Dave (not his real name) was a missionary in Eastern Europe. One Sunday, he was preaching to a church full of nationals. Not yet experienced with the language, Dave unknowingly uttered an obscenity from the pulpit. It was not an ordinary, garden-variety obscenity. No, it was about the worst thing that anyone could say in that language. Then, seeing the audience wince, he assumed that they were under conviction and repeated what he had just said. At last, he went on with his sermon, never guessing that the congregation didn’t hear another word.
After the service, the pastor explained the problem to Dave. Of course, Dave was mortified. He was still embarrassed when he told me about the episode years later. He said, “The problem is that nobody tells you about the bad words until after you say them.” The pastor also told me about it—separately—and then added, “I was praying that the Lord would kill him before he could say it again.”
Dave was a spiritual man who was skilled in handling the Scriptures. He understood all the biblical principles, but he was unable to apply them to the particular expression that he had used. In order to apply the Scriptures, he first had to know what the expression meant. Ignorance of the language kept him from knowing how the biblical principles applied.
That is true of all cultural phenomena. Cultures are humanly constructed systems of meaning, and they are always value-laden. Biblical principles ought to shape our approach to every aspect of culture but especially those aspects that are deliberately designed to convey meaning and shape sensibility. The arts, in particular, must be brought under scrutiny, for art is a language.
Theater is an art, the purpose of which is to communicate. How? There is a long conversation, extending from Aristotle to Postman, about how theater conveys meaning and shapes sensibilities. The participants in this conversation have differing opinions about whole ranges of issues, but they share a consensus about the way theater communicates.
How do the principles of Scripture come to bear upon viewing theater? We cannot answer that until we understand what and how theater communicates. Until we learn the language from those who know it, we are as helpless as Dave was. Until we have taken the trouble to inform ourselves, we have no right to an opinion.
What if Dave had rejected the pastor’s explanation? What if Dave had insisted that he believed the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture? What if Dave had denounced the pastor for adding to the Word of God, for elevating his experience and intellect above Scripture, and for manifesting an arrogant attitude? Or what if, instead of a pastor, an unsaved person had told Dave what that expression meant, and Dave had refused to listen because an unbeliever has no biblical discernment and cannot tell Christians what is right or wrong?
Then Dave would have been worse than arrogant. Dave would have been a fool.
But these conditions are contrary to fact. Dave did listen to the pastor. Really, Dave is such a sensitive guy that the pastor did not even have to explain. All he had to say was, “Christians don’t talk like that.” Dave would have listened.
Christian history reveals several generations who dismissed theater with, “Christians don’t do that.” In fact, for nearly two millennia, Christians from a wide variety of cultures and traditions have agreed: Christians don’t do that. So widely was this sensibility assumed that it was rarely even explained or defended. But generation after generation, the disciples of Jesus understood: Christians don’t do that.
My generation was the one that changed the prohibition. I should like to think that my generation was right to do so. It would be nice to believe that we simply discarded an unnecessary moral encumbrance.
What concerns me is that we never really answered the previous generations. We simply asserted that biblical principles did not prohibit theater. We responded to “Christians don’t do that” with the counter assertion—“Well, we do!”
Generation after generation of believers thought that biblical principles forbade theater. My generation disagrees. To which group should I listen?
Suppose we were to gauge the spiritual depth of these two groups. The first group somehow preserved the faith through persecutions by pagans, betrayals by heretics, and the decadence of the Romish system. At enormous sacrifice, they reformed a corrupted Christendom, built the great missionary movements, and conducted the great revivals and awakenings. When they were called upon to do so, they went triumphantly into martyrdom.
The second group is part of the so-called “boomer” generation. When we boomers were still in our teens, we set ourselves up as moral judges over our parents and their parents. Our apparent idealism turned out to be cynical, however; and the moment we discovered that we could make money, we dropped everything else. If we worked hard, it was only so that we could play harder. We brought in the sexual revolution, widespread pornography, and abortion on demand. More than anything else, we demanded more and more amusements of greater and greater sophistication but lower and lower morality. We established ourselves as the most narcissistic, self-obsessed, self-indulgent, hypocritical, and swinish generation ever to occupy space. But wait till you see what we do when we retire!
Christian boomers have been far more influenced by the mores of our generation than we admit. There are exceptions, of course, but we had to be bribed into going to church with promises of entertainment and programs. When we came of age, the mission fields began to decline. Biblical literacy went on the wane. We managed to produce the most notoriously immoral ministry since the papacy of Alexander VI Borgia. We did, however, manage to score high at Pac-Man.
The Gen-Xers have not done noticeably better, except perhaps to score high at Halo 2. We have, in fact, reached a nadir in American Christianity. A fundamentalist pastor is arrested and charged with decades of child molestation. The head of the NAE steps down, admitting to a liaison with a homosexual prostitute. Christian “artists” believe that they are edifying the Lord’s people by shouting obscenities from the stage. A Christian lifestyle magazine recommends a Sports Illustrated swimsuit girl as a Christian role model. Believers sport bumper stickers like “For All You Do, This Blood’s for You” and “Grace Happens.” Fundamentalists cannot even agree whether the New American Standard Bible should be treated as the Word of God.
This is the generation whose word I am supposed to take? Of course. With all this obvious discernment going on, why wouldn’t I?
I’m sorry, but if we of today’s generation want to justify the theater, then we are going to have to do better than come out with a lame, “The Bible doesn’t forbid it.” Generations of believers thought that the Bible did—and their generations have a substantially better track record for spiritual sobriety than our own. That does not mean that they are right and that we are wrong. It does mean, however, that simple respect requires us to ask why they believed what they did. Until we have understood their reasons and, more importantly, understood the grounding of their sensibilities, it is the height of arrogance for us to glibly announce that we know better.
If we want to have a useful conversation about theater, then we must meet two preliminary qualifications. First, we must show that we understand how theater communicates and how it shapes the sensibilities. Second, we must gain a sympathetic understanding of the centuries-long prohibition against theater. Until we can address these two matters cogently, we literally do not know what we are talking about. We have no way of knowing which biblical principles might apply.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Lord, if I love Thee and Thou lovest me,
Why need I any more these toilsome days;
Why should I not run singing up Thy ways
Straight into heaven, to rest myself with Thee?
What need remains of death-pang yet to be,
If all my soul is quickened in Thy praise;
If all my heart loves Thee, what need the amaze,
Struggle and dimness of an agony?—
Bride whom I love, if thou too lovest Me,
Thou needs must choose My Likeness for thy dower:
So wilt thou toil in patience, and abide
Hungering and thirsting for that blessed hour
When I My Likeness shall behold in thee,
And thou therein shalt waken satisfied.