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Dramatic faith

Books | Actor Max McLean's presentations of Bible books and Screwtape have garnered broad critical acclaim; it's a calling that he says found him

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

Now playing an extended run at the Mercury Theater in Chicago: Screwtape, a dramatic adaption of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In the title role: Max McLean, president of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which works to "produce theatre from a Christian worldview that is engaging to a diverse audience." FPA appears to have succeeded with Screwtape, since a Washington Post reviewer observed that "audience members interested in spiritual reflection will certainly find food for thought-and mortification-in this dramatization. But the fiendish reality the production conjures is colorful enough to appeal to theatergoers of any, or no, religious persuasion."

McLean, born in Panama City, Panama, came to America at the age of 4 and began learning English. He mastered it so thoroughly that his Bible recordings have been nominated for Best Inspirational Audio, and his presentations of Genesis, The Gospel According to Mark, and Screwtape have been lauded by secular publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. (The Chicago Sun-Times calls the Screwtape production currently playing a "smart, sizzlingly hellish entertainment"; The Chicago Tribune reviewer says, "The exuberant theatricality leaves you wiping your brow at the end.") McLean also narrates the Listener's Bible audio line, speaks on the daily radio program "Listen to the Bible," and is married, with two daughters. He's a member of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Q: How did you get into acting?

I didn't want to be an actor when I went to college at the University of Texas. I was planning on going to law school. In a constitutional history class the professor asked a question and pointed at me in the back. My heart was beating out of my chest: I turned red, I turned blue, I was just in misery. I went back and thought to myself, "What is this? Why did I react so involuntarily like that?" I thought I had to do something about it. So I decided to go to the weird part of campus, the drama department, and take an oral interpretation class, and at least see if I could work through this. I started living there, taking speech classes, taking improvisation classes, taking dance and movement classes, taking voice classes. I went from there and began auditioning, and eventually went to London and did a graduate degree there.

Q: Then you became a Christian.

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Between drama school and graduate school I lived in West Germany and met my wife there. Over the course of about three or four months I went to church with her because I wanted to be with her on Sundays. A young man found out that I was a history major and said something like, "Jesus was a person in history just like Lincoln and just like George Washington." That was news to me because I thought Jesus was a fairy tale. I could not make the connection between a historical figure that I took very seriously like Lincoln or George Washington and Jesus. The Lord used that as a paradigm shift for how I would look at who Jesus is. Soon after that I began reading the New Testament and especially John's Gospel, and I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the page. All of the sudden he was living, breathing. When it came to the crucifixion I was in tears, and by the resurrection I had this extraordinary joy. I knew then that this was true, that this was it.

Q: But your faith and your calling came into conflict.

I came to New York in the late '70s: New York is where everyone in the world comes to make it. You have 500 people auditioning for a soap commercial. I said, "That's not why I became an actor." So I came to the conclusion as I was growing in my faith that the powers that be are the producers and directors; the actor is just a hired hand. He has to develop his skill sets at the service of somebody else's message. In my case I thought that was schizophrenic. That was like serving two masters and I didn't want to spend my life doing that. So I left the theater.

Q: How did you return to acting?

I got very involved in my local church and very close to my pastor. He realized that I was really into the Bible and trying to know more of Christ. He encouraged me to go to seminary and I went to Nyack. I didn't go very long: A little seminary goes a long way. But while I was there I met a professor who found out I had a theatrical background and he encouraged me to use that in ministry. But I wasn't too interested in that. I thought, well why not use the skills and techniques I learned in the theater and apply them to the Scriptures? It was like an event waiting to happen. For the next 15 years I was doing productions of the Bible: one-person shows of Mark's Gospel, Genesis, Acts, Philippians, and various things. I probably presented Scripture thousands of times to hundreds of thousands of people.

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