Few images better distill the experience of crushing boredom, impending doom, or raw excitement than a ticking clock. The tense movement of those hands promises consequence and story. It reveals history in action. In the ticking clock, we see time as drama.
But we also know that the hands of a ticking clock really onlypoint to the fictional times we agree to share. Any meaning for drama or time will always be local and participatory. There is deep spatiotemporal wisdom in asking, “What time will the three o’clock parade begin?” while standing miles down the parade route. A show only starts when it begins for me.
And yet, even when we are stuck at home, we still regularly structure our days around that shared clock and experience dramatic tensions concerning its coming and going. We experience anxiety when appointments, talks, events, deadlines, meetings, shows, and meals run over their allotted time. Time feels precious and scarce and easy to lose—a nonrenewable resource we are prone to squander. The choices we make about how to spend our time feel consequential despite how hard it is for us to bridge even the narrowest canyons of boredom. I would love to write some encouragement to myself about the goods of delayed departures or getting lost in the wonders of contemplation—it is, after all, fun to be caught in surprising conversation or seduced by public radio’s driveway moments—but changing travel plans at the last minute costs a lot of money. Schedules rule with iron fists.
At the theater, the schedule dictates the moment when “the show must go on”—our desire to synchronize, to agree to share measurements of time, holds social life together. But drama plays out during its own showtime. Just as a stage will be separated from other spaces to become the place to unfold the alternate world of the play, so too does the time for theatrical storytelling become distinct and special. Actors can step into and out of character without physically moving on or off the stage. During the showtime of performance audiences recognize the actor as a character, and ordinary stuff takes on extraordinary new meanings.
Theaters symbolize the boundaries of showtime in the rise and fall of a curtain and the dimming and flickering of lights. Showtime shines the spotlight on the way time plays a fundamental role for every finite thing. Finite things begin, and finite things can end (sometimes without much warning), but somewhere between the starting and stopping, meaning collects. We sometimes call those collections of meanings a story.
Like every other thing in the world, stories exist in time. This is one of the insights of Paul Ricoeur, who puts the experience of time and narrative into conversation, suggesting that time must pass for the beginning of a story to move toward its end. So too, stories take time to tell. During a show, we watch as a flow of individual moments—scenes, musical numbers, entire acts—congeal into a larger narrative. Stories make meaning happen in the midst of a passage of time.
But on stage, showtime calls for drama, a tricky word. Etymological breakdowns (which find roots for drama in the Greek draō, “to do, to act”) often overlook what we call “dramatic”: the over-the-top, the exciting, the intriguing, the hilarious, the heartbreaking.1 Drama takes and presents moments of time that are meaning ready—a thriller lurks in the de factodrama of a ticking clock; nine hours spent stuck in an airport can be compressed into an epic tale told in a few minutes.
Of course, not all drama is a good time. For the Greeks, tragedies and comedies both count as dramatic. Drama memorializes pain, loss, and cruelty as easily as drama makes us laugh, cheer, and embrace. And we must remember that one person’s exciting drama can be plainly uninteresting to someone else. Even juicy gossip becomes boring when we don’t care about the dramatis personae.
Are you bored yet? Should you be spending time doing something more interesting? Our experience of time gives us a clue about what we hold to be important or where we look to find our meaning. Time’s meaning must be personal: human, specific, and consequential. The best sorts of experiences steal our attention away from watching the clock. That’s why events sudden, beautiful, exciting, scary, provocative, hilarious, offensive, or mysterious make for better stories. These peculiar moments call out for retelling, replaying, even reliving because they rearrange our experience of time’s movement. Boredom makes us all too aware of the time we inhabit and its slow drip. Drama offers an antidote to boredom by distilling a story to its meaningful peaks. Drama reveals change acrosstime. In drama, we can see history as it is made.
