The spring edition of the biannual magazine Origins has an article about movies entitled, “To Go or Not To Go (To The Movies).” Origins is the historical magazine of the archives of Calvin College and Seminary. It is a fascinating magazine for those who enjoy reading about the “olden days”—lives and institutions in the Reformed churches in general, and more specifically in the Christian Reformed Church. Most of the articles consist of well-researched and well-written historical material.
Of late, Origins has been printing articles that include an editorial element. Such is the case in the article on movies by Rev. Harry Boonstra, minister emeritus in the CRC.
Rev. Boonstra recounts the varying reactions to movies over the years in the Reformed church world. He traces this history in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church (CR), and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). A brief synopsis follows.
In the RCA, while the church paper (The Church Herald) condemned Hollywood’s moving pictures, the RCA did not do so officially. Synods warned, but did not forbid. Boonstra’s assessment is that the RCA was already adapted to the American culture. Thus, acceptance of movies came relatively early in the RCA, so long as one watched them “with discrimination, with Christian sensitivity and judgment.”
The Christian Reformed Church started out condemning movies in no uncertain terms. Already in 1913, an editorial in the Banner observed that members of the CRC were allowing their children to attend the nickel theater, and expressed the belief “that it is more than time to open the eyes of our people…for the very pernicious character of most of the scenes thrown on the screen.” By and large, the Banner would continue to hold this anti-movie stance for some fifty years.
The Christian Reformed Church condemned movie attendance at the synodical level in 1928 and 1951, even adding the sobering warning that persistence in this activity should result, ultimately, in discipline. This stand was reversed in the CRC in 1966 with the adoption of the report “The Film Arts and the Church.” While acknowledging that movies contained much that is false, immoral, and perverse, the report pointed out that the same is true of current magazines, literature, and the radio. The church was exhorted to claim and restore movies as part of the cultural mandate.
The Banner began publishing movie reviews in 1975. Any objections raised were rebutted with arguments that boiled down to the two words, common grace. Herman Hoeksema’s “prophecy” with regard to movies in the CRC was fulfilled.
Boonstra then turns to the last holdout—the PRC. He documents the fact that movies have been condemned in the PRC from its earliest history, citing the Standard Bearer, pamphlets, and speeches. Boonstra notes, too, that the PRC’s condemnation of movies has an additional element not found in either the RCA or the CRC, namely, that drama itself is to be condemned, regardless of the content of the particular movie or play.
Boonstra focuses on what he calls the widening “gap between preaching and practice” in the PRC. He observes that the PRC have preached against common grace for over 75 years and still “the lure of the film continues and watching movies increases.”
The purpose of this editorial is not to answer Rev. Boonstra. Whatever his motives may be for writing his article, that is not our concern.
Nonetheless, the article is a sobering reminder to the Protestant Reformed Churches, as well as to the broader church world, of the pervasive character of common grace. Common grace is the ground that allows the “discriminating” Christian to view all sorts of filth, to soak up the blasphemy, to drink up the hedonism, and vicariously to experience fornication, stealing, murder—wanton or vengeful, lying, Sabbath desecration, and rebellion. Common grace opened the floodgates of the CRC to what the Banner editor H. J. Kuyper in 1947 recognized as “the open sewer in the city of Amusement from which men and women of perverted tastes seek to satisfy their thirst for pleasure.”
Recognizing what horrible evils common grace spawns, our prayer is that God will grant the Standard Bearer, as well as faithful preachers everywhere, the strength to repudiate, and boldly to condemn the pernicious false doctrine of common grace.
The article also serves as a notice to Reformed churches of the pervasive evil of drama in the lives of altogether too many of God’s people. That includes members of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.
I could wish that Boonstra’s portrayal of the use of drama in the PRC could be rejected out of hand. I fear that it cannot be. Drama is a serious problem. He cites evidence from articles and pamphlets published within the PRC, and his own personal experience. It grieves me that I could add to the evidence from what I have heard.
However, the problem must not be overstated. Drama is not a problem in every Protestant Reformed home. There are homes where the evils and temptations of drama are so clearly recognized that no television set is allowed, nor even desired. There are homes, many homes, where the television is strictly controlled and drama is not viewed on the screen. There are VCRs (and DVDs) that have never run a drama, but rather films displaying the glories of God’s creation, as well as informative or edifying speeches. There are covenant young people in the Protestant Reformed Churches who by God’s grace resist successfully the pressure to visit a theater or attend a video party.
But on the whole, it must be admitted, Boonstra is correct. Attending/renting movies and watching televised drama are altogether too commonplace in many Protestant Reformed families.
If Boonstra’s description is accurate, his solution is unacceptable. Though not specifically stated, the thrust of the article is that the PRC ought to stop condemning common grace and end the blanket condemnation of the world’s movies and of drama itself. This is the only way that the PRC can avoid being hypocritical, since Protestant Reformed people are watching television, renting movies, and going to theaters.
