Brooklyn Boro

‘Bold Enough to Say’ rock opera theatrically expresses Lord’s prayer

Clinton Hill Church, Famed for Widespread Hurricane Sandy Outreach, Hosts Production

October 24, 2014 By Francesca Norsen Tate, Religion Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Singer/songwriter Billy Webster (third from right, with long hair and hand raised) is pictured with some of the “Bold Enough to Say” cast members. Photo courtesy of Billy Webster

The Lord’s Prayer is considered to be a central part of Christianity. Faithful Christians believe that it is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, as narrated in the Gospels. But, how about presenting the prayer as a rock opera, with people from different world views singing the words?

Thanks to a pop and funk-rock singer-songwriter with a theological degree, the Lord’s Prayer will come alive theatrically this weekend at St. Luke-St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Clinton Hill.

This rock opera is titled “Bold Enough to Say,” after the preface that the worship leader says in church: “And now, as our Saviour Christ has taught us, we are bold enough to say…”

The work features eight characters with different world views. Two of these, called “Seekers” are the main characters and explore the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer with the audience, explains Webster. The Seekers are a kind of Greek Chorus. The other characters include a Messiah-type, a tempter, an Eastern Buddha-like person, an earth-mother and a skeptic with a scientific worldview.

Webster, a 2000 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and former Brooklyn resident, has also worked as a singer-songwriter in the pop realm for about 20 years. The impetus for “Bold Enough to Say” actually came from a course he took with Princeton Professor Nancy Duff (she is listed on the seminary’s site as the Stephen Colwell associate professor of Christian ethics at Princeton). However, hers was a course on examining the Decalogue, or 10 Commandments.

“This idea that you would take 12 weeks to take what is 10 lines of texts, and come up with some sense of the experience of what went into creating those, and what might exist in that space between those lines — I think that got into my head and gestated for 12 years. And then, when I decided to use the Lord’s Prayer as a meditative exercise, I kind of went back to that class and asked myself: It wasn’t just about what the prayer means to me, or what is the history of the prayer, but what is evoking in terms of — what went into creating this prayer? Why are these words important? Why would these words be the most important that it would be these words that Jesus taught his disciples?”

So, Webster designed a 12-week meditation, breaking the Lord’s Prayer into 12 lines and devoting a week to each.  

“I thought it would be a stepping stone to something very specific, having to do with the prayer itself, or something exclusively scriptural. But what I found was happening is that just meditating on the phrase ‘Our Father’ started to bring up a lot of questions [that] to me were interesting ideas about using gender language for God. That is really what the first song is about,” Webster said. “It suggested that if we are addressing God — conceptualizing God — in a way that is exclusively through the lens of the concept of Father, then what are the implications of that for different people? What came out in the song was: if your father was abusive, or, if your father was incredibly successful and high-achieving. Or, if you had a very ambivalent relationship with your father, you know, that can really color the way you experience the rest of the prayer.”

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Webster discovered that this process deepened his own prayer life.

“At the end, when all 12 songs were written, it used the prayer as a way of — hopefully — entering into deep dialogue with God, the divine, the unknowable, however the listener defines the ultimate reality. It became a dialogue between the listener — the audience — and these deeper realities.”

And then he experienced what could be called divine guidance.

“What was unexpected was the ideas I came up with in the meditation really lent themselves to lyrics and to music. This was never part of my plan. But I was so intrigued by the ideas that I started to view them as lyrics. I wrote a song for the first meditation. It was one of those experiences that came out really well, without a lot of effort, and I thought, okay, that means I’m onto something here.”

For a composer of short pieces, the 11-minute opening number seemed like an opus. He recorded the first piece in his home studio with his band. His friends’ reactions told him that the piece sounded theatrical and that it beckoned dialogue with an audience.

Webster then applied for a grant through the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church.

“They award grants to people who are doing things that they define as ‘cutting edge’ evangelism: getting the Gospel out to the world in an interesting way,” Webster said.

They were awarded the maximum amount possible, did more fundraising and matched the grant. That enabled them to take the next step: staging the production.

Webster and the Rev. Christopher Ballard, associate rector at St. Luke-St. Matthew Church, were colleagues for a while at the General Theological Seminary. Webster, having heard of this Clinton Hill parish’s now-famous relief outreach after Hurricane Sandy two years ago, saw the space and decided to partner with the church in staging “Bold Enough to Say” here. This premiere performance takes place on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. The performance is roughly 90 minutes. Tickets are still available, but are selling fast. Visit www.eventbrite.com/e/bold-enough-to-say-tickets-13039833493 for more information.

 

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