Religion as Theatre :: A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare at the moment. It’s a brilliant book, grounding the often mythic character of the bard into his real world of Elizabethan London. I’d highly recommend it.

One quote that jumped out at me the other day in within a discussion of Anthony and Cleopatra, where the characters perform a ‘deliberate indulgence in a fiction’ – choosing to believe something they know is not true, for the sake progressing the plots they are engaged in.

Greenblatt quotes Coleridge, who says that when watching a play we have a ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’

I’ve been pondering on this, wondering if within the performance of ritual – the church service as theatre – we are required to suspend our disbelief for a while.

But perhaps the opposite is true. Too often I think church services can be museums of fact. We trail round singing one truth, then hearing another before recanting another. We rehearse and recount them over and over to make them more true. There is, in many evangelical services, no suspension of disbelief, because there is no doubt. There is thus no theatre, no drama. It is all sermon: an expounded text to be taken as read.

As we come to key moments like Easter, perhaps what we are required to do is not suspend disbelief, to trot out the facts that we find to be true. Perhaps we are required to suspend our belief for a while.

Why? To enter into the drama. To enter into the uncertain plot, the doubts and troubles that good theatre explores.