The Turn to Drama: Theater as Worldview

By Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Anyone interested in worldview, cultural engagement, and apologetics knows that you have to chart the history of ideas, especially the sharp “turns”—those radical reorientations and paradigm shifts that affect the way people in a whole range of disciplines view the world. Kant’s famous “turn to the subject,” for example, was a kind of Copernican revolution, an epistemological about-face in the subject-object relation.

The turn to drama is the culmination of three prior turns.[1] Probably the biggest game-changer in twentieth-century philosophy was the turn to language, which led in both analytic and Continental directions. Next came the turn to narrative, the linguistic medium that expresses and shapes human identity, individual and corporate. This eventually led to the turn to practice (sometimes called the cultural-linguistic turn), which replaced abstract forms of rationality with concrete forms of rule-governed action shared by specific communities. A practice is a living tradition or, as Alasdair MacIntyre defines it, a “historically extended, socially embodied argument.”[2]

The turn to drama embraces each of these three turns. It is made up of language (saying is a form of doing); it does not tell (narrate) but shows a story; it is acted out, bodily, in coordination with others. The theater speaks the language of interpersonal action. A theater is the peopled place where story becomes flesh.

The theater is literally a worldview. The Greek term theoria, from which we derive our term “theory,” also means “to behold.” Theories are beheld in the mind’s eye, but theaters are places to behold lived theories, worldviews in act. The theater is a powerful instrument for examining humanity in everyday life and in extremis. It is no coincidence that the ancient Greeks invented philosophy and tragedy alike.[3] What is tragedy if not the terrible exhibition of a grievous worldview?

Even Plato wrote mini-dramas: all his philosophy is in the form of (Socratic) dialogue, and several of them featured the trial and execution of Socrates as their central theme: “By writing dramatically, Plato presented us with constant reminders of the tangible, the personal, and the concrete.”[4] Drama brings concepts and existence together as the raw materials for exercising good judgment. If narrative is the “laboratory of human possibility” (Ricoeur), how much more so is theater, where the observers are so close to the “experiment” that those in the front row can be sprayed with spittle. The turn to drama is all about the working out and testing of convictions in the crucible of everyday life.

Of course, the medium of theater is neither abstract ideas nor matter in motion but personal interaction—human bodies in meaningful, communicative motion. There is theater wherever and whenever one or more persons present themselves to others. Erving Goffman, a sociologist, maintains that the motivation of much we do is to influence the impressions others have of us—everyday life as performance.[5] Thornton Wilder, a playwright, was no doubt partial yet his words are worth pondering: “I regard theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”[6] Professors of theater studies agree: “Theater is a discipline in which the primary source for study is the human being.”[7]

We can go further, because “all the world’s a stage.”[8] When human beings interact, they often act out, consciously or unconsciously, social scripts. And yet underneath these social scripts lurk metaphysical scripts. Rowan Williams defines metaphysics as the study of the underlying convictions about the way things are implied by our most important practices.[9] The way we act bears witness to our beliefs about the nature of reality.

The turn to drama therefore encompasses self and world, but what about God, the most important part of a Christian worldview? The turn to drama here comes into its own, for the world is a “theater of God’s glory.” Calvin says God has placed humans “in this most glorious theater [theatrum gloriae] to be a spectator” of his wonderful works.[10] And not only a spectator, but an actor. The gospel is the drama of the Christ, the story of what God was doing, in the flesh, to renew fallen creatures and the whole created order. Gospel theater is the triune God who is life, light, and love in himself (ad intra) being himself in history (ad extra) for us and our salvation.[11] This is no tragedy, but a eucatastrophe in which all nations of the world have been summoned to participate. Discipleship involves learning how to play one’s part—to put on Christ (Gal. 3:27) in our place and time.[12]

At the heart of the turn to drama, then, is the gospel word made flesh. There is nothing more all-encompassing than the story of the Christ, for whom and by whom all things exist (Heb. 2:10) and in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17) and are being summed up (Eph. 1:10). The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s five volume Theo-Drama is the most ambitious exploration of the turn to drama to date.[13] The drama for Balthasar is all about the encounter between finite (human) and infinite (divine) freedom. God offers eternal life: how will the human players respond? Will they become who they are in Christ, or will they deny him, and themselves?

