A full-length theatrical musical based on Luke 15 will be the flagship arts event for Christian outreach during the 2010 Olympic Games. Brian Doerksen’s Prodigal God will hit the stage next February in the Vancouver area, then tour Canada.
Doerksen, the well known writer of worship songs from Abbotsford, told BCCN that his “musical tale of two brothers and one wastefully extravagant father” may “upset some religious people.”
This is because it takes what Christians know as the parable of the prodigal son and presents it as a story about “the wasteful, extravagant grace of God.”
Moreover, it presents the younger, prodigal son as doing “both redemptive and questionable things” and tells the entire story through the eyes of the older brother.
It is not as “black and white” as the way in which many Christians understand the parable, but “a human story in which people can see themselves.”
Doerksen and co-writer Christopher Greco, a worship pastor from Boston, did not set out to make the story controversial. They just did extensive research into the cultural background to make the story as historically accurate as possible.
A few months ago, Doerksen discovered that an American pastor, Timothy Keller, had published a book called The Prodigal God. At first, Doerksen was discouraged.
Then he realized Keller’s theological book might pave the way for his own story on the same theme and prevent Christians from dismissing the musical as heretical.
“If God is starting to say something,” Doerksen said, “he will speak to several people. It means something is stirring.”
On the other hand, Doerksen hopes the title may sound provocative and heretical enough to attract some non-Christians to the show, where they might discover that the piece is really about “the heart of Christianity.”
This is not the first time Doerksen has attempted something like this. In the mid-1990s, Doerksen mounted a full-scale musical production called Father’s House. While it dealt with similar themes, it was set in a 20th-century homeless shelter. When it failed to attract large audiences, a planned tour was cancelled, and Doerksen lost a bundle of money.
That production died, but ‘the seed’ did not. Seven years ago, Doerksen and his wife Joyce became convinced God was calling them to try again. This time, he and Greco have painstakingly written and rewritten the musical, and ‘workshopped’ it with knowledgeable people to perfect it.
This sense of God’s leading does not mean there is no risk involved, Doerksen said. “There are no guarantees. I can’t say God told me to do this. We all hear imperfectly.”
Doerksen has learned some things from the previous experience. For one thing, he is also planning to start small. Prodigal God will be presented as “minimalist theatre” or “a concert” musical” – something between a concert and a full musical.
On stage will be a semi-circle of the half-dozen members of Doerksen’s band, and in the centre will be the actors, in costume with hand-held props. However, there will be no elaborate stage scenery. Instead of special effects, the production will be carried by the story and the music.
The production will still be highly professional. It will be directed by Morris Ertman, director of Alberta’s Rosebud Theatre. Auditions will begin soon for professional actors.
Prodigal God will also be a key part of the More Than Gold (MTG) Christian outreach for the 2010 Olympic Games. It is scheduled for a week-long run at the Chandos Pattison Auditorium in Surrey, and a second week in Vancouver.
Prodigal God will then be presented at least 24 more times across Canada in April and May, a tour arranged by Paul Kelly’s Unite Productions. Kelly has been running Doerksen’s tours across Canada for the last few years and built up a fan base that will form the core of the audience for the new production. But this tour will see more mainstream theatres and be promoted to mainstream society as well.
Doerksen stated he is aware of the risks in undertaking such a massive project. However, he is convinced that spending seven years on a project is worth the investment.
Doerksen stated, “We’re so afraid to take risks… I don’t know why Christians settle for mediocrity… The best art involves taking time and getting it right.”
Doerksen is currently recording Prodigal God as an album. Five songs have already been recorded, at a cost of $30,000. Doerksen and his wife Joyce considered putting them on a CD and selling them as a means to recoup some of the costs. Instead, they decided to give them away as free downloads from his website (briandoerksen.com).
“I want as many people as possible to listen,” he said.
It has something to do with his understanding of “the wasteful, extravagant grace of God.”