We have been discussing of late the idea of the religious movie. I began with a response to Jason Janz’s article “Why We Say ‘Gospel.'” My next article attempted to show that all movies are entertainment, and as such they should not be used for corporate worship or gospel presentations. Then I asked Joel Zartman to follow that article up with some of the ideas of Neil Postman on the media of television and motion pictures to supplement some of the deficiencies of my second article. Today I want to talk a bit about acting itself. I intend to address this topic at least one more time following today’s article.

Tozer believed that “the most precious thing anybody possesses is his individuated being; that by which he is himself and not someone else; that which cannot be finally voided by the man himself nor shared with another” (“The Menace of the Religious Movie,” in Tozer on Worship and Entertainment [Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997], 193). Tozer believed this “selfness” was sacred, as a distinct creation of and thereby gift of God.

This means that man as a being has responsibility before God, and that God judges him according to his virtue or lack thereof. The nature of man being such as this, “sincerity” is essential to his living the virtuous life. In the virtuous man is nothing impure or hypocritical. “He is all of one piece; he has preserved his individuality unviolated” (Ibid., 194). This means he is himself at all times. The Pharisees lacked this quality of sincerity, and were thereby the objects of Jesus’ judgment. They attempted to portray themselves as something they were not.

Tozer is quick to show that the roots of the word “hypocrite” were from the stage. He says, “An actor is one who assumes a character other than his own and plays it for effect. The more fully he can become possessed by another personality, the better he is an actor” (Ibid., 194). The more skillful an actor is, the more dangerous it is to his soul. He is taking on the character of another in replacement for his own. “However innocent his intentions, a man who assumes a false character has betrayed his own soul and has deeply injured something sacred within him” (Ibid., 194). Later Tozer says that anyone who plays a religious person in a dramatic role “cannot escape the secret working of the ancient laws of the soul. Something high and fine and grand will die within him” (Ibid., 206).

Tozer then shows the stark difference between the insincerity of acting and worship. “No one who has been in the presence of the Most Holy One, who has felt how high is the solemn privilege of bearing His image, will ever again consent to play a part or to trifle with that most sacred thing, his own deep sincere heart” (Ibid., 195). Acting as such has no part in worship. So also the imitations of the actor in the religious movie who must fake praying, counterfeit preaching and repentance and sorrow, and in many other ways “play at worship,” should be reprehensible to anyone with a sense of reverence.

Perhaps we can say that there may be some tie between the absence of sincerity in acting and the notorious lives of actors. Tozer observes (prophetically, it would seem), “Hollywood and Broadway are two sources of corruption which may yet turn America into a Sodom and lay her glory in the dust” (Ibid., 196). One wonders what he would say now to the movie reviews by Christianity Today and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, or even the demand that these actors should in some way be presenting the gospel!

Tozer also appears to know the history of drama. He is aware of “religious plays” during the Middle Ages (c.f. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Part IV: The Age of Faith [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950], 1027-1030), but this leaves him unconvinced of acting’s merits. He says, “The vogue of the Miracle Play coincided exactly with the most dismally corrupt period the Church has ever known” (“Menace,” 197 [emphasis original]). Preaching brought about the Reformation, not drama. Tozer adds,

“History will show that no spiritual advance, no revival, no upsurge of spiritual life has even been associated with acting in any form. The Holy Spirit never honors pretense” (Ibid., 197 [emphasis original]).

The religious movie is contrary to a spirit of godliness. Of the great preaching and writing of truly religious men of all ages, from Elijah and Jeremiah to Peter and Paul, from Luther to Wesley to Edwards, the religious movie is far removed from their ilk. When one compares the religious movie to these, says Tozer, “if he cannot see the difference in kind, then he is too blind to be trusted with leadership in the Church of the Living God” (Ibid., 205).

Those are Tozer’s words, not mine.

“The Baptist denomination, in its many branches, now numbering more than the Presbyterians and Congregationalists united, has never had any sympathy with the Theater; and whatever certain individuals, ministers or laymen, in the great centers, may think or do, the spirit of the body is overwhelmingly against the institution.”

– J. M. Buckley, The Christian and the Theater, 1875