Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto part 1)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Vanhoozer’s uses the theatrical model to show that faith and action can be taught together in a way that teaches faithful balance of the two. In my own writing, I have argued that music is a spiritual disciple because in music thinking and feeling (proxies for mind and body) cannot be separated (Hiemstra 2014, 150-152). The theatrical model is, however, stronger because faith and action are inseparable on stage as in life.
Throughout church history Esau has been denigrated because he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen 26:33), but we are little different. Citing Alan Wolfe (2003), Vanhoozer writes:
“Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members. Mainline churches lack doctrine because they want to hold on to those declining numbers of members they have.” (54)
Our birthright as Protestants according to Vanhoozer is solo scriptura (55). If, as Vanhoozer describes it, “the church is a theater of the gospel in which disciples stage previews of the coming kingdom of God” (59), how are they to be faithful actors if they do not know their lines? Vanhoozer argues that the crisis of doctrine is, in fact, a crisis of authenticity—the actors no longer learn their lines.
What is so fascinating in this metaphor of the theoretical model is that this crisis of authenticity arises because we have lost a sense of who we are as Christians. Vanhoozer writes:
“What we have on the world stage, then, are various kinds of beings presenting themselves to one another by acting out their existence and essence (i.e. that they are and what they are).” (67)
In other words, a tomato communicates that it is not a banana by what it is and would just look silly trying on stage to act as if it were a banana. In much the same way, Christians who do not know God deeply through their reading of scripture and adherence to doctrine cannot convincingly display the gospel. Consequently, Christianity lite experiences a crisis of authenticity much like a tomato pretending to be a banana.
Inasmuch as this is merely the motivation for Vanhoozer’s exploration of the theatrical model, it should be obvious that this book is not a light read. Basic doctrines of the church are examined in light of the theatrical model. One such examination takes the form of a question: if the gospel is drama, what kind of a drama is it?
Vanhoozer argues that the gospel is obviously not a tragedy because in tragedy the hero “is no match for hostile gods or impassive Fate, yet nevertheless displays courage in the face of impossible odds.” The gospel is no tragedy because Christ’s life is not taken but freely given, as we witness in the Garden of Gethsemane. He argues that the gospel is rather a comedy, which “is the tendency to bring the proud down a notch, though in a kinder, gentler fashion than tragedy”. Furthermore, “tragedy begins well but ends badly; comedy begins with a complication but ends well”. (94) It is always good for actors to know what kind of drama they are acting in!
Another attribute of a drama which is important to know is how many acts take place. (95) The expected answer is three: creation, fall, and redemption. Vanhoozer argues for five:
Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev) (98).
The theatrical model aids in making this selection because the turning points in the drama signal something dramatic is happening. For example, the creation and fall normally make up two of the three acts, but both fall in the first three chapters of Genesis which lumps acts 2-5 into a single act (redemption), missing a lot of the drama of scripture. Vanhoozer sees the fall simply as part of the conflict within Act 1, much like conflict which exists in the other 4 Acts (98).
Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Faith Speaking Understanding is a deeply theological text which employs the theatrical model to illustrate and extend our understanding of the Bible and discipleship. Critiques of the theatrical model can be found in the appendix. Seminary students and pastors are the intended audience, but others wanting to delve deeply into their faith will find it fascinating.
For reviews of other books by Vanhoozer, see the list of references below.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014. A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (3-part review: Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yw, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-YB)
Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review: VanHoozer and Strachan Argue Case for Pastor-Theologian; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1us)
Wolfe, Alan. 2003. The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith. New York: Free Press.
Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
 What are God’s “essential dispositions”? Vanhoozer (67) cites: “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,’” (Exod 34:6 ESV) This is the Bible’s explanation of what it means to be created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). See the sermon that I preached for my daughter’s wedding. (Living into the Image; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1zD).
 See, for example: (Wolters 2005).