- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Bible is a hot property these days. Russell Crowe’s film Noah took in $360 million at the worldwide box office, and Christian Bale debuts as a big-budget Moses in Exodus this month. On television, the miniseries The Bible drew the largest cable audience for all of 2013.

So when does the Bible make its bow in the theatre? Of course, it has already. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell have each had recent Broadway revivals. A musical based on John Newton’s born again experience—Amazing Grace—debuted in Chicago last month and has plans for Broadway. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, drawn from the book of Genesis, continues to tour nationally. On the flip side—making fun of religious ideas—The Book of Mormon plays to a packed house on Broadway nightly.

The Bible has inspired the greatest literary achievements in Western civilization—the works of Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy and Les Miserables—the source of another musical currently running on Broadway. Such works make good theatre because they engage audiences through the dramatic struggle between good and evil, or through tension-building supernatural encounters or with cathartic stories of loss and redemption.

Theatre originated in the religious rituals of ancient Greece. It was rooted in the human need to worship. Some books of Hebrew Scriptures—Job and the Song of Solomon, for example—are poetic dialogues meant to be performed orally. The Passover celebration is a dramatic reminder to each generation of God’s faithfulness to Israel, when He delivered the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.

The Christian Church continued these dramatic storytelling practices in the Middle Ages and provided the starting point for the modern theatre. In a few short steps, theatre moved from the worship of the sung Mass to short playlets of Bible stories performed outside the church. Soon professional troupes traveled the English countryside performing works by named playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. These authors made explicit allusions to the Bible and displayed common Christian experiences such as guilt, repentance and forgiveness.

Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), a New York-based theatrical production company began with a similar mission. Namely, to explore the theatrical possibilities of the Bible. The critical response in New York and Chicago to such stage adaptations of Mark’s Gospel and Genesis combined with growing audiences gave each long shelf lives on stages across the country. They even found audience approval in such staunch secular colleges such as Smith, Brown, Johns Hopkins and Duke. Mark’s Gospel even received a Jeff Award, the Chicago professional theatre community’s highest honor.

FPA has continued to draw inspiration from writers such as C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Each has a deeply rooted faith in the Judeo-Christian supernatural tradition emanating from the Bible. Today, FPA has produced two C.S. Lewis productions. The hit play The Screwtape Letters is a story about a demon who tempts an unsuspecting human toward the seven deadly sins. That production had a successful nine-month run in New York followed by a 50-city national tour including three long stops at D.C.’s Lansburgh Theatre in 2008, 2009 and 2012. Nearly half a million people have seen it.

FPA is currently on a 25-city tour with C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that is resident in D.C. this month. A recent staged reading of G.K. Chesterton’s Magic was extremely well received with potential for further development.

Clearly, the Bible’s current draw as a basis for thought-provoking and engaging entertainment is no passing fad. In fact, its themes and stories form the very foundation from which our dramatic tradition rises. And as long as humanity has supernatural longings, is aware of psychic guilt and is suspicious of the theory that the material universe is the only reality, then the Bible will continue to be a huge source of inspiration for playwrights and dramatists.

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