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Faculty and Staff: Debra Freeberg

A Statement of Integration of Faith and Learning
Debra Freeberg

A world amenable to human creativity, and human creativity itself, bear witness to their creator. These are living God's good gifts, evidence of his continued creativity in human affairs.
—Arthur F. Holmes

Setting the Context

As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we acknowledge Christ's sovereignty over every square inch of his Creation. As children of God, we have been given the common grace and freedom to discover the truth about that Creation. Teaching from the perspective of the Reformed faith, we are bound to teach our students three important tenets of Reformed thought: to understand who God is and how he has gifted each of us, to comprehend the costs and pain of living in a fallen world, and to work as best we may toward redemption of our human endeavors and institutions. As believers in Christ, we are mandated to transform the world ­ that mandate asks a price of us. As educators in various disciplines, we are to be people of creativity and integrity, a community of caring and compassion, and a people who strive to honor the Creator in all that we do. We are called to reflect the face of Christ in our homes, schools and workplace, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice­giving a full measure of ourselves according the gifts God has granted us.

As faculty at Calvin, we are called to understand, possess and encourage a mastery of our individual disciplines by our students and ourselves. We are to work carefully, offering to God the best fruits of our life and labor. In our disciplines, we are called to speak the truth in love, addressing the woe and wonder of being human in this world. Moreover, we are called to exercise Christian love and charity, mentoring and loving our students compassionately as caring teachers and leaders. In his 1996 convocation sermon, "Intellectual Love," Cornelius Plantinga's eloquently called this community of believers to be "flagrant lovers" of God's Creation:

To respect Creation is to show love for its Creator. How do you respect creation? You give it room to be itself. You let it unfold before your watchful eye. You search it and know it with the preoccupation of a lover. Then you tell the truth about the actual state of creation, including not only its bird songs, but also its terrible carnivorousness; including not only the way purple and coral impatiens thicken into great mounds of color at this time of year, but also the way lions in Kenya beard themselves with the blood of fawns. You tell the truth even when you have to tell it about us­human creatures who look so much like God, and act so little like God, and have fallen so far from God.

To hear in the world both the song and the groaning of all creation, to prize what is lovely and to suffer over what is corrupt, to ponder these things and to struggle to understand them­these are ways of loving God with all our minds. Becoming a real student of God and of creation­becoming alert, respectful, and honest in your studies­is an act of flagrant intellectual obedience because it is an act of flagrant intellectual love.

I believe that Plantinga has skillfully placed before us a fine educational mandate. Rather than shirk our responsibility and hide the unpleasant consequences of sin from our students or ourselves, we need to be aware of all aspects of creation, mark it, study it, and reflect on it in order to be obedient to God's calling.

Telling the truth and hearing the truth about humanity's state of falleness is sometimes difficult for students and faculty-- and theatre audiences. The truth, as Plantinga correctly points out, sometimes threatens us by illuminating our own weaknesses, prejudices, or misbehavior. Students come to college at varying levels of social and intellectual maturity. Therefore, as a Christian teacher, I have to remain sensitive to the present needs of my students, helping them to learn and live the truth as they wrestle with the class material. I also must encourage them to relate truthfully to others as members of a classroom or theatrical community.

Theatre and the classroom: Building community

One of the first things I try to do as a Christian is to create an appropriate context for learning. In the classroom and in the theatre, I work to establish an academic community. A community is a dynamic, creative, and safe place for students to explore issues and learn more about themselves. I want to create an environment, in which students are eager to learn, where students are nurtured, stimulated, and encouraged. Therefore, I strive to maintain a teaching style that is energetic, approachable and challenging. As teacher, I strive "to walk in love" with my students, not sentimentally, but with a passionate, powerful commitment to promoting the wholeness and well being of the individual student. "Walking in love" means prodding, pushing and admonishing the students, as well as caring for them and nurturing them as image-bearers.

