Feature

An Act of Faith

By and

Actor/producer/director Max McLean has a voice for the stage and a heart for the Lord. Editor Peter Burgo and managing editor Melinda Lane met with Max when he brought The Screwtape Letters, his two-person staging of the C. S. Lewis classic, to Colorado Springs.

al: Where along the way did you get involved in the arts, theater in particular?
MM: I was born in Panama and came to the United States when I was four. My dad was military, so we traveled all over the United States, the Far East and Europe, and that had quite an influence. I went to many different high schools and elementary schools. I came to faith in my twenties and started attending an Alliance church in New Jersey—Long Hill Chapel—through the ministry of Paul Bubna.

The theater ministry emerged at Alliance Theological Seminary because Ravi Zacharias was there. He was chair of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought at that time, and he actually sent me to England to study with Michael Green.

I was falling in love with Scripture, so I thought, Why not use the skills and techniques I developed in the theater and apply it to the Bible? That’s when the oral presentations of the Bible in theater began. I was traveling all across Alliance churches in the U.S. in the 1980s, doing mostly Mark’s Gospel.

al: Tell us about the institute you founded.
MM: Fellowship for the Performing Arts? It began because, in the 1980s and ’90s, many churches spoke against the influence of the arts on our culture. This tended to alienate artists from the church.

I realized that very few Christians were engaged in the arts seriously, and if they were, they usually kept their Christianity quiet. It was not accepted by the cultural main stream that makes decisions about what gets made and what doesn’t. I just felt like there had to be a middle way and that was to select material with the possibility of breaking through to mainstream culture, which of course meant we would be very, very careful about material.

I believe in the intellectual integrity of the Christian message and its emotional power theatrically and dramatically, so I knew that if it was executed well, people would receive it. The big thing now is that Christians feel like we need to be “subtle” with the Christian message. I’m not sure that’s necessary because everybody has a worldview, and they present it out of their passion, out of what they believe in.

I think the distinction is not necessarily to be subtle, but to be good. The competition for entertainment and the arts is intense, and if you’re not at a level that meets the quality bar, you’re going to be dismissed immediately. That requires that you pick good material, execute the daylights out of it and then ask people to support it.

I believe the Church has dropped the ball on the arts over the years; one reason is because there is too much emphasis on how it can be used within the local church.

al: “This would be a good spot in the service to drop in some drama . . .”
MM: “Yeah, that might help me get my message across.” That’s certainly important, but artists need to be free to be artists. I read an article by Voddie Baucham, where he told a story from, I believe, 1989. There was a group of about 140–150 people—in academia, in government, in the arts, in business. The AIDS crisis had brought a level of sympathy to the gay and lesbian community, and they wanted to find a way to leverage this.

Their strategy was to change people’s perception. And they did it by telling stories. Opinion polls and changes in the marriage laws in New York and other states suggest that they have succeeded beyond their imagination. The power of theater, or the power of story, lies in its ability to create empathy; it allows you to experience another person’s worldview, to enter into it, and say, “I understand that. I get where they’re coming from, and I feel sympathy, empathy, for where they are.” It breaks down barriers in a huge way.

To use a military metaphor, if you’re going to take a beachhead, you want aircraft support; you want artillery to soften it up before you send the infantry in. Well, the arts are the artillery and the air support. The church likes to send in infantry without the air support, and it’s a little tough. The arts are much more powerful, much more effective—it’s one of the reasons the Bible is mostly story. Even when it is pedantic, it’s said with such passion that it just grabs you.

Whenever I do a show, I think of the road to Emmaus. Those two were talking to Jesus, and after He left, they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” That’s what changes people’s minds. It’s not only information; it’s the passion, the heart. And the theater and the arts can do that. “Make them laugh,” Harold Clurman, the dean of American theater, said, “and while their mouths are open, pour truth in.” Paul Johnson, the cultural historian, said, “Those who want to influence men’s minds have long recognized that the theater is the most powerful medium through which to make the attempt.”

So, it’s not an adjunct; it’s central.

al: Tell us how performing The Screwtape Letters came about.
MM: I was doing Genesis, and Jeff Fiske, who, at the time, was a theater professor at Drew University, saw it and sent me an e-mail: “I think you would make a really good Screwtape.” I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not, but it was.

