Drama and These Modern Days - Rev. G. Van Rongen

Fourth in a series of five articles on dramatizing biblical stories by Rev.G.van Rongen, taken with permission from Clarion Vol.24, No.22, Year End, Vol.25. No's 1-6 (1975-1976).

Introduction and Biography 2. Drama and Church 4. Drama and these Modern Days
1. Drama and Preaching 3. Drama and School 5. Drama and Holy Scripture


After the disappearance of schooldrama in the 16th century, the well-known Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel (1782-1852) was the first person to make a plea for its reintroduction. However, Fröbel's words fell on deaf ears as a result of the general acceptance of Johann Friedrich Herbart's system, which was "teacher-centred", and intellectualistic, and consequently did not allow any space for the child's independent and spontaneous actions, e.g. in its playing.[1]


But since the nineties of the 19th century there has been a renewal-movement. Rationalism and intellectualism were more and more replaced by an irrationalism that expresses itself in pragmatism, a life-philosophy, and existentialism. [2] This pragmatism includes experimentalism: the child has to find things out for itself and all by itself, and should no longer be taught to accept things upon the authority of the teacher or others. The life-philosophy of Henry Bergson and Eduard Spranger puts strong emphasis on man's life and inner experiences. The child's activities are used as special creative powers. Existentialism teaches that there is only one thing important in life, and that is: me! Man is completely free and autarchic. He makes and determines himself. Consequently a fixed educational purpose and specification of methods of acting are impossibilities. All this served the promotion of free expression and playing.

The development in the field of child-psychology was another factor that cooperated [3]: a child is more than only receptive-passive-reproductive, it is also actively-creative. Attention was given not only to the developing of the child's knowledge but also to its feelings, ambitions, and aspirations.


After the fifties of this century, schooldrama began to flourish again.[4] The pedagogic-didactic application of a child's play was generally recommended in Germany, England, and The Netherlands. The following aspects were propagated:

Playing enables the individual and groups to develop themselves.

It promotes man's development in every age group and is as such propaedeutic and therapeutic.

As a method of teaching it includes possibilities of all-round development because it is an innerly experienced and animated form of activity.

It can be applied to several disciplines and in different areas of life.

It is a form of activity that rests upon the principles of finding out by oneself, of free discussion, of self-expression in an atmosphere of freedom. [5]


All this was also applied in the field of religious education. However, - and this is of great significance - the efforts to renew school education in general were not the only factors of influence. There was also the re-orientation in theology, in particular the crisis with respect to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and the "ecumenical" co-operation in general and with respect to the renewal of methods of religious education in particulars.

The whole of the renewal in the field of religious education is actually a matter of influences from the side of theologians, psychologists, sociologists, and pedagogues going hand in hand. This combination is a matter of course.[6]


It may be clear that the motives of these renewers in reintroducing "religious schooldrama" differ widely from those of the Middle Ages. [7]

1. They were predominantly of a pedagogic-didactic character, a matter of learning by seeing and doing. [8]

2. There was also another aspect, that of evangelizing in a secularized world. It is no wonder that many supporters of this movement were found among those engaged in Sunday School activities - in particular among the Methodists - and teaching Religious Education at the public schools in England. [9]

It may quite well be that those who took the initiative in the reintroduction of drama at Christian schools were not fully aware of this background and did not ask themselves the question whether all the experiments undertaken at the Sunday Schools and "Scripture" at public schools would fit in the curriculum of a Christian school - even apart from the main-question whether sacred history can be enacted.

3. A third motive was that one wanted to do something for church people, in particular for the young members of the churches. Consequently this movement became at the same time a movement for liturgy renewal. [10]


As for the application of the principles of the school educational renewal movement to "religious education", the name of Ronald J. Goldman must be mentioned. He wrote two books, Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (1964), and Readiness for Religion (1965). His first book is mainly a reproduction of the results of some research work undertaken by him. His main question was whether the existing syllabuses for "Religious Education" used at the English schools were really effective, that is, how far the youngsters who attended these lessons could understand them. He himself called it a "test of religious thinking". What concepts do the children have of the Bible, of the Divine, of God's activity in the natural world - a phrase that in Goldman's way of thinking replaces the biblical term "miracles"-, of God's holiness, His concern for man, of Jesus and the problem of evil, of prayer, of the Church, etcetera? The outcome of his investigations was very negative, the level of understanding deeply disappointing. Consequently his second book contains a program that is intended to replace the existing syllabuses.

