One of the questions that I have never been able to clearly answer in my mind is the question of Christians in theater, whether on-stage or in movies or in TV. In fact, though I watch TV and movies, just like almost all dwellers on this planet, I can easily see why actors and actresses have always had a hard time convincing Christians that you can be a Christian and be in theater. There would be very few Christians nowadays that would say that they do not watch some type of entertainment medium. Yet, the relationship between Christianity and different types of entertainment has always been somewhat strained. I can remember preachers pointing out that the first instruments mentioned in the Bible are mentioned in the hands of Cain’s descendants. Jubal-Cain was the, “father of all those who play the harp and flute.” (Mind you, it was never mentioned that other descendants of Cain were the ones who were: “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock,” and “an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.” Also mentioned as one of the accomplishments of the descendants of Cain was that the first city appears to have been built by one of them. As one of my professors pointed out many years ago, it appears that the descendants of Cain accomplished many things, while the descendants of Adam are mentioned as simply begetting until the time of Noah.) But, I digress.
I think that the reason that there has been an on and off problem with Christians in theater for many years is the very nature of theater. In both Medieval Europe and in early America, theater had mixed connotations. “In 1794 President Timothy Dwight IV of Yale College in his “Essay on the Stage” declared that ‘to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure: the immortal soul.’” It should be noted that as late as 2005, a charge of blasphemy by a theater was filed in England that went all the way to the High Court. “The fundamentalist group Christian Voice sought a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC, but the charges were rejected by City of Westminster magistrates’ court. Christian Voice applied to have this ruling overturned by the High Court, but the application was rejected, the court finding that the common law blasphemy offences specifically did not apply to stage productions (s. 2(4) of the Theatres Act 1968) and broadcasts (s. 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990).” In 2008, blasphemy statutes were repealed in Great Britain.
But, the attempt to charge the BBC with blasphemy in 2005 brings forth the contentious relationship that there has been between various religions (not just Christianity) and the theater arts. It is interesting, in this context, to note that the word hypocrite is derived from the Greek word that has to do with the theater and acting. After all, a good actor realistically portrays someone who he/she is not. In one sense, the best actor truly deserves the praise of being an excellent hypocrite! No, I am not putting down actors. It is that actors have done their best work when they convince you that they truly are the character that they are playing. Many are surprised when they watch an interview of an actor, and the actor speaks, interacts, and moves in ways that are completely different from the role they may have played in a movie, theater performance, or on TV. The more surprised we are, the better the actor is at their craft, at being a hypocrite. It is no wonder that the New Testament uses the word hypocrite as one of its highest condemnations when it relates to real life. In the theater it is laudable to be a hypocrite. In real life, it makes you nothing more than a close relative of the deceiver.
But it is this very role as a hypocrite that causes the problem. Many Christians have had qualms about the parts that actors must assume. The better an actor is, the better he/she assumes another role, another personality. But, what happens when a Christian must assume a part that contains evil and sin? May a Christian act in a truly sinful way in theater, yet claim that this is not them, it is merely the character that they are playing? There has never been an easy answer to that question. I can vaguely remember a “Christian” movie from years ago that attempted to portray President Richard Nixon. But, there was a major problem that caused the movie to be panned in derision. The Watergate Tapes had been released, and it was well-known that President Nixon was an inveterate imprecator, to the point that not one tape was free of cursing. His cursing was even of a gutter language variety. The Christian company did not portray the cursing in its film, seeking to simply portray the sanitized events in order to show how one of the other participants had become a Christian. The failure of the actor who played Nixon to be a hypocrite meant that his portrayal was inaccurate and laughable in its sanitized goodness. One did not catch the malevolent banality of President Nixon without the accurate portrayal of his language.
We can all agree that there are many times when theater shows material merely to titillate. We complain about gratuitous violence and gratuitous sex. But, as with the Nixon example, there are many times that an actor must portray scenes that would otherwise be unacceptable to Christian morality. How do you portray a kissing session, even if it is a mild one? Is all scandalous material to be sanitized, as was the Nixon movie? Or, is all scandalous materials merely to be mentioned, or portrayed out of sight, so as not to offend morality? Questions of these type have risen up against Christian actors. Can a Christian actor even wear a revealing miniskirt if that is what the real person wore? While these may seem to be inconsequential questions, they are questions that led to theater being banned in certain areas and in certain centuries of the Church. There were times when only morality plays were allowed. The Early Church often believed that one could be an actor or a Christian, but not both. In the 48th homily of the Gospel of Matthew, Saint John Chrysostom shows little respect for the theater. For the sake of balance, I should note that the same homily excoriates those who will not give to the poor at their gate. Also, I should note that politicians were often classified about the same as actors by various of the Church Fathers. This makes sense, since politicians are often consummate hypocrites who could give acting lessons to theater folk.
So, one problem is the role that Christian actors must often portray. The other problem is the audience. The role of a theater company is to entertain you, to draw you into their constructed version of reality to have you experience the events they are portraying. It is not enough merely to have you understand the story, actors want you to experience the story. I have been to theater performances more than once. The best of the theaters can take a nearly bare stage and portray a story so well that with merely their intonations, gestures, and vocalizations they can transport you to another place. It is the place where they take you that is questionable to some of the Early Church Fathers. John Chrysostom in the homily cited above mentions dancers taking watchers to a place of lust. A good Hitchcock film can take you to a place of fear and trembling. While we leave and are relieved, the question is raised whether we should allow ourselves to be taken to that place. This was the question raised in the quote earlier in this post by the President of Yale.
I am not one of those who is against theater, whether live, movie, or TV. But, I must admit to questions about where the limits are. There is no easy answer. Draw the limits too tight, and only morality plays can be portrayed. Draw them too loose, and you can have the issue of being entertained by people who are engaging in what is normally considered to be reprehensible conduct. To say that a Christian may not act in that type of scene, but to then go to a movie theater to watch that scene portrayed by a non-Christian would certainly be considered one definition of hypocrisy. So, where are the limits for a Christian? Everyone wants Christians to play the heroic detective who fights against criminals. But, does a Christian get to play the hooker that the detective goes to when a snitch is needed? Does a Christian get to portray a violent and sadistic murderer in all his/her glory? You see the problem! Unfortunately, I do not see the solution.
Are there any theater people who would like to weigh in?