Drama and Preaching (1 of 5) - Rev. G. Van Rongen

First 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


Our original intention was to write a series of articles on the subject of drama in its relation to religious school education, or - as it is also called - dramatization of Bible stories, Bible plays, or religious plays.

At many a Christian school this sort of "teaching aid" is used. Some of the parents who are not in the position to send their children to a Reformed school are confronted with it. It could quite well be that their little boy came home the other day and told them: "I am Joseph!"

In order to help these parents, and inform at the same time the other readers of our magazine, we deemed it useful to draw their attention to a thesis which in our opinion deserves to be put in the limelight - and even translated and edited for English-speaking readers, since the English Summary at the end may be useful but does not give them enough.

We have in mind now the thesis of Dr. Zacharias Rittersma, Principal of the Reformed Teachers College at Amersfoort in The Netherlands. He defended this thesis at the University for Christian Higher Education at Potchefstroom, South Africa, April 1972. Its title is "Het dramatiseren van bijbelse geschiedenissen door jeugdigen. Een pedagogisch didactische bijdrage met bijzondere aandacht voor het schooldrama van de 16de eeuw" (Dramatization of biblical stories by youngsters. A pedagogic-didactic contribution paying special attention to 16th century school drama).

However, the reading of this book and the study of some affiliated literature led us to the conclusion that there is more than the "Bible plays" only in which we as people of Reformed confession are interested - or at least should be interested - and against which our children must be protected.

There are certain ideas at the background of the introducing of drama.

These ideas are related with or even the consequences of a movement of renewal in the field of school education.

And in their turn this movement has been influenced by modern philosophies and even theology.

Therefore is it not strange that the tendency to reintroduce drama does not stop at the schools. It has the desire to affect the church services as well and import drama as an alternative to the preaching.

Consequently we have changed our plans and put a wide-angle lens on our camera.

And first of all we will pass on some information on the relation between drama and preaching.


This relation was put in historical light in the July 1975 issue of Eternity magazine.

The author of the article concerned, Dr. Thomas Howard, associate professor of English at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts, pointed his readers to the origin of mediaeval drama: the preaching in church. That is to say, in his opinion drama was revived after many centuries of silence, in the church, precisely in the church.

It is not clear yet whether this includes a sort of hint for today's preaching. The series on drama in that magazine is still running.

However, a clear sound came from the Rev. William C. DeVries, minister of the Christian Reformed Church at Ann Arbor, Michigan, and from Calvin College, Grand Rapids.

The former seems to be very much in favour of introducing drama, films, colour-slides shows and things like that as alternatives to the preaching in church.

The Grand Rapids Press of Saturday, July 19, 1975 contained the following:


After a week of careful planning and coordination, a minister intent on sprucing up his monologue-style sermon is ready for a trial run at the Sunday morning service.

He faces a full congregation, takes a deep breath and punches a button to begin a slide show-Sunday sermon. Upside-down images appear on the screen.

A bit flustered but as yet undaunted, he turns to an overhead projector to transmit some simple diagrams to the still empty screen. The projector's bulb begins to flicker and the lead breaks in the grease pencil.

In desperation, he tries to salvage the morning with some extemporaneous preaching. The microphone goes dead, and he begins to wish he were, too.

You might call it a media nightmare.

It's the price some ministers are paying for trying different styles of preaching. "I've tried to do things like that and repeatedly fallen flat on my face," laments Rev. Bill DeVries, pastor of a Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor, who believes audio-video instruction should be part of the regular seminary curriculum.

Films, drama, slide shows, music tapes each is being used to vary the sermon formats to get away from standard monologue deliveries. A pastors' workshop at Calvin College last week featured one discussion section on the media, in part how sermons can be more effective.

Thomas J. Ozinga, speech professor at the college, presented a paper on the effects of mass media upon Christian life.

The media explosion of this century, he concluded, presents a formidable challenge. Moral effects aside, mass media, especially television, have conditioned viewers to expect "packaged, organized, varied, pictorial communication . . . The monologic sermon may underestimate the ability of listeners to take in information".

Ozinga advises pastors to "judiciously" use the arts in worship, and to prepare sermons with the principles of attention and perception in mind. "Arouse interest, hold that interest and know when to stop talking", he said. Sermon aids can be as simple as interspersing appropriate hymns within the sermon itself.

Professor K. Schilder taught us: "Please, gentlemen preach in an interesting way!" But he was talking about the preaching! Not about "pictorial communication".


At this stage we would like to make some comment:

1. What about the quality and level of the preaching of the Middle Ages, to which Dr. Howard refers his readers?

Edwin Charles Dargan in A History of Preaching, Volume I, says concerning the Eastern Church (page 157):

There was continuous decline in the frequency of preaching The two chief causes were the ever increasing regard for the Mass as being the essential thing in worship, and the growing ignorance of the clergy.

