Archive for May, 2010

Thinking About Theatre – 4

May 24, 2010

We are considering the argument against theatre as a medium. We have seen that the creators of theatre saw it as an instrument of moral catharsis. Though we do not believe in the possibility of moral catharsis, we find certain Christians in history nevertheless objecting to theatre as a kind of manipulative and somewhat deceptive art form. They portray it as evoking pseudo-emotions unfitting of a Christian.

What we are dealing with here is a principled objection to what theatre does. That is, regardless of content, theatre evokes emotions which are not what they seem to be.

Such objectors see the medium as wooing a soul into a complete immersion into it, where the spectator is absorbed into the spectacle and experiences what he thinks is a full identification with the characters of the story. However, because he is viewing this spectacle for his own pleasure, he is in fact not experiencing those emotions, but something quite different. His position as a hedonistic spectator changes the moral character of what he experiences. He, unfortunately, is not able to tell the difference. One might, with something of a wince, suggest it is somewhat masturbatory. The fantasy is self-deluding.  And in theatre, little distance exists between ourselves and the story we are observing, and thus no space is given to reject or accept its emotions. We are only feeling, and doing so viscerally and immediately.

Perhaps an illustration will help shed light on the objectors’ point. Is there a difference between marital intimacy and watching marital intimacy? Yes. One is blessed and commanded by God. The other is an act of adultery. It is not merely a difference in perspective – i.e. doing vs. watching. To partake in sexual union within marriage is fine; to observe others in that act is evil, regardless of what the pervert thinks he is feeling at the time. I am not here merely rehearsing the content argument. I am pointing out that the position of spectator for certain things can be a questionable position to be in. You think you are simply ‘watching’ a story; whereas you may be committing all sorts of emotional sins, because you cannot view yourself taking pleasure in such things – you are so deeply embedded in the story. In other words, your emotions are not what they seem to be during the act of watching. If theatre places you in a position where you cannot recognise pity from compassion, narcissism from benevolence, envy from respect, self-love from joy, then the form itself is a problem.

This is one major difference between theatre and other art forms. Other art forms are deliberate in placing an imaginative distance between the things portrayed and the people seeing or hearing the work of art. The person reading a poem or a story, studying a painting or a sculpture, or listening to a piece of music must seek to understand what he is hearing or seeing. He must recognise the analogies, and consider their aptness to what they claim to represent. A distance exists between person, work of art and reality. Bridging the distance through the understanding and imagination is the delight of good art. Good art deliberately minimizes the immersion in matter, and seeks to point to something beyond, something invisible. In a sense, good art humbles itself under its own medium, and does not attempt so brash an exercise as a total mimesis of reality. Only materialists believe that reality can be perfectly mimicked; Christians of all ought to know that the truest realities can only be pointed to.

Of course any art form can be manipulative. Aesthetes typically denounce music, poetry, painting or literature that stoops to decreasing that distance for effect, and grabbing people by their gut for an ephemeral reaction. The issue we must wrestle with is if drama is manipulative by nature and design. If drama can do nothing except evoke pseudo-emotions, then no matter how sanitised the content might be, the spectators are probably always experiencing something they are not completely aware of.

If theatre is indeed a manipulative medium, what possible signs might exist to verify that it is so?

One might be what we have already considered. Of all art forms, theatre places the least distance between itself and those that watch it. Very little space exists between the viewer and theatre. Theatre is not static like painting or sculpture. It moves through time, like music. However, it is not abstract, requiring a careful listening ear. All is done for you. Every scene is portrayed as realistically as possible. Symbolism is minimised; mimicry is maximised. Mood music enhances the sense of what you ought to feel. The goal of theatre is not for the viewer to consider and imagine, but to watch and absorb. The size of the screens today calls for a total sensory bombardment, to the exclusion of rational consideration. There is little to no time to make considered judgements leading to affections. Instead, the emotions come at us as quickly as if we were in the action ourselves. A director who cannot make you forget you are watching a story has failed, at least by Hollywood standards. You ponder a poem, and repeat it. You listen intently to a symphony, and follow it. You read a narrative and put the book down and think on it. But you do not typically pause the DVD and think. (At least, if you do, you’re rare kind of chap).

