Dr. Jack R. Van Ens
REFLECTIONS ON THESPIANS, 1965-1969
My wife Sandy (Broene) and I participated in Thespians during stormy years. The Chimes crowd stirred up a gargantuan protest with its spoof The Bannaner. Some who lived through this era might overlook how Thespians created an even more radical theological revolution in the CRC house. Yes, it’s had more impact, even if it wasn’t as splashy as the riot against conformity the Chimes protesters incited. They acted like Thomas Paine, attacking enemies from the front. Thespians depended on Thomas Jefferson who used indirection to change naysayers. Ervina Boeve mastered this art. Confidant and husband Edgar Boeve, whose artistic flair produced sets for plays, ably aided her. What a team!
In the 1960’s, many in the Christian Reformed Church dismissed drama as an idle pursuit. It often was too silly and even might surreptitiously undercut catechetical preaching. Drama seemed to these critics too enticing. It engaged people at empathetic levels. It embraced more than speech with a theological twist uttered rather soberly from behind a pulpit. As a pre-seminary student, I was expected to major in either Greek, Dutch or classical history. Mrs. “B” drew me aside, making me promise never to divulge what she was about to tell, until after her death. She said preachers were in the communications business. So, major in English literature and Communications. The other majors were too stodgy or—to use a description the 1960’s overworked—far too irrelevant.
My wife Sandy had major roles in plays. I remember especially her as a very feisty Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The first play we did as freshman thespians was “Cyrano de Bergerac,” at the venerable Saint Cecelia Auditorium. Not all our plays displayed a rollicking pace. Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” looked grey on stage. Its sober themes made it so.
What Ervina and Edgar did to ignite a revolution in the CRC house started quite innocently. They formed a traveling troupe to perform Charles Williams’s “House by the Stable” as well as “Grab and Grace.” We played churches, Christian and secular campuses, and alumni/ae gatherings, traveling as far west as Colorado. Seldom did we get permission to lead worship, using these plays. Nor were we allowed to do them in sanctuaries, except in rare circumstances when a pastor was branded a renegade who skipped outside the lines of ecclesiastical protocol.
This troupe traveled during the 1968-1969 school year as well as in the summer of 1969. Sandy played on stage a key role. I was somewhat wooden as an actor, so Mrs. “B” invited me to introduce the plays, lead the discussion afterwards, and be a somewhat erudite convener of differing opinions audiences expressed.
What CRC audiences began to surmise is that Jesus was not a sermonizer as much as an imaginative storyteller who spun verbal dramas. Talk about a revolutionary insight! So convincing was this thespian experience that I now carry on the lively tradition. I engage in a specialized ministry of drama, portraying Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson.
How did Thespians ignite a rebellion against assuming God’s truth is most effectively communicated through mere spoken words undramatically imparted? Like Jefferson who claimed his revolutionary insights in The Declaration of Independence were old truth cast in new forms, our Thespian troupe uncovered an ancient Hebrew conviction. It is called hochma, the science of the heart. Yes, tap an audience’s intelligence. But don’t stop there, as so much traditional Reformed preaching does. Tap feeling, too. Tap perception, often too deep for mere words. Wrap these godly gifts in story that’s compelling, hearty, funny and full of dramatic intrigue. Lure the audience into a shared story. Let such drama ooze into our psyche and permeate our hearts, even as it enlivens the mind. Let it tap our sympathies, shape our understanding and ripen our affections. This is hocma in action.
How did I express the revolution the “B’s” ignited? My fading notes still flash with their ardor for the dramatic affect Jesus shared. Here’s how I introduced the plays in 1968-1969:
The plays given this evening are two contemporary morality plays, “The House by the Stable” and “Grab and Grace,” written by Charles Williams. As you probably know, morality plays were very popular in the medieval period when the Roman Catholic Church sponsored them.Consequently, they became closely bonded to Roman Catholic liturgy.
The most famous medieval morality play is Everyman (sic), based on Roman Catholic theological emphases. Everyman needs good works. He must remain virtuous in order to enter heaven. Charles Williams, on the other hand, offers a Protestant emphasis. In these plays, Man (sic) has a free choice; he is given alternatives. God sustains Man. God girds Man. God literally pulls Man up through abundant grace when he is about to fall.
What’s very important to realize is that the characters—Grace, Faith, Pride, Hell, Man are not individual persons but personifications of ideas. Lacking this insight, some people mistakenly think Williams is sacrilegious, or—to use a good Dutch-ism- spoutin.
Neither of these plays is complete in itself; they complement each other. The first play, “House by the Stable,” deals with Man’s confrontation with the incarnation event. But we as Christians know Man is still going to be tried. So God sends Grace and Faith to help Man to ward off Hell and Pride. After all, Christ didn’t come to save us from temptation; He came as an example of how to combat temptation.
Yes, dramatic hochma won the crowds. It instigated a revolution. By God’s serendipitous way with us, it might even have converted a few souls. At least it accomplished that to one thespian—me.
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