But before we are going to have a look at his program that is to say, to the general idea, because this is sufficient to serve the purposes of these articles - we first quote some preliminary remarks which in fact repeat the conclusions of his research work. Speaking about these results he says:

What it reveals is that the Bible is not a children's book, that the teaching of large areas of it may do more damage than good to a child's religious understanding and that too much biblical material is used too soon and too frequently. What it also confirms is that the contents and methods used in religious education are out of step with educational practices in other subjects. [11]


I suggest that it is an impossible task to teach the Bible as such to children much before adolescence, and that we must look for another approach which offers a more realistic alternative to our present ills. [12]

And also this:

The major finding supports the move from a Bible-centred content of religious education to a content which more closely approximates to the real world of children, using their experiences and their natural development rather than imposing an adult form of religious ideas and languages upon them.[13]

Since the writings of Goldman have been very influential in the field of "religious education", we have to go a bit deeper into this material.


We can distinguish two lines in the ideas of Ronald J. Goldman whose books have widely influenced others in the field of religious education and stimulated them a.o. to re-introduce "religious drama". These two lines are: 1) the psychological aspect, 2) the religious aspect.


Goldman's theories are based on the ideas of Jean Piaget, who occupied himself with "the psychology of conceptual processes". In his The Child's Conception of the World (1969) and other books, this Swiss psychologist dealt with such questions as: What can a child understand? What concepts has a child? [14] According to him there are three levels of thinking between childhood and adolescence: intuitive or pre-operational thinking in the age group of 2-7 years; concrete thinking between 7 and 11 years; and propositional thinking at the age of 11 years and over. [15] Piaget is one of the originators of the modern methods of learning Mathematics and other disciplines. Goldman, in agreement with him, wrote that children cannot understand much due to their intellectual immaturity, their linguistic limitations, and restricted experience. [16] Therefore he came to the conclusion:

The emphasis should be placed more and more upon using the natural experience of children so that the religious nature of that experience shall be known and placed alongside the experience of others, both in the past and the present. [17]


Consequently Goldman sees three stages of development in a child: a pre-religious one, a sub-religious, and a religious stage.[18] For what actually is religion? And what is the purpose of giving the children religious education? Goldman says it this way:

Fundamentally we must grow as persons towards God, and although many things external to us can help or impede our development, our religious growth is an individual and personal encounter with the divine. [19]

Well, does not this sound very subjectivistic? This is completely different from what the Holy Scriptures call "the fear of the LORD" which must be taught to the children. Besides, what Goldman says here could be said of any religion and is not distinctly Christian.


It may be clear that the psychological and religious aspects are running parallel and are fundamentally the same.

"Religion" is approached in a "psychological" way! Therefore it is no wonder that we read this also:

The basis of children's needs must be the starting point and the ultimate purpose of Christian education. [20]

An eye-opener is this sentence:

. . . critical thinking about the Bible and religious belief must be encouraged in the late junior years. [21]


Herewith we have arrived at Goldman's ideas about the Bible. We quote the following lines that speak for themselves:

The Bible is the major source book of Christianity for adults. It is written by adults for adults and is plainly not a children's book. [22]

And also this:

If, however, life themes are couched initially in terms of the children's experiences, biblical material can then be used to illustrate them. [22]


Life is not used to illustrate Bible truths, but the Bible is used to illustrate life's experience. [23]

And this:

The use of children's experience illustrated by Bible incidents is consistent with the Bible itself. For the Bible is a narrative of men's experiences in their varying relationships with Godl. [23]

Goldman admits [24] he has been influenced by existentialism. This is what one can clearly notice here.


We just read something about "life-themes". Let us explain what Goldman means by that. His starting-point is the thesis that the Bible is not a children's book, as we just heard. It is too difficult for them. Religious education has to start in a different way. It has to be "child-centred" and not "Bible-centred". Is not the language of the literature of religion, especially in the Bible, almost entirely based upon analogy and metaphor? Take e.g. Psalm 23: "The LORD is my Shepherd". But for the child to grasp this concept in any way, he must have some concept of sheep farming.[25] Well, this is the method to be used all during the period between the ages of 6 and 17 years, with the necessary gradual changes of course and adaption to the particular age of the child.

