The Christian and Drama

Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

Almost from the time of its introduction, the Christian church has been opposed to drama and the theater. The immorality and violence of the theater, as well as acting in itself, have always called forth the church’s condemnation.

The ancient church father, Cyprian (c. 200-258) was an outspoken critic of theater-going. He wrote:

But now to pass from this to the shameful corruption of the stage. I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the scurrile jokes, the sordid parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases immodest. And though no individual, or family, or profession, is spared by the discourse of these reprobates, yet every one flocks to the play.

In another place, addressing himself to the question whether or not an actor or acting teacher may be permitted membership in the church, he answers:

This, I think, neither befits the divine majesty nor the discipline of the Gospel, that the modesty and credit of the Church should be polluted by so disgraceful and infamous a contagion.

Also the church fathers John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) and Augustine (354-430) were vehement in denouncing the theater. More and more, drama and theater-going become a problem in the church. Many churches permit and even encourage the members to attend dramatic productions. Several church magazines regularly feature movie reviews, which almost invariably find, in the worst productions, some “redeeming value” which justifies viewing by Christians.

In our own churches there appears to be a growing acceptance of drama and the theater. Reports are heard of more and more of our youth attending movies. There is the fact, observable to every elder and minister who has ever gone on family visitation, that the great majority of our homes have a television in them. Talk among the children at school and by parents when visiting often concerns the TV programs recently watched. Women share over coffee the latest scandal in their favorite afternoon soap-opera.

For our young people especially the theater poses a temptation. Many of their friends are allowed to go to movies. They are confronted by drama in many of the high schools and colleges that they must attend, where courses are offered in drama and where they are encouraged to participate in dramatic productions.

In light of this situation, it’s good for us to remind ourselves of the arguments that have been used by the church in the past against drama and against theater-going. It’s good for us as young people to understand these arguments so that we do not become corrupted by the filth of the theater. It’s good for us as parents to understand these arguments so that when we prohibit our young people from going to the theater we are also able to give them good solid reasons for this prohibition.

There is, first of all, the argument against drama based on the impermissibility of impersonation. Drama and acting necessarily include impersonation, the assuming and acting out of the personality of another, whether a real or fictitious character. This is not permitted the Christian. This argument is developed at length in the pamphlet “The Christian and the Film Arts,” by Prof. H. Hanko. The argument runs like this. Acting involves the assuming of the person and personality of another. This is a violation of the 9th Commandment, is the living of the lie, the pretending to be what you are not and what God has not made you, and this for purposes of entertainment.

This we believe to be a valid argument. It is interesting that even worldly psychology recognizes the serious consequences of impersonation, the damage that this does to one’s own person.

In the second place, there is the argument against drama based on the content. The content of the theater must be either that which is holy or that which is sinful. Every subject dealt with must fall into either one of these two categories.

The result when holy things are dramatized is hypocrisy and blasphemy. The holy would include the life of Christ, some Bible character, or some Christian. It would include various acts of worship as well as good works which are the product of sanctification. To perform these in an empty, formal way, and then solely for the purposes of entertainment, is an abuse and a blasphemy. This is especially the case when the actor is an unbeliever of the vile sort that populate Hollywood.

In the case of the dramatization of sinful things, the result is that sin is compounded. That sinful deeds will be acted out on the stage is inevitable. Drama is the reproduction of life. And the one reality of life is sin. It is simply unavoidable that sin will be acted out on the stage. That sin is in fact acted out in the theater cannot be questioned by anyone who even infrequently glances over the movie advertisements in the daily newspapers. But to act out sin is itself sinful, and therefore forbidden the child of God.

This, to my mind, is perhaps the most compelling and forceful argument against drama, The point is that to go through the motions of a sin, to act out a sin, is to make oneself guilty of that sin. An actor who takes God’s name in vain, lies, cheats, rebels against authority, commits fornication on the stage cannot justify his actions by saying that he was only acting and that by his acting he was attempting to teach his audience a worthwhile moral principle. This is rationalization of the worst sort. In reality, by his acting, the actor made himself guilty before God of the sins he acted out. And those who watch this and are entertained by this fall under the condemnation of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:32, “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” This, all by itself, makes drama an illegitimate art form. And this explains why the theater has always been an instrument of iniquity and why it has always been in the control of wicked men. This is simply God’s judgment on an institution that is in itself depraved.

It is especially in this respect that drama is to be distinguished from novel writing and novel reading. Now, no one would deny that it is possible to read in the wrong way. No one would deny that in reading novels it becomes very easy to become sympathetic with the hero or heroine, even in their sins. Then we are reading in the wrong way. Then we are not reading objectively and judging what we read and the works of those about whom we are reading in the light of the standard of God’s law. But in novels no one is actually acting; no person is going through the motions of sin and therefore making himself guilty of sin. The characters in a novel are fictitious and in our mind. That distinguishes novels sharply from drama.

In the third place, our argument against the theater concerns the message of the theater. By its message, its general tone, the theater presents a false view of life. That false view of life is that a life of sin is the good and happy life. You can sin and get away with it. There is joy and happiness in a life of disobedience to God’s commandments.

But this is a distortion of life. The fact of the matter is that a life of sin is not the good and happy life. The fact is that the life of the impenitent sinner is a life of misery and woe. The fact is that God punishes sin and the sinner in this life already. Men do not get away with sin, not even here and now. When men divorce their wives and marry someone else it’s not the case that everything turns out all right in the end. Instead it is the case that the adulterer experiences in this life already the judgment of God. When men murder other men it’s not the case that everything turns out all right in the end. Instead it is the case that the murderer experiences in this life already the judgment of God. No one, especially the youth, must be fooled by the lying message of the theater.

Not to be ignored as an argument against movie attendance is the source and substance of the modern-day movies. The source is godless Hollywood. The participants are immoral movie stars. The substance of the movies, with few exceptions, is violence and sex. And the movies are presented in such a way not only to entertain people with these vile activities, but to entice people to commit them.

How can we ever justify allowing our young people to view the corruption of the theater? How can we young people justify to ourselves the watching of modern drama in which every one of God’s commandments is broken, and broken repeatedly? How can we parents allow ourselves and our children to be entertained hour after hour, night after night by the violence and debauchery of the television? And if we do this, do we suppose that there will be no harmful consequences for us?

We must reject drama and the evil of the theater. We must separate ourselves and our children from its evil influence. Jude calls us to “hate even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:23). We ought to make our resolve that of the psalmist in Psalm 101:3, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.” Our prayer ought to be the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 119:37, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.”