We can experience both drama and boredom in an unexpectedly prolonged pause. Performances can be canceled, but the world goes on in time. We wait with anticipation for the next event that grabs our attention with a promise to make meaning. Drama invites participation. Many of us cede time to the drama of a roadside accident. In my part of the country, we often blame such rubbernecking for traffic slowdowns on an otherwise clear roadway. Drivers slow down to watch history unfold for the same reason we stop to watch a busker juggle, turn our heads at the clattering of plates in the kitchen, gather to applaud a complete stranger’s marriage proposal, or stop to wave at boats sailing into a harbor. Witnessing a dramatic moment not only changes our schedules and speeds; it creates a new kind of time together with others.
In that way, telling dramatic stories opens an experience of shared time that breaks everyday expectations. For Christians, drama identifies the experience of our own time as nestled within a longer salvation history. One of the obvious ways to make sense of shared time’s meaningfulness for Christian life, therefore, is to talk about the Christian liturgy as mutual participation in a recurring and also ongoing sacred drama. Processional movement enacts the worldly pilgrimage that began before this ritual event and that will continue after it ends. These words, these sounds, these images have told the story many other times, but it is the church’s collective doing that remembers.
Another way to think about time’s meaningfulness for the Christian experience is to talk about theater. Theatrical performances gather people together as a crowd of witnesses to an event with its own stage space and showtime. Many historical figures—Juvenal, Pythagorus of Samos, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pedro Calderon—use the stage as a metaphor for the entire world. Jacques’s well-known speech from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It puts it this way: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.”2 Everyone has their own range of parts to play during their own finite showtime, but the world’s story is bigger than the stages we can see or the historical times we occupy.
Yet Christians have perhaps legitimately worried about theatricality and its blatant affront to the importance of displaying the truth at all times. Actors are just professional liars, no? Some in the early church took issue with drama’s influence on Christian behavior. In de Spectaculis, Tertullian identified a problem in the formation of Christians who enjoy the licentious frivolity of the Roman circus, plays, and gladiatorial games. Augustine confessed that the illusions of love presented on stage distracted him from the reality of suffering in the world.3 Many spectators still stereotype performers as flashy, vain, and morally permissive. Theatrics can represent a mode of deception with a sinful disregard for the reality of creation as God intends it to perform its given role. And Christian theologians inherited the old Platonic anxiety about mimicry as a disaster for knowledge and ethical living.4 What if the attention-grabbing power of drama functions only to distract us from what matters most?
In my view, what begins as a well-placed caution about the attraction—or distraction—of appearance quickly slides toward a paucity of imagination. Humans play different roles at different times as a display of creaturely creativity. Artistry finds more in creation than just the sum of the world’s parts, and drama depends on productive tensions that do not collapse into contradiction, including the one between fiction and truth. Certainly, theatricality can sometimes misdirect attention or confound a sense of what’s real, but drama also makes a promise that our world and its time are rich with stories that are worth telling. Lies distort our vision of the world; drama rearranges our sense of its possibility—including the way Christian theology is able to conceive of time.
No one put drama and theology together with more words than the Swiss Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote five volumes that articulate theological ideas in dramatic terms.5 Various readers have taken interest, with both praise and strident critique, in Theo-Drama’s conceptions of history, its erotic and ecclesial imagery, its notions of freedom, and its symbolically gendered theories of God.6 Drama, for Balthasar, holds divine infinity and creaturely finitude in productive and creative tension. Within this tension, dramatic analogies (like the relationships of freedom shared between authors, actors, and directors) provide enough space and time for human choices to be important to God and for God’s absolute freedom to remain divine. A dramatic mode thus helps theology speak from the middle of the story in response to God’s action, neither mistaking the triune God’s providence for an inescapable fate (like the Greek tragedies) nor pretending that God abandons creation to arbitrary randomness (like a meaningless materialism). For Balthasar, interpretations of God’s revelation should not lead to a vision of God that is like any ordinary concept or thing. Thinking God, writing God, and speaking God all demand doing love in the present. Drama helps Balthasar articulate why theology cannot be boring—for Christians, the history of the world is an ongoing charged and dramatic love story.