Another sign might be its ability to change our affections without our reason’s consent. How disconcerting to discover that you were hoping that the heroine would leave her abusive husband and elope with the kind hero. How unnerving to find that you are longing for the badly beaten hero to get his hands on a weapon and take full revenge. How disturbing to find that you are reluctant to turn away from blood, immorality, and lust once you are into the story. How frightening that we admire the cocky, proud and self-sufficient hero, or the street-smart and sexually loose heroine. When does this happen? During a lecture on why eloping is a serious option? While reading a book on the merits of revenge? While reading a poem on matters of pride and humility? No. In those situations, our reason would consort with our nobler affections to reject adultery, revenge, immorality, impurity, arrogance and blood-lust. The fact that we all have had these experiences during watching some kind of enacted story ought to tell us something about its power.

I end with the same position I began with: I treat theatre with guarded suspicion, and sometimes overt scepticism. Here and there,  I’m occasionally pointed to what is supposed to be a well-done film, or some animated feature that my children are supposed to like, and I tentatively participate, watching with guarded suspicion, trying to analyse and understand. Inevitably, my critical faculties buckle under the strain of such a powerful medium, and I walk away pleased with the experience, and sometimes, disappointed with myself. I’m nearly always softened, weakened and less serious when I’ve viewed some enacted story, which is worrying enough.

So we try to navigate this minefield. I do not want my children to develop an appetite for the most visceral of art forms, but it’s just about impossible for them to see none of it. I’d like my church members to love the kind of things that will build their religious imaginations, but what is my squeaky voice against the roaring tumult of the Fireproofs and Love Comes Soppilys? I want my affections formed through means which the Spirit will bless, but I am undecided what part spectacle plays in the life of a Christian, and not used to its total absence. I’d prefer to be so acquainted with the beauties of better art that my problem would be an embarrassment of riches. But that will take some years. In the meantime, I try to minimise the encroaching effect this medium has.


Thinking About Theatre – 3

May 21, 2010

Does the theatre truly result in what Aristotle claimed it did? That is, does theatre excite visceral passions like fear and pity, resulting in their purgation? Of course, part of the answer to that is clearly negative. A cursory understanding of biblical sanctification will reject the idea that we can purge ourselves of evil passions by exciting them. The New Testament is very clear what we are to do with inordinate affections, and it is the opposite of stimulation (Col 3:5). No well-taught Christian would agree that theatre purges you of passions by evoking them.

Yet the fact that Aristotle carried a false anthropology does not quite end the discussion. Aristotle was wrong in thinking that the evocation of passions resulted in their purgation. However, that is a separate question from whether or not theatre would evoke such passions. You might misconstrue what a shot might do to a patient; that doesn’t change what a syringe does. It is not a little disconcerting that the architects of theatre aimed to evoke the baser emotions, and that by manipulation of the theatrical form. Even if the Greeks were wrong on how you rid yourself of fear and pity, it seems they knew how to produce them.

No difficulty exists in seeing why the church would have viewed the theatre askance. Here is an art form which aims to do the opposite of what the Bible tells you to do. Scripture is telling you to flee, abstain, mortify and give no occasion to these things; theatre is inviting you to marinate yourself in them.

Does theatre evoke emotions? No one would doubt that. That isn’t really the issue. Christians have not objected to an art forms that evoke affections. Christians use music, poetry, and narratives in worship. Worship always requires art because our God is invisible, and must be understood by analogy. The Bible itself makes use of poetry, narrative and vivid imagery. True worship demands right affections.

The heart of the question is if the evocative power of theatre is of a manipulative or dubious kind, in which case the process is less than wholesome, and the resulting emotions could possibly be sub-Christian. The real question is if the very nature of theatre approaches human beings in a way that evokes the wrong kind of emotions in the wrong way.

