Theater and Film. A Christian Perspective
With Theater and Film. A Christian Perspective, Paul Kuritz revises his acclaimed book, The Fiery Serpent. A Christian Theory of Film and Theater, through the perspective of the ancient Orthodox church. After reading a book like this, there may be aspiring writers out there wondering how to write a book or even wondering how to get their book published. There are so many issues and complications that authors face; some would argue that writing the book is the easy part. It’s what comes after that’s more difficult; finding an editor, wondering how on earth you’ll get it published and scouring for perfect bound book printing from companies like Printivity to ensure you book is of good quality. Either way, the process is not impossible, as we can see from authors like Paul Kuritz.
Following the lead of the great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky, who asked, “Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image of God?” Kuritz examines Moses’ bronze serpent as a paradigm for understanding the Christian artist’s work in theater and film. The reader will discover how a Christian artist can make theater and film in union with Christ, so that the work is not merely that of an individual, but of his common life with and in Christ.
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This book provides students with a clear, common sense, non-faddish technique for performing on stage. Kuritz’s technique is explained in terms of the actors’ personal, common, everyday dramatic experiences. Simple exercises build upon one another as the technique is explored. Kuritz supplies actors with a special comfort and confidence in two of the stage’s most daunting features – comedy and Shakespearean verse poetry. The book eases the nervous actors into both, by building in the basic techniques basis in their everyday experience and logic. Comedy and verse become seen as two variations or extensions of the fundamental acting process, rather than as exotic unique skill.
Kuritz is an imaginative teacher who knows that acting has to be caught as much as it has to be taught. Most teachers of acting, despite their haste to respect the craft of acting, feel convinced of the teachability of acting. Kuritz does not minimize the teaching aspect by which one develops the craft of acting; what he adds, however, is the recognition that the student of acting must position herself or himself to catch acting secrets and techniques, must prepare herself or himself with the human awareness that must be brought to the scene in order to catch the proper method of being believable. Kuritz provides the reader with fertile ground, not just because he offers exercises, but because he offers attitudes, thoughts, examples, information, all those qualities which provide fertile ground in which a plant can gain sustenance for growth. The reader is the plant, and Kuritz provides the soil, the sun, and leads the reader to the water necessary for flowering. This hook is a rare privilege.
The second portion of the book is given over to poetry, that form in which the theater had its beginnings. Aristotle’s book on the drama (theater) is titled,The Poetics. Rather than find poetry foreign to the drama, Kuritz like Aristotle, finds it central to the drama and to the theater. He also finds it central to the human spirit. Most students and teachers are frightened by the presence of poetry, annoyed by its difficulty, and hostile to its mystery. Kuritz dispels all these myths, and because he knows the value of poetry to each and every reader, makes the language and dynamics of poetry easily accessible to the reader, Rather than indulge the terror most often felt by theatrical people to confront poetry, Kuritz welcomes the advent of the poet and submerges himself in the poetâc genius. He therefore provides for the student of theater a rare, rare gift, the engagement of a young, naive, stage struck perhaps, eager, inspired, ambitious, student or teacher the opportunity to revel in the beauties and values of poetry. Shakespeare is not a foreign language to Kuritz and will not be a foreign language to his reader. The beauty, the clarity, the profundity of the poet suddenly becomes immediately available to his reader. Every young person knows how meaningful beautiful language is if no other reason than the absence of beautiful language in her or his everyday life. ‘We are buried in pedestrian speech, and yearn for beauty in our conversations. Kuritz doesnt try to educate us; he simply exposes us to the intricacies and again to the value of poetry in the theater, providing the reader with the confidence and the comfort to express the poet’s words. An acting student (or teacher) is given, then, a dimension almost always lacking in acting instruction in this country. Just as poetry is natural for the youngest human being (nursery rhymes are not by chance!), so poetry is natural for the theater artist. Bravo Mr. Kuritz.
Now for comedy. The reader of this book is living at a time when comedy is even more significant than it has been in the past. I recently wrote a chapter in a book, a chapter called, Do We have To Be Funnier Than We Used To have To Be? with the answer given in no uncertain terms, Yes! You Bet! I don’t try to explain that conclusion, but I do make it without any reservation. Look at the contemporary plays and see the role of comedy: As Is (the first major play about AIDS which has a laugh track all the way through!), End Of The World With Symposium to Follow, Kopit’s play which has as its subject the title itself and is filled with raucous laughter, even Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass during which people kept turning to each other saying, I never knew Arthur Miller was so funny.The writers frequently writing out of a poetic spirit are writing plays filled with irony, paradox, ambiguity, and satire. To perform the contemporary playwrights, actors need not only a sense of humor onto an audience, BECAUSE THE PLAYWIGHT HAS MADE SUCH PROJECTION AN IMPERATIVE. Any student needs to know comedy, its secrets, its difficulties, and its execution. No longer can the actor rely on authenticity alone to perform in today”s theater. An actor may not be witty, but today’s actor has to know wit when she or he hears it, enjoy wit, treasure wit, and if possible love wit. Comedy has become the single serious expression during the last few decades and will continue uninterrupted, I am sure, for the next century. We have discovered the riches, the profundity, and the pleasure of comedy. Varieties of comedy are endless, unlike tragedies. The acting student and teacher must be informed of those varieties, must seek them out, and must project them to make them accessible. Acting comedy, as Kuritz makes clear, is the most difficult kind of acting to master. It is also the most satisfying, the most complex, and in the end the most valuable, Kuritz equips his reader with the most significant elements for genuine success in the craft of acting. I know no other text which takes comedy so seriously. My congratulations, my admiration, and my gratitude to him.
