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Renewing the Battle (5)

Drama, Television, and Movies

Prof. Barry Gritters, professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, Grandville, Michigan

 

Rev. Gritters was pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan when this series of articles was written..

 

In our renewed campaign against drama, television, and movies, we began by sharpening the battle lines, showing precisely what the issues are. We pointed out that the battle is not against the television as an instrument, for it can be put to good use if extreme care is exercised. The battle is against the content of most television and movies, as hostile towards the Christian faith and life. The attack was leveled against television, movies, and drama from the viewpoint of the ruinous effects they have on the Christian life — marriages, family life, personal holiness, and more. And, last time, we argued that drama itself is not a behavior that Christians ought to engage in or be entertained by.

     We have not yet asked the question of history.

 

WHY HISTORY?

By "the question of history" I mean this: what has the church in the past said about drama, television, and movies? We have analyzed drama and movies in the light of the Bible. Has the church in the past come to the same conclusion as we have? Obviously, there were no television and movies before about 75 years ago, but there certainly were drama and stage plays for entertainment and education. Has the church made any judgment on the matter? Have God's people in the past judged favorably or unfavorably? That's the question.

The question of history is an important one.

We make a serious mistake if we neglect to ask (at the very least only for information) what the fathers have said about a particular matter. Pride at its height ignores the question of history. Wisdom will not die with us. We have learned to sing from Psalm 78. "Let children thus learn from history's light...." The apostle Paul impressed us with the need to "hold fast to the traditions which ye have been taught....”  Even worldly wisdom calls us to learn from history.

History is not the rule. It's not the final word. The rule and final word is the Bible. But that Word of God has been read, studied, and applied for thousands of years. We do well to hear how God's people have been led by the Spirit of truth who promised to guide the church "into all truth" (John 16:13).

As for progress, history implies progress, development. But before we change direction, we ought to study carefully where the church is coming from, and listen to what they have learned.

We will honor Jesus' Spirit by examining the history of His Church.

 

THE ANCIENT CHURCH

From the beginning, the church frowned on plays as entertainment for Christians.

The generality of good Men, both in former and in latter Ages, have looked upon Stage-Plays as abominable Vanities. The Fathers (as they are called) do with one Voice vehemently Condemn them….  In those days (of Tertullian, AD ca.160-210, BLG) they would not Baptize any Person, that should be so much as a Beholder, much less one that should be an Actor in a Stage-Play. Yes, if Christians did afford their presence at such Stage-Plays, they were by the Ecclesiastical Constitution judged as guilty of a Crime deserving no less then Excommunication.[1]

If you wish, you may read the church father Tertullian, and hear his sound condemnation of the plays. For he "led the way for a 'theatre-criticism' during the time of the Church Fathers as well as for the critics of the theatre of centuries to follow...."[2]

Looking back on this history, Thomas Brainerd, Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, lectured in 1840 on "Influence of Theatres: A Lecture on the Nature and Tendency of the Stage." After denouncing the evil content of plays, he pointed out that "An English writer (William Prynne, BLG) in the time of Charles I. 'made a catalogue of authorities against the stage, which contains every name of eminence in the heathen and Christian world — it comprehends the united testimony of the Jewish and Christian churches — the deliberate acts of fifty-four ancient and modern, general, national, and provincial councils and synods, both of the western and eastern churches; the condemnatory sentence of seventy-one ancient fathers, and one hundred and fifty modern Catholic and Protestant authors."[3]

 

REFORMATION HISTORY

As often happens, what was once condemned soon gained favor in the churches. By the time of the Reformation, plays were common. Luther was using drama to instruct the schoolboys, and Calvin's Geneva permitted acting troops to enter the city. But "some early Reformers expressed ambivalence and even hostility to wards scenic spectacle...."[4] William Farel, who brought Calvin to Geneva, wrote to Calvin on June16, 1546, that "actors who delight in assumed characters when they should conform their own to Christ in every kind of duty, do grave spiritual harm to themselves by representing the sins of others."[5] This criticism was not unique to William Farel.

