Is Religion Just an Act?

A Mormon bishop in Utah went to church disguised as a homeless man to teach his congregation about compassion.

There were some rumblings early on that the national press had fallen for a hoax—rather like the several times that Chinese news agencies have recycled stories from The Onion as real news—but at this point the event has produced an NPR interview with the perpetrator, so I’m willing to go with it.

Seems that a Mormon bishop in Utah went to church disguised as a homeless man in order to teach his congregation something about compassion. What one would expect did, in fact, happen, as several people told him to leave, several people ignored him, and the children—ah, the guileless children—treated him like Santa.

In defense of the congregants, I’m not convinced that “Be Nice to the Homeless, Lest You Ignore Your Bishop” is a valuable lesson. Arguing in an object lesson that one should have compassion for the world’s disenfranchised people because one might discover that they aren’t disenfranchised at all seems to me the equivalent of saying, “Be nice to everyone so that you don’t accidentally offend someone important by mistake.” Maybe Bishop David Musselman should have brought some real homeless people with him to church, instead.

But never mind the ethics of the object lesson, itself. What this stunt says about religion, in general, might be more intriguing. By undertaking this sting operation, which, according to the report, involved the assistance of a Salt Lake City makeup artist and a wig that he dramatically removed during services, Bishop Musselman here demonstrated—perhaps inadvertently—exactly what religion is. That is: religion is theatre.

I didn’t say that religion is fake, so take a breath. We not only misconstrue religion, as a matter of course, we misunderstand theatre. The dumbest thing we’ve been saying about theatre for twenty-five hundred years is that it’s fake. Aristotle, however honorable his intentions, was wrong. He had only Greek Tragedy in mind, of course, but even limited to this specific genre, theatre is not, essentially, imitation of something that really exists somewhere else. On the contrary, theatre gives us something quite real, right there, right where we are.

When Andromache tells her son, “Kiss thy mother now for the last time,” the big, salty tears that drop into your lap are not pretend tears, even though you know that the people on the stage are only actors. An actor as a Ugandan villager who says, “Salt Lake City isn’t an actual place. It’s an idea, a metaphor” is not pretend funny, but really funny. The ‘realness’ keeps us—some of us—going to theatres, when we could be going to movies or watching reality television, instead. Theatre is peculiarly able to make something materialize where that something did not before exist. And this is why theatre is always religious, no matter how secular or, even, profane.

Religion and theatre have always had a relationship. From the defunct theories that theatre, as an activity, evolved out of ritual, to acknowledging the fact across times and across cultures that people find theatre eminently useful to the promotion of religious ideas, we have seen that religion has always relied on theatre, and theatre has always been eager to serve, in return.

But this functional relationship has obscured where religion and theatre overlap. At a deeper level than that religion needs a performative mechanism and that theatre needs momentous subject matter, religion and theatre each manifest the fundamental human inclination to make things different. Religion and theatre both seek to transform the moment—the who and what—into something else, something more. The clincher: religion and theatre are the same for both being able to succeed in this respect. At the risk of cluttering the argument with jargon, religion and theatre meet at a phenomenological site.

So, Bishop Musselman puts on a costume and stages a little morality play for his congregation. It turns out he’s not a dirty, mumbling homeless man, but just pretending. And you could say, “Ah, that’s religion: a sound and a fury, signifying nothing.” But the sudden shame that fell on so many of Musselman’s congregation in the fiery instant of revelation—the pain that stabs the soul when a person sees in that glass a little less darkly—that’s not fake.

While the good bishop’s wig may have been a pretense, a charade, a con, many of his parishioners left that day in new roles that were not artifice, but genuine transformations of their selves. He might be wearing a chasuble as well as a wig. He might be wearing a collar. He might be genuflecting, or reciting antique Latin, or or otherwise putting on a show. Never mind that. The play is, indeed, the thing, but don’t forget that Hamlet aimed to change the real world. Religion scholar Huston Smith may as well have been writing about Hamlet’s theatrical enterprise when he described religion as “the effort to transcend phoniness”.

This is where religion is theatre, and also why religion has never been an exclusively theistic or otherwise supernatural affair. As theatre, religion is the activity—often “merely” fabricated—by which we change, and through which we access the experiences that fix those changes in the people we really are becoming.

Image courtesy of Niklas Pivic.

David Mason
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  • gfaigen

    It might be called “fake” but it was ‘proven reality” in the flesh. I thank the Bishop for providing this lesson for all to learn.

