Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo
The outdoor theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo
The outdoor theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
ASHLAND — In July Father Phil Bloom of Seattle and I returned here, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the premier cultural institution of Oregon. This was our 10th trek south. The difference was that we saw no plays this time.

Last November the Catholic Sentinel published my article with the title “Ashland play crossed line of disrespect for Christianity.” I described how in a play called Liquid Plain we encountered language so blasphemous about Jesus that we determined not to return to the festival unless there were to be a fundamental change. That article provoked discussion among Sentinel readers and parishioners and, eventually, a very fruitful dialogue.

The Sentinel article could have been the first salvo in a cultural war against the festival. That did not happen.  We received a lengthy email letter from artistic director Bill Rauch. While receiving his letter was impressive for us, mere pastors, it did not resolve the deep pain occasioned by the blasphemy last October. We wrote a response suggesting that the core question is one of filters. We know that as preachers and as persons that we need filters.  We asked the leadership of the festival to consider what, if any, filters they might use.

We received another response from Rauch and an invitation to continue the dialogue.  We agreed to visit Ashland in July.  We had several months to prepare ourselves.  We weren’t sure what to expect.  The resulting encounter from every angle appears as Grace, as God at work.

We knew that our meeting would include Mr. Rauch, as well as Cynthia Rider the executive director, and a board member who turned out to be Pam Hammond, a recent convert to the Catholic faith and member of Our Lady of the Mountain Church. We were in for a surprise — a double surprise.

Some highlights:

First, Cynthia Rider told about how the festival’s board and staff members had read the correspondence between Bill Rauch and us. They saw it as a model of respectful and thoughtful dialogue.  She wished she could enshrine it on her office wall.

The second surprise was more specific. Mr. Rauch, man of drama that he is, shared the announcement that the offensive lines that were so hurtful to us had been stricken by Naomi Wallace, the author of “Liquid Plain,” from the yet-to-be-published version.  The play was an Oregon Shakespeare Festival  world premier.  They then told us that our thoughtful reactions had occasioned a shift in the way that the festival’s leadership and board address the question of filters.  It seems that there has been much conversation and significant movement. This was a result we had not expected.
You can imagine our relief and amazement. It seemed like a small miracle — an answer to prayer, God’s grace at work. From that point we had a conversation that lasted about an hour. The central theme was the importance of filters in communication.  

We tried to explain why the blasphemy was something we could not in conscience tolerate. We used a comparison suggested by friend Bishop Liam Cary.  (We spent a couple of days with him before our meeting with festival leadership.) Suppose you have a mother whom you deeply love and who is recognized as a generous person who does much good in the community.  In a play, not about her, one of the characters makes an obscene and degrading statement about your mom.  You would be devastated.
We felt similarly wounded by the obscene statement about Jesus.  When one of our dialogue partners referred to “the life-long commitment to social justice as embodied in your calling,” we clarified that our life-long commitment is above all to the person of Jesus.  He is more important, more central to our being than even a mother. Infinitely more important.
The entire experience has been one of Grace, of the Spirit of God working in each of us, of the power of prayer, and of the potential fruits of the path of dialogue of which Pope Francis speaks so often.
We parted as friends, grateful for the respectful, shared dialogue.  
For us pastors and for many others,  the healing has begun.  We are open to returning to Ashland for plays in the future (though this year we will get our dose of Shakespeare at “Bard on the Beach” in Vancouver, B.C.).  

Last winter Mr. Rauch wrote us as he returned from New York where he was preparing a play about LBJ called “All The Way” for a successful Broadway showing.  

As we met in July they were readying a sequel called “The Great Society.”  There is much good and much power in the arts.  
Happily we can encourage our friends to experience plays in Ashland. Do your homework; choose judiciously.  And pray for the artists at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and beyond.  They do have a vocation; God’s grace and truth and beauty can penetrate them and their work.