Former Dean of Faculty and Students, Yale School of Drama
Aimed at the beginning acting student, this book takes a commonsense approach to the craft, building on basic techniques in the first part and then going on to cover two distinct types of theater: comedy and Shakespearean verse. Kuritz (Bates Coll.) introduces basic acting techniques through a series of simple exercises. The section on verse analyzes accent and rhythm with examples of dialog, while the comedy chapter lists 15 examples of comic situations, along with definitions and examples of comic figures of speech. Warm-up exercises, comic dialect guidelines, and a general stage terminology contribute to the usefulness of the book. Recommended for theater arts collections in public, high school, and college libraries.–Howard E. Miller, Rosary H.S. Lib., St. Louis
From its inception, The Best American Short Plays has identified new, cutting edge playwrights who have gone on to establish award-winning careers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, and David Mamet.
Includes Paul’s play “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Buy this book.
“Art and Theatre do not exist within the common time and space continuum. Although they may be limited by their own size or space, they exist ‘outside’ of linear limitations (suspending beliefs and extending them). Past, present and future become one when presented through the artist’s medium.” -David Chethlahe Paladin (1926-1984)
Remaining true to this theory, Paul Kuritz’s book differs from the norm in a clearly holistic approach to the history of theatrical art. The Making of Theatre History more than presents the different schools of thought associated with the theatre. It also shows how theatre and society as a whole are irrevocably intertwined.
From myths, magic, and ritual, to realism, Modernism, and manifestoes, Kuritz presents a chronological overview that focuses on people rather than events. Countries important to the various movements are reviewed within the context of that movement.
The text’s main thrust is to help readers understand not just one major period or movement, but to give them the ability to perceive the motion of structure, characters, and ideas throught theatre’s rich history. Read excerpts on Google Books.
Kuritz, Paul The Making of Theatre History Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Ha1l 1988. $78.00.This ambitious and thoughtful text devotes fifty-three pages (over 11 percent of its space) to selected classical theatre genres of India, China, and Japan. The cultural background is extraordinarily clear and generally well written, so the occasional mistakes stand out. Because so much of this chapter is excellent, it is a shame that Southeast Asia and significant genres such as bunraku, kathakali, and modern theatre were omitted, If Kuritz errs in emphasis, it may be in giving too much cultural background and not enough analysis of specific plays. But since most professors will focus lectures and discussions on scripts, this cultural overview can serve as a valuable grounding for further analysis.
Kuritz opens with an insightful summary of significant philosophical distinctions between Asia and Europe, and then begins a detailed exploration of the origins of Sanskrit performance, Throughout the chapter he quotes liberally and intelligently from unimpeachable sources-both primary and secondary. He covers the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam on Sanskrit theatre, as well as the impact of social, philosophical, literary, dramaturgical, and performative elements, In this context, he considers such diverse topics as the role of the devadasi (sacred female dancers) and precise aspects of actor training as specified by the Natyasastra. He is somewhat confusing in his description of rasa, however, and I simply do not understand what he means when he states: “As in the classical world of the West, prose literature was unknown in India until it was introduced by Europeans” (p. 71). I find it disconcerting that this fine introduction to Sanskrit theatre fails to summarize even a single plot. Only in the final two sentences (plus a parenthetical reference) does Kuritz even mention the existence of kathakali, bharatanatyatn, kathak, and manipuri as “the four main modem ‘classical’ theatres, who claim direct descent from India’s classical theatre” (p. 83). The virtual omission of living forms of dance-drama, religious pageants, folk genres, and modern drama seems to imply that India’s theatrical tradition is a dead one. This implication is reinforced by a stylistic choice which continues in the sections on China and Japan. Kuritz continually uses the past tense, This usage gives the false impression that Peking opera, no, and kabuki are no longer performed.
