Film and Theater

A Response to Dr. Bauder on the Use of a Medium to Convey Truth

Note: This article was written in response to Fundamentalists and Theater: Act Three, Say What? by Dr. Kevin Bauder. It is not intended as a general response to all of Dr. Bauder’s theater articles to date.

Part One: Understanding the Argument

And so, the curtain finally draws away, and Act Three is upon us. This trip to the theater has taken an interesting turn. The distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian? Uh, run that by me again. Okay, Dr. Bauder. I’ll bite.

First, let’s be sure we understand each other and describe the terms and define the argument. Dionysian has been described as the affirmation of the whole self through ecstatic ritual. Apollonian represents rational thought and analytical structure. May I be so bold as to suggest that the Apollonian reflects individualistic sound reasoning and the Dionysian reflects groupthink and emotional judgment? I am not so particular as to require a litmus test on the difference between the two concepts in order to engage in this discussion. Dr. Bauder’s own anecdotal film examples sufficiently describe the effect of theater to understand and comment. Understanding the terms as described is a plus.

But wait, why must I accept the preconditions as defined by the good doctor? Must I accept the philosophical construct proposed by Dr. Bauder to engage in this discussion? He merely describes the phenomenon of film against the ancient backdrop of the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian. I prefer a more modern analysis of the issue. Enter Dr. Marshall McLuhan and the idea that “the medium is the message.” Space does not permit an extended analysis of Dr. McLuhan’s premise. In summary, Dr. McLuhan provided social scientific explanations of the effect of technology on communication and understanding. In particular, he emphasized the differences in print, radio, and television to human communication and understanding. His work directly applies to the Internet phenomena, but that is a different discussion. His work aptly describes the differences between listening to a lecture, reading a book, listening to the radio, and watching television (or film). In a nutshell, I agree with Dr. Bauder that the theater captivates. The magic of theater and film is that it possesses a special power to take you beyond the realm of your own imagination.

I cannot deny the power of film to dazzle and transport my mind to another world. Yes, I too have laughed at material that in normal life circumstances I would not find funny. I have shed a tear from the power of manufactured raw emotion. Indeed, I allow a cheesy script and film like It’s a Wonderful Life to make me feel good about my fellow man in the context of the unique American experience. I am transported, if only for a short time, to a world of someone else’s imagination and creativity. So, on this, the nature of theater, we agree. To borrow a phrase already used by the good doctor, I say, “So what.” The real issue is whether it is permissible to allow our choices in communication or entertainment to utilize such powerful media tools. Certainly, the Bible says nothing about radio, television, and film. The use or misuse of the tools, however, is where Bible principles find application. So far, Dr. Bauder, I think we are in the same script, albeit maybe not on the same page. Next, I want to examine some of the implications presented in Dr. Bauder’s third theater article.

Part Two: The Implications

Television, film, and theater are powerful communication tools. They possess the power to change the course of the world. The Nixon-Kennedy debates are an excellent example. Those who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won. Those who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won—hands down. Marshall McLuhan’s work explains how the medium affects perception. Another example is how the role of radio and television could affect the outcome of war. Radio and carefully controlled film covered World War Two. National consensus remained pro-war at all times. However, the Vietnam War witnessed television journalists with many different spins. The truth never got in the way of some of those journalists. Two different reporters could cover the same battle, and the mere differences in camera angle and choice of footage conveyed remarkably different perceptions of the battle. One might convey victory while another might convey a stunning defeat. Mind you, it was the same battle. Same deal today with Iraq.

If Dr. Bauder correctly states a premise that the mind is directed and influenced by the medium, what are the implications? First, I again state that I do not contest the validity of such a premise. To do so would deny much of what I learned and accepted as a speech major in a college classroom several years ago. I think it is important to take Dr. Bauder’s conclusions to the next logical step. If we fear the influence of technology on the mind in this modern society, we have a lot to fear. Forget about theater and film. Under no circumstances can you subject yourself, in any way, to the real professionals of mind manipulation—advertisers. Dr. Bauder, the temporary and unsettling feeling of hoping a murder is successful in a movie is a pittance compared to the pros at the ad agency who utilize overwhelmingly successful techniques in print, radio, and television advertising. I submit that to accept the premise that allowing our minds to be subjected to the Dionysian is always wrong results in a life that requires a monastic setting.

But wait, there is more. My cursory research on Apollonian vs. Dionysian described art forms as follows: sculpture is Apollonian, and music goes to the very heart of Dionysian. Sounds logical. Now I am beginning to understand the power of the invitation in many modern fundamentalist circles. Preach the word (the Apollonian) and get them down the aisle with an emotional plea accompanied by appropriate music (the Dionysian). Ouch, that one might hurt. Might it be that the implications of an argument about the Dionysian will fall under the weight and practices of our own fundamentalist traditions? The road is littered with Dionysian concepts long before we get to the doors of the theater.

