When one says the word “religion,” there are a number of images and ideas that come to mind. One of the strongest, complete with positive and negative implications, is preaching. To those who don’t align themselves with an organized religion, just the idea of preaching leads to deep sighs and eye-rolling. And even for those of us who do, a good, old fashioned preach-fest can make us squirm in our hard, wooden pews.
Why is that? What is it about preaching that just turns us off? Looking at myself, I don’t do well with lectures. I never have. There’s a negative bent that comes with parents in stern voices telling their children to not put their elbows on the table, to vacuum the family room, to scrub behind their ears—usually because the more even-keeled first request has been ignored.
I think about the the Great Awakening, about pastors and preachers getting up on their soapboxes to testify of pending hellfire and damnation. Preaching tends to have a negative connotation because it often carries a negative tone. I don’t know about you, but hearing someone tell me I’m bound for hell no matter what I do— Well, that doesn’t exactly make me want to sit and listen. The fact that it was against such a backdrop that Joseph Smith, an ordinary man touched with spiritual gifts, received his First Vision is poignant.
Even when preaching takes on a more positive tone—General Conference is the most positive example that comes to mind—it is what it is. A spiritual leader stands before a congregation and meditates on the gospel. And while I look forward to General Conference as much as anyone, there are places preaching does not belong. One of those places is the theatre.
There is an age-old argument that the theatre is a place of enlightenment, not entertainment. That entertainment is in fact an unworthy pursuit. Like most issues in this life, the question of enlightenment and entertainment is not simple. It’s very much a gray area. The very best plays—the work of luminaries like unto Ibsen, Chekhov, Hellman, and Shakespeare—use drama as a shell for social commentary and suggested improvement. They suggest rather than preach.
It’s not to say that there aren’t playwrights and filmmakers who do take audiences captive and sermonize. I think sometimes that writers approach their work backwards: they start with the message and try to clothe it in a story. But the message, the preaching, the sermon—whatever you want to call it, if it’s the starting place of the work, it lingers. Looms. Considering my own work, as much as I know I want the story to trump the message, I might not always succeed. In the instances where I’ve started working with a specific agenda in mind, the play proves incredibly difficult to write. I’ve found that if I focus on the story built around relatable characters, powerful messages will come through and audience members will hear what they need to hear.
This weekend I saw the much-lauded film Boyhood. While I don’t personally find it the best film of the year, there is a lot about it to be praised, particularly in regard to its primary conceit. Writer/director Richard Linklater chose to tell a coming-of-age story quite literally, following a young boy for a week or so each year over 12 years. The cast, including well known actors Ethan Hawke and Rosanna Arquette, age right alongside the young protagonist. While there isn’t much plot, there is something quietly engaging about watching a boy mature before our eyes. Linklater doesn’t preach, and Boyhood is moving and effective in its tiny moments of real, familial affection. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be to see an ordinary Mormon family like this. What could we learn from such an exercise? And how would the world react to it?