The Drama of Theology | The Word and the Image
Editor's Note: This post is the second installment in a series entitled "The Word and The Image." Read the first installment here. Brian serves as an advisory board member at Stage & Story.
In my previous post, I tried to open the conversation of dealing with the struggle that many artists have in the Church with the lack of understanding by their leaders of the ultimate equality of both word and image in God’s eyes. I gave a brief explanation of how God’s word, his message, was often communicated through visual signs and wonders, dreams and visions.
IMAGES OF GOD
But God does not merely use images to reveal his message. He often uses images to reveal himself. A burning bush (Ex 3:2), a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21-22), a “glory cloud” that covered the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35), and an angelic messenger (Josh 6:12) are just a few choice examples.
Consider the dozens of metaphors used of God, such as a lion (Hos 5:14), a lamb (Rev 21:22), a shepherd (Ps 78:71), a farmer (Ps 80:8), a vinegrower (Is 15), a potter (Rom 9:20-23), a drunken soldier (Ps 78:65), a father (2 Cor 6:18), a lover (Jer 3:20), a bridegroom (Is 62:5), a king (Ps 10:16), a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), a shield (Gen 15:1), a rock (Ps 18:46), a fortress (Ps 31:3), a cornerstone (Is 28:16), a morning star (Rev 22:16), a hen (Mt 23:37) and an eagle (Jer 49:22).
Some of God’s favorite images to use for his presence are thunder, lightning, clouds, smoke, and fire (Ex 19:16-18; Rev 11:19). Ezekiel’s famous vision of God’s glory included many-faced, many-winged, genetically spliced creatures around a throne with wild whirling wheels and a man of glowing metal and radiant fire in the center (Ezek 1)—one of the most interesting visuals in all the Bible, a stunning high-definition, Dolby sensurround feast.
The fact that God uses anthropomorphisms—human traits attributed to a nonhuman subject—to talk about himself is a powerful indicator of the value of imagination and human imagery in communicating and understanding truth. In the pages of the Bible, God is described dozens upon dozens of times as having eyes (Prov 15:3), ears (1 Pet 3:12), a nose (Gen 8:21), a face (Ps 114:7), arms (Ezek 20:33), and hands (Mk 12:36) with fingers (Deut 9:10), feet (Ex 24:10), a heart (Gen 6:6), a mouth (Is 1:20) with lips (Job 11:5) that even vomits (Rev 3:16). These are not physical descriptions; God is a spirit, not a physical body (Jn 4:24). These images, then, are obviously used as metaphors for us to understand God as personal, rather than abstract. Even though God uses reason and is referred to as the Logos (Jn 1:1), that Logos is biblically understood not as abstract rationality but as the personal sustainer of the universe, a spirit that became flesh (Jn 1:14), incarnate in the story of man. Word become image.
DRAMA, THEATER AND PARABLE
Rather than merely give sermons, God often had his prophets give plays. Isaiah’s shocking performance art was to walk around naked as a visual “sign and token” of the shame Israel was about to experience at the hands of Egypt (Is 20:2-4). Ezekiel could be considered a thespian prophet. God told him to perform a war epic as a prophecy, complete with a miniature city besieged by battering rams (Ezek 4:1-3). Then God has Ezekiel engage in the longest performance art prophecy ever recorded by laying on his sides for 430 days, tied up in ropes, eating food cooked over burning excrement, with an emblem of the sins of Israel on top of him (Ezek 4:4-8). He concludes this performance by cutting his hair and beard, and dispersing it in various ways to dramatically depict God’s concluding judgment (Ezek 5:1-4).
God then had Ezekiel perform a theatrical prophecy of exile by covering his face, dragging his baggage around day and night, and digging a hole in a wall to store it, all while saying “I am a sign to you” (Ezek 12:1-11). Ezekiel then had to tremble and shudder while eating as another dramatic sign of the anxiety that Israel will feel in their exile (Ezek 17—20). And later, God had him perform a sign of two sticks, symbolizing Judah and Israel, becoming one, not unlike a magician before his audience (Ezek 37:15-23). Mere words were not enough for God. He wanted spectacle; he wanted lights, camera, action!
Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet.” But he should have been called “the acting prophet,” because so many of his prophecies were theatrical performances: hiding his girdle by the Euphrates (Jer 13:1-11), breaking a potter’s bottle in the valley of Hinnom (Jer 19:1), walking through all the gates of Jerusalem (Jer 17:19-27), wearing a yoke on his neck (Jer 27:1-14), purchasing the deed to a field (Jer 32:6-15), burying stones in some pavement (Jer 43:8-13), and casting a scroll into the Euphrates (Jer 51:59-64).
The prophet Nathan tells a parable to King David in order to bypass his intellectual rationalization (2 Sam 12:1-7). Another prophet physically wounds himself to embody God’s word to Ahab (1 Kings 20:35-43). God commands Hosea to marry the prostitute Gomer in order to dramatically and existentially personify Israel’s spiritual adultery and God’s grace (Hos 1:2; 3:1). And the children of Hosea become incarnational images of the New Covenant promise.
Even more dramatic and existential, God takes the life of the prophet Ezekiel’s wife as a sign for how he will treat rebellious Israel during the captivity under Babylon (Ezek 24:15-27). In the New Testament, God uses the visual spectacle of a picnic blanket filled with unclean animals to persuade Peter of the New Covenant inclusion of Gentiles (Acts 10). Agabus binds his hands as a prophetic enactment of Paul’s future in Rome (Acts 21:11).
Several books of the Bible are deliberately structured according to theatrical conventions. The books of Job and Jonah are depicted in dialogues reminiscent of ancient plays, including prologues, epilogues and several acts. Job’s friends function as the chorus of ancient theatrical performances. God’s theological discourse with Job is not so much a rational lecture of truth as it is a dramatic exhibition of sarcastic rebuke—all from within a sensational tornado as God’s microphone. The book of Mark resembles a Greek tragedy following Aristotelian structure, involving a prologue (Mk 1:1-15), complications (Mk 1:16—8:26), a recognition scene (Mk 8:27-30) and a reversal of the fortunes of the leading character followed by the denouement (Mk 8:31—16:8).
The use of narrative and drama to communicate God’s Word and covenant is so prevalent in Scripture that some theologians suggest we approach our theology in dramatic terms rather than the usual modernist metaphysical terms of facts, ideas and propositions. Kevin Vanhoozer suggests we see the Bible not as “a handbook of revealed information, the systematization of which leads to a set of doctrinal truths,” but as a dramatic script written by God for the stage of the world, with humans as the actors, God as the author, the Holy Spirit as director, and the church as playing out the final act. “To become a Christian is to be taken up into the drama of God’s plan for creation.”
Theology is not an intellectual exercise of mentally constructing an accurate picture of reality in our ideas—and of “being right.” It is a theatrical performance, where Christians participate in God’s story of redemption. In this sense, our understanding of God is not so much theology (the study of God’s Word), but theo-drama (the performance of God’s Word).
You could almost say God was the original Shakespeare. =)
Hosea’s first child is named Jezreel, which means “scattered by God,” predicting the Diaspora of the Jews. The second child’s name, Lo-Ruhamah, means “without mercy,” and the third, Lo-Ammi, means “not my people.” God then summarizes this incarnational prophecy of images in Hosea 1:10, which is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:25-26 as a prophecy of the New Covenant.
“Theater,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, OakTree Software.
Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, p. 71.
Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim), and provocative theology (God Against the gods). His obsession with God, movies and worldviews, results in theological storytelling that blows your mind while inspiring your soul. And he’s not exaggerating.