Is Religion Just an Act?

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By David Mason, The Washington Post

There were some rumblings early on that the national press had fallen for a hoax—rather like the several times that Chinese news agencies have recycled stories from The Onion as real news—but at this point the event has produced an NPR interview with the perpetrator, so I’m willing to go with it.

Seems that a Mormon bishop in Utah went to church disguised as a homeless man in order to teach his congregation something about compassion. What one would expect did, in fact, happen, as several people told him to leave, several people ignored him, and the children—ah, the guileless children—treated him like Santa.

In defense of the congregants, I’m not convinced that “Be Nice to the Homeless, Lest You Ignore Your Bishop” is a valuable lesson. Arguing in an object lesson that one should have compassion for the world’s disenfranchised people because one might discover that they aren’t disenfranchised at all seems to me the equivalent of saying, “Be nice to everyone so that you don’t accidentally offend someone important by mistake.” Maybe Bishop David Musselman should have brought some real homeless people with him to church, instead.

But never mind the ethics of the object lesson, itself. What this stunt says about religion, in general, might be more intriguing. By undertaking this sting operation, which, according to the report, involved the assistance of a Salt Lake City makeup artist and a wig that he dramatically removed during services, Bishop Musselman here demonstrated—perhaps inadvertently—exactly what religion is. That is: religion is theatre.

I didn’t say that religion is fake, so take a breath. We not only misconstrue religion, as a matter of course, we misunderstand theatre. The dumbest thing we’ve been saying about theatre for twenty-five hundred years is that it’s fake. Aristotle, however honorable his intentions, was wrong. He had only Greek Tragedy in mind, of course, but even limited to this specific genre, theatre is not, essentially, imitation of something that really exists somewhere else. On the contrary, theatre gives us something quite real, right there, right where we are.

When Andromache tells her son, “Kiss thy mother now for the last time,” the big, salty tears that drop into your lap are not pretend tears, even though you know that the people on the stage are only actors. An actor as a Ugandan villager who says, “Salt Lake City isn’t an actual place. It’s an idea, a metaphor” is not pretend funny, but really funny. The ‘realness’ keeps us—some of us—going to theatres, when we could be going to movies or watching reality television, instead. Theatre is peculiarly able to make something materialize where that something did not before exist. And this is why theatre is always religious, no matter how secular or, even, profane.

Religion and theatre have always had a relationship. From the defunct theories that theatre, as an activity, evolved out of ritual, to acknowledging the fact across times and across cultures that people find theatre eminently useful to the promotion of religious ideas, we have seen that religion has always relied on theatre, and theatre has always been eager to serve, in return.

But this functional relationship has obscured where religion and theatre overlap. At a deeper level than that religion needs a performative mechanism and that theatre needs momentous subject matter, religion and theatre each manifest the fundamental human inclination to make things different. Religion and theatre both seek to transform the moment—the who and what—into something else, something more. The clincher: religion and theatre are the same for both being able to succeed in this respect. At the risk of cluttering the argument with jargon, religion and theatre meet at a phenomenological site.

So, Bishop Musselman puts on a costume and stages a little morality play for his congregation. It turns out he’s not a dirty, mumbling homeless man, but just pretending. And you could say, “Ah, that’s religion: a sound and a fury, signifying nothing.” But the sudden shame that fell on so many of Musselman’s congregation in the fiery instant of revelation—the pain that stabs the soul when a person sees in that glass a little less darkly—that’s not fake.

While the good bishop’s wig may have been a pretense, a charade, a con, many of his parishioners left that day in new roles that were not artifice, but genuine transformations of their selves. He might be wearing a chasuble as well as a wig. He might be wearing a collar. He might be genuflecting, or reciting antique Latin, or or otherwise putting on a show. Never mind that. The play is, indeed, the thing, but don’t forget that Hamlet aimed to change the real world. Religion scholar Huston Smith may as well have been writing about Hamlet’s theatrical enterprise when he described religion as “the effort to transcend phoniness”.

This is where religion is theatre, and also why religion has never been an exclusively theistic or otherwise supernatural affair. As theatre, religion is the activity—often “merely” fabricated—by which we change, and through which we access the experiences that fix those changes in the people we really are becoming.

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