A short time ago I had the opportunity to interview Max McLean. You may know McLean as the narrator of the Bible in the ESV, NIV or KJV or as the narrator of the audio version of The Valley of Vision. He has also released recordings of several Christian classics and has been involved in many stage productions. Most recently he has starred in a production of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in New York City (with the production moving to Washington this April). You can learn more about him at listenersbible.com.
My particular interest in interviewing McLean was in understanding how his genre of art—performance art—can bring glory to God. I also wanted to understand how being a member of a local church impacts his art.
Tell us a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do?
I was born in Panama City, Panama and came to America via New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty at the age of four. The first thing he had to do was master the English language. Due to Dad’s military career, ‘home’ included many places across the continental United States, the Far East, and Europe.
Currently, I live in New Jersey just outside of New York City with my wife of 31 years, Sharon,. I have two lovely daughters Rachel, 27 who is married and lives in Long Beach CA with her new husband (she was just married last month) and Julia, 26, who lives in Hoboken NJ.
Sharon and I are members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church where we serve as fellowship group leaders and serve communion. I also lead the scripture reader’s ministry there.
Tell us how you came to be a Christian
It was in 1976, soon after graduating from college. I grew up a nominal Catholic and was quite interested, though frightened by the thought of God, when I was young. I made a clean break from anything to do w/ Christianity after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation when I was about 14. I dabbled a bit in eastern mysticism but nothing serious.
When I began to date my wife, Sharon, I knew she grew up in a strong Christian home and was a regular churchgoer. I didn’t understand it but since I was interested in her I would go along from time to time. She introduced me to some of her friends who were studying the Bible together. I felt compelled to attend one of their sessions which was unusual because I would never be interested in that. They had a guest teacher the night I was there, but I remember not being that engaged by the teaching. But I was drawn immediately to the scripture passages being read. I believe it was from Galatians 1. I remember the words of the text hit me as passionate and forceful. I had not been confronted by the power and insight of the Bible prior to that. From that moment God began to work in my life and convict me of my sin. At first I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t. Then I read John’s Gospel – in one sitting. As I read it, I could see and feel it in my mind’s eye. I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the pages of the Bible and take me with him. At his crucifixion I was in tears. But after the resurrection appearances, an inexplicable joy just overwhelmed my whole body. I knew this story was true and that my life would never be the same again.
When did you first discover your abilities in acting and your love for it? Have you received any formal education in this discipline?
I started acting in college as a way of overcoming my fear of being in front of people, sociophobia. I think people recognized my talent but they were also aware of how raw I was. I also needed a lot of voice work. My plan after college was to do post graduate work at a drama school in London. My “born again” experience which happened in the intervening months, did not derail those plans at all. In fact, I was more energized than ever. I knew God would use it, though I wasn’t sure how. I completed my post-graduate work in theater and then did some work on stage in Great Britain, New York and in regional theaters.
Within two years I was married with a child on the way. Before long I realized that an actor is really nothing more than a hired hand. His job is to brilliantly communicate other people’s ideas regardless of their intent. It was both demanding and unfulfilling. At the same time, God was calling me to Himself. He let me know that “you cannot serve two masters.” So I was compelled to leave the theater and acting altogether.
That left a huge void in my life. I didn’t know what I would do. To fill the void, I became much more active in my local church. My pastor preached the Bible with conviction. He also invited outstanding guest speakers to come in on a fairly regular basis. So I was exposed to great preaching and Bible teaching from the pulpit and also on tape. I found myself being so moved by the insight from their sermons and the conviction in their voices. The way they connected with the Bible and were able to inspire and exhort others was absolutely riveting. There was so much power coming out of their personal devotion to the Word of God.
This encouraged me to study the Bible more closely and gave me the desire to go to seminary. While at seminary I had an epiphany that would redirect the course of my life. A key faculty member discovered that I had a theatrical background and he encouraged me to use drama in ministry. At that time, drama in the church was starting to get some attention. But it was mostly sketches to illustrate sermons. I wasn’t motivated to go in that direction. Rather, the Lord inspired me to do something different. ‘Why not use the skills and techniques developed from acting and the theater, integrate it into what I had learned from preachers and teachers, and apply all of that into word for word dramatic presentations of the Bible?’
Well, it was an event waiting to happen. From the first time I presented the Bible in this way the impact was immediate and profound. Since then God has provided opportunities to present the Bible of all ages and across the religious and cultural spectrum in live presentations, on radio and on television to hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people.
