August 16, 2011
Sophia Think Tank, the Bible Society’s Public Theology and Apologetics arm, believes that the Arts Driver is a powerful force in Australian society. When we meet a Christian heavily involved in that Driver we want to find out more about what it means for Arts and Christian faith to be so closely entwined.
Bruce Kuhn recently toured Australia with his one-man show, The Gospel of Luke, a compelling eyewitness look at the life of Christ. In every sense, he’s a long way from Broadway, but Bruce wouldn’t go back. Robert Drane, of the Australian Media Engagement Project and on behalf of Sophia Think Tank, reports.
We all have stories in common. When we’re not reading or hearing them, we’re creating them. To make sense of events, our mind searches for a context – some call it a narrative. A good story is one that makes an event “fit.”
Bruce Kuhn’s job is to make the Gospel fit. He can attest to the power of a story. He lives one, like the rest of us—it’s just that he’s acutely aware of it, all the time. And he lives it in more ways than one. Kuhn is an American actor who specialises in commanding solo performances.
Kuhn, whose resume includes Broadway hits such as Chess and Les Miserables, a brilliant performance of The Cotton Patch Gospel, and an interpretation of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, has just toured Australia on behalf of the Bible Society with his theatrical creation, The Gospel of Luke, a bold and imaginative exploration of the life, death and significance of Jesus through the eyes of that disciple.
Bruce Kuhn is a product of the theatre. If you’ve ever seen him perform one of his “pure scripture presentations”, you’d soon realise there is little distinction between his on-stage persona and his real personality. It’s tempting to ask whether his theatrical guise is in fact the real Bruce, or whether his real personality has been altered by all those imaginative variations to his “self” that he refines endlessly on stage. But this would be the wrong question. During these one-man shows, Bruce Kuhn merely acts like Bruce Kuhn – with some dramatic license.
Bruce is unassuming, not unamusing. Emphasis is his trademark. Em-pha-sis! The italics, the exclamation marks, the question marks in this story are not mine. They’re his—mostly. Only space prevents me rendering his frequent dramatic pauses and rhetorical repetitions. He is passionate, animated; a man of unaffected enthusiasm. Imagine his hands gesticulating industriously, his features—so agreeable when settled—contorting in ways that make Robin Williams look po-faced. He prefaces many answers with, “I’ll tell you a story…”
His method of telling that story replicates his on-stage performance. It’s exceptionally effective, as it needs to be. A theatre audience would be hard to crack for a man who is, in effect, conveying the Gospel. But theatre people? Actors and their ilk? His survival in that world as a committed Christian is his most remarkable achievement. He must be good.
Anyone with an intimate knowledge of the theatre is aware that it is traditionally secular, often staunchly so. Bruce himself admits it hasn’t been easy, but his success at this “niche” genre (he believes there are about six practitioners in the world) has been relatively stellar, partly because he’s fully connected to the power of storytelling and its role in the Great Commission.
He knows his enemies. Many of them are his friends. “In the theatre world I have lots of gay friends, and regularly I hear, ‘I hate it when those Christians quote the Bible. It’s like they’re hitting me with something.’
“So, the alternative – instead of explaining it, I’ll tell you a story: My wife is Dutch, we live in Holland. One of her friends is a TV presenter. Once she said to me, ‘Bruce, if God really exists, why is there so much evil?’ She’s not one for philosophy, so I said, ‘Alright, Jesus told this great story. This farmer went out and had his workers sow seed, and when the seeds started coming up, there were thorns. The workers blamed the farmer of course, and said, “Did you give us bad seed?” The farmer said, “No, the enemy came in the night and sowed thorns among the wheat.” The workers said, “Do you want us to rip out the thorns?” The farmer said, “You’ll only rip out the seedlings of the wheat. Let them grow together and when the harvest comes, we’ll take the harvest into the barn, and we’ll rip-out-the-thorns-and-burn-them!”
“Her reaction was, ‘I got it!’ And she did. She got the sense that God hates evil more than she does. He sees it every day. He’s gonna take care of it. To not believe him, because he’s patient? Because He doesn’t want to rip out the wheat along with the thorns? That’s no reason to not believe the farmer is there, or to believe the farmer gave us bad seed. She got it. There was no explanation needed. You do a paraphrase on one of Jesus’ stories, and even in a post-Christian culture there’s enough echo of remembrance.”
On stage and off it, Kuhn does a pretty good job of getting the Gospel to resonate with ardent atheists, sceptics, agnostics, fervent believers or Laodiceans; Buddhists, Hindus or animists. He knows there are as many ways to convey the Gospel as there are defences against it. This is why an important part of his work is to impart his skills.
