With a dream, hard work, and real sacrifice, the good Christian people at Bob Jones University have created something beautiful and real. By creating Narnia onstage, they are captivating the imaginations of a new generation of children and sneaking them past the ever-watchful and increasingly dangerous dragons of secular materialism.
When I left Bob Jones University in 1978 and headed for Oxford, I never dreamed that I would one day admit that Greenville, South Carolina is a really rather marvelous town.
In 1978 it was a scrawny Southern city that was straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story. The necks were as red as the upstate clay. The religion was raw and wriggling. The Ku Klux Klan were a memory but not a distant one. The whites ladies called the down town “brown town” and one heard stories of the racial violence that brewed in the Southern heat. I wasn’t surprised to find that the classic Southern horror movie Deliverance was filmed in the upstate countryside.
Even at the time, Bob Jones University, which took the name “World’s Most Unusual University,” was just that. Despite the raw religion, it was an unusual cultural oasis. Dr. Bob Jr.’s religion might have been as uncompromising as ever, but in every other way he was remarkably cultured. He was a Shakespearean actor, a poet, novelist, Bible scholar, preacher, and art connoisseur. He built up the famous Bob Jones University art collection and established an enviable fine arts program.
One of the accomplishments of “Dr. Bob” was the drama department. With an excellently equipped auditorium, they produced two Shakespeare plays each year and a grand opera. On top of that, Bob Jones established a film school—this at a time when most conservative Christians considered it a sin to go to the movies.
One of the offshoots of this enterprise was a group called The Academy of the Arts. In 1971, Bob Jones drama graduate Nicky Chavers and his wife Sheri began to go on the road with a bus full of college students and a trunk full of costumes and props. They were “making the Bible come alive,” performing dramatic versions of Bible stories in churches and schools across the South and Midwest, and eventually completing thousands of performances for hundreds of thousands of people.
They expanded their work to drama workshops for Christian schools—arriving with a team of enthusiastic thespian-evangelists. Scripts and instructions were forwarded to the school, and once the professionals arrived, they took a week to help the schoolchildren produce their own play. By 2009 a younger generation were taking over the leadership and expanding further with their own theater and residential drama school.
Located in Taylors, a suburb of Greenville, the Academy of the Arts now runs the Logos Theater—producing drama of a stunningly high quality. Having reached out to C.S. Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham, they have produced their own stage versions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and now The Horse and His Boy. When it comes to Christian drama, as a friend of mine once said, “Too often for ‘Christian’ read ‘inferior’.” Not so at Logos Theater. Using the latest technology and first-rate puppetry, The Horse and His Boy is fast-paced, exciting, and emotionally moving.
Not content with their small three-hundred-seat playhouse, these entrepreneurial Christians have been given a plot of land in nearby Mauldin and are raising money for a brand-new, custom-designed theater.
Having just seen their production of The Horse and His Boy, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ reason for writing science fiction and children’s fantasy literature. He wanted to “steal past the watchful dragons.”
The “watchful dragons” for Lewis were the stilted and artificial religiosity of his day. So he wrote in his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.”
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
There are more watchful dragons than stained-glass piety however. One of the great problems in our society is that all religious language is stilted. For the man with the iPhone, traditional religion is impossibly ecclesiastical, liturgical, theological, and philosophical.
Furthermore, our inter-religious debates are increasingly pointless. In modern Western society there seems to be only two essential foundations of thought: the supernatural/religious or materialistic/secular. While it might seem easy to put all religious people into the first category and all non-religious into the second, it is not quite so neat as all that.
This is because plenty of religious people have as their true foundation materialistic/secularism and plenty of non-religious people instinctively believe in the reality of the supernatural. What do I mean by religious people having a secular materialistic foundation? I am speaking of the modernists who wear ecclesiastical costumes and spout religious and liturgical language, but whose worldview is materialistic and regard religion as no more than an extension of their preferred ideology or political party but with the sugar icing of religiosity.
The secular materialist (both the religious and the non religious variety) are the most vigilant of watchful dragons, for they breathe withering fire on any sign of the supernatural. When contemplating these dragons, I realize I have more in common with the follower of any other religion that is rooted in a supernatural worldview than I do with many of my fellow Catholics.
Consequently I rejoice at enterprises like the Logos Theater. Good Christian people have done what they can with what they have where they are. They got out into the local churches and schools with real people and spread the word through the magic of drama. With a dream, hard work, and real sacrifice, they have created something beautiful and real. By creating Narnia onstage, they are captivating the imaginations of a new generation of children and sneaking them past the ever-watchful and increasingly dangerous dragons of secular materialism.
The seeds of culture planted by Dr. Bob Jones Jr. in the red clay of upstate South Carolina have produced a fruit he never could have envisioned. Not only has Nicky Chavers’ little start-up blossomed into an impressive professional theater company, but Bob Jones University continues its tradition of first-class fine-arts productions, and their famed gallery is about to find a new home in downtown Greenville—which over the years has been re-developed into one of the most affluent and attractive cities in the country.
What can I say about my hometown? “Y’all sneak past those watchful dragons and come see us sometime!”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.