- Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America by Jill Stevenson
From biblical theme parks to creationist museums, the cultural expressions of evangelical worship today are generally mocked for their wacky earnestness, criticized for their world view, and/or dismissed as minor forms that have no real bearing on mainstream American culture. Jill Stevenson’s compelling analysis, Sensational Devotion, argues convincingly that evangelical performance is instead a complex articulation of belief that is shaping a larger conversation about the role of religious faith in America. She provides readers with a critical framework to address their uneasiness with these sites, and a methodology for examining the growing impact of religious affect in America today.
Stevenson encounters her subjects as a scholar participant/observer, a position that provides an experiential reason for her methodology—a marriage of cognitive theory and phenomenology that “acknowledges the body’s unique role in forming conceptual knowledge” (28). Stevenson uses the term evangelical dramaturgy to point to the ways that evangelical performance employs “performance tactics designed to manipulate the physical, rhythmic encounter between use and medium” (24). Her introduction into her subject justifies the study both in terms of contemporary trends in religious studies and cognitive theory. She also draws connections to similar affective performances during the medieval period (her previous area of study).
The book is framed between the Introduction and a coda. The first chapter sets up the working method for the book and introduces the concept of evangelical dramaturgy. Chapters 2 through 6 examine five different evangelical performance sites: the “Last Supper Communion” at Holy Land Experience, two different passion plays, the Creation Museum, and megachurches. Eighteen photographs (mostly from the author) give appropriate visuals to illustrate her specific examples.
Stevenson opens by outlining the key methods and goals of evangelical dramaturgy. First is the evangelical use of familiar forms and popular-culture techniques to appeal to the widest audience possible—believers, skeptics, and everyone in-between. Next, she describes the “re-representational” realistic performance style of evangelical dramaturgy. Finally, she shows how this performance style functions to direct audience members toward particular emotional responses, and concludes that the use of these tactics “reinforces evangelical theology’s emphasis on individual experience as a privileged source of knowledge” (47).
The “Last Supper Communion” is a performance event at Holy Land Experience that invites audience members to partake of communion with Jesus and his disciples in a replica of the upper room in Jerusalem and to take away a souvenir wooden communion cup. In her second chapter, Stevenson reads this performance via Phillip Zarilli’s psychophysical [End Page 302] acting theory to reveal how actors use evangelical dramaturgical strategies to create a “religiously real” experience for spectators. The following two chapters examine the tactics of evangelical dramaturgy in two different passion plays: the “Behold the Lamb” passion drama at Holy Land Experience and “The Great Passion Play” in the Ozark Mountains of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Stevenson reads “Behold the Lamb” against Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ to reveal the ways that media—the memory of the big screen and the recapture of the event on small video cameras—simultaneously expands opportunities for religious intimacy and hinders the encounter’s devotional potential. She builds on this point in her analysis of “The Great Passion Play,” arguing that the range of other “sacred projects” that surround the play inspires spectators to a “felt blend of evangelical Christian piety and nationalism” (99).
Stevenson’s examination of her most contested site, the Creation Museum, is the best example of her careful and caring attention to her subject. She acknowledges that the museum pejoratively fascinates those outside the faith tradition. However, she requires her readers to move beyond curiosity to critical engagement as she analyzes the tactics employed by the museum to give public voice to a community that believes itself to be disenfranchised by mainstream culture. Stevenson explores how the museum’s performance techniques transform belief into a meaningful embodied experience that allows creationist-visitors to resolve real...