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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 165–76 

A Christian and an Artist: Reflections of a Mennonite Theater Professor

Douglas Liechty Caskey

It is clear to me, . . . because of the definite spiritual role in the discovery, that my work has everything to do with God’s desire for my energy and life and what I can give to others by being faithful to the “call.” — Anonymous Mennonite artist 1

Theater allows for collective exploration to take place in a truly communal forum, thus creating a shared experience which can spark discussion and even rigorous debate on issues of importance to the community.

In the months leading up to my Christian baptism any doubts that may have existed in my fifteen-year-old mind had dissipated to the point that I knew the decision to publicly profess my allegiance to Jesus Christ was unequivocally the right thing to do. At that moment in my life to choose otherwise would have been to deny part of myself. Although I knew there existed many more questions to be answered and many truths would remain unexplained until the next life, enough key questions had been satisfied through my Mennonite catechism and numerous discussions with family and friends. I anticipated a life of exciting growth and change, and I also knew there certainly would be disappointments at times. Yet the peace I felt deep inside me meant the general spiritual direction of my life would remain thereafter unchanged. The decision to be a Christian in my Mennonite context had both fluid and firm qualities. {166}


In the years leading up to my college-age decision to be an artist by profession, I considered numerous other possible directions for my life. I explored areas of study as diverse as math and statistics, elementary education, visual art, and religion. In the end, however, the choice I made to devote my lifelong energies to the art of theater was no less earth shattering than my decision to become a Christian. To choose otherwise would have been to deny part of myself and my sense of God’s call for my life. It seemed that something or someone much greater than myself singled me out to pursue a life focused on the art of theater and performance studies. One might describe this as a calling. I was convinced then, and still am nearly twenty years later, that this was and is God’s calling for my life.

Interestingly, while the former decision likely pleased many, if not all, in my faith community, the latter decision certainly disappointed or at least raised real questions for some of those who knew me. The responses I received from others at these critical points in my life were not unlike that of other Mennonite artists. In his essay “Traditions and Transitions: Amish and Mennonite Expression in Visual Art,” Stanley A. Kaufman writes,

The serious artist working in the traditional Mennonite community has not always found the degree of individualism required to produce serious art. Simply ignoring its artists and their potential value to the community has been the Mennonite church’s most effective way of denying them a place in the community. 2

I look back now on the profundity of that decision and see myself then as the young pianist in Jean Janzen’s poem, “Piano Lesson,” who cannot fully understand how the music “will draw her into the lovely ache of suspension. . . . Yet somehow she knows it is inevitable, and with a sigh she opens the book and begins.” 3

As a theater artist my Christian faith is so intertwined with my need to create, imagine, dream, prophesy, comment, critique, challenge, and communicate that it is impossible to separate my artistic self from my life in God’s kingdom, from my Creator-inspired existence in this world. It is difficult to imagine what it would mean to be an authentic follower of Christ without an artistic outlet to express and ponder my spirituality. Yet there are those in the Mennonite faith community who still question the validity of the arts as a legitimate vocation. Others may find the arts a meaningful form of expression in the worship setting, but draw the line with art that serves no clearly worshipful or utilitarian purpose. A {167}heartwarming painting of Christ kneeling in prayer, a joyous melody set to a scriptural text, a short play based on a parable, a ceramic bowl to serve fresh fruit are acceptable, even encouraged.

But a variety of colors abstractly splashed on a canvas, a seemingly random collection of notes from a solo cello, a tragic play with no apparent connection to a biblical theme, or a metallic sculpture that serves no apparently functional purpose are also important spiritual expressions for the artist. Other Mennonite artists have expressed similar frustrations regarding the faith community’s lack of receptivity, or at least understanding, of the artists it has spawned or adopted. An instrumental musician writing in an anonymous survey observed that “Mennonite artists form a beleaguered and straggling subset of Mennonite membership; their impact on the Mennonite church in general is limited by an insistence that the artistic expression should have some overtly religious end.” 4


Nevertheless, due to a strong network of support from family, friends, colleagues, and audiences, I am overwhelmingly encouraged to continue working, playing, and exploring in the theatrical realm. With some notable yet minor exceptions, life as a theater artist in various Mennonite communities has not been a difficult or burdensome journey. I have no doubt that a significant factor in this has been my nearly continuous connection to Mennonite higher education institutions where the arts are valued and fostered in significant ways.

