A friend of mine in an online forum used an interesting analogy in describing his evolving relationship with the Church in his life (he’s a little older than I am, which means he’s lived *most* of his life at this point and can look back). I thought this was an interesting thought experiment to share with you, dear reader.
Making the analogy of one’s life to a theater production is an old idea. One of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches is about this analogy:
All the world’s a stage,As You Like It, William Shakespeare
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
As implied in this speech, our life stages alter the play and alter its characters, but if we think of the role the Church plays in our lives, it certainly alters over our lifetime as well. It may retain an important role throughout one’s life, or not, but certain stages of life as well as how our own character develops and alters through the events in our lives can change the role we allow the Church to play. Here are the roles I brainstormed and what they might mean for individuals:
Director. This feels like the role the Church would most like to play in the lives of members, interpreting the plot that has been laid out, giving direction on how the characters should look (including dress), act, react, what the words they speak mean, and how they relate to one another. In certain periods of life, this role is probably more likely to make sense than in other times of life. For example, if you are serving a full-time mission, the Church as director probably feels fairly natural. The Church is literally putting words in your mouth, telling you what time to get up, how to dress, who to talk to, how to feel about it, etc. A mission is the most Church-directed phase I ever had in my own life. Once I got home and normalized, though, that role just didn’t work for me. I think it does for some. There were times in my actual mission where it didn’t work for me, and I suppose that’s why (which readers of my memoir The Legend of Hermana Plunge will know).
Playwright / Author. For some, the Church may be in a more foundational role, but not involved in how the play is interpreted and unfolds. The Church provides the “text”: doctrines, policies, manuals, scriptures and General Conference talks, but the individual member is in charge of how the play unfolds with these as a starting point or a set of assumptions that require implementation and personal interpretation. I have a good friend who is a believing member, but no longer attends church due to some very bad blood over a messy divorce, and the Church still plays this role for her. It forms her belief system. She reads her scriptures and abides by Church teachings. She just doesn’t attend.
Producer. This is a role that is more removed that the Director, but still has oversight over the production. There are routine check-ins to ensure that the play stays within the bounds agreed upon (budget, for one). For many in the Church, this role describes their relationship to the Church. It’s not involved in every relationship and interaction, but it’s still got a lot of control at the end of the day. The member equivalent might be someone who goes to tithing settlement and keeps a temple recommend, but doesn’t really think much about the Church from day to day.
Executive producer. The big difference between a producer and an executive producer is that the executive producer is even less involved in the daily and routine check-ins. The executive producer may simply be the “money” or the financial approval if the production is going to have an issue. As such, the role is more transactional. They only get involved when the play needs something from them. The member equivalent to this might be someone who really only thinks about the Church’s involvement for weddings and funerals. Given the Church’s demand for oversight (through regular worthiness interviews), this low-level involvement is less easy to manage than in other sects.
Casting director. Just as it sounds, this is the person who decides which actors are performing which roles in the play. In terms of a Church member, this would be someone who relies on the Church to create their social network, their friendships. There was a recent Church survey someone shared online in which members were asked how many of their friends were “not church members.” The highest number the survey could fathom was “more than four”(!). I scoffed at the idea that there were people with fewer than 4 close friends who were not members of the Church. Don’t they make friends with co-workers? I guess if you lived in a place where nearly everyone is Mormon, that might be possible, or if you don’t consider many of your friends “close,” then OK. As a 53 year old woman who grew up in a place with almost no Church members and then had a 30 year global career that involved very few Church members, it just made no sense to me. So Church as “casting director” is perhaps a common role the Church plays in some members’ lives.
Love Interest. Hear me out. This role is the most important role to the protagonist, in many ways the end goal of the play (to reconcile the lovers and imply a happy future). The love interest is the protagonist’s desire. They may be separated by misunderstanding, evil interlopers, and other plot devices, but ultimately the play isn’t over until they reunite. The love interest in the play has a gravity that attracts the protagonist, altering how we interpret all the actions (whether they bring the characters closer or force them apart). And if you can’t see the parallels to the Church in all that, well, bless your heart.