The segment on Chinese theatre also focuses primarily on a single genre but broadens its coverage to include both antecedents and descendants of Peking opera. Kuritz begins intelligently with a deliberation of the unique tenets of Chinese civilization, the ritual origins of theatre, foot binding, and an enlightening portrait of China’s phillosophical and religious heritage. He makes the valuable distinction that whereas Indian theatre developed from dance, Chinese theatre emerged from song. Kuritz attempts to use pinyin consistently but makes several spelling errors. For example, the Zhou dynasty is mistakenly written “Zhow,” the Tang dynasty appears as “Dang,” and the Qing dynasty becomes ‘jing.” The Qianlong emperor becomes “Jyan Long.” Although this emperor’s dates are correctly noted as 1735- 1796, he is referred to as belonging to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Other errors include the assertion that the first reference to Peking opera occurred during the Tang dynasty (p. 87)-a mistake of about one thousand years. References to the 1911 Republican revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty, are followed immediately by a discussion of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which might confuse a student who did not know that the communist government gained control in 1949 (p. 89). Mei Lanfang is misspelled “Mel Lan Feng” (p. 91), a Chinese garment is referred to by the Japanese word “kimono” (p. 93), and there are several inconsistencies regarding when female performers were permitted or forbidden on stage in China.
The portion on Japan, like the previous two segments, presents a clear introduction to the cultural and religious context of theatre.
This segment contains more factual errors than the others, however, The discussion of the mythological and ritual origins of Japanese PT formance is marred by confusion regarding the names of the deities involved: the correct name of the sun goddess is Amaterasu; the star- ding dancer is Uzume (pp. 96-97). The Heian period is twice referred to as “Heinan” (p. 98). The name of Zeami’s nephew On’ami, originally called Kanze Motoshige, is misspelled “Motoshiga” (p. 99). Kuritz maintains that the Kadensho is Zeami’s only treatise and that “because his son died, and Zeami had no successor, Kadens/zo remained lost until 1908” (p. 99). In reality, Zeami’s twenty-one treatises remained the private property of nO actors; only in the twentieth century did they come into the possession of scholars. He later maintains there a.re “twenty-one authentic no works” (p. 103). While he is surely referring to Zeami’s treatises, the reader could easily believe he means that there are only twenty-one nO plays. Later, he suggests there were twenty-three treatises (p. 109).
Kuritz provides an excellent analysis of such key aesthetic concepts as monomane, yugen, and hana (pp. 103-105) but maintains, incorrectly, that all no plays are memory or ghost plays (p. 110). He is mistaken in asserting that a narrator tells the story in kyogen (p. 105) and that all kyogen are about master/servant relationships (p. 110). He also seems unable to distinguish between the ai-kyogen in nO and distinct kyogen plays (p. 109), Kuritz asserts that Japan was isolated for “the entire sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (p. 100). The main laws imposing the closed door policy were promulgated between 1633 and 1636; Japan’s complete isolation lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. Although kabuki and bunraku certainly share plots derived from various sources, including nO, history, and literature, Kuritz maintains that bunraku was the primary origin for kabuki (p. 100). Okuni, the originator of kabuki, was a female dancer from Izumo, here misspelled as “Ozumo” (p. 100). Kuritz only considers aragoto kabuki (the roughhouse style associated with Edo and the Ichikawa acting family). Readers would have a false impression of kabuki if they believed Kuritz’s extraordinary comment that “courtesans and supermen walked on stilts” (p. 112). He states that Chikamatsu wrote for bunraku before turning to kabuki (p. 117); actually, he wrote for both genres simultaneously, eventually abandoning kabuki to write exclusively for the dolls. I am not sure what Kuritz means when he states that “kabuki actors got their name from the noh” (p. 110). When Kuritz states that kabuki staging “used conventions that combined the noh and nineteenth-century Western illusionism,” I assume he is trying to describe the look to a Western audience. The phrasing could be confusing, however, since it seems to imply Western influence(p. 113). Kuritz does not discuss bunraku except as a “source” for kabuki. In a lapse of organizational clarity, after discussing the history and development of no and kabuki he reverts to lengthy discussions of nO performance, kyogen, and Zeami, and then returns to kabuki performance, actors, and audience.
Although there are significant errors and omissions in this book, the material is well chosen and generally correct. Despite a fine analysis of cultural/religious background and often excellent descriptions of aesthetic and theatrical theory, Kuritz fails to impress the reader with the sheer joy and excitement of theatre. The main problem is that the living forms themselves seem absent. This absence is not merely the result of an exclusive focus on traditional genres or his use of the past tense. Rather, it seems to be due to the author’s inability to imaginatively place himself at these plays. Perhaps it is due also to his failure to consider the scripts themselves, The result is a chapter which seems dry.
from Desperately seeking Asia: A Survey of Theatre History Textbooks by Carol Sorgenfrei by Carol Sorgenfreiin Asian Theatre Journal(1997.
Think of playing as a child and playing as an actor, think of ordinary life and the drama unfolding on the stage…Paul Kuritz, in Playing: An Introduction to Acting shows you the link between these processes.
This book shows how this link can help the actor to realize the potential of recalling effectively the joy of play as a child and letting it lead to an open, natural, and vulnerable frame of mind so that “play” can be relearned psychologically, physically, and vocally.
The author approches the art and craft of acting four ways: an introduction to yourself as a playing instrument; an introduction to your text as the framework for your play; an introduction to your character; an introduction to the theatre as the arena for your playing. He points out that the actor never stops growing and that this introduction with it’s diverse exercises will offer a basic foundation on which to build the skills needed for the craft of acting. Read excerpts on Google Books.