Theatre, as we know, is artifice. Its exponents don’t need to be personally convinced by the story they tell. They merely need the thespian ingenuity to communicate it. But Kuhn is committed to his subject-matter, and this commitment garners praise from even the hardest-nosed critics. Some have been surprisingly laudatory. When a reviewer like Brian Morton of The Silhouette, a self-confessed agnostic, is moved to write, “The jury may still be out on the historical accuracy of the Bible, but I still found myself strangely drawn to this production.”, then we know he’s having the right effect.
If we believe God’s word is truth, then its place is everywhere—even the theatrical world. Bruce knows he plays to a tough crowd. “Most drama critics have nothing to do with religion”. Richard Inman, a professional critic whose hand is therefore never far from the scabbard, was captivated by his “message of hope and delight”, and the complete wonderment that imbued his delivery. Inman reckons it beats the hell out of hell and damnation!
“This is a reviewer who’s not going to put his neck on the line to sell religion”, says Bruce, a sanguine spirit who believes this reaction, even from the most callous of critics, is natural. “After all, you have this Jesus character who spends a lot of time smiling, and offering the good news of the kingdom of God. Why wouldn’t you change your ways and turn to God? What other choice is there? This is so incredible!”
Hang on! Now we’re talking about pure Gospel, not a stage play. And we’re not talking about mere audiences, but possible—dare we say it?—converts. Potential believers. If they can be so captivated by Kuhn’s message—God’s message!—this has enormous implications for the preaching of the Gospel in general. People love stories. God left us stories. God chose to tell us His story and left it to us in the form of a divinely-inspired book. How well, then, do we tell His story?
Vocal versatility, an eye for the nuances of the message, the ability to convey these nuances, a talent for characterisation, impressions—all these are gifts from the same God Kuhn glorifies in his performances. But he doesn’t believe everyone needs his range of resources to tell God’s story. It just has to be well-told.
For that purpose, he‘s philosophically opposed to “message theatre”—a secular form of sermonizing that, he believes, will never convince people of the Gospel’s message. “The western idea of truth is all about concepts and ideas, and that the best way to get that across is explanation, and three-point sermons, and, ‘I’m going to convince you of this because I’m the expert, you’re not, so shut up and listen’.
“The Hebrew notion of truth is more about event. E-vent! God speaks, something happens, and in that event, there’s so much truth packed in there! You can squeeze out concepts and ideas and theology, of course, but it’s so much fuller than that, in terms of who this person is, rather than theological concepts: ‘How does he react, and what does he say, and how does he treat people and who is he? Who is he? Where’s he coming from?’ And the best way to capture that event is story.
“It’s called parabolic theatre. It tells a story, has multiple points of view, is not black and white and may include a large dose of ambiguity. It may not have neatly tied up corners or a happy ending. Or any ending. In TheTwo Prodigal Sons, we never hear the decision of the older son who stayed in the field, smoldering with resentment: will he welcome his younger brother, and honor his father by coming to the feast? Or will he continue to disgrace his father in front of the whole village by not even coming inside? Parable is an invitation to enter into the ambiguity, ask questions, identify with one character or the other. People can dialogue, are free to have their odd interpretations or misunderstandings.”
Theatre based on parables could, nonetheless, be viewed as “subversive”, because the one thing it doesn’t question is that the event itself occurred. But its method also twangs postmodern sensibilities: today, people are happy to “pretend” a thing exists in order to talk about it.
“The way God chose to communicate with us was to make an event happen. He enfleshed his own word, His son! I can’t even get my three-and-a-half pounds ofbrain around that one! But we don’t have to! He only gave us that three-and-a-half pounds, and we don’t have to get our heads around that one. All we have to know is, He showed up in human form, made things happen, didn’t write a word down, didn’t make any movies, nothing. God speaks, something happens, and truth explodes like a grenade, bits of it hitting different people different ways. Just made these events happen, and let the eyewitnesses tell the stories! And eventually, they were starting to die out, so they committed them to writing, even though eyewitnesses in that culture are much more reliable than written words, which can be altered. An eyewitness was actually there. You can look in their eyes and say, ‘Is this true or not? Is he lying? Because if he’s lying, I’ll check with the other eyewitness.