In his second book, Readiness for Religion, Goldman works out a system of life-themes. For early childhood he recommends e.g. dead pets, accidents, "Mummy having a baby", churchgoing. As for middle childhood there are e.g. homes, friends, people who help us, shepherds and sheep, the seasons, gifts. For late childhood and pre-adolescence there are a.o. myself, creation, light, water, law and order, names, stories. From the last-mentioned group we give a brief quotation to give our readers a fair idea of what Goldman means. Here is what he suggests as to be used by the children on the life-theme of Light (with a capital!):

1) The Growth of Light - man's discovery of various artificial lights. As light has come, so man has been less afraid. Jesus casts out fear.

2) The Source of Light - the sun. Without light there can be no life. Man first worshipped the sun, then the God who created the sun. The sun as the centre of our universe. Men use light for describing God and Jesus.

3) The Image of Light - we need light to see. How the eye works. Seeing things in different ways. Mental images. Jesus as the image of God.

4) The Path of Light - finding our way by day and night. Looking at the sky. Lights that guide and warn. Jesus gives guidance.

5) The Power of Light - light as a source of energy - mechanical, chemical and electrical. People who employ this energy. The power of Jesus.

6) The Wonder of Light - light and colour. The artist's, poet's, and musician's use of light. Now they have been inspired by Jesus the Light. [26]

There is even a separate "Readiness for Religion" series,

designed deliberately to help the children explore and experience as much for themselves as possible. [27]

Goldman himself summarized all this in the name which he would give to this pattern: "Developmental Religious Education".[28]


Now finally, what does Goldman say about using drama? He is very much in favour of it, as may be clear from the following quotations:

Because children cannot always reason their way into a situation, especially where there are problems, they will feel or fantasise their way into it. This is why play is an important educational activity. It is not merely a letting off of steam but play makes a serious contribution towards children's discovery of knowledge. [29]

Perhaps this is one major problem for religious teachers that they find it difficult to concede that such a serious topic as religion can be approached playfully or the child encouraged to fantasise about God. Yet this is his natural method of thinking, of expressing himself and searching. [30]

So far about playing in general. Now about drama:

It is essential that children themselves present their own findings, or produce a dramatisation, or talk about their exhibition of work. [31]

Concerning the pre-adolescents Goldman wrote this:

Looking up their own material, translating stories into their own experiences, dramatising on a tape-recording or on the stage their own interpretations, painting, drawing, . . . is important in any subject. In religious education it is vital. [32]

We realize this sort of "drama" is not directly biblical. However, we have to take into account that these dramas are supposed to be on "life-themes" which work themselves towards the Bible - although they are performed in the children's own interpretation, according to their own "experiences" - which means "existentialistically"!

We would not like to accuse all the "Christian" schools of fully agreeing with the above-mentioned theories when they have introduced "biblical plays". Yet we are afraid that they are somewhat under the influence of the "spirit of the times".


We have more or less thoroughly dealt with the writings of Ronald J. Goldman on "religious education". We did this on purpose because he is an influential representative of the renewal movement in this field and has encouraged the re-introduction of "religious drama". It may therefore also be interesting to learn that his ideas did not remain unchallenged. K.G. Howkins e.g. strongly criticized them. In a small but fine booklet [33] he scrutinized Goldman's research methods and their results. His conclusion is that Dr. Goldman has proved:

that children can EXPRESS very little of understanding of certain INTELLECTUAL problems in DR. GOLDMAN's VERSION of CERTAIN Bible stories, WITHOUT any help. He has not proved what the children can actually understand of the religious or even the intellectual aspects of the Bible itself, when they have competent teaching based on it. [34]


It is interesting to investigate the theological background of Dr. Goldman's thinking. H.F. Matthews [35] speaks of a twin-revolution in theology and psychology. We have already dealt - though briefly - with the latter. As for the former, Matthews points to the books of John A.T. Robinson, the well-known bishop of Woolwich - popularly known as "honest John" after the title of one of his books [36], to the works of Paul Tillich [37], Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rudolf Bultmann and his "demythologization". Somewhere Goldman writes [38]:

All criteria for scoring the test are based upon the current theological approach of biblical theology, interpreted from a central- to-liberal position. The view is held that Scripture is the inspired but not infallible Word of God, transmitted or revealed to fallible men, who at times have only partially grasped and communicated the truth revealed to them; thus to discover 'The Word' within the words we must approach the Bible with what methods literary and historical criticism can supply.

