It has been a while since I made any remarks about the theater, that blessed form now fully accepted by American evangelicals and fundamentalists, not only without hesitation as secular entertainment, but also–in the spirit of the utmost profanity and blasphemy–now thrust upon us on every side as viable Christian worship. Since American Christians, despite the manifold riches of Christian ancient writings at their fingertips, have an incredible ahistorical perspective, I have provided here three (or four, depending on how you reckon it) selections for you to consider.
First we have the venerable Theophilus of Antioch, sixth bishop of Antioch, who had this to say about the theater:
“Consider, therefore, whether those who learn such teachings can live promiscuously and be united in unlawful intercourse or, most godless of all, partake of human flesh, when we are forbidden even to witness gladiatorial shows lest we should become participants and accomplices in murders. And we are not allowed to witness the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears should be defiles by taking part in the songs which are sung there.”*
M. J. Adler, in his How to Read a Book, had an interesting remark about Christians and the theater, made in the context of what he describes as “X-raying a book,” wherein the reader can determine a book’s “unity” by reading its title. He says,
You do not always have to find out the unity of a book all by yourself. The author often helps you. Stometimes, the title is all you have to read. In the eighteenth century, writers had the habit of composing elaborate titles that told the reader what the whole book was about. Here is a title by Jeremy Collier, an English divine who attacked what he considered to be the obscenity–we would say pornography, perhaps–of Restoration drama much more learnedly than is customary nowadays: A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, together with the Sense of Antiquity upon this Argument. You can guess from this that Collier recites many flagrant instances of the abuse of morals and that he supports his protest by quoting texts from those ancients who argued, as Plato did, that the stage corrupts youth, or, as the early Church fathers did, that plays are seductions of the flesh and the devil.**
Before that I had come across in Frend an interesting comment on the same subject. He says,
“[Cyprian] laid down the law on a variety of moral questions. An actor who had been converted who have to abandon his profession and, if necessary, be sustained form church funds until he found a new calling, and if the local church could not manage, then the church in Carthage would take him on.”***
Frend is referencing this epistle II (epistle LX in Schaff ANF) of Cyprian:
1. Cyprian to Euchratius his brother, greeting. From our mutual love and your reverence for me you have thought that I should be consulted, dearest brother, as to my opinion concerning a certain actor, who, being settled among you, still persists in the discredit of the same art of his; and as a master and teacher, not for the instruction, but for the destruction of boys, that which he has unfortunately learnt he also imparts to others: you ask whether such a one ought to communicate with us. 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. For since, in the law, men are forbidden to put on a woman’s garment, and those that offend in this manner are judged accursed, how much greater is the crime, not only to take women’s garments, but also to express base and effeminate and luxurious gestures, by the teaching of an immodest art.
2. Nor let any one excuse himself that he himself has given up the theatre, while he is still teaching the art to others. For he cannot appear to have given it up who substitutes others in his place, and who, instead of himself alone, supplies many in his stead; against God’s appointment, instructing and teaching in what way a man may be broken down into a woman, and his sex changed by art,2 and how the devil who pollutes the divine image may be gratified by the sins of a corrupted and enervated body. But if such a one alleges poverty and the necessity of small means, his necessity also can be assisted among the rest who are maintained by the support of the Church; if he be content, that is, with very frugal but innocent food. And let him not think that he is redeemed by an allowance to cease from sinning, since this is an advantage not to us, but to himself. What more he may wish he must seek thence, from such gain as takes men away from the banquet of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and leads them down, sadly and perniciously fattened in this world, to the eternal torments of hunger and thirst; and therefore, as far as you can, recall him from this depravity and disgrace to the way of innocence, and to the hope of eternal life, that he may be content with the maintenance of the Church, sparing indeed, but wholesome. But if the Church with you is not sufficient for this, to afford support for those in need, he may transfer himself to us, and here receive what may be necessary to him for food and clothing, and not teach deadly things to others without the Church, but himself learn wholesome things in the Church. I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.
*Ad Autolycum III.15 (trans. R. Grant; New York: Oxford, 1970).
**Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren, How to Read a Book (rev. ed; New York: Touchstone, 1972), 79.
***W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 405.