Spirit: Audience Participation Required

John 14:8-12; 15-17; 25-27   

It happens to me a lot.

I’m performing in a show, a theatrical production, for the company I work for, called Without a Cue Productions. In our shows, unknowing audience members walk into a situation they probably didn’t expect. That is, if they don’t read the fine print.

Our shows are interactive. There is no 4th wall. Oh wait, let me explain what I mean by that.

The fourth wall is a performance convention that assumes an invisible, imagined “wall” that separates the actors from the audience. You as an audience member can see through this wall, but I as an actor cannot. So you sit in a theater and watch actors sing, dance, and play a part. The actors on stage don’t acknowledge your presence. You can cough, sneeze, get up to use the restroom—but they will keep on going. You get the illusion, but you assume that they don’t.

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This idea developed around the 16th century and of course, is very prevalent still today. You go to a Broadway show, you just get to sit there and take it all in while the actors perform as if you weren’t. even there.

So imagine the shock, when actors like me address the audience and acknowledge their existence, when we “break” this fourth wall. It’s a violation!

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So back to the story. Unwitting audience members, expecting the safety of the fourth wall, are confused when I notice them, make eye contact, acknowledge their existence, even talk to them! I reference their lack of laughter at a certain joke or I ask them if they like my costume choice. They are even more surprised when I ask them to participate in something, if they so choose. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, right? Aren’t they just passive observers who sit and watch?

It is true that on a few occasions, audience members have left our shows after the 1st act or even before. Why? It wasn’t what they were expecting. They wanted passive entertainment in isolation and from a distance. They didn’t want to see us as people really [but mere spectacle], and they certainly didn’t want to participate, though we never force anyone to. I’m not blaming them—sometimes we need an escape with a 4th wall intact. I sometimes go to shows or performances and I just want to watch and appreciate the art form.

This dynamic of passivity of the audience vs. participation in art, is an issue across various mediums, including visual art. Is art in and of itself art once the artist has created it? Or, does art become art once an audience engages with it?

Marcel Duchamp, a French-American painter, sculptor, chess player, and writer whose work is associated with Cubism, Dada, and conceptual art, argued that both the artist and the viewer of the art are necessary for the art to be completed.

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While the creation of art begins with the artist [often in isolation], the work is not completed until it is out in the world and viewed by others/engaged with. I agree. I mean, the shows I’m in may be funny to us the actors and script writers, but we all know the fragile truth that on opening night…the audience will decide what’s funny and what’s not.

It’s not a stretch, in my view, to see Jesus of Nazareth as an artist. If you look at the Gospel stories as they are, you’ll see that Jesus isolated himself, created art alone, and then displayed that art for others to engage with.

And as Jesus went along the journey, Jesus evolved as an artist.

As Jesus encountered people with great needs, people who had been oppressed, marginalized voices—the art form [and even the medium] shifted. Jesus could have preached long sermons in synagogues across Judea. Jesus could have sat in long and beautiful, ornate halls with Torah in hand, mediating on scriptures and praying. But he didn’t.

Jesus engaged in performance art, on the streets, with the people.

And that’s just what this Spirit thing is all about.

See, there may be some loud voices right now telling us that God or Jesus don’t change and are rooted in ancient traditions and so, God and Jesus would not approve of what we’re doing in our modern societies—particularly in the case of sexual or gender expression, or religious diversity and pluralism, or cultural pluralism. The loud but scared voices of society may be telling us that LGBTQIA Pride is a dangerous agenda and is not appropriate for Jesus-followers; those same voices may tell us that Black Lives Matter is too political and not appropriate for church-going folk; those same voices may tell us that undocumented people are “illegals” and therefore a danger to our so-called “Christian” children; those loud, depressed, and scared voices may tell us that God’s Spirit, though “poured out on ALL flesh” according to the Bible, is not meant for certain types. For them it’s a Spirit that doesn’t ask much of us. There’s a fourth wall. The Spirit does its thing and we just watch it. The Spirit doesn’t see us in 2019 with all of our issues and challenges and joys and sorrows and uniqueness. This Spirit just keeps on acting, on a stage, in isolation, far from us, the passive observers, within the proscenium stage, where a curtain opens and closes.

That is not what the Spirit is in John’s Gospel. This is not the Jesus of John either.

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In fact, the Spirit in John’s Gospel goes far beyond the matrix of what society conditions us to accept and leaps off of the stage and into the audience.

This Spirit lives in people. It grows in people. It stays with us. This spirit is an advocate, gives us peace; comforts a troubled heart and it says no to fear.

And this Spirit REQUIRES our participation.

The Spirit says that belief is married to works. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you say you believe; it matters that you do what you believe. So, if you believe in love and justice, then you act on that belief. If you do not act out of love and for justice, then you actually do not believe.

What is this “greater work” that supposedly the followers of Jesus would do? Well, it’s forming Spirit community. Just as the Spirit abides in Jesus, so it abides in people, and it abides in community. But it requires our participation.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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