The book had been in my consciousness since I was in my twenties, when my wife, Sharon, who was my girlfriend then, gave me two books. The first was C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, which I have read multiple times since. It’s an amazing book, but back then I didn’t understand a word of it. The second was The Screwtape Letters. As soon as I read it, I said, “Oh, I know this guy. I absolutely know him.”

When Jeff brought the project to me, I was intrigued, but I just didn’t see it as theatrical literature. But we talked about it, and I said, “If we can get the rights from C. S. Lewis’s estate, we will have a go of it.”

al: What do you think people are walking away with after they’ve seen Screwtape?
MM: I think the main thing is that we do not live in world that is merely material. The play pulls back the curtain on all this spiritual activity that most of us are not aware of. In fact, I don’t think the Church speaks enough about spiritual warfare. It speaks a lot about behavior, but it doesn’t really speak about the fact that there is somebody really trying to destroy your life who is really good at it, somebody who knows all your weaknesses and is going right for the jugular.

Lewis loved to do two things: tell stories and teach Christian theology. I think the main message of Screwtape is that we must not be ignorant of [the devil’s] devices, as it says in 2 Corinthians 2:11. Another is that he goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. I think the biggest message is that “he who is in you”—meaning Jesus—“is greater than he who is in the world.” However, “he who is in the world” is something to be reckoned with, and we’re not reckoning with him to the level that we should.

Being in Screwtape has made me read my Bible regularly, because it’s such nourishment. Also, it’s really increased my prayer life because I recognize that there is an enemy of my soul, and he’s allowed to work. It’s not like there is a dualism, not like there are two equal powers. But Satan is God’s instrument in some way; he’s not God’s servant, but God uses him to humble us, and strengthen us, as he accuses us.

al: I sensed when I was reading your Web site that you’re using your art as a bridge, that non-Christians are saying, “Wow, I didn’t know Christians thought that way.”
MM: People in the arts really appreciate excellence. Artists are just that way; they don’t want to negotiate that. Another thing, though, and it’s probably more important, is that the key to producing good art in the theater is not the actors—it’s the writers. You need really good scripts that can communicate to a large audience. That’s why selecting the material is number one. And then you really need producers.

Probably my greatest asset is that I’m also the producer, the one who raises the money and makes sure everything gets done. We hire the best our budget can afford—lighting designer, sound designer, costume designer, set designer. We don’t ask them if they’re Christians, but we tell them what the story is. And we say, “How can you serve this story?” And they want to help us. They may not agree with our worldview but: “For this time while I’m working for you, I’ll go inside your world and try to understand it, and I will use my art to serve this play.”

I think the kind of success that Screwtape has had couldn’t have been done without hiring great designers. Now, we can do other shows, and that’s important. I would love to hire all Christians in one sense. I would love the camaraderie and the intellectual engagement. But I also like it when we’re talking with the non-Christian collaborators, who ask: “What does this mean? Why does Screwtape say that?” They are asking the question for two reasons. One, how can I build my designs to support that? But on the other hand, what does it really mean?

al: You’ve talked about excellence and other things that drive you. What would you say to encourage Christians with a passion for the arts who want to move beyond the church skit?
MM: Well, the fact that you are doing this interview tells me that the Church is open to encouraging young people, who are going to do art anyway because they are exposed to artistic expressions far more now than anyone else in any other generation.

I would like the Church to really concentrate on truth and find ways for truth to really enrich the soul, whether in film, dance, fine arts, multimedia, theater or music that really can engage the culture. My pastor, Tim Keller, says that Christianity has always had problems when it’s in power. When it’s the dominant cultural force, it gets sort of fat and happy. But when it has to compete in the marketplace of ideas, when it’s in the minority position, its message is so powerful, the Christian people become much closer to it, and it comes out of them so much more organically.

We’re in a pluralistic society where the marketplace of ideas is wide open. I think it’s exciting; the next generation is exciting. There’s also going to be a lot more suffering, I think, economically and politically. It’s going to be very insecure, and so faith—what did Darth Vader say? “Your lack of faith disturbs me”?—faith is going to be called upon more.


Max McLean’s next project is a stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Also, he plans to bring his award-winning one-man show of the Gospel of Mark to New York City.

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