By Abigail Woolley

In recent conversations with two different evangelical friends, I heard something like this: “I am open to liturgical worship, but it depends how it’s done. What’s important to me is that the worship should be authentic.” Part of me thought of Charles Taylor’s diagnosis in A Secular Age. We in the West are living in the Age of Authenticity, when the individual imperative for self-expression overrides corporate identity, and we invent forms of religious observance and risk losing a sense of received coherence. By now this is a familiar lament.

But what I said was: “It’s amazing how what seems authentic can change.”

I remember standing in my Assembly of God church as a six-year-old child, watching my mother raise her hands and close her eyes and sway back and forth, and I was honestly a bit embarrassed. I’m not sure why; it’s not as if others weren’t doing similar things.


As I grew a little older, I found the courage to join in, and my passionate clapping and hand-raising were sincere. But then again, I often found myself wondering: “Am I feeling truly moved by the Spirit enough to be displaying it like this? Or am I putting on a show this time? (And by the way, what’s the procedure for taking my hands back down?)”

I had been encouraged to express myself during worship, but I had also been warned about the pitfalls of hypocrisy. This means that authenticity held such high value that I had not only the freedom to express myself, but also the obligation to evaluate my state of mind constantly to make sure my expressions were authentic. Ever tried to use a mirror to watch yourself navel-gazing? It was kind of like that. Except I was trying to do that while also worshiping the God of heaven and earth.

Constantin Stanislavsky, a Russian theater director in the early 1900s, is known for training actors to search their inner worlds, including all memories and emotions, for material to bring to a character. No matter how foreign a character might be to the actor, there should be some way of relating to the character. The performance should bring pieces of the actor to the surface, so the performance isn’t mere mimicry. It should be authentic. In sum, in Stanislavskian “method acting,” you work on a character from the inside out. This system gave rise to mid-century realism, as in The Death of a Salesman, and is not too far from the style of acting you see in most film dramas today.

I’ve often thought that low-church evangelical worship — and even much Protestant theology — could be thought of as Stanislavkian. If you have sincere faith, then the outward works will follow. If you feel close to God, express it when the bands start playing. You become a Christian from the inside out.

In college, I encountered the opposite kind of formation, when I began attending an Anglican church where, for instance, corporate confession was said every week. I often couldn’t think how I had “sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed” that week. (With my holiness tradition upbringing, I tended to think, “If I knew it was wrong, why in the world would I do it?”) But it was something we were all saying together, so I went along with it and confessed.

After a few months of this, the words started to stick. At random times I would find myself saying, “Most merciful God, we confess….” And little by little, I became more aware of my failings — in part, so I would have something to think of when I said the confession. It began to be desirable to notice them, because there was a place to put them and words to give them.

Around the same time, I first encountered acting theorists like Augusto Boal, Jerzy Grotowski, Viola Spolin, and Anne Bogart, who (roughly speaking) reverse Stanislavsky’s Method and work outside in. They recognize that the body is not only a symptom of the soul, but can shape it, too. In Boal’s Image Theater, for instance, actors will “sculpt” their bodies to match the form presented by another actor, as a way to open deeper levels of understanding and to rethink urgent social issues in which they are involved. In Bogart’s Viewpoints method, an acting company begins with physical training to develop a repertoire of expression and attention.

These approaches to acting, which stemmed from mid-century practitioners like Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, were what made sense of liturgy for me. Wheaton College’s theater company, Workout, is deeply indebted to Grotowski’s “poor theater,” which aims to build a company vocabulary of physical expression that serves as an alternative to the mundane handshakes, nods, and grimace-smiles that keep us from deeply encountering each other.

Certain training rhythms and movements became familiar to our rehearsal space, certain ways of using our voices, ways of breathing, ways of standing back-to-back with each other and listening. The thing about this learned physical vocabulary is that it started out seeming unnatural, but then it became an avenue for deeper expression than we could have summed up using our workaday words.

On Thursdays, I would sit face-to-face with another actor and solemnly hand her an invisible lump of clay. On Sundays, I would place my hands out, right palm over left, to receive a piece of bread that was supposed to be the presence of Christ.

The vocabulary of the theater made the sacramental and liturgical vocabulary more intelligible. Both were ways of acting — carrying out actions — that would bind me to the people around me and that would change me. Neither vocabulary depended on me keeping track of exactly how I felt or whether I fully believed it all every moment.

Even the company name, Workout, alludes to the passage in Philippians 2 in which Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in you to will and to work according to his good pleasure.” It wasn’t a Pelagian attempt to coopt our sanctification; it was a recognition that the project of working ourselves into the right frame of mind before acting would be a waste of time. Don’t hem and haw; offer yourself. Say the lines. Extend your hands. Show up. And then the actions will be there, ready to be filled with all the meaning you can muster that day.

Jennifer Herdt, author of Putting on Virtue, remarks on the puzzling “habituation gap” that is necessarily a part of any virtue ethics. If the way to develop virtue is to perform actions that are virtuous, as Aristotle recommends, then there is an inevitable period of time when we are acting inauthentically, when our heart hasn’t caught up with our hands. But after learning to act by Grotowski’s methods, and to pray by Cranmer’s words, the habituation gap doesn’t bother me much anymore. For one thing, I know that simply making myself available to become what I’m being called to be is already the first step in being shaped by God. Even if only my mind wants to be penitent, and my heart hasn’t quite gotten the message yet — that, too, is the beginning of God’s work in me. Kneeling isn’t entirely false.

For another thing, if I believe it’s okay to act — to worship, or to serve — even when my feelings aren’t fully “in it,” I have the freedom to stop winding myself up in knots about my state of mind. (Really, I’m not that important.)

Finally, when my authenticity becomes irrelevant, I can actually bring my whole heart to worship without making myself a spectacle — because we’re all doing it together. We all kneel — those who mean it, and those who don’t. We’re all offering ourselves to learn penitence, and no one can be seen displaying how far they’ve advanced in the project. There’s a certain privacy afforded by the liturgy that takes away a layer of possible pretense.

This paradox reminds me of my first opportunity to act Shakespeare, when my school performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of sixth grade. Imagine how ridiculous it would have been if someone had said, “Just focus on your feelings and say what comes naturally,” and I had burst out with:

How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.

Imagine how that would have gone over! But thankfully, at 12, I had no one looking for me to bring my own emotional toolbox to the character of Helena, Stanislavsky-style.

So I simply learned the lines, relished the words, and repeated them over and over. And they became to me like a bicycle to someone who has only traveled on foot — a new power, and such a thrill! It seemed like I was really speaking, more than I do ordinarily. I could rise to full height, mean every grand word I said, and the text had enough room for all of me, and more. I could reach for enormous meanings, and no one would think it was odd or out of place. In fact I did have my own “Demetrius” in mind, and there was another “she.” And only on stage could I rail about it in words I thought were worthy, and the stage was the only place it would not be considered “dramatic.”

I could lift up my heart to fill the text, which had been given to me to shape me, with no one needing to see how exactly how much of my heart was in it.


About The Author

Dr. Abigail Woolley Cutter lives in Winfield, KS, where she holds the position of visiting scholar in Religion at Southwestern College. She works in Christian ethics.

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Ashley Mowers
4 years ago

I love this; it’s exactly what I’ve been puzzling through the last year or so. I’m working on a thesis about the theology of theatre. Would you mind if contact you about it?