Had you asked me, the last thing I ever wanted to be was a born-again evangelical Christian. As a 50-year-old theater professor (and atheist), the last thing I ever wanted to do was to follow Jesus and alter a career I had spent my life developing. For over thirty years, I had been using the “net” of my theatrical knowledge to catch young believers and haul them away from what I viewed as religious superstition and toward the truth of the Enlightenment. I was the faculty member the chaplain would call to present the “other side.”
And even when God’s relentless love cornered me, I still didn’t want to believe. I preferred to think I was having a breakdown. I resisted Him with every intellectual argument I could muster. As I relate in the account of my conversion experience in The Fiery Serpent, He out-argued me on point and counterpoint. In addition, He threw at me an astonishing array “coincidences”—signs and wonders—far beyond my rational mind’s ability to explain away.
The critic George Jean Nathan called the theater the “House of Satan.” If that was the case, I didn’t know what to do without Satan’s net. I couldn’t imagine what I would do outside the fishing ponds of theater and film where I had spent 30 years developing knowledge, skill, and reputation. I was afraid to let my colleagues know that I was following The Fisherman. (The last evangelical Christian professor at my college to do so was also head of the state UFO-sighting association!)
Not coincidentally, for almost a year, I had not been able to fashion the material I had collected on a recent sabbatical into the book I had had in mind. However, at an old-fashioned campground meeting in Mechanics Falls, Maine, the Holy Spirit told me to write the book for Him. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I obeyed, like Abraham, Simon, and Andrew before me. I trusted and obeyed.
I discovered, through the process of writing The Fiery Serpent: A Christian Theory of Film and Theater, that the Lord would have me re-weave my net. Taking the materials of my old secular one, the Lord led me to fashion a net to glorify Him and proclaim His Kingdom. A passage in Habakkuk describes the change: You have made men like fish in the sea, like sea creatures that have no ruler.
The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net, he gathers them up in his dragnet; and so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.
Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?
I had been the “wicked foe,” catching people and drawing them away from God through the “magic” of the dramatic arts. I lived for my net. I worshipped the powers of the theater and film. I worked to advance them. And the work gave me “the choicest food.” But the Lord showed me that theater for theater’s sake or film for film’s sake is idolatry. The dramatic theater had been created by God as a means to glorify Him. I had used it instead a means of glorifying itself, and, in the process, “destroying nations without mercy.”
By clarifying God’s means and the ends of the dramatic theater, I found I did not have to leave my profession; rather, I had to begin to fish with another goal, with another attitude, and with a healthy co-dependence on the Holy Spirit. I still fish with a net, but the reason for my fishing and the way that I fish are completely different. My old ways of teaching are being replaced by better ones I could never invent. As George Eldon Ladd points out in The Gospel of the Kingdom, “God must give what He demands”. I am just not capable of singing the Lord’s song effectively in a strange land; but He is. Only by seeking His rule and reign and asking that His will be done in each acting class and every directing assignment can I hope to have what is necessary to glorify Him and proclaim His Kingdom.
The kind of work I do, and the way I do it, has changed completely. For example, I ask my students new questions about the characters they play and the works they are directing. “When in trouble, in what does your character place his faith?” “Is this a good script?” “Is the author’s point of view true?”
In today’s academy relativism, where “that may be true/good/beautiful for you, but it’s not true for everybody” stands as the unofficial motto, these antique questions startle today’s students like nothing else. In pointing out how dramatic art is clearly a made object, I ask how could things in nature, so vastly more complex, be accidental and not also made. Could even the simplest script or film sequence fall into place by chance? When students complain that too many coincidences in a story destroy the illusion of reality by pointing to an author’s hand, I ask if they feel the same when coincidences occur to them in their lives. I am energized by the perplexed looks on their faces; I delight in pointing out the universals our heavenly Creator has implanted in all people, of all times, and of all places. They begin to see pearls of great price hidden inside them and their fellow men.
Do I live and work carefree in the joy of the Lord? No, the House of Satan has left many things behind. When I became a Christian, I just knew the Lord would want me to work at a Christian school. But the Holy Spirit soon disabused me of that idea: “Do you think I let you do what you did at secular schools for so long, just so you could leave when you saw the light? No, no. I want you to stay where you are and be my witness in a land of unbelievers.”
Fifty years of being irritated by Christian witnesses has left me timid lest I come across to people as they did to me. Often the looks of contempt and the professional and social slights can trigger old feelings. But I am being taught by the Master to seek Another’s looks, and Another’s professional support. I am learning to ask Him first, to listen to Him more, to seek His voice and guidance, and to try to avoid my own first instincts. I am learning that kindness is a rare and powerful commodity in the worlds of theater and film. I am learning and teaching a new model of directing: the servant director, who cares more about his co-workers’ successes than his own. And I am daily awed as He reveals new ways to proclaim the Kingdom.
The net which began Jesus’ conversation in Mark concludes His conversation with them at the end of John. The disciples need not discard their nets, but rather: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some [fish].” That’s what I’m trying to do now as I follow Him. Paul Kuritz
) is a Professor of Theater at Bates College and author of The Fiery Serpent: A Christian Theory of Film and Theater
(Pleasant Word, 2006).