Is it appropriate for Christians to think of life in theatrical terms?
Despite the present popularity of the dramatic metaphor, one could be forgiven for thinking we should not. After all, does it not lead, even subliminally, to our construing our lives as one big game of make-believe, with our selves (as created and curated through media such as Facebook) at the center of the stage? We already perform our preferences–lifestyle, political, religious, and otherwise. We already photograph our food rather than eat it: it must be captured on film for its archival role in the documentary of the ego. Do we really need more encouragement in this sort of thing?
In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche gives an eerily prescient description of human life and its justification—prescient because he anticipates the performative and aesthetic aspect that is present in our current cultural mode of self-display and self-forging through ubiquitous social media, a mode which, in the age of mechanical reproduction, makes possible the dissemination of our forgeries on a much larger scale and for a much larger audience than Nietzsche could have anticipated. (I use the terms “forging” and “forgery” intentionally, as many others have done, because of their double sense: they refer both to “making” or “fashioning” and also to “falsifying.”) As often, Nietzsche proves himself to be the prophet of the modern age:
“The entire comedy of art is neither performed for our betterment or education nor are we the true authors of this art-world. On the contrary, we may assume that we are merely pictures and artistic projections for the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art–for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified–while of course our consciousness of our own significance hardly differs from that which the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle represented on it. Thus all our knowledge of art is basically quite illusory, because as knowing beings we are not one and identical with that Being who, as the sole author and spectator of this comedy of art, prepares a perpetual entertainment for himself. Only in so far as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he catch sight of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the weird picture of the fairy-tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is now at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.” (The Birth of Tragedy, p. 17 [emph. his], tr. C. Fadiman) 1
Nietzsche speaks here primarily of art, but the point could easily be (and in fact is) expanded more generally–all the world’s a stage, after all, and Nietzsche himself talks not only of art, but of “existence and the world.” And in this art-world, or world-as-art, we are not the “authors,” but rather are only representations or pictures.
What is the result of viewing life as sketch, as effigy? The belief that we are merely pictures makes Russian dolls of us–outsides with ultimately no insides. We can peel away a layer of appearance to find–another layer of appearance. And so on and so on, until the void, the empty nil at the imaginary and unreal center of each man. For this reason, both words of Nietzsche’s phrase “aesthetic phenomenon” are important–life only has meaning in so far as it is phenomenal, that is, the life of appearance, of manifestation, with all of the illusory and insubstantial connotations “phenomenon” can imply–a “phenomenon” that is and must be aesthetic. Precisely because it is (only) phenomenal, it can appeal (only) to sense-perception (the meaning of the Greek term αἴσθησις).
We perform, then, and this production is the only thing that gives life meaning. We are merely players; we have our exits and our entrances, and nothing else. Our life is all second childishness and mere oblivion.
The audience for this performance is not in the first instance man, nor is it God. In the first instance, the audience is God’s usurping surrogate, a cosmic Dionysos whom Nietzsche calls “that Being who…prepares a perpetual entertainment for himself.” But the performer, the genius, can “coalesce” to some extent with this Being, and thus become not only actor, but, in a secondary sense, also his own creator (“poet”) and his own audience. The individual then becomes the dramaturge of a perpetual fantasy in which he himself plays every role: he makes himself and then watches himself perform. A difficulty may be felt here: on the one hand, there is a subject, an ego; on the other, that subject disintegrates and has no substance–“we are merely pictures.”
This view is not compatible with a belief in the self or an ego that is not a mere illusion, that is stable over time, and that can be given a name that is more than a fiction in a list of dramatis personae.
So, to return to the original question: should we, in an effort to escape a vortex of deceitful fantasy, dispense with the performative metaphor altogether? Is it wrong to envision a “dramatics” of life in the world? The answer, I believe, is “no”; and historically, Christian theologians have embraced this way of speaking. How can that be?
I already have tipped my hand through repeated emphasis on the adverb “merely,” but to answer the question more thoroughly and theologically, we should first back up all the way to the beginning, to creation and to God, and should look to examples of theologians who have employed the dramatic idiom.
In connection with creation, John Calvin often recurs to the theatrical. Indeed, for Calvin as for Nietzsche all the world’s a stage, though for radically different reasons: for Calvin, creation sets the scene for the performance of God’s glory. In Institutes 1.14.20, he writes: “Meanwhile, being placed in this most beautiful theater, let us not decline to take a pious delight in the clear and manifest works of God” (tr. H. Beveridge). In 2.6.1, he refers to “this magnificent theater of heaven and earth replenished with numberless wonders.” God is the primary actor in this account.