At a fundamental level, then, drama suggests boredom to be a theological problem. When time with or for God becomes boring, humans stop paying attention. Theater demonstrates how this works. A boring show can be even more miserable than that boring meeting or a boring traffic jam. But we sure hope that God is never bored by spending time with God’s creatures. A Christian theological history needs to be a story worth telling because the time of the world has meaning for God. Theology interprets history as a drama to help us see the passage of time as meaningful rather than mechanical, predictable, or inevitable. Boredom signals when something about theology’s accuracy to its divine subject matter, or the readiness of the theologian to do theological work, has gone awry.
There is plenty to like and dislike in Balthasar, but it is impossible to miss the way drama helps him conceive of time theologically. Theo-Drama deploys two major resources from the tropes of the European dramatic tradition. The first is the image of the world as a stage (harkening back to Jacques’s speech); the second is a transition from role into mission. Actors take a stage and embody the roles they are to play in the drama, thereby “making it present here and now.” So too, Balthasar argues, does God enter the stage ofhistory in the incarnation and continuously reveal the meaning of the world for God in Jesus the Christ. In his presence, Jesus the Christ shows creaturely time to be meaningful to God in eternity: “If we participate in Christ’s time, it means that, in him, we share in bringing our time into eternal time, insofar as Jesus’ past (as a historical person) is the guarantee of his future.” The Christ’s time becomes “the time of the Mediator.”7
Thinking about time in the context of eternity is admittedly a bit of a zany idea—so zany, in fact, that Balthasar takes to calling God’s eternal becoming an event in “super-time.”8 But imagine how meaningful creaturely time must be for God if God not only acts during the showtime of history on the world stage in order to save a human plot but also takes creaturely time up into the eternal dynamism of God’s own life. For Balthasar, eternity is not merely timelessness; eternity can hold creaturely time in its beloved fullness of meaning. His is a dramatic reading of the Christ’s ascension and apocalyptic eschatology, to be sure, but what Balthasar has claimed is that creation’s time matters so much that God is willing to envelop it for eternity without absorbing it. Time does not pass away into its own death. Time does not erase or disperse or fade into a silent void. The drama of God’s life enfolds, enriches, and enlivens time itself. There will always be more to enjoy in the unending and surprising drama of God’s eternal life.
Balthasarian theopoetics might border on the verge of the nonsensical for those who are not already fans of his production style. His concept of super-time raises more questions than it answers. For instance, how can time be enfolded in eternity? His theory promises some access to the idea of an everlasting now: time remembered as a creature with all its creaturely integrity but without that pesky tendency to be dismissed, to be forgotten, to be ignored. For Balthasar, creaturely time operates analogically for eternity, and the Theo-Drama is a place for analogies to play. Theater likewise provides a ready-made image to bring Balthasar’s eschatological time into clearer view as consequential for human experience in the present. Of course, a theatrical image of time held within eternity, like a show within a show, is not Balthasar’s alone: Saint Paul, Tertullian, Dante Alighieri, and John Calvin all understood God’s perspective toward the history of the world in something like theatricalterms.
So given this theatrical view of God and time, how are we humans to play our part to keep the drama of creation interesting? The freedom and responsibility for actingcreation is in human hands.
Actors know that the work of theater-making comes from their choices about verbs. Take any introduction to acting or improvisation course, and you will be reminded to do stuff in order to tell this version of the story. Actions bring the story to life. Guided by directors, actors must discern what desires motivate their characters’ activity, what physicality to bring to any given scene, and how to signal subtleties in relationships and emotion. Actors do not explicate or describe these interpretive choices; actors perform them in time. Theater gives meaning to the present because it emphasizes actions that can really be done. Doing happens in the present tense, and theater presents human doing as artwork. No matter what you call action in the theater—performing or acting or playing or pretending or entertaining or distracting or boring—the verbs happen now, during showtime. This also includes the important verbs enacted by the audience members who gather to witness, to watch, to applaud, to judge, to criticize, to laugh, to weep, to boo, and to talk. Theater therefore reminds Christians that our time, like the cost of an overpriced Broadway ticket, will be spent together, even if we are physically apart.
