In my first article, I tried to deal with Jason Janz’s article “Why We Say ‘Gospel’.” My intention in writing all of this is not necessarily to pick on Janz or Sharperiron, but to provide another alternative to the debate. The prevailing grievance has been that ETE did not present the Gospel clearly in their film The End of the Spear; the prevailing assumption undergirding this grievance has been that Christians should be using films in a evangelistic or churchly way. With this I strongly disagree.
Over the coming days, I want to give a few reasons why we should not be using movies for religious purposes. I realize that this is not the prevailing sentiment, when large institutions, even within fundamentalism, have their own kind of unusual movie studios. And let me also say that I realize that the order of my articles is somewhat backwards. My reasons for rejecting movies in worship are logically prior to my disagreements with Janz’s position. I hope the gentle reader will patiently forgive the strange order.
Today I want to highlight that all movies are intended to be entertainment, and that entertainment as such is incompatible with religious exercises. What is entertainment? This is certainly a difficult thing to pin down (somewhat akin to attempts to find a definition of “is” or “essence.”) Entertainment is our devoting our time in a non-profitable way to more trivial things intended to hold our attention; entertainment is closely related to amusement and divertissement. A. W. Tozer once responded to someone who told him that singing a hymn was entertainment by saying,
“When you raise your eyes to God and sing, ‘Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,’ is that entertainment–or is it worship? Isn’t there a difference between worship and entertainment? The church that can’t worship must be entertained. And men who can’t lead a church to worship must provide the entertainment. That is why we have the great evangelical heresy here today–the heresy of religious entertainment” (from Success and the Christian, pp 6-7, cited in Tozer on Worship and Entertainment [Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997], 115).
I believe that all religious motion pictures are intended to be entertaining. I cannot, of course, prove such a bold statement easily. I would like to ask the liberty to discuss this more in depth on another day. For the time being, let me say that I cannot think of a single motion picture containing acting, produced by the “entertainment industry,” that was not intended to be entertaining in some way. This is particularly true of religious motion pictures. What exceptions are there? Perhaps Left Behind: The Movie? Or Every Tribe Entertainment’s The End of the Spear? Even The Passion of the Christ is intended, though not in a trivial way, to hold the attention of and entertain the audience, partially through its sensationalized violence and gore.
That worship and entertainment should be distinct is still today in great dispute, of course. Let me quickly qualify that I believe that religion and entertainment are incompatible in whatever way we try to mix them, whether in our music, literature, or the arts, not just in motion pictures. A. W. Tozer observed back in the 1950’s,
“That religion and amusement are forever opposed to each other by their very essential natures is apparently not known to this new school of religious entertainers. Their effort to slip up on the reader and administer a quick shot of saving truth while his mind is on something else is not only futile; it is, in fact, not too far short of being plain dishonest.” (“The Menace of the Religious Movie” in Tozer on Worship and Entertainment, 191).
Later he adds, “Most responsible religious teachers will agree that any effort to teach spiritual truth through entertainment is at best futile and at worst positively injurious to the soul” (Ibid, 192). As one friend of mine put it, “There are certain activities which require the sort of response or involvement from us that demands all our powers and faculties. These activities are not those we pursue for entertainment or amusement.” Entertainment never demands all our powers and faculties. Worship always does.
Do you go to church to be entertained? I must believe that all mature Christians would reject this idea outright. Then we have established a difference between a kind of entertainment enjoyment of church and, for lack of a better term, what we may call a “religious” enjoyment of church. When we are being entertained, the thing entertaining us is holding our attention; true entertainment demands a more passive posture. We are the recipients of entertainment.
The difference here is perhaps the nature of the appeal; motion pictures are much more prone to affect the emotions directly, bypassing the will. Tozer is helpful on this point as well. He says,
“Deep spiritual experiences come only from much study, earnest prayer and long meditation. It is true that men by thinking cannot find God; it is also true that men cannot know God very well without a lot of reverent thinking. Religious movies, by appealing directly to the shallowest stratum of our minds, cannot but create bad mental habits which unfit the soul for the reception of genuine spiritual impressions” (Ibid, 192).
The religious motion picture may indeed have a powerful influence on the emotions, but we should not confuse this kind of a response with the workings of the Holy Spirit. Religion is far too serious to using entertaining ways of evangelism, edification, or worship. Entertainment is too frothy and frivolous to communicate the things of God in a responsible way; the demand of “loving God with all our minds” is taken away from the process of worship. Elsewhere Tozer offers this dire warning:
“I cannot determine when I will die. But I hope I do not live to see the day when God has to turn from men and women who have heard His holy truth and have played with it, fooled with it and equated it with fun and entertainment and religious nonsense” (Tozer on Worship and Entertainment, 113).
You can read Joel Zartman’s “An Incitement to Postman,” a continuation of this series, here.