For Calvin, of course, creation does not benefit man in the knowledge of God as it should, because of man’s sin; “the greater part of mankind, enslaved by error, walk blindfold in this glorious theater” (1.5.8). And so God acts in redemption as well. When he has done so, there is a place for the church, the people of God, to play their own role in accompanying God’s production. In his commentary on Psalm 135:13-14, Calvin notes that “[t]he whole world is a theater for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were–the most conspicuous part of it; and the nearer the approaches are that God makes to us the more intimate and condescending the communication of his benefits, the more attentively are we called to consider them” (tr. J. Anderson). God acts, and then we act; he directs, and we play. We do not “coalesce” with Him, but we follow his conducting.
Because we follow God’s script in the world, it is no surprise that, as we move from creation to redemption to the Christian life, the theatrical metaphor continues to have great vitality, and that many theologians before Calvin found it of great use.
Thus Gregory of Nazianzus, in his panegyric on his brother Caesarius, writes of Caesarius’ choice of a worldly vocation, for Gregory (though it wouldn’t have been for Calvin!) a lower type of life: “Yet it is no small thing if one, who has chosen the lower form of life, follows after goodness, and sets greater store on God and his own salvation than on earthly lustre; using it as a stage, or a manifold ephemeral mask while playing in the drama of this world, but himself living unto God with that image which he knows that he has received from Him, and must render to Him who gave it” (Oration 7.9, tr. J.E. Swallow).
On a first reading, Gregory’s “manifold ephemeral mask” used for “playing in the drama of this world” may seem to strike a Nietzschean note, but that is an illusion. The difference lies in the doctrine of the imago Dei. Nietzsche finds that the center cannot hold, because there is no center there at all in the void of negation (for man is a palimpsest written in air), and so man is only a picture on the outside. Gregory finds at the center and core of man the true picture, the image of God that must be displayed outward and polished in the Christian’s sanctification.
The problem with what Nietzsche suggests is emphatically not its theatrical metaphor after all. The problem is its sheer vacuousness. If one were to tear away the mask, there would be nothing behind it; it has eyes but sees not, for they are empty. In the passage above, Nietzsche leaves us with total self-forging, and an absence of self to forge. But for Gregory, the “manifold ephemeral mask” is an instrument for revealing what is permanent and given by God.
And thus Augustine as well: when chastising Jerome for his feud with Rufinus, he reminds him in Ep. 73 that he is to be an example to other believers in his performance of the Christian life: “If I could anywhere meet you both together…I would cast myself at your feet, and there weeping…would, with all the eloquence of love, appeal first to each of you for his own sake, then to both for each other’s sake, and for the sake of those, especially the weak ‘for whom Christ died,’ whose salvation is in peril, as they look on you who occupy a place so conspicuous in the theater of this life; imploring you not to write and scatter abroad these hard words against each other” (tr. J.G. Cunningham, modified).
What is sketched above is the true order of performance, and it indicates where the corresponding snare lurks. Our modern temptation is perhaps not quite the same as Nietzsche’s–perhaps we do not imagine only disintegration at the nonexistent core. But, for all that, we may still grasp tenaciously at a part of his half-truth. Perhaps we acknowledge the self at the core but are tempted to construct it from the outside, giving priority to the mask as actually determining the face that lies behind it: as our own impresarios we bring the self into authentic existence.
But the danger here is just as great, and the forgery more insidious. As Oliver O’Donovan notes in The Desire of the Nations, such an attempt at creating reality by performance lies behind Jesus’ rebuke of the hypocrisy (that is, the “acting” or “performance”) of the Pharisees. Without conversion of the heart, without the restoration of the image, we have nothing but a fresh coat of paint on a tombstone, a play that is only play: “Players and painted stage took all my love,/And not those things that they were emblems of,” as Yeats remarked. What Jesus castigates, on O’Donovan’s account, is precisely what Nietzsche valorized: mere representation.
If, then, we are to follow the lead of Calvin, of Gregory, and of Augustine, in which man’s external life in God’s theater reveals the God-created self at the core, and reject both the purely ludic and the Pharasaic, we must be more concerned with life than the display of lifestyle. Our actions–our acts, our performances–should reveal the self and its Maker, rather than themselves manufacturing a religious identity as a product for conspicuous consumption. Our audience is not “that Being,” but our neighbors and our Creator Himself, toward both of whom we are commanded to act in love that is, as the King James has it, without dissimulation. We must act without merely acting.