  • John Jones

    Religion and theater do indeed engage in pretending and acting. They employ actors, costumes, rituals, and often music and poetry. They both can tell a story and preach a morality. They transport us to a different realm of fantasy by asking us to suspend reason and pretend that we see and hear on the altar / stage is a reflection of reality or at least a possibility. The can show us what could be but not always what is. But they both can illuminate truths equally as well as falsehoods.

    So outside these aesthetic elements where religion is like the theater (and art, beauty, music, literature, and poetry) I fail to see what else religion offers of value.

    True, theater and religion both can distort reality and truth. But the difference is that religion claims that it’s stories are really true; that religion explains history and science. It does not ask for one to think but accept and believe on faith. Religion says that its moral of the story is absolute. The theater makes no such imposition or pretense. The theater is honest enough to admit that it deals in an illusion of reality for entertainment purposes only.

  • MONTYMOOSE

    since you wont post,, at least ask yourself what would you have really done.. .Think of it this way..
    IF PEOPLE KNEW WHAT YOU OR I WERE LIKE AND THOUGHT OF INSIDE OUR HEADS..
    “WOULD ANYONE REALLY LIKE US”?
    God still does….

  • flynnie321

    You are there to praise YHWH, who called you out of existence from nothingness, who created you with symmetries of delight between your senses and the outside world, the sweetness of breath, the brilliance of color, the favorite tastes, etc. and to Whom you are deeply grateful. The congregation of believers and the celbrant go to great expense and work to provide a setting for expressing this gratitude. I worship at a downtown congregation which occassionally has schizophrenics/homeless co-opt the service for their needs – including processing up the main aisle and begging. There is nothing wrong with lovingly shutting this down. G-D is particularly and specially present in the least and most miserable – care for them, love them, feed them, but don’t let them stop your main purpose of giving G_D due praise.

  • GregInWisc

    Religion isn’t an act. Actors act, faithful believe. Some just want to maintain an image, that their pious ways prove their superiority. Yet, religion is not an act, for all. Some do abuse belief. One should never confuse religion and its followers.

  • Vanka

    Is religion just an act?

    Has there ever been a more rhetorical question?

    Of course it is an act. Fake people faking “testimony” like the people claiming to see the Emperor’s New Clothes, and for the same reason. Mormonism is a fake religion – a cult – that is really about money and power and intolerance. I guess that could describe many Churches, but Mormonism excels at fostering such disingenuous, fakery. I have sat in “Testimony meetings” and listened to some of the most obvious lying, overacting, drama-queens/kings, and hyper emotionalism imaginable, all in an attempt to convince the others in the congregation that a person is “righteous” and “worthy”. It is such a sham… almost as much of a sham as this article, which in classic Mormon cult apologetics, tries to put as positive and “faith-promoting” SPIN on what should be seen as a deceptive LIE carried out by a disingenuous Bishop!

  • davewtc

    Wow. What absolute drivel.

  • Felinis

    IMHO, any religion based upon the supernatural is of course just an act.

    The worship of gods, dead saviours, resurrection, holy spirits, priests channeling “the devine” is theatre suitable only for the Sci-Fi channel.

    Belief in the supernatural is called superstition.

    Strip away the authority, pomp, ceremony and antiquity and all you are left with is superstition mixed with a few very obvious ethical rules, like “don’t kill each other”.

  • MONTYMOOSE

    since you hae never experienced the infilling of the Holy Spirit, its impossible for you to understand that relgion can be experiential, I was born Jewish spent 7 years in Hebrew school and was a college student. Chrisitanity was the farthest from my mind.
    Yet God chose to call me out of my beliefs and after some studying of the new testament, He chose to open my eyes to what I call the truth.
    The experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, is not something I can ever deny, it is real, it is powerful and although Einstein said doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity, I am somewhat sane, I am getting very old, but I know beyond a shadow of doubt that God is real, faithful to His Word, all powerful and most of all loving to mankind, filled with grace and mercy. He lives in me…has changed me, given me the power to forgive and loving to others, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that when I die, ( physically) , I will be with Him for ever,
    No power can change my mind about Him, because He is..and He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

  • MONTYMOOSE

    Faith is an expectant hope based upon whom you choose to believe

  • Felinis

    If I say that I am infused with the spirit of snoopy the dog, then I am classified as dilusional.

    But society lets you get away with saying that you are “filled with the Holy Spirit”. And that is OK with me as long as you keep to “I” language – “I am” and “I will”. It is when the delusion slips into “We will defend” and “I must” that I start to get worried.

