trumpism (which seems like it should be a joke, but is in fact not at all a joke) how much we all wrestle with self pity. How much of the rhetoric is about what we deserve, and what we’re missing out on? How often do we look online and see the carefully curated online images of our friends and colleagues, and allow ourselves to slide right into what-if and why-not-me? I know in my own life it’s entered subtly into so much of my internal monologue. Well of course he’s not interested in me. Well of course they’re asking me to do this. Well of course I got another rejection.
Which is, on so many levels, total bullshit. If I take one clear, hard look at my life I can see—as can many of us—that what I have is abundant. The opportunities I’ve been given, the people who love me, the person I am. It is selfish beyond belief for me to demand more than what I have, when I have so much.
But the thing about humans is that as creative as they can be, they have an inability to fully understand something that they have not experienced. This Fall I learned what it means to be truly grateful for rest, only because I was working so hard during the week. Because of the way I’ve always lived my life, it’s really difficult for me to get to a place of mental thankfulness, and it’s getting harder the older I get and the farther the reach of social media extends. Plus, humans have terribly memories. Even if I can get there in one moment, in the next, I’m guaranteed to forget all about my gratefulness.
But the really amazing thing about all of this is that none of this even matters. Nothing I have makes any difference at all, if what I profess to believe is true. And that encapsulates both the absurd impossibility of Christianity and one of the reasons why it’s definitely true. Because nobody could make this stuff up. A religion that asks humans to make this impossible leap has to be divine. (And I do mean impossible. It is actually impossible to believe or act on the tenets of Christianity without the supernatural work of the Spirit. It doesn’t even compute.)
This is one of the things that has—praise the Lord—become so blindingly clear in the past few weeks. I have been conscientiously forcing myself to stop pitying myself when something doesn’t go as I have trained myself to believe it should, in the big things and the small, and as a result I am seeing just the tiniest corner of a beautiful world opening up. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get that job, or that I’m not dating anyone right now, or that I don’t live in that city. Because this is my story. This is the story that has—according to what I profess to believe—been written on the hands of the eternal God, and yes, I know how insane that sounds, praise the Lord, I know. I hope it never stops sounding insane to me that a being so large and incomprehensible could choose to create a world with something like electrical plugs and florescent lights. Who knows why the menial was created. Who cares. It all rolls into something so profoundly life changing that I am not sure why I don’t fall down on my knees every moment of the day.
It must be that horrifically short memory of human beings. Or perhaps it's the reinsertion of the menial; I think maybe the knowledge deep in our blood that we were meant for more gets warped into our inflated sense of self pity. We know we shouldn’t quite be doing whatever it is that we’re doing, and we were meant for more, but then we get distracted by looking around us for whatever that “more” might be, and we conclude that it must be whatever everyone else has. But even the biggest book deal or the largest English garden or whatever else I can imagine could never stem my flow of self pity, or my hunger for more. I know that, now. I know that I am a queen, and I have been treating myself as a pauper. I have twice as much to be thankful for, because even in this life that will fade away, I have been given much. But even if I had nothing—and I stretch my imagination to say this, because I have no conception of this—I would still be a queen.
I love the great hymn Before the Throne of God Above. It has several verses, and each is magnificent and has spoken to me at different moments in my life. I have been meditating on the first verse, as I’ve been pondering all of these things. It sums up in brilliantly simple terms the type of assurance we have:
Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea
A great high priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on his hands; my name is written on his heart
I know that while in heaven he stands no tongue can bid me thence depart.
No tongue. Not a single one—not even the high king of heaven himself. It’s hard, because we are tangible, moment-to-moment creatures, but why on earth do I care about how many likes my most recent post got or whether I was rejected from a job when I know that beyond this very good creation, there waits a heaven and earth that will smash my expectations into a million pieces and rebuild them anew. This life is beautiful, and I’m not trying to say that it means nothing. We have real concerns and real pain and real trouble. But we’ve got to put it in perspective, especially when so many of us in this country truly have nothing to complain about.
And I hope, if this climate of fear should actually spell changes to come, that it is not our self pity that will rule us, but our strong and joyful hope. We have not been promised happiness. We have not been promised wealth. But we have been promised life, and I want to live it fully, both in this life and the next.
If we are in Christ, we are kings and queens. Let us not live like paupers.
Today I attended a professional development workshop dedicated to creating Shakespeare curriculum, and as I sit in the airport waiting for my delayed flight, I’m full of all kinds of exciting ideas and plans. I know that when I get to work tomorrow and start planning my lessons for next week I’ll find my way back to the reality of how overwhelming it is to teach 300+ students, but for this moment, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future.
I’ve been noticing this excitement growing, over the past few weeks. After surviving my first semester as a full time teacher, I came back from Winter Break not exactly dreading my job (which was a huge improvement on how I felt about it before the break.) After February Break, I came back to my classes with some really fantastic ideas about future curriculum—not quite excited about teaching, but definitely not dreading it. And after the advent of my upper school acting club last week and the dawn of my school-wide devising project, I would say I’m actually bordering on looking forward to classes. (Which is a big deal.)
But what is an even bigger deal, I’ve realized over the past couple of weeks, is that for the first time in my entire life, I am thinking about my career. This might seem like a pretty odd thing for someone with a masters degree to say—why get the masters if you’ve never thought about a career, one might ask. Of course I’ve thought about a career in a theoretical way; in the misty, cerebral way that all millennials think about these things, wandering from decision to decision because we’re not quite sure what else to do with ourselves. But this year I am finally seeing my path laid out in a way I can realistically follow.
