Acting Our Parts

Would you be willing to think with me a bit about one way of talking about worldview at Trinity? The other night at the Worldview Forum, I suggested to a group of first-year and transfer students that today we face a predicament that requires worldview analysis. But there are different ways of getting at that predicament. And I’ve had some colleagues gently critique the legitimacy of this approach. I call it a dramatistic, rather than a conceptual approach to worldviewing–borrowing a term from Kenneth Burke.

Let me know if this way makes sense or needs some re-thinking. (And I’m glad to hear either from colleagues or students on this one!)

Imagine a group of acting students in their studio on a September morning some years ago. Their professor is late, so they’re stretching and warming up and doing lip-tongue-teeth exercises. They’re actually trying to learn a kind of acting known as Method Acting, where the performer doesn’t just take on the accent and costumes of his or her character, but actually takes on the character’s psychology. The actor absorbs the inner life of the character and then acts from the inside out.

Their professor finally arrives. He says, “A plane has struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center—and I have to go. Be right back.” He spins on his heel and walks out.

The students know just want to do. They know this is an acting exercise, and they begin to respond with the kind of emotional authenticity that Method Acting calls them to. Some pull their hair. Some fall to their knees and groan. Others stand, sobbing quietly. One student sits dully in a chair and stares in the middle distance, unblinking.

A few minutes later, the professor comes back into the room and announces that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. And this time, something in his pallor, something in the tremble of his hands, something in his vocal register suggests that the students have misunderstood the situation. This is not an exercise. It is a living, material, horrific reality.

What do they do now? They have just spent all their emotional energy? They have just exhausted their entire capacity to emote authentically.

I have borrowed and adapted this parable from Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated, because I think it says something important about the way that students today experience everyday life as a series of scenarios put to them. You are handed a script—or you just have to guess at the script—and then asked to act authentically in all these scenarios.

Maybe it’s at the mall. There’s a script for that, right? There’s a role to play. You are Shopper Guy. You know how to move through the clothing racks with just the right level of ironic detachment. And then, with all the grace of Johnny Depp flicking a cigarette, you flip your plastic onto the counter. The role was made for you.

We could talk about other scenarios thrust at you. The athletic field. The classroom. The romantic relationship. It’s not that all these scenarios are false. It’s just that they ask something of you. They ask for you to perform in a particular way. And sometimes these scenarios—as you live into them—begin to seem problematic. They begin to feel unsustainable, almost as if you have to treat them as a series of acting exercises put to you by a professor. You have to assume a certain level of detachment from them.

What we’re trying to do at Trinity is to offer you a way of thinking about and evaluating these cultural narratives. Shopper Girl. Most Valuable Player. Busy Student. We call this evaluation worldview analysis.

A worldview is a way of organizing basic beliefs about the way the world is and the way the world ought to be. If you look carefully, all these scenarios make proposals about the way the world is or ought to be. So, we try to think about these things from a larger narrative, the biblical narrative of God’s life and word.

Before there were fingerprints or oak trees or internet service providers or hammers or icebergs, there was a divine community-in-one-person, Father, Son, and Spirit, who in an act of reckless, self-giving love made everything in heaven and earth. It was very, very good. Then, the fall of humankind traumatized the whole of creation. It continues to do so to this day. But the love that made the world determined to save the world. And this self-giving love continues to do so to this day and will until everything has been made new.

That’s the story by which we evaluate every scenario that thrust at us. It is a living, material, astonishing reality. So,w hen we do worldview analysis here at Trinity, this is not just another role for you to play—the role of Religious Liberal Arts Student in the Reformed Tradition. Or some catchy moniker like that. No, even though acting students are wont to quote Shakespeare and say that the play is the thing, this thing is much, much more than a play.

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