Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Friday, September 04, 2009

Adventists, Theatres, and tradition

By way of introduction here is a quote from William G. Johnsson’s article in the Adventist Review entitled Four Big Questions from the May 25, 2006 issue:

"To me, this is a serious matter. Many Adventists have lower viewing standards than evangelical Christians. Large numbers of our people, I fear, are being seduced by the all-pervasive media. Instead of the Bible, movies, television, and music are shaping their values and attitudes. They are becoming conformed to the world, rather than living as new beings in Christ transformed by His grace.

We have focused on movie theaters, but the problem is far bigger. Television, DVDs, and VCRs bring the movies into our living room.

We need a higher standard—a much higher one. And one that rests on sound reasons. Some of the arguments we’ve used in the past don’t hold water, and our young people see right through them. Like saying that movie theaters are bad per se (but on occasion we rent them and hold meetings in them). Or that movies are bad per se (but we show selected ones on college campuses or at church functions)."

Many Adventists remember our Churches prohibition against movies and theaters. But I suspect few of us really know why our church and Christian churches in history had problems with theaters. While I think our Churches view is basically tradition like Johnsson I realize we really never had a good reason for our statements. Basically our denomination simply carried on the Puritan tradition but the history is pretty interesting.

The history of the theater is pretty nicely and rather humerously written in the article entitled History Of Theatre From Ancient Greece . . . I will join the author after his discussion of the Greeks:

"The Romans weren’t content to simply stand around on stage and recite poetry. They were a blood thirsty, murderous, pillaging bunch, squeezing their toothpaste from the middle of the tube. And they portrayed their lifestyle in their dramas.

The Roman theatre was shaped with a half circle or orchestra space in front of the stage. Most often the audience sat here in comfortable chairs. Occasionally, however, the actors would perform in this space.

The audience was usually more interested in their favorite actors than the play itself. The actors would try to win over the audience’s praise with decorative masks, costumes, dancing and mime.

If the play scripted a character’s death, a condemned man would take the place of the actor at the last moment and actually be killed on stage. Where is the Actor’s Guild when you need it?
At the decline of the
Roman empire the Christian church was well established, and frowned upon the depiction of such pagan philosophy. It was at this time that theatre was banned. In fact, it is said drama would have died altogether if it weren’t for the common folk. Bands of actors, jugglers and acrobats kept the art alive performing about the land.

Ironically, drama was revived by the church. During the middle ages when very few were literate - the Priests acted out scenes from the Bible as a teaching tool. This was so popular that the town guilds soon joined in. In fact this became so popular, the performances had to be moved to the front steps of the church. Everyone wanted to get in on the act, and soon the towns people were participating. Eventually, the subject matter moved from a spiritual nature to something more earthy. God bless Shakespeare.

By the Renaissance period, theatre was not accepted by polite society. During the plagues, traveling actors were banned from entering castle walls and city gates for fear of spreading putrid, nasty, disgusting, green-pussed Black Death.

Theatre was also associated with heavy drinking, which led to brawling. And you know what happens after that. Your mama ends up in prison, and a hound dog with tics has no place to call home. Of course a bottle of whiskey comes into play, all because of some woman named Dixie down at the Blue Moon Bar and Grill. Gotta be the lonely sound a train whistle in the background.

On top of that, women of ill-repute were known to ply their trade outside of the theatre walls. At this point the government decided to step in and regulate the theatre.

Nothing changes over the course of 500 years.

In 1642 theatre was banned in England. Up until this time the emphasis was on oration. In fact, there was so little blocking, the privileged upper class audience actually sat on the stage.

During the ban, English actors fled to
Italy and France, where costumes, staging and props were the emphasis. Thus in 1660, when theatre was once again established in England, the performers brought back the Italian and French style of acting and changing the face of English drama. …"

When you consider the Roman’s were killing people on stage, even if they were just criminals we have to give the Christian Church some applause for standing up against such things, though the idea of censoring pagan philosophy is a little more dubious. Still we have a bit of a cluttered history with the theater and most of that time it was viewed unfavorably. Then Theater began to get more civilized and perhaps more recognizable to the modern mind, with acting and sets and then even lighting and good writing.

