Thought for the Day - 18/03/2014 - Rev Lucy Winkett
When the theatre director Trevor Nunn said yesterday that “Shakespeare is my religion”, and that “in the plays there is an understanding of the human condition that doesn’t exist in religious books” I suspect he had a lot of people cheering him on. And he speaks at the start of the first national Shakespeare week, which aims to inspire primary school age children with the cadences and poetry of the greatest writer in English.
The Church of England was born at the time of Shakespeare and the flowering of the English language that infused the writing of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, along with the writings of Shakespeare has underpinned the colloquialisms of generations. But it’s in the purpose and meaning of these texts that we find, as Shakespeare might put it, the rub. If the purpose of theatre is to explore truth then the purposes of Scripture and the text of a play will align themselves to one another. The complexity of King Lear, the moral dilemmas of Isabella, the pathos of Caliban all give us ways to explore the depth of human experience. And it’s a vital element of Scripture too: there’s plenty of nuance and ambiguity in the characters of Jonah, Job, Naomi and Ruth, Mary Magdalene, Tabitha and Peter amongst others. But it is not Scripture’s ultimate purpose to generate a conversation amongst ourselves, although it may do this along the way. It is its purpose to reveal God to humanity, and for Christians this is incomparably in the beauty, the horror and the irreducible hope of the life of Jesus Christ.
There is something very important in Trevor Nunn’s challenge that those of us who work with religious books need to hear though. Unlike Shakespeare where we have to commit a few hours to watch a play, we normally hear Scripture if we hear it at all, in little chunks; in an excerpt we call a reading. We lose the grand sweep of the thing; the breathless pace of Mark’s gospel or the intriguing radiance of John. One way to address this is to read a whole gospel at one sitting: it’s rarely done even by committed believers. But it’s a transforming experience that lifts the stories and people off the page.
So for me, there is no necessary competition between Shakespeare and the Bible because they are different kinds of writing. It’s true that delving into either will make human life infinitely more rich, and both will help me explore my own capacity for love and betrayal, and give me a chance to cultivate empathy, forgiveness and imagination. Scripture will do this and will then ask something else too, inviting its readers to reflect on the possibility that all human life is lived creatively in response to the one who made us creative in the first place: either in a theatre or in a church.