"To Be or Not to Be" in Christian Education
I have to share this. In her dissertation entitled A Match Made in Heaven, Anne Frawley-Mangan (2006) argues that teaching doctrine to children through catechism just doesn't work anymore for catholic schools, nor for the youth of the Catholic Church. She urges religious educators to use parables and drama. Parables, the teaching method that Jesus used, is great, but having children use drama is even better, she writes. Drama, and especially the category of drama that she defines as process drama, or what Dorothy Heathcote labels as informal drama, connects what you know with what you feel, helping you internalize the message. It connects the cognitive, affective, and the spiritual, she says. It bridges the gap between knowing and living one's faith.
In the Canadian Reformed churches, ministers do not use drama. They still use catechism to teach the covenant youth. I'm sure that they add stories to explain the various doctrinal concepts in the catechism, and I'm sure that they get students to interact with the purpose and meanings of their stories, but that's as close to drama as they get.
Should pastors not use some drama in their religious instruction? Should they not do more to help students connect "what they know" with "what they feel" and with "their own self-knowledge"?
A Nagging Question
In our Christian schools, teachers are using drama more. They use it not only in Language Arts classes, but also in content-area subjects like history or science. They have students role-play situations, make skits, or produce videos to share with the class. They include musicals in junior high music classes, or add drama clubs for noon hour activities. Christian high schools put on plays or musical productions for the community.
One of our high schools now offers an English drama course to its students. When I hear about all this drama, somewhere deep inside me is this nagging question: Is that the way we should go in our Christian schools? To use drama as a teaching tool may seem acceptable, but should we do dramatizations of history, produce stage productions, and teach drama courses in our high schools?
This nagging question arises from a variety of sources. Some early church fathers strongly opposed drama. While Luther and his followers incorporated drama, Calvin and his followers opposed it. In England, the Puritans also opposed the use of theatre and drama. In our time, various Mennonite, Baptist, and Reformed groups reject the use of drama. When checking the literature, it seems that whenever there is a reformation, drama is rejected.
The other reason for this nagging question is the desire to oppose the paganizing culture of the western world in which we live. Our western world is moving away from the Christian faith and its foundational values. It is, simultaneously, moving from a printed culture to a media culture, from a reading culture to a visual culture. Drama lends itself so well to this visual culture – we need to see it to understand it. The electronic stage is now not only in our homes, but also on our workplace computers and on our portable phones. Much of what we watch are dramatizations, done to the perfection of modern theatrical arts. Christians, on the other hand, are people of the Word, students of the print. Our Christian education should inculcate that print and the skills that help us understand the print. Is it therefore good that we incorporate more dramatization and drama in our Christian schools?
Drama and Bible Instruction
Ministers and teachers should not use drama to teach students about the Bible. Several authors have written about this topic. Back in the 1970s, when modernity was at its climax, Rev. VanRongen wrote a series of articles in Clarion that explored the use of drama. He concluded his five articles with the warning that we should stay away from the dramatization of biblical stories. Peter Smid, a decade later, writes emphatically that "the Holy Scriptures do not allow transmission by dramatization" (Reformed Perspective, Jan. 1987). Rev. J. van Popta, in his article published five years ago, also explores this topic and concludes: "So I can only reject any possibility of my four sons playing in a Bible drama" (RP, July/August 2006). Rev. C. Pronk purports the fact that "pictures, instead of illuminating the deep things of God, rather obscure them. They tend to becloud the mind..." (Banner of Truth, Nov 2006), and he uses Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ as a case in point.
