The comparisons between church and theater are easy to make. Simply substitute the words parishioners for audiences, hymns for songs and sermons for monologues.
Both present a message that the teller hopes will resonate with those who are sharing the experience.
What isn’t always present in a worship service is overt conflict, but it’s there that playwright and lifelong Lutheran Tom Jacobson resides. Conflict is the ingredient to engaging his audiences and spurring them to think, talk and maybe even respond to his story.
Religion and faith enter many of his most successful plays, including his latest, “Captain of the Bible Quiz Team.” It’s a distinctly ELCA work that was recently presented in Los Angeles at various congregations, including Lutheran Church of the Master, which has been Jacobson’s spiritual home for more than 30 years.
The play is composed of several sermons delivered by a young pastor in a small central Minnesota church, with the audience portraying the congregation. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Daryl H. Miller wrote that Jacobson takes on issues that “are at the forefront of American religion—and society in general.”
“I think faith is an ongoing discussion that people have with themselves,” Jacobson said. “I think if your faith is really settled, you’re not really thinking about it very much. My faith, like Obama’s opinion of same-sex marriage, has evolved.”
Jacobson moved away from acting and toward writing when he was in college. He said he can see his faith in his work at times when a good idea comes and he doesn’t know from where.
Inspired by true events
In his career, Jacobson has found much of his inspiration in moments of discord within the church. For “Captain of the Bible Quiz Team,” the central focus is the ELCA’s 2009 statement on human sexuality, and much of the background comes from real situations and people.
Jacobson’s uncle owns a farm a few miles from a Minnesota Lutheran church where his father, grandparents and other relatives are buried.
“I will not be buried there because in 2009 they voted on whether to leave the ELCA over the sexuality statement,” Jacobson said. “They did not vote to leave, but it was serious enough for them to take a vote. And I felt, well, I’m not welcome in this churchyard, so they are not going to get my body.”
That Minnesota congregation, Jacobson said, is declining with its aging population, which he contrasted to Master’s growing number of young worshipers, spearheaded by its former pastor whom he called “youthful and dynamic.”
“I had all that in my mind when I arrived at church one Sunday and Joel Bergeland (a seminary graduate awaiting call) was giving the sermon that day, and I had never seen him before,” Jacobson said. “He did a wonderful sermon. I thought, ‘That dying little church in Minnesota needs him, but they don’t want him because he identifies as bisexual.’ I thought, “Wow, that’s conflict.’ ”
So Jacobson turned it into a play. He placed a young pastor coming to care for an ailing father—also a minister—and to take over the Christmastime duties at the small and dying congregation. It’s revealed that the young pastor is gay, which the father doesn’t want to accept.
“Part of the message of this play is putting the miracle back on people,” Jacobson said. “Don’t sit around waiting for God to do a miracle. You are the miracle. God already made you. And now the ball is in your court.”
Jacobson’s longtime experience as an ELCA member allowed him to inject the authenticity of a Lutheran worship service into his writing. He also interviewed pastors, including Caleb Crainer, who is openly gay and serving St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Los Angeles.
“We had an extended conversation about my experiences, which included coming out,” Crainer said. “When I saw [the play], I could see parts that were my story. I think he accurately captured a lot of the emotions and a lot of the tensions through the play. And I think a lot of Lutherans will recognize themselves in it.”
Crainer appreciates Jacobson’s belief that the role shouldn’t be gender or cultural specific. During the play’s run, women and men of varying ethnic backgrounds portrayed the pastor. Non-gender specific characters are something Jacobson has created in other works as well.
Another specialty for the playwright is using nontraditional spaces, which he said can be effective if the venue matches the play’s theme or emotional intent.
Peg Schultz-Akerson, interim pastor of Master, said having the production in their worship space added dimension. “It was interesting to see this woman up in the same pulpit where I had preached earlier that day, giving these sermons as a play,” she said.
The play might be an effective tool to help open a discussion about the topic for a congregation that was ready to talk about it, she added.
Jacobson believes “Captain of the Bible Quiz Team” is a theatrical experience first, and only in that way can it also be effective as a form of ministry.
“Theater as a mission tool kind of gets it backward,” he said. “I think if you write a good play that happens to say something inspiring about religion, it can be effective. But this is about conflict and drama and not about advancing a philosophy or religion.”