BOOK REVIEW PLAYING: AN INTRODUCTION TO ACTING. By Paul Kuritz. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1982; pp. xi -s260. $16.95.Paul Kuritiz’s book is a welcome and needed addition to the area of fundamentals of acting texts. Designed primarily for the undergraduate in the introductory acting course, Playing: An Introduction to Acting is logically divided into four parts. There is also an appendix which includes open scenes, open pantomimes, articulation exercises, the international phonetic alphabet, and a guide to pronunciation.The author’s presentation is like a good lecture on acting. He does not address his readers as experienced or professional actors. However, his style is neither pedantic nor condescending, and his frequent use of illustrations and documentation make this work a worthwhile addition to a field too long neglected by the publishers of theatre texts.The first part considers how one plays himself in everyday life, Thus, playing in the text and in the title has a dual meaning for Kuritz and suggests ‘a fundamental link between ‘play in everyday life and the process of ‘acting’ on the stage.’ This idea of play is illustrated through the psychological qualities of both child and actor whose actions reveal character. Because the child is uninhibited, his or her actions reveal character or personality. Hence, the actor must develop the requisite playing qualities of relaxation, concentration, justification, and imagination. Sufficient exercises are provided for development of each of these qualities.Chapters on the psychological and physical player thoroughly explore the circumstances necessary for unifying the physical and psychological qualities needed to obtain truth in playing. Stanislavskian principles are woven into the text, Further supplementing Kuritz’s comments are those of the most outstanding teachers of acting whose tenets are cited and documented throughout the work.One of the author’s most compelling bits of advice for effective and truthful physical actions is merely to have the actor attend to what he is doing rather than to what he should be doing. This is not unlike the methodology currently employed successfully by tennis and ski instructors. If the actor knows his craft effective movement will follow. In other words, he should feel the action, not think about it, for thinking about what he is doing will merely increase tension. The section on voice production, though by no means all inclusive, is sufficient for an introductory course and further exercises are provided In the appendix.
The section on play analysis includes such items as ‘Marking the Text” and contains important queslions which can help the actor to analyze his role. lCuritz also manages to put the researching of a role into its proper perspective without becoming too technical for the neophyte actor. Structural analysis in the Aristotelian sense is also discussed. But here the author projects the actor as a creative artist in interpreting his role and arriving at his subtext.
Stanislavski’s Creating a Role is summarized, analyzed, and deftly utilized in scenes from The Gtrzcs Menagerie. These serve as cogent paradigms for actIng students in analyzing any role. Again, sufficient and clear-cut examples are provided.
In his treatment of ‘Understanding the Play,’ Kuritz provides insights of theatrical analysis by dealing with several important issues. The first of these is the character as actor. Thus, the character performs for two audiences- one of which is on stage. It is the actors’ task to be convincing to both audiences. And he too must be a convincing audience. For every action there must be a reaction. In the study of psychological character relevant exercises are provided to determine objectives for the character.
One sage piece of advice Kuritz gives for understanding the character is for the actor not to editorialize about his objectives but merely to understand the reasons for them. Here he cites Albert Bermel’s “Spokesman Fallacy,” The section on external technique examines vocal score, poetic character, verse, and dialect.
Kuritz concludes his text with a study of style and the way it is affected by director, circumstances of action, and playing space. There is also the obligatory glossary of stage terms and a chapter on working in the theatre, including tips on auditioning, rehearsals, and actor’s ethics.
If the book has a fault, it is that the author has covered too much-if that is possible.
ROBERT A. ADUBATO
Essex County College
from THEATRE JOURNAL 1983
Your book (Playing, an into to acting) is off the chizzle. I use them all the time with my professional team in
Holla at ya boy,
Skouson HarkerHead Coach Worcester Wolves British Basketball League01905 855263
“What a joy to begin reading your book — answered prayer!… I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ as my Lord & Savior over a decade ago. His Holy Spirit is using your book tospeak to me, right where I am at.
Thank you for your faithfulness in writing your creative synthesis of faith and art. What a comfort to not journey alone.
To Him Alone be the glory forever.”
Celena Sky April,
Professor of Theatre and Communication
Salem State College
“Paul Kuritz’ book THE FIERY SERPENT presents theatre and film, the neglected stepchildren of Christian aesthetics, as the natural outgrowth of God’s revelation through story as seen in scripture. This entertaining and insightful book brings together dramatic theory, Judeo-Christian world view, the performing arts, and the evolving concept of story, under the central image of the bronze serpent which Moses raised up in the wilderness. Beginning in the Fall of 2007 this will be required reading of all our graduate students in theatre arts and scriptwriting at Regent University. I am presently using it in my playwriting class to encourage and inspire students to see the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of their faith and their art.”
Gillette Elvgren, Ph.D Theatre Arts, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.
“Well done! I love the way you wrote it, not for the Christian or the non-Christian, etc. The citations include lots of good stuff I look forward to reading. Yes, the breaking in of the kingdom of God, all great art participates in this, whether the vessel is believing or not. His love and wisdom is so vast! Thanks again. Do more!”
