I know, I know. You're all sick of the movie discussion. There are movie discussions all over the web, and we just had a big movie discussion here. I hate beating dead horses, and there a lot of sites that do just that; yet consider this a one time indulgence of horse-beating. I told some folks that I wanted to do this, simply to show that drama and the church have not always been the bedfellows they are increasingly becoming in American evangelicalism. So here are some selections from the early church fathers about drama. The references at the end of each selection give you where you can find it in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
"The utter ribaldry in pretentious tones and they act out indecent movements. Your daughters and your sons watch them giving lessons in adultery on the stage." Tatian (vol. 2, p 75)
"Neither can we watch the other spectacles [i.e., the theaters], lest our eyes and ears be defiled by participating in the utterances that are sung there. . . . And as for adultery, both in the case of men and of gods, whom they celebrate in elegant language for honors and prizes, this is made the subject of their dramas." – Theophilus (vol. 2, p. 115)
"What base action is there that is not exhibited in the theaters?" – Clement of Alexandria (vol. 2, p. 290)
"We renounce all your spectacles. . . . Among us nothing is ever said, seen, or heard that is anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of theater, the atrocities of the arena, or the useless exercise of the wrestling ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures?" – Tertullian (vol. 3, p. 46)
"We are evaluated by our character and modesty. Therefore, for good reason, we abstain from evil pleasures, and from your pomps and exhibitions. We know the origin in connection with religious things, and we condemn their mischievous enticements. . . . In the drama games, the madness is not less. Rather, the debauchery is more prolonged. For now a mime either expounds or acts out adulteries. . . . The same actor provokes your tears with pretended sufferings, with vain gestures and expressions." – Mark Minucius Felix (vol. 4, p. 196).
"Men who claim for themselves the authority of the Christian name are not ashamed . . . to find a defense in the heavenly Scriptures for the vain superstitions associated with the public exhibitions of the pagans. . . . They say, 'Where are there such Scriptures? Where are these things prohibited? On the contrary both Elijah was a charioteer of Israel and David himself danced before the ark. We read of the psalteries, horns trumpets, drums, pipes, harps, and choral dances. . . . Why, then, may not a faithful Christian man gaze upon that which the divine pen might write about? . . . However, the fact that Elijah was the charioteer of Israel is no defense for gazing upon the public games. For he did not run his race in a circus. And the fact that David led the dances in the presence of God is no sanction for the faithful Christians to occupy seats in the public theater. For David did not twist his limbs about in obscene movements." – Novatian (vol. 5, pp. 575-576).
"Now I will pass from this to the shameless corruption of the stage. I am ashamed to talk about the things that are said there. In fact, I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done–the tricks of arguments, the cheating of adulterers, the immodesty of women, the indecent jokes. . . . People flock there to the public disgrace of the brothel, for the teaching of obscenity." – Novatian (vol. 5, p. 577).
"Things that have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. . . . Adultery is learned while it is seen. . . . The matron who has perhaps gone to the spectacle as a modest woman, returns from it immodest. What a degradation of morals it is! What a stimulus to abominable deeds, what food for vice!" – Cyprian (vol. 5. p. 277).
"And I am inclined to think that the corrupting influence of the stage is still more contaminating. For the subject of comedies are the dishonouring of virgins, or the loves of harlots; and the more eloquent they are who have composed the accounts of these disgraceful actions, the more do they persuade by the elegance of their sentiments; and harmonious and polished verses more readily remain fixed in the memory of the hearers. In like manner, the stories of the tragedians place before the eyes the parricides and incests of wicked kings, and represent tragic crimes. And what other effect do the immodest gestures of the players produce, but both teach and excite lusts? whose enervated bodies, rendered effeminate after the gait and dress of women, imitate unchaste women by their disgraceful gestures. Why should I speak of the actors of mimes, who hold forth instruction in corrupting influences, who teach adulteries while they feign them, and by pretended actions train to those which are true? What can young men or virgins do, when they see that these things are practised without shame, and willingly beheld by all?" – Lactantius (vol. 7, p. 187)
If all these were not enough, consider the entire book De Spectaculis by Tertullian, where he lays into many common Roman entertainments. He knows that many heathen want to argue that "human enjoyment, by any of our pleasures" is pleasing to God. Yet, Tertullian wants to prove that "these things are not consistent with true religion and true obedience to the true God. This work, like the other citations that I have made here, are remarkably contemporary, even today, addressing many of the same allurments. Consider, for instance, the argument commonly made by some that the Bible never forbids drama:
"How vain, then—nay, how desperate—is the reasoning of persons, who, just because they decline to lose a pleasure, hold out that we cannot point to the specific words or the very place where this abstinence is mentioned, and where the servants of God are directly forbidden to have anything to do with such assemblies!"
Or consider this remark on the consistent witness of believers:
"Do we not abjure and rescind that baptismal pledge, when we cease to bear its testimony? Does it then remain for us to apply to the heathen themselves. Let them tell us, then, whether it is right in Christians to frequent the show. Why, the rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If any one, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief: you cast in your lot for life or death with your new friends."