His solution is that the church’s teaching be determined by the practice of the members. The Origins article demonstrates that the CRC’s movie policy changed in exactly that way. A survey of the members of the CRC revealed that many members, especially of the youth, were attending movies. However, the official stand of the denomination prohibited movie attendance. Synod resolved the conflict by voting to abolish the condemnation of movies.
I have a contrary solution, which I will set forth at a later time. But let it be firmly established that the church’s teaching and preaching may be governed only by the Bible, not by common practice. It is an established Reformed conviction that Scripture is the only rule for faith and life, that is, what one believes, and how he lives. Admittedly, those two things (belief and practice) ought not be in conflict. Obviously, believers sin. They fall short of the life that they confess God’s Word requires of them. However, if the church teaches the Word of God faithfully, and that teaching is simply ignored in practice, this is a dangerous situation. It cannot last.
It is my settled conviction that to go or not to go to the movies is not a question which a believer need deliberate. Scripture’s teaching on sanctification alone proves that drama ought to have no place in the life of a follower of Christ. The sins portrayed in movies rule out the world’s drama for the Christian. That aspect will be discussed, the Lord willing, in a subsequent issue.
The other point we hope to demonstrate is that drama per se is wrong. This idea may be new for those who are unfamiliar with the PRC. It is not, however, anything new in the PRC. In the third volume of the Standard Bearer, Herman Hoeksema insists that “the movie and the theater are to be condemned principally. There is no good movie. A Christian theater and a Christian movie are a contradiction in terms.”
Before going any further, it is necessary to say what we mean by drama. Drama is the acting out of a story by means of dialogue and action as in real life. One sees immediately that there is an aspect of this discussion that involves Christian liberty. To be clear, it is not a matter of Christian liberty as to whether or not the Christian may enjoy sin. That should be obvious. Rather the question that involves Christian liberty is this—When does mimicking become drama? When a little boy begins to hammer some nails into a board, thus imitating his dad—is that drama? When two men get up at a wedding reception and tell jokes together as they pretend to be a baseball player and a news reporter—is that drama? When a group plans a three-minute skit, practices it twice, and gives it at a dinner party—is that drama? So one can talk about a first grade play, and a high school play, and so on, all the way to the Broadway plays and the Hollywood movies. There are different levels of impersonation in these activities. Somewhere in that spectrum, one draws a line and says: As far as I am concerned, drama begins here.
I contend that the heart of drama is that the actor endeavors to suppress his own God-given personality in order to assume that of another. There are those who argue that drama does not necessarily require such an activity. However, it is clear that a good actor seeks to think, feel, act, and speak like his assumed character. The more successful the effort, the more convincing the result, and the more certainty of great public acclaim for the performance.
The better actors will go to great lengths to accomplish this. I read some time ago of an acclaimed actor who put on forty pounds in order to act out the part of a boxer, because, said he, he wanted to feel like a boxer. It is lately reported that an actress added thirty pounds to her weight in order to play the part of a clumsy character in a movie. Rave reviews of a recently released movie about a blind singer declare that the actor does more than mimic his character, “he becomes” the legendary musician. To prepare for his role, the actor wore prosthetics over his eyes for entire days to understand how it feels not to have sight.
Years ago (March 3, 1980), Time magazine did an extensive report on a notable movie star named Peter Sellers. The article demonstrates that his stellar acting was due to his ability to assume the personality of his assigned character. For him, it all revolved around the voice. Said Sellers, “Once I had the voice, I suddenly found that I was doing what the character would do, so I did not have to think about it. The character did it for me.” The report revealed the dreadful truth about the man—after so many different acting rolls, his own personality was virtually obliterated. The interview revealed, wrote the reporter, “his (Seller’s) profound fear that the real Peter Sellers, at 54, is virtually a cipher, and that he has no personality.” This report is more than a profoundly sad account. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the actor’s goal is to adopt the personality of his character. The successful actor can do it. On the other hand, it demonstrates the destructive power of this sinful activity.
The personality of a man is what makes him unique. It is God’s stamp on the individual that makes him different from every other human being on the earth—right down to the print of his fingers. There are not two persons identical in all the world. Deliberately to override one’s personality, and adopt another, I consider to be rebellion against the Creator. I am fearfully and wonderfully made, we confess with the psalmist. Part of that wonder of our creation is that God unites body and soul, perfectly fit together, and then presses upon that living being the one personality that is perfectly made for it. Overriding that personality in superb acting results in the devastation apparent in the mind of a Peter Sellers.
There are those who cannot agree that the essence of good acting is suppressing one’s own personality in order to assume another. I will freely admit that I was not always so convinced, as I now am. Yet, there is another dimension to drama, namely, that drama always includes acting out sin. That should seal the question for the believer. More on this next time.