Certainly, some Reformers did not condemn drama. But this was not the only remnant of corruption that remained to be rooted out until other men of God were raised up to call the church to holiness.

After the Reformation gained momentum, the " one Voice" sounded again against drama and the theater. "By 1580 or so, the old consensus of opinion among Protestant leaders and writers in supporting or tolerating the theatre was over. There was now a pronounced division of attitudes, apparently with most siding with the opposition...."[6] In Shakespeare's England, "there does appear to have been a decline in number as the (16th) century came to a close… at least to the extent that they were a distant memory for Samuel Harsnet in 1601 who recalled fondly the 'old church plays, when the nimble Vice would skip up nimbly like a Jack an Apes into the devil's neck, and ride the devil a course.'"[7] Another reason given for the "decline of Protestant drama during the early sixties (1560s, BLG) is a changed attitude towards drama per se by returning Marian exiles of a Calvinist persuasion."[8]

A NEW LOOK AT CHURCH HISTORY?

I am aware that two recent works make the claim that drama was allowed in the early church and during Reformation time.[9] The authors call the church to witness for the defense of the theater. But by their own admission, they "benefit from revisionist historians."[10] One of the two authors gives aid to our cause by admitting that her research of church decrees up till A.D. 750 "confirmed the existence of the official negation of the Roman theatre by the Church...." And the publisher of one boasts that the author argues "contrary to received wisdom."

All this "new research" should carry no more weight with us than would a man's argument 100 years from now (if the Lord tarries) that "Some synods and Reformed churches of the last century denied the infallibility of the Bible." We will hold to the received wisdom.”

POST-REFORMATION HISTORY

The national Synod of Holland at Dort, 1587 (and several provincial councils in the Netherlands) outlawed plays. Voetius, one of the delegates to the 1618/1619 Synod of Dort, "Declares that Stage-Plays had been quite banished out of the City of Utrecht, and other places, and not practiced for many years...."[11]

In 1687, Increase Mather, regarded by many as the greatest native-born American Puritan, wrote a "Testimony" against "several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by some in New-England," in which he includes stage plays. Mather agrees with Dr. John Rainolds "who said that it is not only Unlawful to be an Actor, but a Beholder of those Vanities." Mather believed, as we have earlier argued, "that to set forth Sin Dramatically or Sportfully, is inconsistent with that Sorrow for Sin, as Sin, which is every mans Duty."[12]

On the day after Christmas, 1811, a crowded theater burned in Richmond, Virginia killing 75 persons, including the governor of the state. At the request of some young men, the Rev. Samuel Miller, of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, preached a sermon against theater attendance. He said, "You ought to know, that even pagans, and Christians of all denominations and in every period of the Church, have united in denouncing this class of amusements, as essentially corrupt and demoralizing in their nature." He quotes from ancient authorities. He continues: "All the Fathers, who speak on the subject, with one voice attest that this was the case. A number of early Synods or Councils, passed formal canons, condemning the theatre, and excluding actors, and those who intermarried with them, or openly encouraged them, from the privileges of the church." Again, he provides proof. In addition, "The churches of France, Holland, and Scotland, have declared it to be 'unlawful to go to comedies, tragedies, interludes, farces, or other stage plays, acted in public or private; because in all ages, these have been forbidden among Christians, as bringing in a corruption of good manners.' "[13]

It should not be left out that the American Congress, following the famous Declaration of Independence, passed a resolution that declared, "Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness, Resolved, that it be and hereby is earnestly recommended to the several states to take the more effectual measures ... for the suppression of theatrical entertainments ... and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners.”[14]

C.H. Spurgeon (of late last century) has already been called to witness against drama. If theatre-going becomes general among professing Christians, he said, it "will soon prove the death of piety." In reaction to church members who wanted to introduce plays in Sunday School and church, Spurgeon pleaded to keep it out, maintaining that it only "whets the appetite for the real thing, breaks down the barriers, and swells the throng of saints and sinners at the opera and the theatre. The church-theatre trains for the world-theatre."[15]

 

AND THE DUTCH REFORMED...

