Bread and Puppet Theater
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Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51
This Sunday's readings are about prophets and bread. Somehow that seems fitting since last week the world lost an artist whose work centralized both prophecy and the staff of life.
I'm talking about Elka Schumann, the co-founder of Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater Company. She died a week ago today at the age of 85.
Elka was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States at the age of 6. She was the grandchild of Scott and Helen Nearing, the revered back-to-nature sages and activists. Elka and her husband Peter founded Bread and Puppet in 1963 originally to protest poor housing conditions in New York City. Since then, their giant puppets - some more than 20 feet high - have made spectacular appearances at protests and demonstrations everywhere.
Over those years, the Schumanns' focus expanded to include the Vietnam War, climate change, Nicaragua and the Contras, El Salvador, Archbishop Romero, liberation theology, and the general failure of capitalism. Every summer hundreds of volunteers participated in their elaborate outdoor pageants highlighting issues like those.
(My wife, Peggy, was once a puppet horse in a Bread and Puppet portrayal of a circus. And a couple of years ago, she and I visited the company's Museum in Glover, Vermont. Reviewing the various puppet collections was like reliving the great issues of the past half century. It was all such an inspiring display of insight, creativity, commitment, joy, and courage. The Schumanns' giant puppets have provided a truly prophetic deepening our collective consciousness.)
However, the mammoth puppets were so stunning and arresting that it's easy to forget the part that bread played in their work. After all, the name of their company is Bread and Puppet." (And homemade bread was served at all their performances.) Elka Schumann herself made the connection in a 2001 film about her work. The documentary was produced by her daughter Tamar and DeeDee Halleck. Elka said:
"We have a grinder over there, and we grind the grain ourselves. And the bread is not at all like your supermarket bread. You really have to chew it. You really have to put some work into it. But then you get something very good for that. And when our theater is successful, we feel it's the same way. You've got to think about it doesn't like tell you everything. It's not like Wonder Bread: It's just like there it is, here's the story, this is what it means. You've got to do some figuring yourself in the theater, in our theater. And if the play is successful, then at the end you probably feel it was worth the work."
Elka's words underline the essentials of good theater, good art, good religion. They don't tell you everything. You must put in some work trying to figure out the message, to unpack it all. Good theater, good religion is not like eating white bread from Piggly Wiggly.
As mentioned earlier, that aspect of theater and faith is important to note this particular Sunday, since the day's readings highlight the connections between bread, prophets, and the teachings of Yeshua, the giant, larger-than-life (!) construction worker from Nazareth.
What Jesus taught in his illustrative parables - in fact, what's found throughout the Bible - challenges us to think and question our own lives, the values of our culture, and our too easy "understandings" of life and "God." That's what the Schumanns were doing too.
Think about the prodigal son, Jesus' response to the woman about to be stoned for adultery, his dialog with Pontius Pilate about the nature of truth, and the issues raised by the fact that Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome. Think about the prophet's dying prayer for his enemies, his injunction to treat others as we would like to be treated, his "beatitudes'" centralizing purity of intention, poverty, gentleness, bereavement, imprisonment, mercy, peacemaking, and passion for justice. At every turn his words and deeds are challenging and (if you puzzle over them) difficult but rewarding to digest.
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