Thinking About Theatre – 1

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 remonstrans.net. 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.

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15 Responses to “Thinking About Theatre – 1”

  1. Mark Penrith Says:

    Well timed article, well researched, and I’m keen to see where you go with this.

    I’d tend to lean rather heavily on the side of Christian Liberty here yet practically I guess I’m quiet conservative (don’t have a TV ect).

    Oh, one verse to add to the mix is, Titus 1:12. It might be that Paul was a bit more culturally integrated than you or I? :).

  2. Joshua Allen Says:

    Agreed about theater. Most Christians also had an innate aversion to banking, which also unnerves me.

    I think the most basic objection to theater, from a Christian standpoint, mirrors the objection to prostitution. Personally, I think that many modern commentators misunderstand the reason that prostitution is a sin, and misunderstand why the men who were prepared to stone the harlot were considered guilty by Christ.

    In essence, prostitution is when a man pays a woman to tell him what he wants to hear. Pays her to make him feel what he wants to feel, believe what he wants to believe. In short, it is about paying someone to lie to you.

  3. David Says:

    Joshua,

    You may be right. If I understand Augustine correctly, his concern was that it lied by representing one emotion, while in fact causing an entirely different one within us.

  4. Mark Penrith Says:

    Hi there,

    Read through this again and thought about this statement, “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?” Is this substantiated? Because if so it’d be a weighty argument.

  5. David Says:

    Which part of the statement are you referring to? The part about historical objections to theatre, or contemporary acceptance of it?

  6. Mark Penrith Says:

    :), it’s easy to observe the latter. The former is what I was questioning.

  7. Simon Thomas Says:

    veryy helpfull good insights. have you considerd ray Comforts work on this and his website hollywoodandGod.com….gives you raings and tells you if blasphemy is used. But I get your point, affections and conforts that should come out of the Word cannot be sought out of the television.Comforts coming not from Christ is poor comfort at best.
    Piper is helpfull on this too, but I am not sure even moives with a christian them are legitmate, but in world where everything is so fragmented, there has to be a balance, but then I have to ask, can once even seperate your leisure from God. that does not seem right either, and in many cases that is exactly what happens.

  8. God and Hollywood; Never the twain shall meet « Because He Lives Says:

    […] Out of a fear for the Lord I’ve been reading a number of articles on the subject. Enter David de Bruyn. He tucks into the debate in a fresh way on his blog Conservative Christianity. I like reading […]

  9. Greg Stiekes Says:

    Thanks for the post. With a background in drama, including an M.A. in the field, I have often considered these same ideas. A comment and a question: (1) the “unarticulated and assumed objection” to the theater may have had more to do with the culture from which drama came than the medium. It was often connected to an idol cult of some kind (few things were not) and the culture of entertainment was morally loose to say the least. (2) the question: if drama is done well, how would the affections be manipulated any more in kind than an excellent piece of literature? And, having said that, could not drama be used to create or mature categories of affections that would be appropriate for believers? Are you saying the voyeurism is especially acute in the medium of drama as compared to literature or public speaking? (In fact, there are some great dramas I have seen that were called ‘sermons’!)

  10. BLT Says:

    In light of the posting and subsequent discussion, this article about the Passion Play provides yet another perspective regarding theatre and the Bible.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,694970,00.html

  11. David Says:

    Phew! Note to self: do not post something on theatre and then be away for a day 🙂

    Mark:
    Plenty of quotations could be stacked up from the Patristics, the Reformers, the Puritans and the Baptists condemning theatre. It’s the fact that no one writes in defense of it until our era that suggests that such an objection was part-and-parcel of most forms of Christianity. I’m open to correction (the Passion plays don’t count). I could email you a pdf I’ve compiled of quite a few ancient and not so ancient quotes on the matter.

    Pastor Stiekes,
    Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad for any insights you can bring to the discussion, particularly with your background.
    Your question is really at the heart of this series of posts, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it. I suspect the answer might be that theatre reduces the imaginative distance between the things it portrays and those viewing it so that the kind of affections raised will seldom (never?) be any but the visceral kind. Possibly other art forms allow for the kind of contemplation which requires the viewer/listener to understand, compare, and weigh the artistic analogy for its aptness. Theatre seems to reduce this distance until it is negligible. At least, that’s how I understand the argument.
    Could theatre be done in a way where this does not happen? People like Scruton say it can. Others say it cannot. I’d like to hear from people like yourself, who are more than superficially familiar with the form and also familiar with these arguments, to help answer that part of the question.
    Is voyeurism more acute in theatre than in other forms? Probably Augustine would say it is inevitable in theatre. I would say every art form can be used for such things. The real question is if voyeurism is an abuse of enacted story, or the very nature of enacted story.