There are many ways to stimulate and encourage community and promote student learning. I want students to take an active part pedagogically in their own learning. They participate in small-group discussions, group projects, workshop activities, and interactive performance projects. Not only do they learn course "content," but also they learn more about themselves and each other. I pray before assigned performances and exams, comforting and strengthening class members and tangibly encouraging them to share one another's burdens. In the theatre, our prayer sustains every rehearsal and performance. We acknowledge and thank God for the gifts He has given us; we dedicate the process and the product to the bestower of the gifts. In theatre courses, we examine the difficulties that a Christian artist faces, not only in the larger world, but also in his or her own community. We discuss the tension between the scriptural mandate to expose sin and the practical difficulties one faces in exposing sin without glorifying it or becoming preoccupied with it.

As we create and maintain community in the classroom or in a play cast, we journey together, exploring knowledge and truth in communication and theatre. I want my students to know that I care about their personhood as much as their learning. I prod them personally to be excellent scholars, students, performers, designers, and craftspeople. I encourage them to become thoughtful people, people of integrity, and people of communal joy. I help my students to pursue their dreams and desires, to use their gifts professionally and avocationally for the kingdom.

Most of my time as Director of Theatre at Calvin is spent in theatre classes and with theatre students. Therefore, my thoughts about the importance of theatre in a Christian context speak directly to how I integrate my faith with my discipline.

The theatre as a gift from God

I believe that the ability to perform is a gift from God to us, and that theatre is an institution in which the artistic gifts of performance, design, dance and movement come to full expression. Theatrical subject matter is humanity; tangled human relationships born, displayed, and dissected on the stage. It is one of the most potent and powerful art forms that God created. Theatre can enable practitioners and audiences to experience the glory of the creation, the preciousness of His gift of life, and the ravages of living in a world dominated by sin.

In scripture, we see that God told the truth through incarnation, storytelling and parable, through theatrical miracles and great occasions. In the Old Testament, God got the attention of his prophets and people through burning bushes, pillars of fire, whales, and dreams. In a public display, dramatically and decisively, God revealed his great displeasure with Korah and 250 of his followers by consuming them in a great fire. Joshua, in a ragtag public parade, circled the walls of Jericho with his small flock and walls crumbled.

Jesus of course, was the ultimate incarnation of truth, in flesh, in story, and in word. He was the truth and he represented the truth. "Jesus was a God who told stories," states Madeleine L'Engle. "Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the triumphs behind all arts to give a name to the cosmos despite all the chaos" (Walking on Water 45-46). Jesus used events like the feast of the loaves and fishes, the raising of Lazarus, making the lame walk, to edify, to instruct, to warn, to love, to promise hope in things eternal. Jesus assessed human need and addressed it vividly and theatrically. Jesus revealed God and his ways through created story in front of audiences, gathering people together to listen, to participate and to understand. These people witnessed Jesus' power and might through the staging of events: the pageantry of the Jesus arriving in Jerusalem riding on a donkey and ceremony of the Last Supper. These Biblical elements are also present in the theatre.

As human creators in the theatre, as Christians, we are called to reflect God's truth by enacting human events and narratives on the stage. These gifts involve the capacity of having empathy for one's fellows on this earth, to understand human behavior and motivation, to communicate ideas and characters with passion and honesty, to be able to move an audience, among many other aspects. God has gifted many Calvin students theatrically, and does so for a reason. Theatrical gifts are not mere "extracurricular" gifts. These gifts are to be celebrated, nurtured, developed and refined for the good of the kingdom. This may mean that our students pursue professional careers in theatre or use their dramatic gifts in their churches, local schools, and future workplaces. Whatever God's plan for their lives, my students should recognize and develop their talents, even in the face of contemporary notions of impracticality. For example, visiting professor Dr. James Van Oosting, reminded me this past week that the vocations of Moses and Paul would look very strange on a resume career objective line.