That led to recording the Bible in three different translations (NIV, ESV & KJV), a radio ministry called Listen to the Bible that airs on 675 radio affiliates worldwide and doing one person shows of Mark’s Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles and Genesis. Over the years I’ve worked with and trained other solo artists who have gone on do such books of the Bible as John, Exodus, Revelation, and Daniel among others. Currently we are producing a stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters that opened off Broadway in New York City [and which is moving to Washington in April]. And we just released a new recording called Classics of the Christian Faith that includes The Conversion of St. Augustine (from Book Eight of His Confessions), Martin Luther’s Here I Stand, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and George Whitfield’s The Method of Grace. The idea is to introduce these extraordinary works to a contemporary audience.
What is Fellowship for the Performing Arts?
Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA) was incorporated in 1992 as a means to support my work of expressing faith through the dramatic arts. At the time I was on the road perhaps 150 to 200 nights a year and it was a tough way to live or to fulfill the vision God was calling me to. By starting FPA I could raise support, put my self on salary and be more strategic in fulfilling my vision.
The first thing we did was produce the NIV New Testament that has since grown into the Listeners Bible line in the ESV, KJV and NIV translations. Then we launched the daily radio program and last we started producing our dramatic presentations of the Bible into theatrical events in secular and collegiate venues in New York and around the country.
How do you seek to bring glory to God through performance art?
At the root of Christianity is the admission that this world is not what it ought to be, and at the heart of being a Christian is the confession that, “I am part of the problem.” Our vision is to select literature from the Bible and the treasury of Christian history that help us to see our predicament; and to move us toward a more humble understanding of ourselves and a closer relationship with God. For the theatre our vision is to select stories that explore how and why consequential choices are made, and to produce those stories in a manner that engages diverse audiences.
The great theatre critic, Harold Clurman, who started The Group Theatre in NY in 30’s and who really revolutionized the acting profession as a legitimate agent for social change wrote “make them laugh…and while their mouths are open pour truth in.” Of course he was referring to a political ideology that was important to him but the premise of the argument stands. In fact in rehearsals recently the director game me similar advice w/ regard to telling The Screwtape Letters ‘tell the story and the ideas will emerge. If you focus on the ideas you will lose the story and the audience.” Good advice.
In the biography at your web site you make it clear that you are an active member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Has being a member of a local church contributed to your understanding of your role as both a Christian and as an artist? How has being a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in particular helped your faith serve your art (or helped your art serve your faith)?
Well, in NYC with the idolatry of work and self glory so prevalent having a church community that preaches humility and working for the peace and prosperity of the city; “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Proverbs 10:10 is absolutely critical. Redeemer, being an urban NYC church is filled with artists of all disciplines. It has at least two full time staff persons dedicated to serving and disciplining artists to grow in service and grace. Redeemer’s vision is committed to prayer, evangelism, social justice and cultural engagement through intense interaction w/ the gospel. And that rubs off if you are more than just an attendee. Being involved in small group leadership is grounding. So yes, Redeemer is a motivating, inspiring, correcting and challenging place to be if you are called to work as Christian in the arts.
You provide performances in which you combine narration and acting to bring dramatic expression to the Bible. What value does this kind of performance have? Can this help people come to a better understanding of Scripture?
I think so. Scripture says in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ. Capturing that essence is the uniqueness of our ministry. Much of the Bible’s content was originally communicated orally. Jesus wrote no words that have been handed down to us. In Gal 4 Paul writes “how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone.” He wants them to hear his voice too truly understand the energy and weight behind his words. Just like a well written sermon is not really energized until it is spoken so is much of our understanding of the Bible. There is a level of insight that emerges when you hear the word that is often missed when you read it. Our desire is that our presentations not be an end in the themselves, but rather a catalyst that encourages folks to devote daily time in God’s Word.
What are your hopes and dreams in regards to your career? What roles would you like to play? What books or other content would you still like to record?
In terms of hopes and dreams I don’t believe I think that way. I am interested in fulfilling the calling God has for me. Working on The Screwtape Letters and getting Lewis’ amazing thoughts across in such an inverted, back handed way has been thrilling. I absolutely loved working on Martin Luther’s Here I Stand CD and would love to expand that into a full length theatrical production. I think Luther’s story is immensely appealing, contradictory, almost operatic in scope and touches on so many elements that still inform our world; not the least of which is grace and his understanding of the gospel. I definitely would like to see if we could tackle that story. As for the classic’s series. I loved working on Augustine and Edwards and would enjoy finding other great works of the past for CD recording. Currently I’m looking at recording a condensed version of Wilberforce’s Real Christianity and a representative sermon form Charles Spurgeon.