During the early and subsequent formative stages of my development as a Christian and an artist (and eventually an educator), I have been fortunate to connect in meaningful ways with three different denominational Mennonite colleges, all of which have greatly impacted who I have become and am becoming. I grew up across the street from Bluffton College where my father was a theater professor and where my mother studied to be a music educator. There I also studied visual art with Jay Bumbaugh. I graduated from Goshen College (where I now teach) with a major in theater and was mentored in my art by Roy Umble, Lauren Friesen, and June Alliman Yoder, among others. As I began my full-time teaching career at Fresno Pacific University, Billie Jean Wiebe, Wilfred Martens, Luetta Reimer, and Dalton Reimer were influential in encouraging me as theater director and teacher.

Bluffton College, Goshen College, and Fresno Pacific University possess important commonalties and yet appropriately declare notable distinctions as Mennonite institutions of higher education. These {168} intersections and uniquenesses are communicated rhetorically in each school’s motto. Much more than catch phrases or marketing ploys, these telling school mottoes collectively represent a triune ethos that informs my sense of what it means to be a Christian and an artist (specifically a theater artist) in the context of Mennonite higher education:

Fresno Pacific University: “Fundamentum Christus” (The Foundation is Christ)

Bluffton College: “The Truth Makes Free”

Goshen College: “Culture for Service”

Note that while the basic idea of each foundational element stems from the three schools that have been influential in my artistic development, it is not my purpose to claim that each element was fostered only by the institution who proclaims that motto. In actuality there is more intersection than disparity in this regard among the three schools cited. For example, by the time I began my full-time teaching at Fresno Pacific University the idea that Christ is the foundation in my life was not at all a new concept. Both Goshen and Bluffton colleges served to reinforce this basic core belief that was introduced to me as part of my upbringing in a Christian family. It is also worth noting that my graduate studies at Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, Ohio) also greatly influenced my development as a theater scholar, artist, and teacher. While not a Christian institution by any means, Bowling Green State University provided me with the opportunity to interact with other Christian theater scholars and mentors who allowed me the freedom to pursue my interests in theater and performance studies in Mennonite communities.

These three school mottoes, then, provide the rhetorical underpinnings of a more complete picture of one particular Mennonite theater artist. It is my undocumented hunch that many other Christian artists who function within and around Mennonite communities claim at least some of these same underpinnings, thereby creating a web of common experience, a potentially powerfully shared narrative of life as a Mennonite artist.


The cornerstone on which my life’s work in the arts is built can be found in the Pauline statement to the Corinthians: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11 NRSV). One of my favorite parables recounted in the gospels is Jesus’ metaphorical reference to the wise person who built a house on the rock. I often refer to this passage when speaking {169} with a variety of audiences in public speaking situations, because I am drawn to the dichotomous comparison to the alternative sand. Jesus’ audience for the original telling of this parable are “amazed at his teaching” because he presented the parable as one who possessed a powerful authenticity they had not encountered previously. With such a foundation on which to build a life in the arts, I have felt a sense of freedom that is hard to explain to those who see Jesus’ authority as a restrictive set of rules severely limiting individual creativity from a vantage point either inside or outside the faith community. With Christ as the head of a body with many members, I have not doubted the idea that artists are among the desired, even required parts of God’s kingdom.

With Jesus as a model decision maker, I feel centered in meaningful ways for the myriad aesthetic choices I make in my work in the theater. Some examples may serve to clarify my point on how Jesus’ life serves as a model for aesthetic choices. On a very basic level, Jesus chose to use the narrative form to orally communicate with his various audiences, both public and private. With both the small groups of Pharisees or disciples and the multitudes gathered on the hillside, he often spoke in metaphorical terms, using many stories to capture the truth of his message and to refer to his own role in living God’s universal story. Jesus’ use of aesthetic utterances epitomizes what J. McDonald Williams describes when he writes,

Good art moves beyond mere confrontation with new ideas. It forces us to clarify, develop, and sometimes change our views, or to shape and connect previously vague or unconnected ideas and feelings. Abstractions can become concrete; general interest can lead to disciplined reflection. 5

From larger artistic decisions, such as play selection, to smaller aesthetic choices, such as the focusing of a light or an actor’s particular use of movement at a given point in a performance, I know that the artistic choices I make will in some way communicate to the audience. It is my responsibility as an artist to find ways to make that communicative transaction effective and ultimately productive in an attempt to call the audience to clarify, develop, and sometimes change, if even on an intuitive or at times relatively insignificant level.