Greg Boardman, Maine fiddler extraordinaire
FROM ARMCHAIR REVIEWS:
Reviewed by Dr. David Frisbie
Subtitled: A Christian Theory of Film and Theater
Storytelling is one of the worlds oldest and most noble professions. In current times, much of storytelling has moved to the stage or the screen: cinematographers and theater directors are among the key storytellers in our contemporary culture.
Dr. Paul Kuritz teaches theater and film at Bates University. A reluctant and surprised convert to Christianity in midlife, he explores in this book how the media of film and theater can point the viewer/observer in the direction of meaning and ultimate truth.
Kuritz uses Aristotles four levels of inquiry material, form, power, and purpose as chapter headings and as useful methods of exploring theater and film. Along the way his natural gifts as a teacher cause him to dip into classic literature, Scripture, and numerous films from the 20th century to find examples and illustrations.
One of Kuritz’s better sections explores Elia Kazans On the Waterfront, a movie made from a Budd Schulberg screenplay and rooted in real-life criminal activity on the docks. Director Kazan reveals that Marlon Brandos character in the movie, who ultimately exposes the criminals and thus loses his job and social standing, mirrors Kazans own moral dilemmas and motivations in leaving the Communist party and cooperating with congressional investigators in the early 1950s. Kazans explicit personal motives include his growing disillusionment with Stalin and Stalinists, a theme also explored by central characters in Chaim Potok’s compelling novel Davit’s Harp.
Kuritz’s book is well-crafted and readable, most probably intended for students of the dramatic arts in order to give them a philosophical base with which to understand and practice their craft. The general reader will enjoy lively discussions of how movies reflect the moral choices and social values of our times.
Armchair Interviews says: Interesting perspective on movies.
The email appeared to be Christian spam, advertising a book and no personal greeting, but why did it come to me? I looked over the website it referred to, and then I could see why.
For thirty years Paul Kuritz was a respected (and atheistic) theater professor. Then, faced with personal crises and divine interventions, he found himself praying that God wouldnt make him a born-again evangelical Christian. God did anyway, and Kuritz wrote more about his new perspective in the
I wouldnt agree with everything in the book The Fiery Serpent, which I havent read. For example, the email refers to the supposedly undeniable truth: that Christian filmmaking and theatre are having global impact on our world today. Ive already summarized my disappointing first-hand experience with imaginative conversions and Christian theater here. There really is a difference between drama and real life. You might also wonder how he can use Shakespeares Hamlet and Kazans On the Waterfront as examples in a book on Christian film and theater. But Kuritz is no wooly-minded, starry-eyed artiste. He doesnt baptize the status-quo so much as he is calling for it to change. And he is calling for filmmakers and theater people to change.
in Tantalizing If True (see my blogroll)
Editors Pick: The Fiery Serpent A Christian Theory of Film and Theater
by Paul Kuritz (Pleasant Word, 2007)
Kuritzs first prayer was, Dear God, please dont make me a born again, evangelical Christian. This surprising prayer was the beginning of an academic quest–a journey of faith that led Paul Kuritz to write The Fiery Serpent. Kuritz found that, as Moses bronze serpent symbolized Gods revealed love and redemption, storytelling in film and theater can communicate the same saving message.
Kuritz sets forth a Christian theory of theatre arts and answering key questions about its purpose and practice today, such as:
What causes a work of dramatic theatre to come into being?
What is the function of storytelling–for God? For humans? For actors and artists?
What is the relationship between the words of a script or screenplay and the Word?
What makes a play or film beautiful, good, or evil?
in Evangelicals for Social Action
I was asked to review the Fiery Serpent by Paul Kuritz. Dr Kuritz has been teaching Drama and the Theater for many years. He was not a believer and began to think he was going crazy. He was a Unitarian and decided to read the King James Bible as Literature. He actually bought a McArthur Study Bible and then prayed “God please don’t make me an Evangelical Christian.” Sometimes I can understand why he prayed that.
He began experiencing confusion in his spirit as he read the Bible. He went to a counselor who told him that he had a conversion experience. His worst fears had come true. He began to wonder what that would do to his career. But this book is about how a Theater and Film can co-exist with Christian faith.
The title comes from the Fiery Serpent that Moses made for the Hebrews. When they were attacked by a snake they were to look to the Golden Serpent and they were healed.
The book to me, is a text book for Theater and Film students. I dont say that in a bad way. I just think that is what it is. I like drama and have been in several plays in my life. But I âm not a student of the theater or film. The author does a great job of explaining how the Bible ties into dramas and plays. He also writes a good chapter for Christians in film and the theater. I had several theater majors who were my interns and I think they would enjoy this book. For those looking for a book that will help them in their everyday life–this is not it. If you are looking for a book about weaving Drama, Theater and film into your life as a believer than you will enjoy this book.
I give The Fiery Serpent 4.25 hockey sticks out of 5.