The very medium of drama does not focus on teaching the message of the Bible. It does not have us focus on God's work among his people, or on the gift of salvation through the one sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sure, one can construct parable-like stories to illustrate truths of Scripture, but the form of drama makes one focus on man and the relationships among men. In drama, one enacts what biblical characters have done, adding emotion to recorded action. One moves beyond a cognitive message of truth. The biblical story, told through drama, therefore, must be shaped to connect cognitively and emotionally with its audience. Along with the contents of the story are the visual aesthetics which must connect with the aesthetic values of the audience. Beyond these two aspects of drama comes another: drama needs action (the Greek word drama means "action"). Simply telling the Bible on stage is not drama. The actors usually rephrase what is recorded in the Bible, adding interpretations of what they say through their actions to provide the audience with a successful biblical drama. Also, drama is to be enjoyed; the Bible is not meant to be enjoyed. Lastly, drama is meant to be experienced; the Bible is not meant to be experienced. Various aspects of drama seem to distract from the focus on God's Word. The medium negatively affects the message. The Bible should not be subjected to the art form of drama. It is fully understandable that Rev. van Popta would not allow his sons to play the Lord Jesus, Peter, Judas, and Pilate in a school Easter play, and it would be all the more understandable that ministers and teachers would not use drama to teach God's Word.
Drama in the School
If drama does not have a place in our church services, and if drama should not be used to teach students God's Word, does it have a place in our Christian schools? Drama should have a well-defined place in our Christian school curriculum. This thesis may sound shocking to the reader, but drama, as an art form, need not be set aside because God did not use it as a medium to teach his Word. Our Christian schools should more carefully define the use of drama, so that it is used properly and appropriately. Just as singing would not be used by a minister to preach the Word, but would be used by the congregation to respond, so drama should be used, rightfully, in its own place.
What should be noted is that many Reformed theologians and preachers did not object to drama, but to biblical drama. Drama itself can be a valuable educational tool which we can use in our Reformed schools. As an educational tool, drama is usually an informal activity responding to what is being taught. In his book, Development through Drama (1967), Brian Way states that informal drama is concerned mainly with "experience by the participants, irrespective of any function of communication to an audience," so what's important in informal drama is the acting experience of the individual. Especially in the primary and elementary classrooms, drama can complement direct instruction; it can enable the student to experience and know a concept with mind and feelings, deepening the knowing of a concept (e.g. write up and act out one-minute monologues or dialogues to demonstrate an abstract noun; script and mime steps of a process). It can help students apply what they have just been taught (e.g. having communications in French; playing "store" in math class to learn the addition or subtraction of money). Even in high school, drama can be used as an educational tool to help students think more critically or be more involved in what they learn. In a Grade 11 history class, for example, two students prepare and enact a script in which a citizen of ancient Babylon shares the features of his city with an Egyptian architect. Informal drama, used as a teaching tool in which students respond to what they have learned, can definitely benefit the students.
Formal drama, meaning drama which is to be staged, can also be beneficial in a Reformed school. Just as a short story, a poem, a novel and a painting are art forms that express our cultural values and beliefs, so drama is an art form in which we can express what we know and believe. Through formal drama, one can teach students to memorize (a basic skill being lost in our post-modern technological culture).
Students can also learn to analyze text, connecting it with actions and speech that reflect the meaning of the text. Students can become more conscious of their own verbal and non-verbal expressions and how these expressions need to complement one another to be understood by the audience or fellow student. Through formal drama, students develop teamwork and presentation skills, conquer stage fright, and acquire confidence. Through it, students add to their cognitive knowledge of a play that they are studying, the affective knowledge – and for kinetic and audio-visual learners, only when acting out a play do they really "get" it. I recall teaching the play Still Stands the House in a Grade 12 Canadian Lit course. The background of the play is the dust-bowl years of the 30s. Only after acting it out did one student exclaim, "Now I know how he felt."
That nagging feeling about the place of drama in our Christian schools still exists. We may see a place for drama in our Christian curriculum but the place of it needs to be well defined. For if we read further in Brian Way's book, we read that drama is "concerned with the development of intuition ... (and) like intellect, needs training ... With intuition, all individual differences are developed to their full; there is no single criteria of what is right or wrong, good or bad." A red flag goes up on reading the last part of this quote. Do we not know what is right or wrong, what is good or bad? In our Reformed schools, where education follows God's Word as summarized in the confessions, we sure do. And so again, just as we would do in art and music, we need to apply biblical principles and norms to our use of drama. Even more importantly, if we do not apply biblical principles to our use of drama, we inevitably will apply the principles set by our post-modern culture, whether cognitively or intuitively.