A second way I find myself modeling behaviors after Jesus’ example is through the relationships I foster with others in the collaborative artistic process. Collaboration at its healthiest gives full consideration to the “others” in our midst. In the theater this means considering the process as much as and sometimes more than the product, particularly when working with student artists. Respecting the other artists and the {170} audience as critical pieces of the process more often than not results in a performance outcome that exceeds initial expectations for the production. Postmodernist Richard Palmer asserts that performance is more than simply an aesthetic act. He asserts that for our conception of performance

we must think beyond the categories of mere representation and reenactment to the “thing done” in the performance itself. Performance is not just an aesthetic act but a moral act, a community act, a celebration of what is being brought to experiential fullness through performance. Performance of a text does not just “say” something; it does something. 6

The “thing done” not only impacts the relationship between artist and audience, but in the theater also speaks to the collaboration between artist and artist in the creative moments that occur in the rehearsal and design process.

A third example offered through Jesus’ model actions is his consideration of the underprivileged and his repeated choice to give a voice to the “voiceless,” to those on the societal margins. We are not only asked to consider the worth of the Samaritans among us, but we are called to enter into the experience of those whose life perspective is different from ours in order to better understand and relate to them in meaningful ways. The result is a cross-cultural experience that models what it means to see from the other’s point of view. Goshen College International Education Director, Wilbur Birky, notes this ultimate example in the life of Jesus.

Let us propose the Incarnation as an act of divine imagination rooted in a profound realization that even God could not know and understand the human condition without entering into it, to experience it in the body. That was a true cross-cultural experience. 7

Theater is, in similar ways, fully experiential, particularly for the actor. Using one’s voice, body, and emotions to fully communicate from a point of view different from one’s own is to open oneself up to a different way of seeing for purposes of engaging in meaningful dialogue, much in the same way that Christ sought to fully embody the human experience. Jesus’ words and actions, rather than spelling out clear-cut answers, often raised important questions which require a lifetime of thoughtful reflection. Wilfred Martens expresses it this way:

As individuals in a pluralistic society we see through a glass darkly; we see pieces and fragments instead of the whole. As we grope to find meaning and direction we need the voices of others to connect us with the world. The more we {171} experience the arts, the more we gain a sense of the whole. Good literature helps us to identify and face moral and spiritual issues. Sometimes its purpose is to ask the right questions rather than resolve problems or provide solutions. 8

As an artist in the Mennonite faith community, I choose to follow Jesus’ example to challenge, entertain, provoke, critique, prophesy. I choose to do this with an attitude of humility rather than to offend or disgust my audience, unless it happens that holding to my Christian beliefs in some way offends or disgusts. Then, I trust, we are poised for further dialogue sparked by an earnest desire to seek truth in its various authentic forms.


“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32 NRSV). Artists are risky people to be around. They have a penchant for seeing things differently than other people partly because, in addition to rational resources, artists rely on a God-given intuitive sense rooted in experiential knowledge. Artists are often comfortable with seeking truth in the mysterious, hidden, even dark places, as well as in the more obviously beautiful and well-lit areas of life. This difference in “seeing” is not always comfortable, but is nevertheless important. Writer James Baldwin once noted, “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” 9

Some are more willing than others to embrace this difference. For example, in art’s relation to theological scholarship, Gordon Kaufman “has called upon theologians to explore seriously ‘theological insight that may be manifest in works of art’ because such works are not necessarily merely illustrations of established theological truths but may offer new understanding not arrived at by the traditional methods of teaching and learning theology.” 10 Despite these differences in “seeing,” or rather “because” of them, the Mennonite community needs to be open to the insights such aesthetic inquiries can offer.

In my own work in the theater, my artistic intentions are always borne out of a love and concern for others, for those who may be very different from me, even when the “others” are those within my own faith community. Baldwin further observed that, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” 11 My own experience has not {172} escalated to warlike, or even seriously antagonistic situations. I sense this is due, at least in part, to my attempts to surround my theatrical productions with clear personal statements about the great reconciliatory power we possess in collectively seeking truth in a dialogical spirit.