Kevin Bussey at Confessions of a Recovering Pharisee
Posted on August 6, 2007
|Recently I was invited to review the book The Fiery Serpent by Dr. Paul Kuritz. Dr. Kuritz teaches theater and film at Bates University. The book jacket states that this book presents a Christian paradigm for the arts by exploring how best to model film and theatre after His own work in creation. I would suggest that it goes farther than that; I feel that he may, in fact, have created a Theology of Christian Storytelling.
Kuritz uses Aristotles four levels of inquiry”material, form, power, and purpose “as chapter headings and as useful methods of exploring storytelling, speficially in the areas of theater and film.
One particular item of note is the tension of individual behavior in a scripted activity. He makes the interesting of how a good actor will get so lost in the part that, while it is scripted, the actor begins to live out the story in scenes, almost oblivious to the whole story. This has applications across many lines, but specifically in the area of soteriology.
This book has many implications for communication within contemporary culture as well. There were some things theologically that initially brought about concern; continued reading, however, eased those concerns, though I think they might have been able to be communicated better. On the whole, however, I thought this was a facinating book and one that could bring value to not only the theatre, but the pastor as well.
On a scale of 10, I would give this book a 7.5.
from David Phillips at www.wdavidphillips.com
The Fiery Serpent: A Christian Theory of Film and Theater
“Art for art’s sake, or even for society’s or people’s sake, is idolatry.”
Paul Kuritz (not to be confused with humanist professor Paul Kurtz) holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and currently teaches acting, directing, and theater history at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Kuritzs book, The Fiery Serpent, offers a Christian theory of film and theater based on the healing story of the fiery serpent (i.e., Num. 26) which acts as a paradigm . . . for describing Gods ability to use the dramatic theater of stage and screen to illustrate the dynamic tension of living simultaneously in two kingdoms (p. 16). In communicating his thoughts on the subject, Kuritz offers four chapters structured according to Aristotles ˜Four Causes,as well as introductory material and a closing chapter on working in theater as a Christian. Judging from many statements regrading Gods role and promises available to, the artist, Serpents content seems to be directed specifically to Christians (e.g., pp. 111, 113, 116, and 144).
Kuritzs overarching contention is that just as Moses healing serpent pointed, in an artistic fashion, to the ultimate Healer, so theater (including film and plays) can point to the ultimate Story – the outworking of Gods kingdom. All attempts at storytelling and dramatic theater,Kuritz writes, model this historical paradigm”the invasion of the kingdom of God (p. 23). Although the metaphor is sometimes stretched a bit too far (e.g., p. 80), it is certainly an interesting application of the story. As God gave Moses the power, materials, and purpose, to construct the bronze serpent which in turn reflected Gods qualities, so God empowers the artist to reflect His glory through theater (pp. 30-31). This is possible because redemption is the arc of the action in the Christian story, and this arc informs a universally recognized plot line that transcends particular cultures (p. 32-33).
Kuritz fleshes out his thesis by explaining theaters universal appeal according to Aristotles Four Causes (The four causes can be seen as answers to four questions concerning a things existence: The Formal Cause answers the question, What is it?The Material Cause answers the question, What is it made of?The Efficient Cause answers the question, What made it?and the Final Cause answers the question: For what purpose was it made? Chapter Two gives the formal cause. Formally, says Kuritz, theaters essence is that of story. While story can be expressed in different ways (e.g., in film through images and sound, and in plays through movement and words), it is the story that makes a theater piece what it is.The fact that the same basic story structure – beginning, middle, and end (a pattern first expounded upon by Aristotle) – exists across cultures can be explained by the fact that reality (Gods story) has these same parts (creation, relation, and restoration). In chapter Three Kuritz explains that the material cause of stories consists of universally shared aspects of life culled from ones own particular experiences. These are found at cultural, familial, and individual levels of life. In Chapter Four we are told that the efficient cause of theater is God Himself, for the artists ability to create is given by God and is a reflection of His work. According to Chapter Five, the final cause of theater is (or at least should be) to glorify God. The final chapter of the book discusses how a Christian is to function in the world of theater, focusing on love, obedience, and servanthood.
The writing is often good, sometimes merely passable, and occasionally poor. One chapter (5) contains repetitious cut-and-paste passages that no professional editor would have let through (one of the dangers of on-demand publishing). Other chapters reflect confusing transitions and rabbit trails. For example, in a single page Kuritz moves from a discussion of actors as words-made-flesh, to a paragraph on logic and the law of non-contradiction, to a section concerning the recognition of an authors traits due to their word choices (p. 62). There is, however, enough quality to be worth the time it takes to read the book. One of Kuritzs more pithy observations concerns Gods story: In His story, God is the main character, and our belief that we are the main characters, is the problem(p. 40). Another passage that stands out is the danger of doing art for arts sake which Kuritz calls idolatry (p. 29). Gems like these, as well as many well-chosen quotes, help to overcome what is sometimes rough reading.
