Bruce Seaton
Essay #1 of 4
Final Exam
ENGL 202: Biblical & Classical Literature

Any aspect of a society at any point in history can be seen as a reflection of that society’s religious beliefs. A group’s foreign policy, educational system, and ideas about wrong and right are all to some extent influenced by the dominant religion of the society. One aspect that particularly reflects on a society’s belief system is the arts, more specifically, the art of drama. Some societies have given birth to fantastically complex traditions of dramatic theater, while others have shunned drama entirely. The Greeks, for example, had an incredibly rich tradition of dramatic performance, and some of the stories from that tradition survive today, permiating modern societies in ways most people don’t even suspect. Jewish and Islamic tradition, on the other hand, shied away from the stage entirely, and while there are certainly a great number of poems and chants in both The Old Testament and The Koran, there is no record of either society ever producing a purely dramatic work.

The Greek pantheon of gods were, for the most part, an entertaining bunch. They had arguments, alliances, and competed with each other for power. They also came to Earth, manifested themselves physically and as men and women. They toyed with mankind, played favorites, and endowed their favorites with special abilities and powers. They had extremely varied personalities, especially toward the heroes of Greek tradition. The God of Jewish and Islamic faith, on the other hand, is for the most part, a cold, detached, inscrutable God. He came to Earth only very rarely, and only spoke with a very few men, never directly manifesting himself in a body, preferring to appear as a force of natural destruction, as a cloud (to Moses) or a whirlwind (to Job).

God worship in Greek society often took place in the form of elaborately staged rituals, often retelling the stories of the gods’ battles, triumphs, and conquests. It was these rituals that gave rise to the great theatrical traditions in Greece. Slowly, the subject matter of the rituals evolved, eventually becoming works for the purpose of entertainment, rather than solely for worship. Given that the Greek gods themselves liked to be entertained, often starting wars simply for the entertainment value, such dramatic works were most likely seen as a safe practice. The plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus are the culmination of centuries of dramatic tradition in Greece.

In Jewish and Islamic tradition, however, worship most often consisted of prostration, prayer, and sacrifice. None of these particularly lend themselves to evolution into dramatic work, which is probably just as well, since none of them would make for particularly interesting material in a dramatic work anyway. The Jewish and Islamic relationship with God is a somber one, consisting mostly of self-degradation before the Lord, the forgiveness/blessing/failure by the people/punishment cycle, and reading from scripture. Although the God of Jewish and Islamic tradition is all-powerful, he surely isn’t as much fun as the wild and all-too-human antics of the Greek gods.

Finally, where does Christianity fit into this system? It is important to note that the Christian church came into being in a Roman-dominated world. The Romans, like the Greeks, had a rich tradition of theater. The Christian church adopted the practice of dramatic presentation, bending the medium to their own belief system. All early Christian dramatic works are morality plays of one kind or another, retelling stories from the Bible, and using them to teach a lesson to the audience, or remind them of their duties to God. This tradition extends to today, where most people feel as though a movie is not complete until a lesson has been taught. We have traded the pure drama of the Greeks and Romans for the morality of Christian thought and practice.


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