It is a remarkable fact that the renewal of (religious) school education goes hand in hand with a.o. Bultmannianism. Which means that in the same modern days the same subjectivism comes to the fore in theology as well as education. This is no wonder, for both are rooted in Existentialism! [39] This philosophy - and consequently its theological application - does not acknowledge man's total depravity as we confess it in e.g. the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 3. In this sort of "religious education" there is no room for the beautiful sentence from the "Preface" of the Heidelberg Catechism, that says:

that the congenital wickedness would obtain the upper hand and then pervert Churches and Civil Government, unless it were countered in time by means of salutary doctrine.

True Christian school education - not only in the field of "religious education" but over its full length - if it wants to remain Reformed - that means, to be based upon a.o. the doctrine of total depravity - will more and more take an isolated position in this world!


Another representative of the contemporary renewal movement on the territory of religious school education is Sir Richard Acland. He wrote We Teach Them Wrong (1963), which title clearly reveals the tendency of the book. H.F. Matthews wrote on him [40]:

He makes the point quite rightly that our ultimate aim in teaching religion is to help children to a realization of the truth about God which is revealed in Christ.

Acland himself wrote [41]:

The approach to religion in general and to Christianity in particular does not start from the Bible; does not start from God, does not even start from Christ.

The real starting-point is:

their relationships with each other, and the nature of the Society in which they are growing-up.

Here is another advocate of "child-centred teaching".

The other day we saw the influence of these sort of ideas on the material used at Christian schools and published here in Grand Rapids. Almost the whole lesson on a certain Bible story consisted of questions like these: What do you think about the reactions of the hero of this story? How would you have reacted? What do you feel about . . .? What is your opinion about . . .? It was all "child-centred" indeed!


Many more names could be summed up. However, we will restrict ourselves to one more, that of D.S. Hubery. He wrote The Experimental Approach to Christian Education (1960), and Christian Education and the Bible (1976). Working out the ideas of Jean Piaget, he propagates "experienced-centred teaching", or "experiential teaching".

Matthew [42] says about his ideas:

Spontaneous drama is perhaps the most obvious way in which this can be arranged. A happening can be acted out in such a way that the actors identify themselves with the characters they represent; and the religious questions are thereby canvassed.

Further [43]:

A visit to a children's home, a church with some special feature, a farm even (and the teacher may use the opportunity to introduce discussion of the divine ordering of the creative process) can be provocation of real religious insight.

Consequently Hubery writes on the subject of drama


Reference ought also to be made to dramatic presentation of biblical themes, and in this sphere Dorothy Sayers' broadcast series of plays, entitled "The Man Born to Be King" is worth special mention. Attention should also be drawn to the combination of contemporary music and drama in terms of teenage culture exemplified in "A Man Dies". Perhaps we are on the fringe of a break-through in which a combination of film-making, music and drama, in genuine twentieth century terms, will express the experimental approach to the great biblical themes waiting to be used.

And here the lines to be drawn between education and evangelism necessarily become blurred and indistinct. The twentieth century has rendered it almost impossible to communicate the faith, in education and in evangelism, in verbal communication alone. A multi-dimensional approach, using art forms, ancient and modern, is now almost essential to reach the multitude effectively and relevantly.


Matthews himself is not so enthusiastic about the use of drama in religious education [45]:

I am not denying the very great value of drama and mime as a means of religious education, and the Christmas story responds better than any to this treatment. It is true too that mediaeval Christians learned about their faith from the mystery and miracle plays such as were performed in Chester, Wakefield and York, often with much more dramatic license than those children take part in today in school, and often involving much greater use of mythological element than we would think right. Sometimes indeed the plays were packed full of a typology we should find extravagant in the extreme. But what was meaningful educationally to simple mediaeval men may not be so helpful in the religious maturation of twentieth century children, who are neither mediaeval nor simple. It would therefore seem to be important that we should ask ourselves whether the traditional nativity play performed in school is the right use of drama and mime and music, all of which are rich in value for religious education.


We could give some examples of how all these theories are applied. As for the Roman-Catholic schools, we just mention Lothar Zenetti's God's Children Learn in Joy (1966), which contains a chapter "Dramatization in Religious Instruction", followed by "Suggested Topics for Dramatization During the Study of the Commandments" and "Suggested Topics for Dramatization During the Study of the Sacraments". [46] Just to give our readers an idea of the way in which the modern ideas on religious education have been applied, we quote these lines on Baptism from pages 91-92:

D: Mother asking her boy if he has washed himself properly.
Cleansing-power of water.