On the subject of quotations, Kuritz has marshaled a collection that is impressive both in number, scope, and quality. There are over 240 citations in this short book which is roughly equivalent to 130 standard sized pages. This makes for an average of about two quotes per page, with some being quite long (e.g., pp. 54-58). However, there are some quotations that are of disputable relevance or questionable hermeneutics. Chapter Four alone contains several examples: Kuritz attempts to support the idea that providence and the Holy Spirit break into our lives to empower the soul, outside the laws that govern time and space with references to 1 Cor. 1:20-21; 25-26; 2:7-8; 12-13; and 3:18, as well as a statement by Thomas Aquinas concerning the intellectual power of the soul (pp. 114-115). Kuritz also cites 1 Cor. 1:8 in support of his belief that without the power of the Holy Spirit invading his life, the theater artist cannot create inspired works for stage or screen (p. 116).
While I am in strong agreement with Kuritzs basic thesis, there are several particulars that are troubling. Theological and philosophical issues reflecting everything from unfortunate inaccuracies to more serious errors are peppered throughout the book. Examples of the former might include Kuritzs report that the Word of God became the Son of God(p. 55), or that everything that is was created out of nothing by God(p. 71), or listing sex along with poisonous snakes, violence, and temptation as items we need not fear in God’s Kingdom (p. 30). Concerning the more egregious errors, Kuritz espouses an unsatisfying and self-referentially incoherent notion that language does not directly communicate reality and that total objectivity is impossible in communication (pp. 64-67). He connects universal patterns in humanity to evolutionary biology and then equates this to Gods imprint on the heart (p. 84). He also claims that a persons soul continues to live after death by virtue of the powers that belong to its nature(p. 98), and that God created because He did not find satisfaction in self contemplation(p. 120). Granted, many artists lacking theological training might not notice or find cause for alarm in these kinds of erroneous statements, but that only makes the errors more insidious.
One of the most dramatic of these errors comes in Chapter Four during Kuritzs discussion of efficient causality with regard to film. After brief discussions of various worldviews and an artistic version of the argument from desire, Kuritz makes the claim that the power that causes the dramatic theater to come to life is an aspect of the power of God(p. 107). He goes on to state that inspiration produces dramatic theater beyond the scope of human knowledge and natural skill (p. 111). This notion is problematic both philosophically and theologically. Philosophically speaking, to credit God with efficient causality is actually to credit Him directly for the creation of the artist (not just as the divine supplier of the ability to create). While the notion of efficient causality can include both primary and secondary efficient causes, Kuritz does not make this distinction. While it is true that God is, ultimately, the primary efficient cause of all things [even human sin (e.g., Acts 2:22-23), where humans would be considered as secondary efficient causes], this is not how Aristotle used the term, nor how Kuritz is using it here. This leads to the theological issue. Theologically speaking, inspiration is a miraculous act by which God superintends the communication of His word such that His spokesperson says or writes exactly what He wishes. Kuritz is clearly equivocating on the term “inspiration.” While inspiration in the popular sense often means nothing more than the arousal of an artist to create, Kuritz is not using the term this way here. Any doubts as to his intended meaning are dispelled when Kuritz specifies that inspiration is the very power that allowed Jesus to heal the lame and blind and to raise His friends from the dead. It is the power of His resurrection” (p. 112). This is a dangerous theological error, for theater is certainly not a direct (much less a miraculous!) work of God. Rather, the artist remains wholly responsible for what he creates.
While Kuritzs overall thesis is truly commendable, the books numerous problematic features serve to enervate its important message (which, fortunately, has been expressed in more substantive works). Thus, Kuritzs short treatise might best serve as a sampler of the plethora of trustworthy sources he cites throughout its pages. Readers who respond favorably to Fiery Serpents overall message might be interested in William D. Romanowski read Robert McKee Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (which has yet to be seriously challenged for best book on the topic). Brian Godawas Hollywood Worldviews provides a very helpful introduction to film interpretation and worldview recognition. For a more philosophical approach to these subjects see Etienne Gilsons Forms and Substances in the Arts and Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays by Jacques Maritain.
by Douglas M. Beaumont
The Fiery Serpent:
Reviewed by John Merrill
Theater is the expression of human emotion conveyed to the world in a form that each individual can relate the emotions to their own lives in a very personal way. This is how I have always viewed the theater arts. Kuritz has a view that builds on that principal of a personal connection with an external sensation to an internal meaning. Specifically Kuritz is talking about the connection of the Arts and how God works in each of us. He believes that theater and movies is a way for us to better connect with the kingdom of god. There is the use of knowledge, beauty, truth, goodness, in theater that combines the external work of God to the internal faith and understanding of God.
The theme that binds this book together is the Fiery Serpent which is, for those of you who went to Sunday school less than I did a reference to the staff that Moses had. This staff was a response to the attack of poisonous snakes that God sent the wayward Israelites who began worshiping false gods. Many of us have seen this image recreated on many medical emblems. This symbol of healing has dominated western culture since biblical times. In Kuritz book he uses the parody of the external object with the internal meaning to produce a new found understanding and love for God.