Aesthetes and philosophers have debated this question, and I don’t claim to have a definitive answer. However, I find Augustine’s experience of the theatre instructive, and disturbing.

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure?

Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters–whether historical or entirely imaginary—are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy…

4. But at that time, in my wretchedness, I loved to grieve; and I sought for things to grieve about. In another man’s misery, even though it was feigned and impersonated on the stage, that performance of the actor pleased me best and attracted me most powerfully which moved me to tears. What marvel then was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from thy flock and impatient of thy care, I became infected with a foul disease? This is the reason for my love of griefs: that they would not probe into me too deeply (for I did not love to suffer in myself such things as I loved to look at), and they were the sort of grief which came from hearing those fictions, which affected only the surface of my emotion. Still, just as if they had been poisoned fingernails, their scratching was followed by inflammation, swelling, putrefaction, and corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God? (Confessions, Book Three, Chapter 2)

Augustine is essentially answering the Aristotelian view of theatre. Yes, Augustine says, plays moved me to grief. But what kind of grief ? What kind of grief looks forward to shedding tears, and feels disgusted if it did not feel enough of it? What kind of compassion takes pleasure in the experience of supposedly feeling sad? What kind of compassion looks forward to a full display of someone’s suffering, so that you might be captivated by the experience? This is not grief. This is not compassion. It is a pseudo-grief. It is pseudo-compassion. It is a false emotion masquerading as grief. It is some other base passion related to pity, but essentially self-serving. And yet Augustine could only see that when away from the theatre.

Augustine is not unique here. Several others have stated the same objection. Something about the form of theatre evokes emotions which are not what they seem to be. There is a kind of deception in it. Blaise Pascal said the same thing (Pensees #11).

What these Christians have asked is, what if what you’re feeling is harmful? How would you know? You wouldn’t know it from within the experience of viewing theatre – you’re too deeply embedded. Pascal suggests we don’t feel it when leaving the experience. But careful inspection, like Augustine’s, may reveal that we are not feeling what we think we are. And that’s rather dangerous: like submitting to a hypnotist regularly, while convincing yourself you are in control.

If this is true of the form itself, it does not bode well for the argument of enlisting it into the service of Christianity. We’ll consider next some possible evidences for this objection to the form.

Thinking About Theatre – 2

May 19, 2010

When a man makes something, he usually thinks carefully about its intended function. The first man who made a device to kill a fleet-footed deer probably thought long and hard about how he could propel a sharp object faster than his arm could throw it. The results of his ruminations were probably the first bow.

When theatre as we know it today (that is, an enacted story) was first developed, there was certainly a goal in mind. The first occurrence of drama in Western civilisation was in ancient Greece, somewhere around 550 B.C. Theatre was not an occupation of the ancient Hebrews, nor did any ancient prophet or teacher make use of drama. (I have heard some strained comparisons of drama to the actions of prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel or even Agabus in the New Testament. I think it’s safe to say that making oneself an object lesson is a far cry from hupocrites [Greek: actors] enacting a story which immerses the audience in its emotions. And those who compare Jesus’ use of parables to drama need to do quite a bit more work on the matter of form.) Since other imaginative art already existed, such as music, painting, sculpture, architecture, epic poetry, the introduction of a new art form meant that the new form would achieve something that the older forms would not.

Aristotle wrote at length about the purpose and structure of this in his Poetics. Here Aristotle describes, amongst many other things, the aim of theatre.

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (Poetics, Part VI).

Take note of the last sentence. This is the architecture of theatre; this is its intended design, at least as far as its creators were concerned. Theatre is designed to evoke emotions like pity and fear (i.e. visceral emotions), and by evoking them, purge the soul of them. The Greeks believed in moral catharsis. They believed that unworthy passions ought to be stirred up by the powerful mimesis of theatre, and then the soul would be free of them.

