- Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age by John Fletcher, and: Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First Century America by Jill Stevenson
John Fletcher’s Preaching to Convert and Jill Stevenson’s Sensational Devotion represent another significant step forward in theatre and performance studies’ acknowledgement and embrace of the importance of examining contemporary American religion. Both authors incorporate the latest scholarship, allowing for a nuanced exploration of religious performance and its bearing upon our fields of study; both authors realize the need to work to understand religion and religious people on their own terms, instead of judging from the perspective of an outsider. Stevenson and Fletcher explore religious performance, but they understand its inherent variation, noting three distinct arenas in which it can occur. They study traditional performances created specifically for religious audiences, including the Eureka Springs Great Passion Play; shows within the Holy Land Experience theme park; and Hell Houses (immersive theatre experiences explicitly showing the punishments awaiting in hell if people do not reject sin and turn to a life connected to Jesus Christ). Second, they explore religious presentations with clear elements of theatricality but not understood by their audiences as a show. For example, both authors analyze megachurch services that clearly and consciously employ performance elements, yet the congregations understand what they are doing as worship, not theatre — a crucial distinction if one wants to fully understand how performance is utilized. In these cases, the authors frame their analyses within this not performance/not not performance dynamic. Finally, the authors explore religious praxis that does not consciously employ performance elements, nor is it understood as performance by the people involved, yet can be viewed through a performance lens. For example, Fletcher looks at the practices involved in direct proselytization (trying to convert strangers to a person’s faith tradition) and ministries designed to help “convert” gay people to heterosexuality. In these instances, the subjects are not consciously trying to perform, yet insights can be gained through using an “as performance” lens to unpack their efforts.
In addition to helping us learn from these three types of religious performances, both authors engage with the often slippery relationship between performer and audience, since in many instances both share similar beliefs and expectations around religious revelation. These unsettled performance dynamics help Fletcher and Stevenson reframe these experiences for theatre and performance studies scholars while also engaging with key concepts within our fields. Stevenson explores new and compelling connections between religious performance and conceptual blending, embodiment, intimacy, materiality, and actor training techniques. Fletcher engages with environmental theatre, postmodernism, marketing, music performance, and utopian performatives in a similar fashion. In more specific terms, Fletcher frames the evangelical outreach he studies within the well-established paradigm of performance activism, noting that “performance activism frequently means left progressive performance [End Page 194] activism — and nothing else” (23). He strives to show how a familiar category of performance can encompass new and important source material. Stevenson, in kind, explores the impact of such popular religious performances as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and why they merit our attention, noting that their relevance comes not from their commercial or aesthetic significance, but rather because “they do legitimately address the spiritual needs and urges of a specific audience” (16). In the end, both meticulously researched and intricately woven books offer needed examples of the value of religion-based performance scholarship.
Stevenson renders her work through her concept of “evangelical dramaturgy,” a series of tactics (“borrowing familiar and accessible media forms, supplying a physical commodity that can extend the experience beyond the original encounter, [and] employing anachronisms in order to construct live re-representations”) used to make religious performance more impactful and successful in achieving the group’s goal of communicating their Christian worldview (46). Using this approach provides her with tools necessary...