Kuritz does a great job of not running off on a tangent of Fundamentalist views on the use of theater and film but simply explains the dynamic relationship of the theater arts to a person understands and how god can be ever-present in its creation. Kuritz ties the book up with the “Working Christian Theater Artist” and how a modern Christian thespian, which by the way I am, can better serve God through the use of theater, even if it does not seem to be directly related.
A Christian Theory of Film and Theater
By Paul Kuritz. Pleasant Word. Pp. 196.
$16.99, paper. ISBN 1414107676.
This book is likely to be welcomed in theater departments of Christian colleges and universities, especially withits last chapter, The Working Christian
Theater Artist.Beyond that, though, I dont see much of a market for TheFiery Serpent. Paul Kuritz, a director, writer and educator,breaks little new ground in his
consideration of the connection between Christianity andtheater and film. The title refers to the image Moses made to save the Hebrew people who had been bitten by
snakes. Christian dramatic theater ” the fiery serpent ” is the gospel of grace, a mysterious invasion of the kingdom of God into our Evil Age, an imitation of our Lord
Jesus Christ,Mr. Kuritz writes. The paradigmatic story in Numbers presents the model for our dramatic theater makers who seek to imitate the means and ends of the
great maker Himself. What I found most interesting was the preface in which he described the conversion experiences that changed him into an evangelical Christian.
Iwish he had been able to maintain that lively style throughout the book.Unfortunately, it reads more like a doctoral dissertation, and is as heavilyreferenced as one.
Retta Blaney, The Living Church
Paul Kuritz, an acting and directing professor at Bates College, has written a book with an interesting perspective. “The Fiery Serpent” (Pleasant Word 2007) examines theater and film making from a Christian perspective. The author’s first prayer as a newly converted follower of the Lord was “Dear God, please don’t make me a born-again evangelical Christian.” God declined and one of the results is this book. Some might be intimidated by its erudite nature (he quotes Aristotle and delves into the laws of thermodynamics) but the investigation of the nature and art of movies and plays is well worth the read.Mr. Kuritz creates the image of God as a playwright and director and offers the stories of the bible as evidence of God’s flare for the dramatic. We come to see that all of the creative process isn’t really all that new, but a recreation of the internal conflict within man to choose to follow good instead of evil. And in the end, it’s all for God’s glory. There’s some great practical advice for Christian artists like: “In making a play or a film, the theater artist encounters many people giving him instructions, making demands on him, planning his days, requesting compliance, issuing orders, presenting temptations, and rationalizing and justifying all sorts of things. For the Christian, all of these human messages must be filtered through the cross of Christ and found consistent with life in the kingdom of God. To order the book online go to
Christian Performing Artists http://christianperformers.blogspot.com/
I am a third year theology student studying in the U.K. at Redcliffe College. Before studying theology I worked for 22 years in theatre, ballet, opera, film and television making costumes and also taught at an Art College teaching Costume Design and Interpretation.
I am presently writing my degree dissertation. The topic of the dissertation is: From Scripture to Canvas to Stage, A justification for a dramatization of Rembrandt’s Biblical Paintings. The topic has been narrowed down to a retelling of the Prodigal Son using the events of Rembrandt’s life,which are historically accurate, to reveal the artist’s own issues with inheritance, debt and fatherhood. In effect, through Rembrandt’s mismanagement of his wife’s inheritance he becomes the Prodigal Father and his Son is robbed of the majority of the mother’s inheritance.
The two paintings by Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son Spending his inheritance(which is a self portrait with his wife) and the Return of the Prodigal Son (one of his last works, painted after his son’s death) will provide the inspiration for the sets and costumes. My hope is that the performance could be performed as part of a drama/choir festival that regularly takes place in Worcester Cathedral.
Throughout researching for this paper I have read many books on theology and the arts and I just wanted to let you know that I have just finished reading The Fiery Serpent. Your book has helped me enormously, particularly Chapter 6. When one has worked in theatre it is immensely difficult to move over to theology. Theological colleges by in large are not filled with people who have worked in the theatrical or plastic arts and often the tutors don’t understand where you are coming from.
Before reading your book my enthusiasm for my whole Rembrandt project was at an all time low and my attitudes reflected the views presented under the left hand column (Present Evil Age) on page 152 of your book. The verses offered on the right hand column have helped me to keep on working and to see things through the ‘kingdom of God’ lenses and focus on the ‘bigger plot’.
This email is just to say thank you for writing your book.
Sincerely, Diane Evans
For what it’s worth, I am a “born again evangelical Christian” actor/writer/instructor myself (I received my MFA in Acting Pedagogy from the University of Alabama), and I must say I immensely enjoyed reading your book. From the personal testimony, to the insights regarding God’s reason for the arts, I found your words truthful and relevant.
I can make no promises, but the way the Lord works is awe-inspiring. I will certainly keep your contact information, and you, in the back of my mind for any projects that I am involved with. I’ve been wrong before, but perhaps our paths will cross in the future. We Christian artists are few, and as such, should look out for one another.
Will North Cleckler
Assistant to Sam Haskell