Maybe there is a way this can work for us. Effective legitimate communication might bring some to Christ. Perhaps an interesting picture on a plain tract? What about a catchy phrase or slogan to advertise the next church evangelistic function? How about a powerful solo to stir the heart right before the pastor preaches? No, wait, how about a skit at youth group to help the young people understand? And then, how about an Easter cantata that mixes music and drama to dynamically point to the resurrection story. Well, we are almost there. How about a two-act play that dramatizes a Bible story? And here we are—how about a Christian film we shall call Sheffey that clearly and effectively promotes the gospel?

Well, Dr. Bauder, I am not sure if we remain in the same script, let alone a different page. I reject any notion that the mere attachment of a practice to the Dionysian suffers from ultimate condemnation. In fairness, I am not sure you have adopted this premise either. Mind you, I have not yet stated my conclusion. Maybe we shall meet again in the lobby after the curtain call.

Part Three: My Answer

I accept a premise that theater and film are media in which imagery and wonder transport the viewer to another world. McLuhan provides empirical evidence that learning is affected by the medium. University studies have shown that the identical information provided by book, lecture, radio, and television results in different forms of comprehension. Interestingly, learning is least effective in the reading and lecture method. But I digress. What about the theater and film? Can I allow the Dionysian to control my mind for a spell as I enjoy a film? Am I capable of judging right from wrong while being entertained? According to McLuhan, the answer lies in discernment.

Let’s review Dr. Bauder’s conclusions about the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have listened to the entire trilogy (books on tape) twice. I also have the complete set of the DVDs (extended version). I agree with Dr. Bauder that Peter Jackson’s version of the trilogy is not the true emphasis of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the DVDs. I understood the difference and realized that I was watching Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s classic. Jackson’s view of the Shire and the one from my imagination are different. Yet, I never lost my power of discernment. I just allowed myself to be captivated by someone else’s artistic creation. I never lost control of judgment.

Let’s get more complicated. I saw the Clearwater Christian College production of The Importance of Being Earnest. I laughed at material that was not very Christian. Some of the innuendo was very worldly but cleverly presented to poke fun at British high society. Did my laughter signify endorsement? I don’t think so. My job as a trial lawyer involves a lot of serious stuff that makes laughing at a play insignificant. Every day we observe the folly of man and snicker or laugh at the obtuse or even the sinful. Some stuff is just funny. Have I left the realm of conscious disregard for the serious and the holy? Admittedly, sometimes yes. That is gut-check time. Sound discernment makes good sense in the secular context. It is required in the biblical context. This is a line-drawing issue, and it will be drawn differently for different folks. That is the best I can do for you. I am still working on this for myself.

Reference to popular culture, including a reference to the profane, is not beyond a tool used by preachers, including Dr. Bauder. Last October, Dr. Bauder spoke at my church, Bethel Baptist in Schaumburg, Illinois. He preached an effective and powerful sermon on God’s love. I ordered ten copies to give to clients and lawyer friends. I had to smile when Dr. Bauder used as an example of the world’s view of sin—the Saturday Night Live sketch about the “Church Lady.” That was a stretch and a risk few would dare to take. I guess there was a line he considered worth approaching in order to make his point. While the example may have been lost on some at church, it was a dramatic use of evidence from popular culture.

In conclusion, the special power of film and theater is not disputed. The power improperly used is immoral. The power properly used enhances the path to truth. I watch the evening news with a grain of salt. I must filter information gained from media sources. I fail to see how the power of film to point the way to Christ is any different in concept from the power of music to enhance the worship experience. The argument is one of degree. Each medium—the spoken word, radio, live theater, television, and film—possesses dynamic characteristics that enhance or detract from truth. It is up to us to understand and discern the substance from the medium of delivery. If we honor truth, then both the substance and the medium for delivery of the substance pass muster for me. Preaching should remain the preeminent vehicle for transmission of the gospel. A little help along the way from a play or film is not a vice. To the contrary, many entertainment choices in the form of a play or film may constitute vice and immorality. This is where I hand off to those who truthfully and skillfully apply the Word of God.

So Dr. Bauder, that was my two cents. Thank you for the thought-provoking discussion. It reminded me of concepts I had buried in my mind from college days. You forced me out into the blogging world. I see you behind that desk. Come join the discussion.

Part Four: Full Disclosure

hervas.jpgI (Chuck Hervas) graduated from Bob Jones University in 1979 with a degree in Public Speaking. My wife, Reba Ruffin Hervas, also graduated from BJU in 1979 with a degree in Speech Education. My daughter, Rebecca Hervas Kaser, graduated from BJU in 2006 with a degree in Interpretative Speech and is currently working on a master’s degree at BJU in Dramatic Productions. My daughter, Ashley Hervas, is a sophomore at Clearwater Christian College working on a Communication Arts degree. She was one of the production assistants at Clearwater for The Importance of Being Earnest. My son, Daniel Hervas, is a junior at Schaumburg Christian School, where he helps run lights and sound for school programs. Daniel plans to be a speech major at BJU. My wife runs a nonprofit Christian theater group in Itasca, Illinois, www.overshadowedproductions.com. I serve on the board of that organization.

Do you get the impression that my entire family is committed to speech and drama as a legitimate form of communicating truth and the gospel? My passion and bias are exposed!

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