  12. While I’m away… « From DandelionEnd Says:

    […] Thinking About Theatre – Part 1: A thoughtful and measured consideration of the subject that also includes television and movies (whether on the big screen, on VCR/DVD, or on the PC).   Read, also, the continuance in Part 2 and Part 3. […]

  13. Andy in Germany Says:

    I read this with some interest: I’ve been working as a storyteller, working mainly in theatre, for many years now. Partly -and I appreciate this will mark me as a heretic for some readers- as a part of worship.

    I’ll get back to that in a minute. two points you make stand out in my mind:

    “That’s what’s disturbing about our current confidence that enacted story is harmless.”

    I’d agree on that, from a different direction. Story is not harmless. Stories are dangerous, very dangerous. So is a scalpel. A story can damage people or it can heal people, especially in theatre.

    My experiences working within theatre in a Christian context, is that carefully used, it brings life and healing, builds up the body and individuals, and allows people to see God in a way they hadn’t recognised before.

    Within the team I notice that working in theatre it allows people to come before their Lord, and offer him their gifts, and their abilities. People who thought they were “No use to God” (because they couldn’t sing, mainly) found that they were able to worship God in this way. For example we have one team member who is 80% deaf, turned out to be very gifted in acting. People say it’s “Good that you have him in your team” as if I’m doing him a favour, but he stays because he has found something that brings him alive and which he can excel in.

    Another case would be when we prepared a dialogue between two women about forgiveness in the context of sexual abuse. We didn’t portray the abuse (which I hope is obvious) but we portrayed the despair that the abused woman felt. Was that sinful? Afterwards we found it had helped someone who had been abused to be honest about it, in a culture where we are not supposed to talk about ‘things like that’ was it sinful to help this one person take a step towards freedom? Note that I’m not talking about catharsis, but honesty, and by portraying the feelings an emotions, rather than talk about it, people could recognise their own feelings and pain. Yes it can happen unawares, and yes that’s dangerous, but I see people healed because theatre opens the way in for healing that they otherwise don’t seem to be able to take. In that way it is very much like a scalpel.

    All that said, I share your concerns and to some extent your scepticism and I am very careful what I do and do nor portray. Obviously I wouldn’t use anything obscene onstage, and I have a personal dislike of showing Jesus or God onstage on the basis we can’t possibly do that properly or anything like properly, and I won’t show miracles because I think it looks silly and cheap. I don’t go to watch theatre very often, mostly because there are some foul things being done in theatres -but then, I wonder if that’s because there aren’t enough believers making better stories?

    Apart from that, I’m very careful with form: I tend to use a non-realistic form, partly because I think theatre works better like that but also because I want to break the illusion as often as I can. I’ll often put in comments to the church congregation or invite responses for precisely that reason: to remind people that this is a story, and invite them to look at themselves and at God as much as the people in front of them. We also have people playing three different characters at times to help people remember they are watching something that isn’t real.

    I don’t always use theatre: I’m a storyteller and that includes many things, but I think it has its place in storytelling for believers, and also in worship. To me, the alternative is to write off a whole number of people who have a God-given gift in this area: I’m not prepared to do that.

    I think theatre has roots in places other than Greek plays, but it’s hard to prove every root of theatre because by definition it is transient, and doesn’t get preserved. Music leaves instruments and art leaves paintings or sculpture: theatre doesn’t. On the other hand the step from people telling stories vocally to people acting them out is so small I can’t imagine the Greeks were the first to come up with it: our Greek-centric view of churches and arts forgets that Asia and the western rim of Europe had its own development and that often it was separate to the Greek.

    Those are my thoughts and experiences over several years. I’ve been told I’m a heretic before, but to be honest, I’ve seen too much of God healing people and too much life in the people I work with. On top of this, my own call into theatre was clear cut and most definitely from God, as anyone who knew me before it will testify. If he called me into this place, although it may be dangerous, I dare not disobey,

  14. David Says:

    Andy,

    Thanks for commenting. It sounds like your approach is more careful than that of many in some respects. As you’ll find if you read the rest of the series, I’m rather agnostic about what to make of the broader use of theatre. I always caution against pragmatism to guide us in our ministry decisions, and I’m a stickler for only including the prescribed elements of worship for congregational worship.

    And I know that this post challenges what is taken for granted. I suppose only when we’re forced to think about the meaning of the form do we consider its meaning properly. That’s really the intention of these posts – I can’t say I have dogmatic conclusions on this one.

  15. tertius lamprecht Says:

    What an extremely interesting article! I have thought about is, but never formulated it in words. I would think it is very difficult to judge the impact of modern acting via the stage or in other mediums on our society. One should also consider the influence of ‘acting’ in church. It would be an excellent research paper to consider the positive impact a church good make in changing the way we ‘sell’ or advertise the gospel to our audience.

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