Max Harris's Theater and Incarnation
David S. Cunningham

This is a thoughtful and creative study, addressing not only the theological implications of drama but also the dramatic implications of theology. Those with an interest in either field will find themselves enriched by Harris’s well-written and highly accessible book; those with an interest in both fields may find themselves unable to put it down.


The book was first published in 1990, but it had been difficult to find for many years. It originally appeared in a somewhat obscure series (and apparently only in hardcover). I had tracked it down in the late 1990s because of my own scholarly project, exploring theater and drama in relation to the Christian doctrine of revelation. When Eerdmans was considering reprinting this volume, I was among those asked to evaluate the advisability of doing so; I recommended it enthusiastically. The book is well-researched and articulate, and it engages an important conversation in modern theology. Indeed, that conversation—concerning the relationship between theology and the theater—has become increasingly significant during the decades since the book’s original publication, with important new work on the subject by Sam Wells, Kevin Vanhoozer, Ben Quash, and others. Hence, this reprinting is both timely and appropriate.

The book’s primary goal is to construct an analogy between theatrical production and the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation—that is, between the way that a dramatic work is brought to life in performance, and the way the Logos becomes flesh and dwells among us. In the author’s own words: “I propose that what may be said of the theater may also be said, mutatis mutandis, of God’s mode of self-revelation as it was understood by the writers of Scripture” (viii). The book develops this analogy through engagement with a wide range of theologians, dramatists, and drama theorists.

Harris is particularly attentive to the interplay among text, actor, director, and audience. This relational dynamic is, of course, essential to theater, but it is also a significant element in theology (though many of these factors have too often been misunderstood, sidelined, or even ignored). Harris is aware of the most important contemporary drama theorists, including Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud, Brook, and Grotowski. He examines the ways in which different directors, operating on the basis of different theories, can stage completely different performances of the “same” play.

Harris’s theological engagements are also wide-ranging, though Karl Barth seems to be his primary conversation partner. He enters into a theological account of the Incarnation from a variety of angles, probing various distinctions that have engaged theologians for centuries. (A few of the chapter titles may suffice to exemplify the issues that are addressed: “Time and Space”; “Imitation and Creation”; “Celebration and Escape”; “Seen and Unseen.”) Some reviewers will no doubt critique the complete absence of any reference to the most important modern theologian on theology and drama, namely Hans Urs von Balthasar. But to be fair, most of Balthasar’s Theodramatik had only just been translated into English when this book first appeared; moreover, Harris is not claiming to write at a highly technical level, so it would be churlish to expect a thorough engagement with all the relevant literature.

Particularly gratifying, at least to this reader, is Harris’s willingness to examine a number of plays as illustrations of the points that he is making. It may seem patently obvious that someone writing on this theme would need to offer readings of particular plays, but in fact, a good deal of the recent literature on the general subject of “theater and theology” operates at a fairly high level of abstraction, with very little analysis (and in some cases, very little mention) of actual works of dramatic literature. Moreover, Harris does not merely discuss plays in their textual form; he describes and analyzes actual performances of these plays. This is important, since his thesis depends upon an account of the way that a play “comes to life” on the stage. His accounts of particularly interesting performances of Amadeus, King Lear, Phèdre (in Paris and in Iowa!), and Measure for Measure are all quite captivating and offer fresh insights on the doctrine of the Incarnation.

One of the most engaging aspects of Harris’s book is his intimate knowledge of and frequent reference to a wide range of medieval mystery plays. In these texts and in the history of their performance, we find a particularly persuasive argument for understanding God’s incarnational mode of self-revelation by analogy to the performance of a dramatic text. The mystery plays provide Harris with his most compelling evidence for the claim that drama is able to engage both the earthy, fleshy aspects of human existence, and the transcendent elements of our humanity—both of which, according to the Christian story, find their origin in the Triune God.

If the book dealt only with the mystery plays, it would still be a valuable contribution; nevertheless, because these plays often personify the powers of evil and death in a fairly reductive way, modern audiences tend to marginalize their significance. Fortunately, Harris also engages contemporary theory and modern playwrights, in whose work “the devil” does not explicitly appear and human character is typically much more morally ambiguous. The book’s combination of medieval and modern examples provides a more complete argument in favor of its thesis than would have been the case if either had been omitted.

In sum, this book makes an interesting and original argument in order to analyze and think through an important theological claim. I have used the book in both undergraduate and seminary classrooms, where it has helped students to get a better grasp on the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and of revelation. However, the book is also accessible to the educated layperson and will be of particular interest to anyone interested in the burgeoning study of the relationship between theology and drama.

David S. Cunningham is Professor of Religion at Hope College.

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