In order to develop these gifts in my students, I must help them to master the skills and techniques that will augment their native gifts. Nicholas Wolterstorff says in Art in Action, "The Artist [student] is placed on the stage of existence by God, there to do his or her work of making and selecting so as to bring forth something of benefit and delight to other human beings, something in acknowledgment of God." Wolterstorff says the artist [teacher] must know how one may master the elements of any artistic work. First, one has to recognize the gift. Then, the artist has to master the elements and tools of the trade, promoting excellent implementation. Wolterstorff calls craftsmanship "a combination of knowledge, skill, and respect" (92). Like Neal Plantinga, Wolterstorff calls on artists to respect their God-given talent and to respect the material of their craft. An artist has to know the limitations of her artistic media, whether it is the human voice or body, or clay, wood or paint. Moreover, I believe that the artist has to respect the gift-grantor and honor the Creator in both the process and product of the artwork.

I also like Wolterstorff's notion of a work of art as a "dialogue between the artist and the material" (94-95). In theatre, the task of the artist is to maintain a responsible dialogue with the audience. The responsibility from play to play may be to educate, to challenge, to admonish, to entertain and even to grieve with others. The task of the artist is to speak to the breadth of the human condition, not merely to a narrow part of it. This ability to dialogue also depends on the artist's sensitivity to the audience.

"Speaking the truth in love"

Before one can redeem something, one must know it, name it, and understand it. If theatre is about human relationships, we should seek to know what is true about being human in a fallen world. Nigel Forde's suggests that the truth is sometimes difficult for Christians to accept, especially when it is enacted on stage:

[T]he reason that the most trenchant, memorable, and truthful statements about ourselves and the universe come from outside the Christian church is that Christians are all too easily shocked by reality; they want the truth to be completely beautiful. Whereas the real truth about truth in a fallen world is that it is likely to be both beautiful and horrible, both pure and filthy" (Forde 101).

Too often, especially in theatrical circles, practitioners confuse sermonizing with the art form. Some Christians would argue that the art form of theatre is a mere tool for evangelism. Theatre can be a very powerful means of persuasion, but that is not the extent of its potential power as an artistic medium. In some Christian theatre companies, they sacrifice standards of excellence in both the creative process and the final product to dogma. The result is little more than a poorly dramatized sermon. It often debases the art form by offering inferior performance standards and degrades the message by reducing it to simplistic platitudes. Unfortunately, these earnest attempts to influence and inspire rarely succeed in persuading others or transforming the world. They preach to the converted and often reveal to those outside the faith that Christians are simpleminded and naive. These well-meaning folks fall into the trap that Nigel Forde speaks about in his book Theatrecraft: "What a shameful thing it would be for the greatest philosophy in the world always to produce art more closely related to the television commercial than to the works of Shakespeare" (127).

Real theatre is about the truth of broken and redeemed human relationships. It is not theology, although it deals with the theological. It shows. It represents the world. In Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner states: "Truth itself cannot be stated. Truth simply is, and is what is, the good with the bad, the joy with the despair, the presence and absence of God, the swollen eye, the bird pecking the cobbles for crumbs" (16). Like Plantinga, Buechner advocates the full truth. We have the responsibility to guide our students gently to an acknowledgment of that whole truth, and help to equip them to live in that truth. This takes some discernment to know where both the students and audience are in their ability to accept this truth. Sometimes, a letter or two tells us that an audience member has not understood our choice of a particular play during a season. To respond is both a challenge and a wonderful opportunity to speak directly to their concerns while elaborating on our goals in the theatre program.

Great theatre asks difficult questions in search of the truth. It helps us to think and feel in profound ways. Theatre comforts those who suffer by telling them they are not alone, inspires others to do great things, educates us about different cultures and other ways of thinking, exposes the sin and folly of our daily lives, and give us joy and hope. "In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace" (L'Engle). This knowledge that we are not alone gives us hope.