This has caused me to start simultaneously questioning, and also receiving assurance. I spent a large part of the last few years searching for roots. I remember saying, “I’m just tired of not putting down roots—I want to know where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing.” I think I always thought that roots meant a place—a city or a house that was mine, that I could invest in, that I could belong to. And of course a husband and potentially a family to go with it. But over the past months, and especially the past few weeks, something has changed in me, and I realize that I have begun to grow some roots. It’s just that the roots are not at all what I expected. Instead of being a place, these roots are a seed of creativity—opportunity and expertise in something I love, and a way to map out the journey.
Looking back, I can see that the Lord led me to pursue the things I love, because I certainly didn’t do it intentionally. All of the decisions that led me into theater education were practically unintentional, in my blind wandering. It wasn’t until I was actually in grad school that I suddenly realized: OH, I’m good at this. The first time I knew I had real, tangible intelligence was while talking with my advisor at NYU. I know how crazy that sounds, but life is a trajectory not just of opportunities, but also of self-esteem and self-confidence. And, like in many things, I was a late bloomer.
But back to this idea of roots. Maybe it’s crazy, but it just occurred to me—tonight—that perhaps, right now, my roots are not in my home, but in my career. Which probably sounds scary, like I’m about to be that insane loner career woman who isn’t open to relationships because they’ll slow me down (and I’ll probably get a phone call from one of my siblings telling me that I shouldn’t shut myself off from relationships just because I don’t happen to be dating anyone right now. Don’t worry, sibs, that’s not what I mean.) I think a “calling” simply means the place where one is, and the place where I am right now is a place where I have the opportunity, the energy, and the inspiration for some pretty exciting teaching and arts adventures.
Of course I’m still invested in the people around me, and in my church, and in my family. But as I am about to turn 27, I have begun leaving behind much of the unsureness that accompanied me up till this point, and instead trusting my training and my instincts. I am growing excited about the opportunities and the dreams springing up. For the first time in my life I know what I want for my career and I know how to get there--and that is very exciting.
Every now and then I run across someone waxing eloquent about who Jesus was, saying that Christianity today has warped his commands. The argument usually goes something like: If only Christians would stop creating divisions, and focus on the fact that Jesus himself preached love. Jesus was a great teacher who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and not to judge anyone.
Yesterday the sermon text at my church was John 6:25-59. Here is an excerpt:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (53-57)
From time to time I come across a passage that knocks me right out of my Christian lingo comfort zone and reminds me of the absolute absurdity of what I believe. I don’t mean absurdity in the sense that it isn’t true—I mean that if it’s not true, it is completely absurd. The words above are not the words of a great teacher: they are either the words of the Son of God, or an insane man. There is no in-between.
Others have said it before me, but Jesus left no room for in-between on purpose. As CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall as his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
A friend of mine recently posted a blog in which he spoke about how he was coming back to his roots as a Christian after a long time away, and starting to get interested again in the person of Jesus. I read his post eagerly, excited to read his musings. He spoke eloquently of Jesus’ work as a theater artist (all those parables make me thrill to be walking in the footsteps of the greatest artist of all). But as I continued reading, this friend began the old claim: that Jesus was a great teacher who told people to humbly be nice to each other. I wanted to throw my head back and groan, because that is death; to patronizingly agree to write Jesus off as a nice guy. It's just not possible. Not if you really know what he said.
I could spend some time talking about how Jesus actually spoke about Hell more than any other person in the Bible, or recount all the times he intentionally confused those listening to him and rebuked both his friends and strangers. But what actually struck me most, in thinking through both the sermon text and the phenomenon of this whole nice-guy-Jesus thing, is just how attractive Jesus was. Utterly, bewilderingly attractive. So much so that the people to whom he said all these things about eating his flesh actually got in boats and chased him across the sea to find him. So much so that not just his band of devoted followers (who were getting nothing out of it except sleeping in hostile towns and eating grain from passing fields), but also tens of thousands of people constantly followed him around like hungry dogs. So much so that the leaders of the land trembled at the power Jesus displayed.
The only way to reconcile the utter devotion and awe people felt toward Jesus with the insanity and knife-like sting of his words is his crucial blend of truth and love. It appears over and over and over, proving that Jesus may not have been nice, and he may not have been gentle, but he was sure as hell honest (pun intended), and his honesty both destroyed and healed people all in one fell swoop. He told the woman at the well about her sins, and while her cheeks were still flaming scarlet he told her that her sins could be forgiven if she drank of his life-giving water. He asked Peter three times if he loved him, and while Peter was standing there hating his own cowardly guts, Jesus gave him both forgiveness and work to do: to feed his sheep. Every single word in the gospels—and in the arch of the Biblical narrative as a whole—rips wide our desire to pretend we can categorize Jesus as a great (read: benign) teacher and simultaneously presents us with the alternative truth.
It’s good for me to be reminded of this often. I have known Christianity my whole life, and the absurdity of the Biblical claims gets lost on me. I think it’s good for us as Christians to stop trying to defend our faith, once in a while, and be honest about the fact that if Jesus is not God, we’re screwed. We want to defend ourselves by dressing up our religion in a wardrobe of banality, so that it might be socially acceptable. But it’s just not. The man who said, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me,” had better be God, because otherwise he was an insane person who was making some kind of weird cannibalistic claim that is actually pretty creepy.
Let yourself feel the full weight of that panic bordering on horror, today. If your Jesus is simply a nice teacher, he can’t carry the death that this world reeks of, and he certainly isn’t the God of the Bible. We believe incredible claims, friends. We serve a God who loved us enough to be honest and terrifyingly mysterious. Don’t ever forget it.
(Artwork: "Alpha and Omega," by Gerald Ivey)
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton