- Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age by John Fletcher
Part ethnography, part polemic, John Fletcher’s new book provides a landmark survey of contemporary American evangelicalism’s vibrant culture of performance. It is also a provocation addressed to “secular Left” scholars who might (falsely) believe they have cornered the market in theatre for social change. These two themes—the range and sophistication of evangelical performance versus the smug hypocrisy and dismissiveness of antitheistic critics—form the double helix of Fletcher’s well-researched and closely observed study. It deserves to be widely read and debated.
As the lengthy introduction explains, Fletcher sets out to identify and categorize the array of performance strategies that “evangelicals in the United States use to change their world, to win converts to their faith and worldview” (5). Fletcher places particular emphasis on “the challenges they face, and the solutions, innovations, or compromises they create” in the context of a society whose norms are regarded as increasingly antireligious and tolerant of difference, that is, the “secular age” of his title, which he takes from the Canadian philosopher of identity Charles Taylor (5). Structured as eight lengthy chapters, Fletcher covers everything from traditional door-to-door “soul winning” (or “kerygmatic” performatives) to alternative Halloween immersive theatres known as “Hell Houses,” from Ken Ham’s Kentucky-based Creation Museum to “seeker-sensitive [Church] services” pioneered by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Fletcher also discusses evangelical debates about “sexual orientation change efforts,” also known as “conversion therapy,” in the penultimate chapter of the book. In most of these case studies, Fletcher’s rhetorical criticism is grounded in firsthand “thick descriptions” based on his wide-ranging fieldwork.
But Fletcher is no disinterested observer on these travels. Eschewing “paranoid criticism,” which he defines as the reflexive ascription of “hegemonic ideologies” to anything but the most politically radical practices, he instead adopts the perspective of “critical generosity,” or the “good faith” approach (29). Drawing on scholars of activist performance such as Jan Cohen-Cruz and David Roman, Fletcher seeks to employs “deep empathy” with American evangelicals in order to render their aims and methods with greater nuance and complexity. (For a work that engages so many theorists so well, it may seem ungenerous to wish Fletcher had employed others. However, one cannot help but wonder how [End Page 323] he might have engaged with Michael Walzer’s notion of “connected criticism.”) Further, this challenge to the values of left-progressive theatre historiography is intended to lift “significant limitations on the critical and political imaginations of theatre and performance activist-scholars” (29). Fletcher demonstrates that evangelicals are social-change innovators whose practices are worthy of admiration and possibly even theft.
The chapter “Hell and Judgment: House of Distinction” may be the strongest application of this method for the way in which it complicates the premise that all evangelical performance is “preaching to convert.” Originally devised by Colorado pastor Keenan Roberts during the 1990s and now circulated nationally through so-called Outreach Kits (sold for $299), the typical “Hell House” stages a procession of harrowing tableaux depicting the wages of sin, especially teenage forms of moral misadventure: fatal drunk-driving accidents, drug overdoses, rape, abortion, and demonic possessions brought on by dabbling in the occult, all of which consign the victims to the just torments of hell. As Fletcher records, Roberts’s original has inspired numerous variants, including Judgment House, Revelation Walk, and Rapture House. According to Fletcher, all of these productions create what he memorably terms “interactive eschatological theatre” (160). However, in one of the more important takeaways from this study, Fletcher problematizes the notion that Hell Houses are designed to interpellate the unconverted. Drawing on Baz Kershaw’s theory of “authentication” in community-based theatre, Fletcher writes, “In order to ‘work,’ Hell House relies on an audience of people willing to buy into (authenticate) the picture of reality that Hell House presents. For those who do not already believe in demons or God or the...