With respect to the Western Church he writes (page 166) regarding the preaching:

As a consequence it could not have had much influence on the life of the people. Church services consisted largely of the liturgy, especially that connected with the celebration of the mass, and very little of direct appeal to conscience and thought,

and (173):

Altogether the preaching of the gospel was at its lowest stage during the dark ages that extended from the death of Gregory the Great in 604 to the beginning of the Crusades in 1095.

Indeed, it was often a one-man-show indeed, really a show, just as Dr. Howard says in Eternity.

2. However, we are not convinced that "religious drama" had its origin in the preaching and its decay.

Again we turn to Dargan, who writes on page 302:

Throughout the whole mediaeval period, as we have seen, there are traces of the burlesque and sensational in preaching. But in the fifteenth century, and especially in Italy and France, this always questionable and often thoroughly evil tendency found frequent and exaggerated expression.

Then he continues on page 303:

One of the better sort of the Italian preachers - himself by no means above reproach - writes: "Preachers ought to abstain from levity and not speak idle words and stories to provoke a laugh. Even if sometimes it is necessary to make the people attentive by some modest pleasantry, let it be done moderately and rarely."

However, when this warning against pleasantry in the preaching - say: against delivering a one-man-show - was issued, "religious drama" had gained solid ground for a long time already.

3. In our opinion the introducing of "religious drama" was not so much a result of the decay in the preaching as a further consequence of the church setting its foot on the path of enacting sacred history as done in the mass. No longer were the events in the history of salvation acknowledged as being "einmalig": they cannot be repeated or enacted; they can only be commemorated: taken in their significance for today.

4. Over against this the Great Reformation of the 16th century put the preaching of God's Word. That is to say, after a hesitant beginning as far as "religious drama", in particular school drama, is concerned, it did away with even this sort of "books of laity". It realized: "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans 10:171.

5. Now someone could object and ask: But what about the sacraments, are not these "dramatic"?

The answer is: No, they are not. For the essential characteristics of drama are lacking in them: there is no dramatic dialogue, no identification, no repetition or enacting of the event concerned. The sacraments are "the Word visible", which they seal unto us.

6. And as for a similar question regarding the Old Testament sacrifices we may refer to Dr. Rittersma's thesis when he says (page 18) - in our translation-:

The actions in the Old Testament sacrifices, just as these sacrifices themselves, are of a symbolic-prophetic character. They point to Christ, and this is included in the redemptive-historical order God has made.

These sacred acts are not things by themselves. As acts they do not produce any effect. They do not enforce anything, neither are they means of power in the hands of the offering priest. Besides, the priest does never identify himself with someone or something else, let alone with God. He realizes that he is a weak and sinful creature, having no power in itself to work reconciliation with God. Actually his actions are powerless, and they become superfluous as soon as the only perfect sacrifice of Christ has been offered. The repetition of these acts is of a temporary nature. They do not emanate from mythical thinking. Further, in this sacrificial worship there is no trace of a dramatic dialogue. The "amen" of God's people is a confession of faith.


For the following articles we have to deal with these questions:

1. Can we rightly make an appeal to history for the reintroduction of "biblical plays" or "dramatization of Bible stories"?

2. What are the influences on the present-day pleas for the use of drama at school and in church?

3. Is it really proper to dramatize God's Word? Is this in accordance with the peculiar character of God's Word? Are we allowed to use the Bible as a scenario? We agree with Dr. Rittersma when he says (page 131): This is the main question!


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Rev. G. Van Rongen was born on May 16, 1918 in the Netherlands and served as pastor to Reformed congregations in the Netherlands, Australia and the USA:
Waardhuizen NL, 1944; 
Zwijndrecht NL, 1948; 
Leyden NL, 1952; 
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, 1955;  
Grand Rapids MI - USA 1973.
Steenwijk NL 1977
Since his retirement in 1983 as minister-emeritus of the Reformed Church at Steenwijk NL, he has lived in Western Australia. These articles were written when he ministered the American Reformed Church of Grand Rapids (1973-1977).
When contacted for permission to re-publish these articles on the Internet, Rev. Van Rongen wrote:
'It is long ago that I wrote these "drama articles", inspired by the thesis of a former member of the Leyden congregation, Dr. Z. Rittersma. The literature quoted or referred to is quite old, and this may be a disadvantage - although my evaluation still stands.'
When asked if he knew of SpindleWorks he answered:
'I am one of the thousands of people in the many countries who visit your highly appreciated web site! '
When SpindleWorks re-publishes articles which, as in this case, are nearly a quarter of a century old, we make an attempt to contact the authors, if possible, to make sure that they have no objections and ask them if they want to make editorial changes and improvements. Rev. Van Rongen took this opportunity to introduce some minor corrections and cosmetic improvements over the original articles which first appeared in Clarion.
We welcome Rev. Van Rongen to this web site and we expect that our visitors will come to share our hope that more of his scholarly contributions be added to our archives.

November 1999


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