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Arthur Menke

Acting Christian

Nuanced testimony in a new mission field: the theater

The oft-heard edict among patrons of the arts is that "Christian" makes a great noun but a lousy adjective. Within the performing arts world, Christian theater reputedly tends toward the churchy, the didactic, and, perhaps most offensively, the untalented. Add to that a suspicion of the theater as inherently un-Christian that goes back for many centuries, the reputation of contemporary drama in particular for being steeped in moral relativism and downright hostility toward religion, at least in its orthodox form (note the controversial 1997 production in New York of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, in which Jesus and his disciples are depicted as sexually fraternal homosexuals), and it's no wonder that America's Christians have been staying away from the theater in droves.

But among practitioners of this ancient medium are theater artists who are responding to this void, filling it with new works rooted in a Christian sensibility. Across North America in select urban markets, there are new Christian drama companies, often founded by theater artists in their 20s and 30s who feel duty-bound to supply an alternative for Christians' entertainment dollars. Some are groups of theater professionals who happen to be Christians, while many are companies that have their evangelizing focus written into their mission statement, such as Art Within, a young group that operates out of Atlanta's 14th Street Playhouse at the center of the city's arts community.

"In the popular art and media of the day, we're constantly being shown sin glorified and justified, but we never get to see it redeemed," says Bryan Coley, Art Within's artistic director. "As Christians we're very good at criticizing the mass media, and looking at the large influence that the media has on our lives; but I feel that God has convicted me on that, and it's not enough for me to sit and complain—I need to put something in its place."

Coley, now 37, launched the theater company in 1997, when he was a manager of new ...

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