I want my students to seek the truth through the study and practice of theatre. Theatre's strength lies in speaking about the human condition. Plays help us to recall want it means to be human; they prevent dehumanization and a tendency to excessive prideful judgement of others. It reminds us that we all are subject to the same sinfulness and are under the same penalty of death for those sins. I think theatre can even make us a more compassionate people. As Madeleine L'Engle says in Walking on Water, "As Christians we are not meant to be less human than other people, but more human, just as Jesus of Nazareth was more human." (59)

As a Christian theatre educator and artist, I want our students to be agents of change, not merely custodians of the past. Theatre is a living art form, vibrant, relevant, provoking and inspiring. As a theatre program, we need to incorporate new forms and rhythms to discover how to speak to a fallen world that constantly adapts its language and communicative codes to express its longings, desire, fears, and joys. We want and need to make a difference in the lives of our audience members. We want to transform as we ourselves are transformed by our discoveries through the process of playing and producing. Humans are able to learn, to grow, and to perceive truth through acts of remembering. The enactment of a story can by that reveal truth. As the player-priest in Barry Unsworth's novelMorality Play states:

We learned through the play. We learned through the parts we were given. It is something not easy to explain. I am new to the playing, but it has seemed to me to be like dreaming. The player is himself and another. When he looks at the others in the play he knows he is part of their dreaming just as they are a part of his. From this comes thoughts and words that outside the play he would not readily admit to his mind" (188).

Things we would not readily admit . . . Theatre makes us stretch and reach beyond the limitations of our own existence and asks us to make a connection with others unlike ourselves. In The Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Jonas Barish speaking about Rousseau's plays points out that "the theatrical process works to complicate our judgements and disarm our vindictiveness. It makes us apprehend these criminals as feeling beings like ourselves, in whom virtue may be as strong or nearly as strong as vice, but for whom circumstances may have been stronger, who have struggled painfully but at length unsuccessfully against their passions. And, so it makes us less judgmental, it validates its claim to be teaching us something. It educates by widening our imaginative range" (266) Theatre asks its audience to give of their time, their hearts, emotions and intellect to receive and respond to the events on the stage. Theatre gives sound to the human voice. In human scale. It is reality, not virtual. The breath of the body depending on the size of the space can be felt and heard.

Summary

These are important issues, but I recognize that the integration of faith and learning in theatre is risky. As I have matured as an educator, I have sometimes been startled, amused, and even alarmed by the enormous influence I have in the lives of my current and former students ­ sometimes in ways I never imagined. This realization has both humbled me and reminded me of the tremendous responsibility I bear.

As an educator and a Christian, I want my students to know me as a truth-seeking human being, imperfect but striving, seeking to know God and myself with each passing day. No matter how knowledgeable I am in my field, I would prefer my students to know that I, too, am a student. I share with them my research struggles, my experiences as a young actor and director, my work as a playwright, and the issues that confront a Christian speaker and theatrical artist. I want my students to be continually curious about the world around them. I want them to realize that knowledge and faith are not commodities and the pursuit of knowledge and the possession of faith take us all on a journey that continues throughout our lives. I want them to know that Calvin and my classroom are but stops on the journey, acts on the stage of God's creation.

I seek to be a model and mentor to others. I pray the Biblical prayer to reduce my own ego and self-centeredness so that God's presence and power might increase. I want my students to go farther than I have, to outgrow me. I hope to challenge them and to foster their individual growth and talents, to refrain from simply training imitators of my method and practices. I want them to leave Calvin equipped to transform other corners of the world, realizing that they too will become models for others.

In order to honor God as teachers, I believe that we must be good models and mentors for our students, that we are mandated to promote excellence through reasonable standards in our classrooms, that we must build communities to strengthen and nurture our students, and that we must walk in love with our students, promoting their growth as people of compassion, wisdom, and integrity.

WORKS CITED

Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale. San Francisco: Harper, 1977.
Forde, Nigel. Theatrecraft. Wheaton: Shaw, 1990.
Holmes, Arthur. Contours of a World View. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.
L'Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Wheaton: Shaw, 1980.
Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. "Intellectual Love," Calvin College Convocation sermon, 9 September 1996.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Background

As part of the reappointment and tenure process, Calvin College asks faculty members to reflect on the relationship between the Christian faith and their calling as a professor. Professor Freeberg's primary teaching area is theatre.

Read Debra Freeberg's profile »