You can tell that the Greeks did not exactly buy into a biblical view of sanctification. For them, the purification of the soul was by excretion. The theatre was to be a moral sauna: the soul would be heated up till it sweated out its impurities.

In other words, theatre was designed to provide a powerful re-enactment (mimesis) of life, using devices (described by Aristotle) that would evoke and then purge passions like fear and pity. As Norm Weiss put it, it painted a bulls-eye on the loins of man. This was no accident, no unintended side-effect. This was contained in its very structure. The makers of theatre were not simply trying to tell a story. They already had epic poetry to do that. They were not merely trying to evoke feelings of courage, joy, love or reverence. They had music for that. They were not merely trying to represent the world as their religion saw it. They had paintings and sculpture for that. They were seeking to evoke a particular set of emotions in a particular way – a way which other art forms could not do effectively or at all.

This history is instructive, but we are left with several questions. Is this in fact how theatre works on a person? (Aristotle could have been wrong.) If so, why does it do that? Once we agree what it is theatre does (if we can come to such agreement) we can better judge if it can be used in the service of Christianity, and if it is useful for Christian affections.

Typical modern Christian sentiment is to dismiss the matter of form entirely, and rush to make bland statements about neutral mediums that can be used for the glory of God. The fact is, some forms, because of their intrinsic nature, are irredeemable. Let’s keep that possibility in mind as we examine the form of theatre.


Thinking About Theatre – 1

May 17, 2010

I grew up taking in vast amounts of banal, foolish, and sometimes unwholesome television and movies. My church during some of that time was one of those that placed a prohibition on attending a place that projected the movie on a screen, but had no problem if such a movie were viewed on a VCR a few years later. I heard a few exhortations on discernment regarding the content of movies and television programmes, but no one ever exhorted me to consider the actual medium of television, to say nothing of the medium of drama itself. No Christian I met in the first 20 years of my Christian life made me think about the medium of enacted drama itself, and the questions related to the form of drama. Questions such as, What if the problem with the Jesus film was not the content of the film,  but the whole notion of acting out the life of Jesus in front of a camera? What if the problem with film is not just immorality and swearing contained therein, but the manipulation of an audience’s emotions, creating phoney substitutes for Christian affections? In other words, what if the real danger of film is not merely what it portrays, but what it does? What if the real problem with drama is contained in what it actually is, not merely in what it says?

Like most, my view was simply that a Christian should be discerning regarding the content of filmed stories, not wary of the form itself. And to be clear, I don’t object to visual media. No conservative I know of sees a problem in watching a documentary, or a sports contest, or a political debate, or a symphony, or other such things on a screen, small or big. If objections exist to those, they would probably have to do with the content of such things, or perhaps the propriety of using one’s time to view them. The argument I’m considering has to do with the wisdom and morality of dramatising a story, whether live or filmed, whether fictional or true.

My first exposure to anything like a consideration of these matters was probably A.W. Tozer, with his essay, The Menace of the Religious Movie. Tozer got me thinking about what it is that actors actually do. I would later read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, and consider how visual media is affecting our intellectual maturity as a society. I recall some things written by John Piper about television that went beyond the usual warnings against profanity, violence, blasphemy and nudity. By that point, I was thinking not merely about what movies and television say, but also what they do.

I’d later read some of the meatier works like Richard Weaver’s chapter “The Great Stereopticon” in Ideas Have Consequences. I read Blaise Pascal’s view of theatre in Pensees. I read small portions of people like Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyprian, Novatian, and Augustine. I read Aristotle’s Poetics.  I read some of William Law’s views, along with some of Spurgeon’s. I followed the conversation on these matters over at Kevin Bauder did a series on the Christian and Theatre in his In the Nick of Time.

At the same time, there are important works I haven’t read. Nietchze, Hegel, Hume, Wilberforce are just a few of the names who’ve written on the topic, whom I haven’t read. I’m far from having a comprehensive grasp of the subject.