“We tend to have experts and academics, and we institutionalize that event, and say ‘I’m gonna tell you how this is’, and some of that is needed. I’m just an actor, and I’ve taken a few seminary courses, but not much at all. But the beauty of this is that I can just present the event. People (Christians) ask me if I ever get persecuted for doing my show. Never. The Gospel of Luke is story. I tell it as if I saw it happen. I just relate the events, what He said and did. The viewer is free to believe it or not, to come up with their own notions, to enter into dialogue over the hard parts, or just walk away and think about it. Or not. Story is non-authoritative. I am no expert, explaining the ‘facts’ to the less intelligent. I just tell what happened. Make of it what you will.”
In the theatre world, where a man like him would normally be deemed an antagonist at worst, and quaint at best—if he’s nice to everyone—Bruce is in fact esteemed highly for his storytelling prowess.
But can anyone tell it as well as Bruce can? He believes so, and he has a dream for our churches. “I’m an actor. People pay to see a theatre performance. I have to hold an audience for an hour-and-a-half with the King James version, using my skills as an actor, doing funny voices and silly stuff, theatricalising it—to a point, even though I’m trying to create the experience of an eyewitness account. So there has to be an authenticity, and honesty.
“For a lot of this, I’m not playing a character. I’m playing myself, as if I actually saw a teenage corpse sit up and start talking, a week ago in the city of Nain. Now, if I actually did see that a week ago, my telling wouldn’t be much different than the King James version. Everybody can tell stories. And they did! And the Pharisees, the peasants, the women, you can bet all of them told this story to their friends. They’re no actors.
“This is my dream. I do these workshops, and normal people in the course of 2-3 hours, memorise one minute of a scripture story, The Woman of Nain, as if they saw it happen, and wecan do that. We do “as if” all the time. You know: ‘If this person under these circumstances says this to you, then I’m gunna say this!’ That’s “as if”. We project that into the future and use those muscles to tell it. It doesn’t have to be brilliant theatre. It just has to be an eyewitness account.”
He leans forward and whispers, almost subversively. “Can you imagine that as the Bible reading in church?”
He’s not entirely serious when he says our pastors are “over-educated”, but he sees enough of them to know that certain issues relating to the way the story is told are endemic. “They are head of an organization; running an institution. A lot of them say to me, ‘I don’t get to talk to regular people, because I’m too busy training my elders and preparing the sermon, running the institution, to deal with regular people any more’.
“The original eyewitnesses talked to people. In terms of transferring truth – truth as in this event, truth as in a real experience I’ve had, or heard about, or believed—then you don’t want to read to somebody. If someone’s gonna believe you, you’ve got to make eye-contact. I think we have built-in authenticity metres, where we are looking for truth, asking, ‘Is this guy trying to sell me something? What’s the agenda here? Is this an honest person? Is he going to make any money off this?’ All that comes from human contact. God image speaking to God image, through the windows of the soul. The book of time is open. God sees all. Let’s tell it! Telling is relationship. Technology distances people. I’m so grateful for Skype, I can see my kids every night. But technology has a cost. It’s not the real thing.”
How, then, did God speak to Bruce? Most callings are filled with God’s delicious irony. Bruce’s was no different. The way he became involved in these one-man shows was, initially, via a carnal idea: “I was working in a large repertory theatre. A famous British actor had memorized the Gospel of Mark. The artistic director of this company I was working at said, ‘We can make money out of the Bible.’ He knew I was religious, so he gave me the job. After the first night, he said, ‘Very nice, Mr Kuhn. I want you to know that’s the only way the Bible gets into this building.’ But it worked. We got great reviews, extended the run, filled the house almost every night. It became a hit on Broadway, so it wasn’t just running in the Bible belt.”
Still, at first he retreated into conventional acting. “People would say, ‘How are you going to use your talents for God?’ and I’d say, you know, ‘Plumbers don’t seem to have to use their talents for God, why can’t I just be an actor?’ He certainly had little desire to be a teacher. However, after a decade of doing musicals like Les Miserables, Bruce found himself cast back onto the shores of his Nineveh.
He illustrates his epiphany with – well, I’ll let him tell you the story, as Bruce does: “We’d open the stage door at Les Mis every night, and there’s always this crowd of fans, and if they’re young fans, they’d look at you a moment: ‘You’re not the good-looking young one, where is he?’ But there was one kid came up to me and said, ‘Oh I love Les Mis so much, I’ve seen it ten times!’ At the time, tickets were 50 bucks apiece, so you’ve seen this show about homeless people ten times, that’s hundreds of dollars. I said, ‘don’t see this show any more! Give some money to the homeless! Hasn’t this changed you at all? Is this just some emotional roller-coaster ride for you?’