In the desire to know the truth about our own and others’ experiences the artist needs to feel a freedom to ask the unaskable questions and probe more deeply, more personally than we might otherwise be willing to do. Visual artist John P. Klassen once wrote, “We need art to clarify our vision, to deepen it.” 12 In the Scripture passage from John 8 noted above, the truth of which Jesus speaks is essentially himself as God’s incarnate word. In my own yearning for truth in my human and spiritual relationships with others, I am keenly aware of my own shortcomings and inadequacies. Again, regarding the role of the artist in community, Baldwin states that “the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.” 13 My efforts to reconcile these realities (my small, personal, cultural, imperfect existence with God’s great and loving truth) repeatedly carry me into the aesthetic frame of the theater in order to explore and to begin to grasp the otherwise untetherable experiences and mysteries of life.

This temporary delving into an imaginative world always manages to bring me back into the practical realm of lived experience, hopefully with new insight into how to continue engaging in meaningful, authentic relationships. Martens believes that

At the same time as literature connects the reader with the world, it encourages the reader to act. Good literature not only poses significant questions, and it not only presents profound moral choices, it also motivates the reader toward appropriate action. It moves us from entertainment to reflection to engagement. 14


In proposing the Goshen College motto in 1902, President Noah Byers was attempting to emphasize the college’s need to address “ ‘the whole personality,’ whose ‘cultivation’ for Christian service would be Goshen College’s ideal.” 15 This concern for the whole person, modeled on Jesus’ example, further exemplifies my sense of what it means to be a Christian and an artist.

One result of Byers’ declaring these seemingly opposite concepts in the same utterance is the bringing together of theory and practice, as well as the spiritual and the human. One reason theater is a uniquely engaging {173} art form is because of the great possibilities available to the participating artists and audiences for understanding ourselves in the human experience of others. Through theater we can learn to listen to and engage ideas different from our own with the ultimate goal of true dialogical engagement with others. The theater allows this collective exploration to take place in a truly communal forum, thus creating a shared experience which can spark discussion and even rigorous debate on issues of importance to the community. Both an actor/performer and a seemingly more passive audience member benefit from mutually participating in a holistic experience requiring oral, aural, kinetic, kinesthetic, and psychological engagement. Performance is another way of knowing, of learning about the world we live in, of learning about ourselves and each other, individually and collectively. Performance connects us to the person next to us or to people on the other side of the world.

In that sense, I choose not to apologize when theater takes on an educational function. Theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht declared, “Theatre remains theatre even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre it will amuse.” 16 We have a very basic need to try to make sense of the world around us, in our own culture and those of others. Our performances help open us to authentic learning experiences on multiple levels. “Through such cultural performances, we continue to learn our own culture, to give life meaning beyond the immediate present, to confront fundamental values, and to discover the principles for right living within our culture.” 17 Theater teaches us about human experience merely on the basis that humans (their bodies, movements, and voices) are the media through which the various theater artists communicate with an audience.

Finally, the very act of creating is itself a spiritual endeavor for the artist worthy of engaging the artist as a whole person, and thus needing no other justification. As a Mennonite I am intrigued by the interesting implications of what it means to participate in the creative act as a collaborative process, contrasted with the relatively isolated creative process for a painter or composer. The outcome of a theater collaboration rarely ceases to exceed my initial ideas as an individual member of the creative process working with actors and designers. In its communal sense, then, theater ought to have a unique attraction for Mennonite Christians, different from but not entirely unlike the embodied sacrament of Mennonite congregational singing. The humility required to engage but not completely control the final outcome of a theatrical work is emblematic of drama’s power to offer the hope of authentic reconciliation or decry the disaster in its absence. Writer Julie Kasdorf captures {174} this in her reference to the humility required in reconciling with the “other” when she concludes, “It is antithetical to pride, which ultimately is the belief that individuals or communities do not need to consider the perspectives of others in order to understand and define themselves.” 18


It is certainly not unusual for a Mennonite artist like myself to be influenced in my work by one or more Mennonite educational institutions. According to the statistical results of a Mennonite artists survey published in 1995, 82.6 percent of the 149 respondents attended at least one Mennonite educational institution and, of those, 7.4 percent attended two Mennonite colleges. 19 Many of these same artists acknowledged a desire to remain connected to their Mennoniteness in both faith and art, an acknowledgement which I consider to be clearly influenced by their own passage through some branch of the Mennonite educational system. For me, the unique opportunity to be shaped by three different branches of Mennonite higher education has helped me envision the wonderful possibilities that yet await the global Mennonite community as articulated, captured, or prophesied through the works of the artists among us.

