Currently heading down to London to ‘celebrate’(?) one of my best friends stag do. I’m travelling there and back in a day, which means I have over 8 hours on a train… Just enough time to write some thoughts and reflections on the Durham Mysteries 2010 which I saw last night.
In order to comment and reflect on what I witnessed last night I should outline my understanding of Mysteries cycles. The concept dates back to medieval England where professional theatre was not understood and the theatre was done by the Church. The earliest forms were extensions or visual depictions of liturgical text; as these were often Latin it helped to engage the common people who couldn’t read (English or Latin!) The Pope in the 13th century then banned clergy from acting in public and the mysteries, now a regular event on festival days, was handed over to guilds and crafts to oversee.
The Durham Mysteries were organised and created by Simon Stallworthy, Artistic Director of the Gala Theatre, Durham. He wanted to make this cycle as truthful to the original cycles of medieval England in organisation and style, and the fact that he is not part of the church system aids this comparison. After the Pope banned involvement in mysteries for the clergy, the guilds and crafts took charge and in so doing lost some of the theological understanding of the texts and stories. The problem with this modern adaptation was the same. These modern retellings, however, unlike medieval England where the stories and images were still relatively common and were learnt by most of the population, in 21st century Durham, are alien. Stallworthy comments,
‘Greek, Elizabethan, Restoration and Victorian drama are still a staple of our repertoire, because we are exploring the same questions and looking for similar answers.’
I would agree, but the Mysteries need a different approach. The questions asked may still be the same but in the original Mysteries there was an implicit framework in which to ask and wrestle with those questions. There was an understanding of God, what He is like, without this then you can come to conclusions about God which are not true although they may be logical.
The creative people involved in responding to the biblical stories were, from the product they showed, not all from a Christian background. This is (and I want to stress this) not, necessarily, a problem. Those outside the Christian faith can speak, prophetically into our understanding of God and challenge aspects of our faith but it is dangerous to presume that their understanding of Scripture is healthy and/or godly.
What do I mean? Well take the some examples from last night. A god who demands praise and sacrifice in order to gain a boost in his ego. A god who has to be told that he must love the world He created by angels and/or humans. A god who on His ‘day off’ goes to have a look at his world and hates all that he sees. A god who can’t be bothered to look after or guide His people. This is not God. The early plays in Durham mysteries were created, from what I saw last night, by people who have little understanding of the whole story or of the things involved. The Mysteries of the 10th to 16th century were grown out of guilds and crafts who had an established understanding of the Christian story and often spoke prophetically into the theology of the Church. Some of the plays last night had lost the prophetic because they lacked an understanding of the God who was involved in these stories.
Having said all this, once we started the steps towards Jesus, starting at ‘Abraham and Isaac’ through to the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, then God was someone I could get on board with. The depiction and understanding of Christ was profound. The questions asked in the latter parts of the cycle were important. Christ is still the way most people understand God. This is great news! Why is it, then, that most people understand Jesus but can’t believe in the God of the Old Testament? Certainly, there’s a deep assumption that the God of the Old Testament is all angry and disappointed and the God of the New Testament is loving and kind, but I think this is the heart of the issue.
I spent two days this week in a primary school and during my time I watched a very good assembly. The teacher was asking about having God/Jesus with us when we are facing difficulty and the joy and peace of being in relationship with Jesus. At other times, however, I was struck by the simplistic description of the Christian faith. You may be thinking, “But Ned, they’re only children.” I think we underestimate our children if we do not think they can handle an understanding, for example, of painful sacrifice, of difficult decisions, of accepting our weaknesses. What is the Christian message? One of triumph and success? One of we can all get on if we try harder? At the very heart of our message is that we let go of all we are and die to ourselves, our wants, our comforts. This is a tough message but, I say again, we underestimate our children if we do not think they can handle this lesson.
It makes me question how we teach the faith; how we tell our story to those outside of the faith. People get Jesus because he is some perfect guy who loves and is tolerant but, actually, he isn’t. We need to see the whole story. How tolerant is Jesus? God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and God can seem harsh, strict and angry in the Old Testament but actually, he is still love. We need to ask that difficult question; How is the Old Testament God ‘love’?
The final five plays of the cycle were powerful retellings of the biblical story and asked profound questions. As a Mysteries Cycle, Durham Mysteries was a success. It gathered together the communities of the North East. It was profoundly local, in it’s content and approach. There was a real sense of celebration of the local culture and heritage and the language was colloquial and contemporary. All it needed was someone who could ask those important questions of the creative team behind the earlier plays to help tell the true and real story and to show everyone the God of creation and love in Genesis.
I pray that in 2013, when the next cycle is performed, that God will send His people to help people engage with the real story and that God’s glory will be shown and many will come to know their part in ‘his story’.
(Sorry for the final pun)