Theatrical drama thus enlivens history by showing how our stories matter in two ways: first, theater points our attention to missed moments of importance, and second, it materializes new possibilities for stories in embodied space and time. I suggest, in the company of the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and a show that goes on despite a dark Broadway, that time’s meaning derives from our decisions and our verbs. When we speak history—that narrative that builds our interpretation of the past by reassembling its bits and pieces in the present—we tell stories of actions done to and with one another. Theater reinterprets reality and, in doing so, stages a new possibility for sharing and remembering time.
The characters in Miranda’s Hamilton assert that “History has its eyes on you” in that we “have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells [our] story.” These words, which close Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fictionalized version of history, cite both time and story. But in the finale’s music, we hear melodic leitmotifs move static ideas into dynamic and emotional drama. Music signals the transition from the present of decision toward the dramatic memory of history. Calls to action resound in close proximity—Alexander Hamilton’s dogged and continual drive to “rise up” in “My Shot” and George Washington’s attentiveness to the ways that action matters for others in “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Action is revolutionary and consequential. The juxtaposition of these themes echoes, yet again, to mark victory at the Battle of Yorktown when “The World Turned Upside Down.” But has that revolutionary promise of freedom been realized in our own era? Washington could still reply “Not yet.” Indeed, the finale of Miranda’s blockbuster demonstrates how the meaningfulness of our choices unfolds beyond our own time. Eliza, Alexander’s spouse and perhaps another titular Hamilton, tells stories and transfigures the haunting and energetic melody into an eschatological benediction.9 The stories we choose to tell in the present remember the people and things we loved in the past and shape the direction of our shared futures.
Theatrical drama distills meaning for time and represents it for us now—one way in which all kinds of drama can illustrate time’s potential for us. Drama sparks interest, focuses attention, and names what refuses to be boring. Theo-drama is Balthasar’s term for thinking theologically in the midst of the world’s dramatic tensions, but it is also possible to imagine how theo-drama illustrates time’s meaning in a peculiarly Christian way. The world waits for its end, when our ordinary performance choices will be placed in the context of the much larger and longer drama of salvation history.
It can be easy to forget that history has its eyes on us because we cannot know what consequences flow from our verbs or what stories those in the future will choose to tell about us and our actions. All we can know is that our time must be important. Theater’s greatest theological insight, perhaps, is that the present is a matter of what we do with our presence together. Relationships, after all, must be built over time. God promises to remember time for us even after the world stage’s showtime runs its course; there will still be more story to tell after curtain call.
- For a concise summary of theatrical terminology in the context of Christian theology, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 20–24.
- Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7.136–66.
- See Tertullian, de Spectaculis, trans. S. Thelwall, in Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (New York, NY: Scribner, 1905); and Augustine’s depiction of virtuosic acting in Confessions, 3.2.2, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991).
- What might be called an antitheatrical bias predetermines theater as a kind of deception. For a major review of the theme and its history, see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981). For a discussion on the role of antitheatricality in negotiations of public life, see Lisa A. Freeman, Antitheatricality and the Body Politic (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). For a contrasting discussion of theater as means to theorize integrity, see Larry D. Bouchard, Theater and Integrity: Emptying Selves in Drama, Ethics, and Religion (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011).
- See Balthasar, Theo-Drama, trans. Graham Harrison, 5 vols. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1989). Indeed, Balthasar includes a lengthy section on “Objections,” 1:51–88.
- See Ben Quash, Theology and the Drama of History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 2005) for a look at Balthasar that is particularly pertinent to this essay. For a sense of his many critics, see Karen Kilby, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
- Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 2:298, 5:127, and 5:129.
- Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 5:32.
- “History Has Its Eyes on You,” track 19, disc 1, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” track 23, disc 2, “My Shot,” track 3, disc 1, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” track 20, disc 1, on Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical, Atlantic, 2015.