Villain / Antagonist. Like the love interest, this role creates gravity in the plot, usually by balancing against the protagonist. The antagonist acts as a foil for the protagonist, thwarting them, holding them back, undoing the good they try to do, and ultimately propelling them forward toward whatever they must become. The antagonist and the love interest often provide a similar tension or type of energy to the production. There is an orbital effect on the protagonist that is relative to the actions of the antagonist. Consider Les Miserables, in which Jean ValJean (our protagonist) tries to do good works, but is constantly chased down and thwarted by rule-bound Javert. Without that struggle, the play could end in the first five minutes. At times, the Church’s pull functions with this type of resistance, one reason some like to say, “They can leave the Church, but they can’t leave it alone.” Jean ValJean left the prison, but Javert could not leave him alone.
Red Herring. A red herring is a character who looks like the villain, and we may become convinced they are the villain, but ultimately, they aren’t. Sometimes a person who has left the Church blames the Church for negative outcomes that were inevitable from other sources. The red herring allows us to waste plot time misunderstanding the deeper causes.
Supporting role. This is basically all the characters that aren’t main roles. It could be the best friend / side-kick, or it could be someone with even fewer lines than that. Supporting roles are sometimes so great that they up-stage the main characters. An example of a supporting character is Alfred the Butler to Batman. Alfred is sometimes really well cast and lights up the scenes he’s in, but at other times, he’s just kind of some stiff British dude showing up and giving the main character messages. We forget he’s there.
Extra. This is a character that is just there for background, but doesn’t speak. These roles might be important and indispensible to move props from place to place on stage or to make the setting more realistic, but they are needed in the way that scenery is. For a Church member, this would indicate minimal interaction, but it’s still there in the background making things move smoothly.
Comic Relief. A character inserted for comic relief releases the dramatic tension in the play by distracting the audience with something amusing and engaging, different from the regular actions in the play. This role could really be any of the characters, or even a prop or animal actor. In terms of the Church, some folks like to attend because of the quirky Church members and the funny anecdotes that come from interacting with them. I’m sure Primary teachers can relate.
Understudy. They say there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, but this one might stretch the analogy beyond its limits. The understudy steps in whenever a “more important” actor is unable to perform, so the characteristic of the understudy is a wannabe, someone insecure but striving to become more important to the play. I suppose in this way, all missionary work is “understudy” mode, trying to insert ourselves into someone’s life to make our mark. For Church members, this could look like someone who would like the Church to have a more limited role, but who is constantly sucked in by needing the Church or by getting involved in charity or Church callings (a deliberate way to make the Church’s role larger in the lives of members).
Orchestra. This one feels a bit like the setting, the extras, and the playwright, in that it’s in the background, and something we seldom think about directly, but the music (remember live theater with an orchestra? Those were the days!) sets the tone for the play. It stirs the soul. It adds emotion, meaning, and connection to what unfolds. It can even add whimsy at comedic moments. It doesn’t require thought. It is to be experienced. At its best, certainly this is the role religion plays in our lives, something that adds meaning, that connects us to meaning, that colors the otherwise bland occurences of our lives, imbuing them with emotional.
To apply this analogy to myself, I think the Church wants to be the director, the producer, the casting director, the executive producer, and even the love interest! There have been times in my life when the Church has certainly felt like the casting director, and if the actors it puts forward fit the play I’m trying to create, that’s been fine with me; lately, though, that’s not who’s showing up for the casting calls. As I get older, the Church occasionally pops into my life as comic relief, particularly some of the eccentric or outlandish views that crop up among the members. These characters can be amusing like an oddball Steve Buscemi type, spouting conspiracy theories, or non-serious actors for their outlandish racist or sexist comments, characters unrelated to the play of my own life, but who shout their non-sequiturs from the sidelines in Archie Bunker fashion. At times, those views are so opposed to my own moral values, that it borders on a villainous relationship. How can anyone actually be so misogynistic, racist, or clueless about their own privilege in 2021?
- Which of these roles do you see the Church playing in your life? Has this changed over time?
- Is that the role you think the Church plays in others’ lives around you? If it’s different, why?
- Have I missed some important roles that make sense to you and would improve the analogy?
 H/T to “Judge Me, Dear Reader,” a book about Emma Smith, but also, calling people “dear reader” kind of creeps me out.