Last week's Comment interview reminded me of why I prefer John Calvin's metaphor of the world as the theater of God's glory over other metaphors that are often utilized when discussing Christian cultural engagement. David Hall, in an article published to mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth a few years back, summarized Calvin's use of this metaphor well:
Calvin described this world, moved by God's providence, as theatrum gloriae. For him, every aspect of life from work to worship and from art to technology bears the potential to glorify God (Institutes, 1.11.12). Creation is depicted as a platform for God's glory (1.14.20) or a "dazzling theater" (1.5.8; 2.6.1), displaying God's glorious works. Calvin viewed the first commandment as making it unlawful to steal "even a particle from this glory" (2.8.16). Such comments support Lloyd-Jones' later claim that for Calvin "the great central and all-important truth was the sovereignty of God and God's glory."
What makes the theater image powerful? It's the interaction between performers and audience. Every performance is unique as the audience responds to the actors who in turn are affected by the response. The lively dynamism shapes the experience.
Last week I participated in a post-production conversation with Rosebud Theater's cast performing Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-prize winning play, Our Town. (Spoiler Alert). The play tells the story of the humdrum of everyday life in an early twentieth century New Hampshire town, first in real time and then through flashbacks. The final act includes the death of one of the main character, Emily Webb, while giving birth to her second child. The powerful dramatization compels the audience to reflect on the simultaneous smallness of life in light of eternity, but also the significance that eternity gives to even the small and seemingly routine aspects of life. Although the hopeful metaphors about life after death are present, the play ends with a devastated young husband weeping at the grave of his wife. The narrator sends the audience home with a reflection on how from the perspective of eternity, so many people sadly live their lives in ignorance.
The somber ending left the audience uncertain how to respond. The curtain fell and when it rose again, we all knew the expected ritual. But the clapping was tentative. No one seemed certain if it was appropriate to stand. Having been plunged into the depths of a tragic funeral scene and left to contemplate the grief of those who must live on without loved ones, we weren't ready for real life theater etiquette to take over.
"How do you as actors deal with this uncertain crowd response," I asked the panel of actors. "Is it always this way? Does it change from audience to audience?"
Metaphors at their best help us understand things that are difficult to comprehend in their own right. Metaphors take a concept and frame it as something different so as to help us understand.
The world is not a stage nor is God an actor. Still Calvin's choice of this metaphor is helpful in thinking through what it means to live all of life in service to and fellowship with God. The more common metaphor to describe Christian cultural calling comes from Abraham Kuyper's inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!" This metaphor focuses on the physical, measuring creation in inches, as well as the hierarchical, reminding us of the duty owed to the king by the subject. It impels us to duty and action. It is clear that whatever criticism one might have regarding the successors of Kuyper who drew inspiration from this quote, inactivity is not a valid one.
Yet, as Smith and Mouw observed in their Comment interview, there is a need to think about such engagement beyond the duty and activity it sparks to the spiritual relationships that need to be cultivated. The discussion about Our Town focused the shared pathos that actors and audience experienced from a stage production. One actor noted that if the audience immediately responded to this play with a standing ovation, he would feel a failure, having not have succeeded in bringing the audience to a place where they shared in the experience. This prompted me to reflect on my calling as a Christian in public life. It isn't about simply doing my part, nor is it simply about uttering words of praise to God for what He has made. If I live in the midst of God's dazzling theater, I must praise Him but I must also experience fellowship with Him. We serve a God who empathizes with us in the midst of life's temptations and communion with Him is not a spiritual escape but a resource at the heart of our engagement.
The comprehensiveness of God's kingdom cannot be measured by inches and His glory is far and beyond anything we can imagine. Still, I wonder whether reviving the theater metaphor might better direct us to thinking about God as the subject and ourselves as the object of history. Might this serve as a healthy counterbalance to the narcissism which dominates our age and direct us to communion and fellowship with Him as a starting point for our witness to others?