Perhaps it seems to us sophisticated American evangelicals that such remarks (strangely akin to the now antiquated "fundamentalism") is a "little over the top." But may we not dismiss such statements in such a cavalier manner! Tertullian says,
Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable. . . . The very harlots, too, victims of the public lust, are brought upon the stage, . . . I say nothing about other matters, which it were good to hide away in their own darkness and their own gloomy caves, lest they should stain the light of day. Let the Senate, let all ranks, blush for very shame! . . . But if we ought to abominate all that is immodest, on what ground is it right to hear what we must not speak? For all licentiousness of speech, nay, every idle word, is condemned by God. Why, in the same way, is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears—when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants on the spirit—and that can never be pure whose servants-in-waiting are impure? You have the theatre forbidden, then, in the forbidding of immodesty."
Let us, however, love the sorrows of others. But let us beware of uncleanness, O my soul, under the protection of my God, the God of our fathers, who is to be praised and exalted–let us beware of uncleanness. I have not yet ceased to have compassion. But in those days in the theaters I sympathized with lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another, although this was done fictitiously in the play. And when they lost one another, I grieved with them, as if pitying them, and yet had delight in both grief and pity. Nowadays I feel much more pity for one who delights in his wickedness than for one who counts himself unfortunate because he fails to obtain some harmful pleasure or suffers the loss of some miserable felicity. This, surely, is the truer compassion, but the sorrow I feel in it has no delight for me. For although he that grieves with the unhappy should be commended for his work of love, yet he who has the power of real compassion would still prefer that there be nothing for him to grieve about. For if good will were to be ill will–which it cannot be–only then could he who is truly and sincerely compassionate wish that there were some unhappy people so that he might commiserate them. Some grief may then be justified, but none of it loved. Thus it is that thou dost act, O Lord God, for thou lovest souls far more purely than we do and art more incorruptibly compassionate, although thou art never wounded by any sorrow. Now "who is sufficient for these things?"
But at that time, in my wretchedness, I loved to grieve; and I sought for things to grieve about. In another man's misery, even though it was feigned and impersonated on the stage, that performance of the actor pleased me best and attracted me most powerfully which moved me to tears. What marvel then was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from thy flock and impatient of thy care, I became infected with a foul disease? This is the reason for my love of griefs: that they would not probe into me too deeply (for I did not love to suffer in myself such things as I loved to look at), and they were the sort of grief which came from hearing those fictions, which affected only the surface of my emotion. Still, just as if they had been poisoned fingernails, their scratching was followed by inflammation, swelling, putrefaction, and corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God?
I know that the following men should not be considered "the early church," but let me add some contemporary remarks about drama. More recently, drama has been condemned by the likes of William Law and A. W. Tozer. In his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law says,
Instead of the vain, immodest entertainment of plays and operas, I have taught you to delight in visiting the sick and poor. What music, and dancing, and diversions are to many in the world, that prayers and devotions, and psalms, are to you. Your hands have not been employed in plaiting the hair, and adorning your persons; but in making clothes for the naked. You have not wasted your fortunes upon yourselves, but have added your labour to them, to do more good to other people.
A. W. Tozer believes that the motion picture itself is a neutral medium, but that motion pictures portraying drama is wrong. In his essay, The Menace of the Religious Movie (You need to get this. You can buy it here–the entire book is well worth owning), he argues that the gospel ought never be communicated in a motion picture (I can think of some embroiled in current "religious movie" controversies that should spend some quiet time in Tozer). Part of his prohibition stems from his belief that drama is itself illegitimate. He says that acting is "a violation of sincerity." Tozer says,
"In order to produce a religious movie someone must, for the time, disguise his individuality and simulate that of another. His actions must be judged fraudulent, and those who watch them must with approval share in the fraud" (195).
Later he adds, "History will show that no spiritual advance, no revival, no upsurge of spiritual life has ever been associated with acting in any form. The Holy Spirit never honors pretense" (197). He goes so far to say that,
"[The movie] is a medium in itself wholly foreign to the Bible and altogether unauthorized therein. It is play acting–just that, and nothing more. . . . The printing press is neutral; so is the radio; so is the camera. They may be used for good or bad purposes at the will of the user. But play acting is bad in its essence in that it involves the simulation of emotions not actually felt. It embodies a gross moral contradiction in that it calls a lie to the service of truth" (199).
I am sure I am leaving out some key Christian figures and their remarks on drama. The point here has not been to be comprehensive, but to provoke our thinking. To be sure, fundamentalism has not always articulated their opposition to movies in the best terms. Fundamentalism has also commonly showed an inconsistency in their approach to movies and drama, as the most hallowed universities and institutions have given a blessing to the medium for religious purposes. But this should not lead us to an outright rejection of the sentiment. Let us hear some others address the subject. The men I have cited are just that–men. But they bring before us a perspective nearly entirely forgotten in 21st century American evangelicalism. We would do well to listen and thoughtfully consider what they say.