“I’m an idealist. I want to make some kind of difference. I want people’s hearts to change, not just the wealthy people to come for an evening’s entertainment. The reason I got into this is because I don’t think it’s just an ideal. It’s a reality, and if you listen to these stories, you have the chance of taking them into your life, and changing your life, and it’s not just some sort of self-improvement program. I wouldn’t call dying to yourself and taking up your cross daily a self-improvement program!”
So he found himself wanting “more interesting, deeper theatre”, and returned to that initial idea. “I did a complete turnaround and decided to put this show back on, this Gospel of Luke thing. I hooked up with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and after a six month run in local schools, they asked me to be on staff, as an actor, and go around to campuses, doing this theatre as outreach.”
Since taking up his calling, Bruce has taught storytelling in nine countries. He doesn’t teach students how to act. Rather, he shows them how to use their natural voice and manner. The rigour is not in the acting, but the memorisation of scripture. He has proved that to convey scripture in the manner in which it was meant to be conveyed, without mastery of acting technique, and to gently impel each individual audience member toward a revelation of a divine truth, is an achievable outcome.
“If successful, what we ‘see’ will spark honest emotion and rich, subtle communication. This is not ‘pretending’ in the way most people think of an actor playing a role.” His students “play themselves as if they had witnessed the event.” There is no pressure on them to be actors.
In the last few years, his career has shifted to church and theatres, which use him, he says, as a “fill-in slot.” He loves it. The idea of a “finished show”, a one-man operation which requires them to do very little, appeals to them, and serves Bruce’s purposes as well – the word gets out there. “So I have a couple of different shows, The Cotton Patch Gospel, and the three scripture shows, Acts, Luke, and now the Gospel of Mark, but that’s in Dutch.”
He believes the “equality” of the act of storytelling will appeal to most modern audiences, regardless of their belief. “I’m not the expert. We don’t respect authority enough these days. So here’s a story! We are free to do with it what we will, because that’s the freedom God gives us. He treats us like adults! If you’re determined not to believe, you have an out.”
Bruce has another significant message—to the converted. The worlds of art and Christianity are uneasy bedmates. To the art world, censorship in any form is a greater issue than moral discretion.
Bruce has an important story for aspiring Christian artists: “I met a young Christian who wanted to be an actor. She said her friends are all on her because she couldn’t go to Bible studies. Another student said to me, ‘I want to be a classical pianist, but if I’m gonna be good, it means seven hours of rehearsal every day. My Christian friends don’t understand it. I said to them both, ‘Don’t expect support, from the church or your friends. To be the best you can be takes a certain amount of self-absorption. That’s okay if it’s part of what God gave you. Check your motivations. Madelaine Lingold, the children’s author, said, ‘I’ve never had an unmixed motive.’ So I said, give it up! Yes, there’s ego involved. Yes, you want fame. But don’t let it take over! Acknowledge the fact. One of the reasons you can have the drive to do seven hours a day might be because you need some therapy! Don’t get it yet! Become a great artist first, then get the therapy!
“On the other hand, secular waters are deep and you can get dragged under. I tell them stories of incredible Christian people who got sucked under, with the fame, or a good looking woman in one case– so, find friends who believe what you believe; who will be honest with you. The inner core, the ones you take advice from, have to be Christians. You’re gonna have lots of friends who are not. I get advice from them like, ‘You know Bruce, you should go out and get laid.’ And I think, ‘But then my life would look like yours! You know, I really like you, but look at your life!’ So find people whose lives you admire. Get sustenance, spiritual nurture, say no to doing some things, even if they’re at church, if you want to pursue a calling.
“Even Christians will enjoy your success in the secular world. Personally, I think it’s one of the reasons God let me get on Broadway. I never imagined myself still doing Luke – but I married this incredible Dutch woman and moved from New York City to an island in Holland, where there’s no work for an American actor, and people kept asking me to do Luke and the children came, and I kept doing Luke, and I love it! It wasn’t my idea of a career, but I live in this beautiful place and have these great kids and a healthy marriage. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I chose another way.”
What Bruce Kuhn does is a powerful witness to God’s presence. And there are only six people in the world doing it. There should be at least one in every church! Bruce’s idea. My emphasis.
Robert Drane is a Journalist Associate with the Australian Media Engagement Project (AMEP). This interview was conducted at the request of Sophia Think Tank, a partner of AMEP.
Jan 10, 2011 Art and Faith
A friend of mine in Brisbane, Peter Breen, has a thought provoking post on Art and Faith. You can find it on his site www.urbaneyes.com.au then go to the ‘out of this world’ page and click on the ‘Art and Faith’ post. You can blog with Peter through this ST2 site if you like….