As you may have heard, a church in downtown Montreal recently opened its capacious interior to performances by an acrobatic group—or circus in the way that Montrealers understand the word. You can read about this church-cirque pairing in this news article. Though I know that one should never read the comments on news articles, I did find myself scrolling through the many witty parallels commentators drew between church and circus.
Internet commentators are not the first to draw connections between Christian community and circus. William Stringfellow, a lay theologian in the American Episcopal Church who died in 1985, often made the connection as well. Stringfellow was a lifelong fan of the circus and once spent a summer touring with a circus troupe (though it was more in the style of Barnum & Bailey than Cirque du Soleil). In his 1982 book, A Simplicity of Faith, he reflected on the ways in which the circus offers a model of eschatological living for Christians. To quote some of his insights:
Biblical people, like circus folk, live typically as sojourners, interrupting time, with few possessions, and in tents, in this world. The church would likely be more faithful if the Church were similarly nomadic…
In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks a wire fifty feet above the ground, another stands upside down on a forefinger, another juggles a dozen incongruous objects simultaneously, another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramind, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person—emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, militant, transcendent over death—neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death anymore….
The service the circus does—more so, I regret to say, than the churches do—is to openly, dramatically, and humanly portray death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death, which exposes this world as it truly is while it pioneers the Kingdom.
“Pioneering the kingdom” might not be bad description of what it is that Christians are called to do in the world. Stringfellow saw an image of that pioneering work in the life of the circus. Whether you agree or not, Stringfellow’s writing underscores the need for Christians to have a sense of the direction in which we are headed, towards God’s final consumation of all things and final defeat of death. What images and ideas help you understand eschatology? How can you teach and preach and lead Christian communities in an eschatological fashion without ever needing to use the word? In this one overlap of circus and church, we are reminded of the central ministerial challenge of taking ideas we learn in the classroom and translating them into the reality of on-the-ground ministry. It’s not easy—but it is precisely the wonderful role to which we are called.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.