Both liturgy and drama are stylized representations of reality that mediate to us an encounter with the human and the divine. That’s because human beings are born to be priests. A priest is nothing more or other than a go-between, mediating man to God and God to man. We must live out our priestly role. It is our nature, since we were made by God to do it and continue to do it, in some form or another, even after the Fall. Therefore, we do it both through art and religion—as well as in every other sphere.
So when a man becomes a father, he mediates the image of God the Father to his children, whether he will or no. That’s why Paul tells us that the Father (Pater) is the one from whom all fatherhood (patria) is named (Ephesians 3:14). A father is an image of the Father. He may be a very debased image, but the mediation happens nonetheless. Likewise, teachers, bosses, authority figures, politicians, baseball players, scientists in lab coats, rock stars and so forth are all “looked up to”. Why do we “look up”? Because they are “on a pedestal”: you know, where the statue of Zeus used to be. We crave a priesthood that will mediate ultimate reality to us and tell us who we are—and who we might be. Not for nothing is the show called “American Idol”.
This conflation of the arts with revelation is nothing new. St. Paul, for instance, quotes the pagan poet Epimenides and refers to him as a “prophet” (Titus 1:12). Similarly, it is the poet Vergil who conducts the Christian Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. The tendency to elevate the poet to a quasi-prophetic figure also shows up in the art of Michaelangelo, when (on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) he alternates the Sibyls and the Old Testament prophets as forerunners of the Messiah who heralded His coming. So it should come as no surprise that poets (we call them “musicians and screenwriters” now) still occupy this semi-prophetic role in our culture today. And we still expect them to do so. As a critic in the 1930s once said, “Theaters are the new Church of the Masses—where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human.”
All this is fine as far as it goes. But problems enter in when a civilization ceases to be Christian—as the West is now doing. To see what I mean, log on to Wikipedia and check out the birthdays of notable people for any given date. What you will notice is that, up until about 80 years ago, the notable people tend to be rulers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, novelists, inventors, and captains of industry and, now and then, an actor. But as the 20th Century progresses—and in particular when you reach the past 50 years or so—what comes to overwhelm the list are actors, singers, models and athletes. The cult—and that is the precise technical term for it—of celebrity comes to dominate and we find ourselves in a world that battens on a priesthood of celebrity that mediates only itself to us. People become famous for being famous. Pre-Christian paganism was a search that ended when the pagans asked to be baptized. Post-Christian paganism is a search that, if it doesn’t end in baptism, merely dissolves into pointless ennui about what Miley Cyrus is doing with her pelvis this week.
And yet that is the risk God is willing to take. What the Christian tradition did in developing a Christian drama was come to understand more deeply the meaning of the Incarnation. When God became man, he hallowed human things, including the human thing called “drama”. God, indeed, wrote himself into the drama of human life as a character in the play. Instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, we have one Author in search of the Seven Billion Characters. We’ve all been hiding ever since he called out to Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and we only come out of hiding to enact the strange and bizarre tragedy of the Crucifixion. Like the tragic heroes of the theatre, we are felled by hubris. Our greatness only goes to highlight the depth of our fall as we turn all our powers toward killing him in the most cruel way possible.
The gamble that God took in becoming human was the willingness to risk that we would approach creation sacramentally. And it is a risk because it is thing we remain free to not do. Paganism misses the sacramental by worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. Before the Incarnation, Israel was headed off from the universal blunder of paganism by being forbidden to worship images. When Christ became man, he gave us the true image of God and enabled us to honor him through images that mediate grace to us. However, when a culture loses its roots in Christ, it can (as ours has) easily slip back to the worship of the creature. So we batten on the star himself as a sort of god. We ask the star for divine oracles, and so take seriously his pronouncements on geocentrism, Scientology, 9/11 trutherism, or whatever. We forget that the star is not the character we love. We forget that all the beautiful things he says and does were written down for him in a script. In short, we make an idol of him and forget that he is, at best, merely a priest and often a very imperfect one.
The only hope for such a culture is to return to the sacramental and abandon the American Idol of celebrity culture. To remember that drama is good. But it is just a shadow of the One who is truly mediated to us in the Eucharist.
The happy news is that, as in a comedy, even our best laid plans for world-historical stupidity are turned, not by us, but by the joyful playwright, toward a happy ending and even toward a wedding (the classic device for concluding all good comedies). The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is the climax of the Divine Drama as tragedy and comedy meet and are reconciled in the Lamb who looks as if he had been slain—and yet who has the last laugh along with all he has died and risen to save. Our art, including our drama, retains the power to point us to the highest drama of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of the God who is also man because man, made in his image and likeness, is himself a sub-creator. So his stories tend to look like the Great Story. Fantasy writer John C. Wright captured this relationship of our stories to the gospel masterfully in a letter he once wrote me:
Plots are about conflict. Conflict means (1) someone we like wants something very badly and (2) someone or something else whom we like less is standing in the way and (3) someone we like is going to take a reasonable step to get the something he wants very badly and (4) the reasonable step will go badly wrong in an unexpected way, but in a way that in hindsight seems logical or reasonable.
Then you repeat. The thing that goes badly wrong means that the someone we like had to take another step to get around the bad wrongness and back toward the something he wants very badly. He takes the next step, and it does even more badly wrong.
Then he loses his map. Then his flashlight falls into a storm drain and he has an asthma attack but his Inhaler was left behind on the island. Then the cop pulls who him over for speeding while driving drunk in the nude turns out to be the short-tempered father of the bride he is marrying tomorrow, or was.
Then it goes more badly wrong, much more badly. Then the party is attacked and scattered by a band of goblins, and then the Gollum is on his trail, and the lure of the Ring is burning his mind. Then he finds the blasted corpses of his foster parents killed by Imperial Storm Troopers, and his house burnt to the ground. Then Lex Luthor chains a lump of Kryptonite around his neck and pushes him into a swimming pool and fires twin stealth atomic rockets at the San Andreas Fault in California and at Hackensack, New Jersey. And the spunky but beautiful girl reporter falls into a crack in the earth and dies.
Then he is stung by Shelob and dies. Then he is maimed by Darth Vader and discovers his arch foe is his very own father, and he loses his grip and falls.
Then Judas Iscariot kisses him, Peter denounces him, he is humiliated, spat upon, whipped, betrayed by the crowd, tortured, sees his weeping mother, and dies a painful, horrible death. The he is thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale and dies.
Then he gets help, gets better, arises from his swoon, is raised from the dead, the stone rolls back, the lucky shot his the thermal exhaust port, and the Death Star blows up, the Dark Tower falls, the spunky but beautiful girl reporter is alive again due to time paradox, and he is given all power under heaven and earth and either rides off into the sunset, or goes back to the bat-cave, or ascends into heaven, and we roll the credits.
And so, as J.R.R. Tolkien says in his great poem “Mythopoeia”:
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!