However, within the reading I did complete, I was being confronted for the first time with more than just the issue of the content of enacted drama, but a consideration of the medium of enacted drama itself. It was reminiscent of my first exposure to arguments that considered the language of music itself, not merely the lyrics that sometimes accompany it. For most people, this is breaking new ground altogether.

However, lest I be accused of being disingenuous, or worse, hypocritical, I should make my current views clear. My position towards enacted drama is currently somewhere between guarded suspicion and overt scepticism. On most days, it’s moving more towards the latter. I can’t claim that my views or practices are entirely settled. It’s not as if I’ve had a big DVD-bonfire. It’s tough leaving your culture.

At the same time, I recognise that not all conservatives agree on this matter. Roger Scruton would be a contemporary example of someone who does not object to the dramatic form itself; he calls for an aesthetically responsible use of it. Others, and their number seems to be very few, object to the form of enacted drama itself, regardless of the content. It’s a minority view, and will no doubt stay that way unless a massive solar flare in the next few years destroys all electronic equipment on Earth. A day with unexpected blessings, no doubt.

It wasn’t always a minority view, though. That’s what’s disturbing about our current confidence that enacted story is harmless. Most Christians throughout church history, from the Patristics to the Puritans, have stated some sort of objection to theatre. Very often, they write as if every other Christian has inherited the same objections. That’s what unnerves me. Why did the Christian culture of nearly two thousand years exist with a sometimes unarticulated and assumed objection to theatre, while our generation hardly even raises the question? I often want to dismiss objections to the form of theatre as silly and off-the-wall. But to do so, I’d have to dismiss a parade of ancient and not-so-ancient pastors, reformers, martyrs and philosophers. Not the kind of group you chuckle at while munching another handful of popcorn.

This series will lay out some of what I have read on the matter, for your consideration. This will be attempt to trace the argument against enacted drama as a medium, while attempting to suspend judgement on that view, for the most part, so that you can at least consider it. I may not convince anyone – I don’t actually aim to. I’ll probably only solidify some of my own views (and I hope those who are better read on this matter will interact with me and help me do so). I do hope it will advance the discussion beyond checking how much R-rated content each film has.

Tozer On Meditation

May 8, 2010

In my intermittent endeavours as a blogger, I occasionally turn to Tozer:  he being dead still speaks on thousands of blogs worldwide. Tozer is particularly helpful when it comes to an uncluttered approach to prayer and meditation. Two helpful quotes follow:

“Among Christians of all ages and of varying shades of doctrinal emphasis there has been fairly full agreement on one thing: They all believed that it was important that the Christian with serious spiritual aspirations should learn to meditate long and often on God.

Let a Christian insist upon rising above the poor average of current religious experience and he will soon come up against the need to know God Himself as the ultimate goal of all Christian doctrine. Let him seek to explore the sacred wonders of the Triune Godhead and he will discover that sustained and intelligently directed meditation on the Person of God is imperative. To know God well he must think on Him unceasingly. Nothing that man has discovered about himself or God has revealed any shortcut to pure spirituality. It is still free, but tremendously costly.” (That Incredible Christian, p135)

“Let the old saints be our example. They came to the Word of God and meditated. They laid the Bible on the old-fashioned, handmade chair, got down on the old, scrubbed, board floor and meditated on the Word. As they waited, faith mounted. The Spirit and faith illuminated. They had only a Bible with fine print, narrow margins and poor paper, but they knew their Bible better than some of us do with all of our helps.

Let’s practice the art of Bible meditation…. Let us open our Bibles, spread them out on a chair and meditate on the Word of God. It will open itself to us, and the Spirit of God will come and brood over it.

I do challenge you to meditate, quietly, reverently, prayerfully, for a month. Put away questions and answers and the filling in of the blank lines in the portions you haven’t been able to understand. Put all of the cheap trash away and take the Bible, get on your knees, and in faith, say, ‘Father, here I am. Begin to teach me!'” (The Counselor, pp 136-137)