Speaking of the Puritan era The Journal or Religion and Theatre in an article The Prejudice Against Theatre by Debra Bruch, Ph. D. writes:

"During the Italian Renaissance, the prejudice against the theatre found its way into Puritan Protestantism through John Calvin, who perpetuated the medieval belief that the supreme question in a person’s relationship with life was the question of conduct. The English Renaissance theatre was caught between Queen Elizabeth’s use of theatre at times to make a religious and political statement and the Puritans who were backed by a theological philosophy grounded on behavior. However, the Puritan’s prejudice against theatre seems to be more fanatical and less based on objectivity than the objections of medieval scholars. The Puritans seemed to be engaged in a more precise definition of prejudice: to form an adverse opinion of judgment without knowledge of the facts and to hold an irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group.

People following Puritan beliefs blamed theatre practices and practitioners for the misfortunes of life and for the more undesirable aspects of society. In order to promote blame, Puritans infused theatre practices with prejudices that did not necessarily follow the realities of those practices. In other words, what the Puritans said the theatre did, and what the theatre actually did were probably two different things. To the Puritans, crimes of the theatre included emptying the churches, perpetuating pagan custom, distorting truth, showing forth profane, seditious, and bawdy stories, teaching knavery and lechery, causing God to visit the plague on London, leading youth into idleness and extravagance, affording meeting places for harlots and customers, aiding the Pope, and corrupting maidens and chaste wives.

[page 14] The basic assumption for these crimes stems from Tertullian’s and St. Augustine’s concern for causal relationships and the effects theatre has on its audience. If a person attended the theatre, then that person would be influenced by the production and act out that influence in society. In A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes (1577), John Northbrooke writes,

In their plays you shall learn all things that appertain to craft, mischief, deceits and filthiness, etc. If you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlot, to obtain one’s love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs of love, to speak filthily, to be proud, how to mock, scoff and deride any nation . . . shall you not learn, then, at such interludes how to practice them?(21)

While Northbrooke’s view is based on plot and character of the Elizabethan drama, that view displays little understanding of theatre itself. The Puritans saw theatre as a form of direct negative influence on people’s behavior and, consequently on the quality of moral life in society.

The Puritan notion of quality of moral life in the Elizabethan age related to salvation. If a person chose to ignore sacred teachings, he was succumbing to temptation by Satan, his soul would be lost, and he would be eternally damned to hell. If enough people were to succumb, then an entire nation would fall, barbarian people would conquer the land, and the gospel would be lost. Herein lies the heart of Puritan reasoning for the power struggle: a genuine fear of eternal damnation linked to the loss of a quality of life in society based on salvation.

Puritan thought followed the early Christian world-view of the duality of God and Satan. Because the theatre influenced a mass of people, because Elizabeth I at times used the theatre as [page 15] a political weapon, and because theatre demonstrated ungodly thoughts and actions, the Puritans regarded the theatre as source and service to Satan. Puritan exaggeration was based on a high level of anxiety and fear. Northbrooke describes theatres as houses of Satan and asserts that religious themes in drama are sacrilegious. He writes:

Satan hath not a more speedy way, and fitter school to work and teach his desire, to bring men and women into the snare of concupiscence and filthy luste of wicked whoredom, than those places and plays and theatre are. . . . It hath stricken such a blind zeal into the hearts of the people, that they shame not to say, and affirm openly, that plays are as good as sermons, and that they learn as much or more at a play, than they do at God’s work preached. . . . Many can tarry at a vain play two or three hours, whereas they will not abide scarce one hour at a sermon.(22)

To Stephen Gosson (1554-1623) in Schoole of Abuse, the entire classic drama was infected by the blasphemy and immorality of paganism and almost all of the English stage was infected by the abuses of the theatre. Yet Gosson insisted that his intention was not to banish or condemn drama, but to chastise its abuses. Drama contained the germ of its own disintegration and he asserted that disintegration had already taken place in his own time. The delights and ornaments of drama intended to make moral doctrine more pleasing were in reality mere alluring disguises for obscenity and blasphemy.(23)"

Now the next time someone asks what does the SDA church have against theaters you will have an answer…we inherited it because we did not think anything ever changes; even though we live in a world that is constantly changing.

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