This pair of topics was taken from "Daily Life". Now from "Scripture":

C: The Syrian warrior Naaman travelling to ask the prophet Elisha to be healed from his leprosy; the prophet telling him to wash in the river Jordan; at first Naaman, being indignant but nevertheless following the word of the prophet; giving thanks for his cure.

These lines, then, are expected to be played by the children.


Now we would not like to accuse all those who are in favour of "dramatization of biblical stories" at school of adhering to all the above-explained theories and ideas in the field of psychology, pedagogy, theology, and even philosophy. However, it is a remarkable fact that they have reintroduced "religious drama" under the influence of the spirit of the times, and followed the pattern of "fashion" in this field. It is to be regretted that they have not formulated a peculiar Christian starting-point and do not seriously consider the question which is Dr. Rittersma's main point:

Can the Word of God be played?


[1] Z. Rittersma, op. cit., pages 67, 79, and 83.

[2] Same, page 79, from which we derived most of the information given in this paragraph.

[3] Same, page 80.

[4] Same, page 95.

[5] Same, page 99.

[6] Same, pages 100 and 103.

[7] Same, pages 99-100.

[8] Same, page 106.

[9] Same, pages 100, 104.

[10] Same, page 104.

[11] R. J. Goldman, Readiness for Religion, page 7.

[12] Same, page 8.

[13] Same, page 9.

[14] R.J. Goldman, Religious Thinking, page 2

[15] Same, page 19ff

[16] R.J. Goldman, Readiness for Religion, page 38

[17] Same, page 39

[18] Same, page 40

[19] Same, page 11

[20] Same, page 65

[21] Same, page 69

[22] Same, page 71

[23] Same, page 72

[24] R.J. Goldman, Religious Thinking, page 3

[25] Same, page 14

[26] R.J. Goldman, Readiness for Religion, pages 143-4

[27] Same, page 119

[28] Same, page 193

[29] Same, page 78

[30] Same, page 86

[31] Same, page 123

[32] Same, page 150.

[33] K.G. Howkins, Religious Thinking (1968).

[34] Same, page 15. Emphasis is the author's.

[35] H.F. Matthews, Revolution in Religious Education, A Commentary (1966), page 11.

[36] J.A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (1963), and The New Reformation (1965). Matthews could also have referred to Liturgy Coming to Life (1960).

[37] Goldman himself points to the works of Tillich in Readiness for Religion, pages 221-22.

[38] Same, pages 48-49.

[39] Compare Christelijke Encyclopedie, Volume 2, (1957), where Herman Ridderbos writes: "B. is een der voornaamste vertegenwoordigers van de wetenschappelijke radicale bijbel-kritiek in Duitsland. Hij zet de tradities van de historisch-literaire school en van de godsdiensthistorische benadering van het N.T. voort; tracht dit echter to verbinden met een theol. interpretatie van het N.T., die ook voor de 'moderne mens' aannemelijk zou zijn. Hij heeft daartoe een zg. Entmythologisierungs-program voor het N.T. opgesteld, waarin hij de blijvende waarheidskern van de naar zijn oordeel mythologische heilsgeschiedenis van het N.T. tracht te vatten Zie Entymthologisierung). In feite komt dit neer op een poging om het N.T. (m.n. Paulus en Johannes) in de zin van een bepaalde moderne existentie-filosofie (die van Heidegger) to verstaan. De heilsgeschiedenis (Christus' komen in de wereld, zijn dood, opstanding, verhoging, uitstorting van de H. Geest, wederkomst) verklaart B. als de uitdrukking van een existentieel Selbstverständnis, waarvan het evangelische moment daarin bestaat, dat de mens slechts door het tot keuze en beslissing roepende woord Gods tot de ware vrijheid en het ware zelf-zijn geraken kan." See also H.N. Ridderbos in Bultmann Modern Thinkers Series (1960), pages 14-15.

[40] H.F. Matthews, op. cit., page 71.

[41] Sir Richard Acland, We Teach Them Wrong (1963), page 115.

[42] H.F. Matthews, op. cit., page 133.

[43] Same, page 134.

[44] D.S. Hubery, Christian Education and the Bible, page 140.

[45] H.F. Matthews, op. cit., page 143.

[46] Lothar Zenetti, God's Children Learn in Joy, page 75ff., 79ff., 91ff.