    I hope that we are out-growing such childish crutches as “God”, like the Europeans.

    You can easily give yourself the power to forgive and love others. It you claim that it comes from somewhere else, when it is false and worthless and you are probably an unforgiving, loveless, pretentious individual.

    Good luck with the after death thing – let me know how that works out.

  • Stuart12

    What proof????????????????

  • twmatthews

    If your main purpose in life is to give praise to god, you really need a good dose of reality.

    Every year, 9 million children under the age of 5 are killed. Most are killed because they were born in a poor country with little or no social safety nets; from starvation and easily treatable diseases. Of those 9 million, a little more than a third are Christian. That means, according to the “good book”, about 6 million children each year are occupants of an everlasting, agonizing pain, tortured every day, forever. And all because they happened to be guilty of being born poor and non-Christian.

    Even if I did believe in a god, tell me why this particular god is worthy of anything other than our contempt.

  • twmatthews

    @Montymoose,

    So where was god when the 2004 Tsunami struck 16 countries killing 230,000 men, women and children? Is that a “just reward” in your view?

    Or where was god when a typhoon killed 3,631 (and counting) people in the Philippines less than a month ago? Is your loving god lonely and wanted a few extra thousand people right away? Even for those that survived, how many new orphans were created? How many parents are missing a spouse or one or more of their children?

    Is this the actions of a loving god? An uncaring god? A powerless god? Or more likely, is it simply mother nature and there is no more god than there is the tooth fairy.

  • LeeWhitt

    Oh PLEASE tell me someone caught this on video.

  • LeeWhitt

    @MONTYMOOSE: You have a brain tumor.

  • Lew7

    Ah Montymoose, the ol’ you-jus-don’t-geddit retort. How can anyone come back after that show-stopper! The “infilling of the Holy Spirit”, eh? I’m not sure I like the sound of that. Whatever, arguing that your subjective experience of your religion means that your religion contains anything like substantive truth just doesn’t wash. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that it makes you happy. You knock yourself out. But rather like drugs, the mind altering soma you choose has implications for other people around you, and rather like drug dealers, the people who peddle that soma love to get their hands on kids and vulnerable people in order to get them hooked. It’s a very profitable business. And rather like drugs, it has a tendency to make people stupid. At that point I think it a duty for clear-sighted people to object and to say that if you want to indulge in this kind of silliness should really be restricted to adults in the privacy of their own homes. Bring it into the public square and make it political, then expect to be attacked for it, just like everyone else fighting a political point. And for god’s sake take that pouty offended look off your face because you think your brand of silliness is above reproach. It is not. Far from it.

  • SODDI

    “One should never confuse religion and its followers.”

    Why not? That is all that there is of it.

  • Beitinger

    Does God exist? To me, yes. He lives! Knowing this has brought many wonderful blessings in my life.

    If you’re wondering if Jesus is the Christ it takes action. Maybe the following will help you; it has for me.

    Jesus said, “Come unto me…” so action is required on our part to know if he is real. If you have a desire to make an honest inquiry, take a step and then another. Try this:

    – Prepare your mind and heart to be humble and teachable.
    – Find a quiet place.
    – Kneel and pray to God your Father in Heaven.
    – Think about what you want to say. What comes to mind, say it out loud. Be reverent. Show gratitude for what you have. Ask for what you need. Ask questions. Be reflective, pause, listen and feel with your heart and mind.
    – Close “in the name of Jesus Christ” and say “Amen.”

    If you really want to learn, prayerfully read scripture, maybe the Bible. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Book of Matthew Chapters 5-7) is a good place to start. Read it as if Jesus is speaking to you directly. Make a personal commitment to strive to be obedient to what you learn there. Pray about what you read. Ask questions and seek answers.

    If you desire an answer and diligently seek it, God will teach you as he promises; here a little, there a little and precept by precept by the power of the Holy Ghost. In doing so, you will find peace in your heart and much more…eternal truth.

  • twmatthews

    Well said Lew7.

  • Rongoklunk

    As far as we know there are no gods, and never were any. They are human constructs, and the evidence for this is every god ever worshiped, from Apollo to Zeus, Allah, Vishnu and the Christian no-name god. We humans invented every last one of them, and that’s why nobody ever saw one.
    Religion is terror management. The terror is death, and it’s managed by pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s managed also – by pretending that a big strong sky-dwelling God will save all believers (but no unbelievers) from death, he and promises eternal life. Wikipedia has a page on this, under the title “Terror Management Theory”.
    Religion sells because it pretends to save folks from the horror of death. It is the greatest lie ever told, and it sells because it’s what people want to hear above all else. But death is death for us as for all living things. Religion is denial. Atheists face reality even when it’s ugly, because they prefer truth to outrageous fantasy and wishful thinking.