I am reminded of an epiphanal moment I experienced as I listened to and watched a developmentally-disabled character named Lucien in Tom Griffin’s play, The Boys Next Door. Through the entire play Lucien has been functioning at a low level of cognitive understanding, but at a key moment late in the performance, the action freezes and the actor playing Lucien steps into a spotlight to speak directly to a surprised and hushed audience. Before returning to his normally inarticulate self, he concludes with the statement

. . . I will not go away. And I will not wither because the cage is too small. I am here to remind the species of the species. I am Lucien Percival Smith. And without me, without my shattered crippled brain, you will never again be frightened by what you might have become. Or indeed, by what your future might make you. 20

In this profoundly communal and revelatory moment of the play, possible only in the live theater, Lucien declares his individuality at the same time that he challenges his community of listeners to consider the opportunities in their own lives. And although this experience did not occur within a worship service or in Christian language, theatrical moments like this represent for me the synthesization of the three-fold ethos outlined above.

Surely there are other influences that come to bear on my sense of {175} theater and performance studies as artist, teacher, and scholar. It has not been my intent to suggest that the three schools personally explicated here represent the outer limits of my experience or the boundaries of artistic possibility. Nevertheless, it is critical that the various denominations of Mennonites place a high priority on fostering and growing the artists among them. Educational institutions and Mennonite communities, in general, must be willing to step out in the risky venture of encouraging for their individual and collaborative work. I believe wholeheartedly that such a risk will result in a more engaging faith dialogic in its myriad possible forms. These proposed steps of steadfast support by the Mennonite community for artists who care deeply about matters human and divine may be captured best in the lyrics of Canadian songwriter, Bruce Cockburn: “Gone from mystery into mystery. Gone from daylight into night. Another step deeper into darkness. Closer to the light.” 21


  1. Billie Jean Wiebe and Douglas Liechty Caskey, “Mennonite Artists: Creating a Sense of Place,” The Mennonite, 12 September 1995, 9.
  2. Stanley A. Kaufman, Traditions and Transitions: Amish and Mennonite Expression in Visual Art (Canton, OH: Canton Art Institute, 1992), 17.
  3. Jean Janzen, “Piano Lesson,” in Snake in the Parsonage (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1995), 3.
  4. Wiebe and Caskey, 8.
  5. J. McDonald Williams, “Art and the Spiritual Quest,” Mission Journal (August 1984): 5, quoted in Wilfred Martens, “The Gold Behind the Paper Currency: Literature and the Christian College,” Direction 24 (fall 1995): 50.
  6. Richard Palmer, “Toward a Postmodern Hermeneutics of Performace,” in Performance in Postmodern Culture, ed. Michel Benamon and Charles Caramello (Madison, WI: Coda, 1977), 20.
  7. Wilbur Birky, “SST: Vision, History, and Ethos,” in 1997-98 SST Faculty Handbook (Goshen, IN: Goshen College, 1997). Emphasis in original.
  8. Martens, 51.
  9. James Baldwin, “The Creative Dilemma,” in American Literature, Ginn Literature Series, ed. Porter, Terrie, and Bennett (Lexington, MA: Ginn, 1981), 67.
  10. Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen, “Art as an Act of Faith: Sylvia Gross Bubalo,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72 (July 1998): 410. {176}
  11. Baldwin, 69.
  12. R. K. Janzen, 390.
  13. Baldwin, 68.
  14. Martens, 52.
  15. Susan Fisher Miller, Culture for Service: A History of Goshen College, 1894-1994 (Goshen, IN: Goshen College, 1994), 44.
  16. Bertolt Brecht, “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction,” in Dramatic Theory and Criticism, ed. Bernard F. Dukore (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), 852.
  17. Jean Haskell Speer, “Cultural Performances in a Mountain Community,” in Communication as Performance, ed. Janet Larsen Palmer (Pomona, CA: Gutenberg Galaxy, 1986), 187.
  18. Julia Kasdorf, “Bakhtin, Boundaries and Bodies,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 71 (April 1997): 187.
  19. Wiebe and Caskey, 10.
  20. Tom Griffin, The Boys Next Door (New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1988), 52.
  21. Bruce Cockburn, “Closer to the Light,” Dart to the Heart (New York, NY: Sony Music Entertainment, 1994).
Douglas Liechty Caskey is Associate Professor of Communication and Theater at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana. Besides his teaching and administrative responsibilities, Doug is an active director, actor, and storyteller.

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