Will people respond in faith to God’s call? There is no more dramatic question than that: “It is (to borrow from Kierkegaard) as though we sat witnessing some tremendous epic drama being performed on a vast stage, when suddenly the chief character of the drama, who is also its director, steps forward to the front of the stage, fixes his eye upon us, points his finger at us, and calls out: ‘You, you’re wanted. Come up here. Take your part!’”[14]

Metaphors matter, and to qualify as a worldview, a model must be sufficiently comprehensive. The theatrical paradigm fits the bill, integrating as it does God, self, and world. The turn to drama has yielded helpful works in Christian ethics,[15] liturgics,[16] even homiletics.[17] The turn to drama apparently preaches, although the pastor ought not to be in the spotlight. People might think the pastor is the actor on stage and they are the audience (or critics). On the contrary, as Kierkegaard notes, the congregants are the actors on stage; the preacher is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.[18] The pastor is a precious catalyst for helping congregants internalize the biblical story-line that serves as the church’s holy script.

Readers of The Worldview Bulletin will perhaps be most interested in the implications of the turn to drama for apologetics. Language, story, and corporate practice come together in the life of the church, which could be seen as a form of corporate understanding and lived rationality: a theater of cruciform wisdom.[19]

Existentialist philosophers like Sartre and Camus anticipated the turn to drama, effectively using the theater to body forth their ideas of individual responsibility and freedom. Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco did something similar with their Theater of the Absurd. How much more should Christian individuals and communities be mounting counter-cultural performances in the local church? There is gospel theater anytime someone presents oneself in everyday life in ways that embody the mind of Christ and glorify God. To live out your worldview—to put flesh on the true story of the world—you have to know how to walk across the stage, your place in space-time, to the glory of God.

Theater cannot save us; catharsis is not redemptive. Yet, “the work of the theater is unapologetically embodied.”[20] So, too, is the work of Christian witness. The gospel, we might say, is apologetically embodied. The life of the church is its most important form of biblical interpretation, a public display of life together in the world, before God, in a just (because justified) institution. There is no better way to make the mind of Christ intelligible, and persuasive, than to embody it communally.[21]


[1] I used the term “turn to drama” in my 2007 essay “Once more into the borderlands: the way of wisdom in philosophy and theology after the ‘turn to drama,’” in Vanhoozer and Martin Warner, eds., Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 31-54. Martin Puchner used it a few years later in The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 8.

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007), 222.

[3] See further Julián Marías, “The Dramatic Structure of Philosophical Theory,” in Philosophy as Dramatic Theory (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), 37-58.

[4] Puchner, The Drama of Ideas, 173.

[5] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

[6] Jackson R. Bryer, Conversations with Thornton Wilder (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), 72.

[7] Angela Konrad, “Word Made Flesh: The Transformational Power of Theater,” in Where Wisdom May Be Found: The Eternal Purpose of Christian Higher Education ed. Edward P. Meadors (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019), 102.

[8] William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act II, scene 7.

[9] Rowan Williams, “Beyond Politics and Metaphysics,” Modern Theology 11 (1995): 3-22.

[10] Calvin refers to heaven and earth as a theater of God’s glory in his Institutes (1.5.8; 1.6.2; 1.14.20. 2.6.1; 3.9.2) and in various commentaries.

[11] See further Matthew Farlow, The Dramatizing of Theology: Humanity’s Participation in God’s Drama (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017).

[12] See further John Piper and David Mathis, With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

[13] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory vol. 1-5 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1988-98).

[14] Will Herberg, Faith Enacted as History: Essays in Biblical Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 41.

[15] See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018); Wesley Vander Lugt, Living Theodrama: Reimagining Theological Ethics (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2014).

[16] W. David O. Taylor, The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

[17] See Ahmi Lee, Preaching God’s Grand Drama: A Biblical-Theological Approach (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019); Eric Watkins, The Drama of Preaching: Participating with God in the History of Redemption (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016).

[18] Søren Kierkegaard, from Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, cited in Parables of Kierkegaard, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 89.

[19] See further my Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014).

[20] Konrad, “Word Made Flesh,” 105.

[21] For more on the turn to drama and apologetics, see my “Sapiential Apologetics: The Dramatic Demonstration of Gospel Truth,” in Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Wisdom, and Witness (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 217-50.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously he served as Blanchard Professor of Theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School (2009-2012) and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1990-98). He is the author of a dozen books, including The Drama of Doctrine, Remythologizing Theology, and Biblical Authority after Babel. His most recent book is Hearers and Doers: A Pastor's Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine.

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