  • Rongoklunk

    Religion and theater are both make-believe. But at least theater can tell us great truths about ourselves, where religion is all pretense and dishonesty. Religion’s leading man is a pretend god – an invisible god – the so-called creator of the universe. And he’s just one in a long line of gods that our ancestors made-up. Over the eons they invented more than 3500 of them. Surely it’s time we recognized that gods don’t actually exist, and that all living things die, including us. As intelligent adults we should be tough enough to face reality – without the terror-management called religion.

  • Zechariah

    Is there any explanation for the origin of all things, (time, space, and matter) that does not invoke supernatural (the natural being what we can observe, test, and prove)?

  • Zechariah

    ‘Religion should be restricted to adults in the privacy of their own homes…’

    Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot tried to purge their countries of anyone who was either educated or teaching ethical values (especially Christians). If do not murder is so obvious as something that people ought not to do, one wonders why weren’t more morally minded people trying to stop them.

    When “Do not murder” is a law in a moral vacuum with no point of reference or absolutes it can easily be superseded or removed by whatever pragmatism of the moment. All it takes is a Hitler or Stalin who can rationalize genocide and has the popularity and power to implement it.

    What the bible teaches as absolutes hinges in the very person of God revealed to us by Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The teaching of Jesus is not merely words in a fog, they are based on his very nature so much that Paul rightly said, “If Christ be not risen from the dead our preaching is in vein and we are to pitied above all others.”

    The wonderful thing about Jesus Christ’s resurrection is it is not just supernatural but a provable historical event, from the changed lives of 11 of the disciples, all dying a martyrs death, each of them alone when they died, testifying to what they saw. Saul a man who was renown for executing Christians became one and died a martyrs death. He wrote 1/3 of the New Testament.

    Today Psychologists have agreed with Satan’s words in the book of Job, “All that a man has he will give for his life.” Sane men do not die for that which they know to be a lie. They were either all insane or they truly saw Christ resurrected.

    If Jesus be resurrected then we ought to look to Him as our example because there can be salvation found in no other name under heaven. Jesus died for you too, to be a covering for all unrighteousness, and he rose from the dead so that we may believe in him and not perish but inherit everlasting life.

    It is both supernatural and the truth. Jesus is Lord.

  • Jburg

    If an ACT is defined as “something that is done,” “a law made by a group of legislators,” “one of the main divisions of a play or opera,” (Merriam-Webster) – then on all three accounts yes, especially if it involves piety.

    Being that there is an instruction set with religion, and that it contains laws by our earliest legislators, and that there are people who intentionally act in a way to be perceived as pious – then, yes, by definition is an act.

    Sincerity of the heart, faith and the true nature of any given individual as it relates to whichever religion they believe or subscribe to is a per-person basis.

  • DRJJJ

    Religion is, faith in the Christ of Christianity isn’t! The resurrection, life of Christ and what God has done for us, not we we do for God is the key differences!
    There’s room for one more! Merry Christmas!

    Martin Luther (1483-1546). While studying law, Luther, fearing death in a thunderstorm, promised God he would become a monk if God spared him. As a monk and professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, Luther attempted to secure his salvation by adhering to a very strict code of ethics, obedience to the monastic order, and ceaseless confession. This proved unsatisfactory and Luther continued to have intense emotional struggles with his own salvation until an epiphany struck him in
    the tower of his Augustinian monastery. It was during this “tower experience” that Luther realized that salvation was a free gift imputed to man through Christ’s righteousness. We are justified by the grace of God through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Our good works, then, do not cause our salvation, but rather they are a result of our salvation. God does not love us because we are good—we are good because God loves us. With this new understanding of salvation, Luther went on to criticize
    the Catholic Church for, among other things, selling indulgences to people with the promise that these purchases would help assure their salvation. Luther protested this and other things in his famous Ninety-five Theses. This eventually led to a major conflict between Luther and his German supporters and the Catholic Church in Rome. The end result was the Protestant Reformation, although Luther saw himself not as the creator of a new church, but as a reformer of the Catholic Church, leading
    her back to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone!

    Secularization of church and state sure hasn’t done us any favors-turn on the news!