Abraham Kuyper, spokesman for the Reformed cause in the Netherlands last century, once said to an American audience, "Calvinism placed a barrier against the too unhallowed influence of this world by putting a distinct 'veto' upon three things, card playing, theatres, and dancing...." He pointed out what was offensive to Calvinists: "the moral sacrifice which as a rule was demanded of actors and actresses for the amusement of the public." A "low moral standard resulted partly from the fact that the constant and ever changing presentation of the character of another person finally hampers the moulding of your personal character...."[16] This is precisely the argument that we have used against drama itself.

Early Christian Reformed history harmonizes well with this united testimony. Although their Synod of 1928 condemned only the evil content of the movie and theater, thus showing itself poised to recommend drama to her children, some leading spokesmen for the church felt differently. Respected CRC pastor Leonard Greenway said, "Some of us, however, are inclined to believe that dramatic and theatrical filming is basically wrong. We believe that God has given every individual his own unique creatural distinctions in life, and that it is sinful for anyone habitually to reshape his individuality and to twist his personality for dramatic purposes.  To 'make love' or to display anger, sorrow, fear or elation under artificial stimulation is a profanation of gifts and powers which God intends shall be used only insincerity and truth."[17]

The testimony of the church, with few exceptions, is not only that the content of the theater is evil, but the theater itself is to be avoided by Christians.

CONCLUSION

This testimony of the church is important.

Church history should always be important for us.

 

There are some today who want to change worship practices, modify a position on divorce and remarriage, allow membership in unions, and more. Their reasoning is that “Other Churches and Other Denominations" allow these things. It should be important for them to know that most "other churches and denominations" did not, before, hold that position which they now preach as gospel truth. Formerly they forbade remarriage; formerly they disallowed membership in unions; formerly they disciplined those who danced; formerly their worship was not like today.

Formerly, these churches forbade also attendance at theaters and movies.

Why, now, the change?

Why do the churches today run madly after drama? Why the strong attraction to theater and movies? Why do they not only promote ungodly movies in the church magazines and school papers, but include drama in their worship services and schools? Why are they so strongly attracted to it?

Is it because they have learned more than our fathers? Is it because they have studied the Scriptures more carefully, that some new light has been shed from the Bible, and they have found that our fathers were badly mistaken on these important matters of the Christian walk and life?

Or is it not rather that the days are evil, and that the temptations that our fathers resisted are not resisted any more? Has not the history of the church always gone that way? The day of Christ is at hand. The mystery of iniquity is working powerfully.

If we are not careful, watching and praying, will that not happen to us?

Resist.

You will be in good company.

 

(Concluding in next chapter: God helping, we will stand back and point out the basic issue in our attitude toward Drama, Television, and Movies.)


Endnotes:

1. Increase Mather, A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs ... London, 1687, from the "Preface," pp. 16,17.

2. Christine Schnusenberg, The Relationship Between the Church and the Theatre, University Press of America, 1988, p. 40.

3. Pamphlet printed in Philadelphia, 1840, no publisher given.

4. Paul Whitfield White, Theatre and Reformation,  Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 163.

5. White, p.170.

6. White, pp. 163, 164.

7. White,p.139.


8. White, p. 60.


9. Paul White, Theatre and Reformation and Christine Schnusenberg's
Relationship Between The Church And The Theatre.


10. White, p. xiii.


11. Increase Mather, A Testimony....Preface, p. 17.


12. A Testimony... Preface, p. 15.


13. Samuel Miller, "A Sermon Delivered January 19, 1812, at the Request
of A Number of Young Gentlemen of the City of New York...." Printed in New York, 1812.

 

14. Quoted from S.M. Houghton, "The Christian and Theatrical Entertainment," The Banner of Truth, December, 1971, p. 29, although many other sources provide the same quotation.

15. S.M. Houghton, in The Banner of Truth, p. 32.

16. Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 73-75.

17. Basic Questions about Christian Behavior, Zondervan, 1949, p. 86.


 Standard Bearer / September 1, 1993


Last modified: 28-apr-2004