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Volume 7, Issue 3: Thema

Devil With a Blue Dress

Douglas Wilson

Serious Christians have always had an uneasy relationship with popular entertainment, and the difficulty is certainly understandable. Presented with the problem of recreation and entertainment, we usually find Christians divided into two clusters. Some are entirely too comfortable with whatever the world dishes up in the name of the great god entertainment. Confronted with movies, plays, dancing, songs, videos, novels, short stories, television, magazines, etc. , these believers demonstrate all the discernment of a vacuum cleaner. If one were to point out that their salad had three, huge garden slugs in it, they would maintain there is still a high percentage of lettuce. In short, many Christians are worldlings. They happily spend hours a night in front of the tube, pearl diving in a cesspool. Their occasional success in coming up with a pearl does not change our overall opinion of the wisdom of their efforts.

But, of course, on the other side we find our more stern brethren who regard all aesthetic activitythe same list as given aboveas necessarily worldly and not fitting for Christians. In short, some Christians think the Bible is not strict enough. It has always been this way. John Bunyan had to include a poetic defense of his fictional work as a preface to Part II of Pilgrim's Progress . "But some love not the method of your first . . ." 1
How are we to respond to this difficulty? The answer is that we must keep both errors in mind. The Christian church must provide a hard-headed critique of the world's entertainment mania as it is, and the church must be careful to remember the far-reaching claims of our Lord's redemptive mission. Everything is to be brought into submission to Him.
The purpose here is, first, to articulate a brief defense against the charge that entertainment is necessarily worldly and to be completely avoided by Christians. At the same time, I want to show that the historic Christian assault on the stage (as well as other forms of popular entertainment) cannot be blown off as mere frenzied legalism. Many modern Christians listen to our fathers on this subject only long enough to discover that they thought "such and such" to be a "sin," and so moderns then summarily dismiss whatever these earlier critics had to say.
We grant that some of our fathers sometimes went beyond the Scriptures in their treatment of "entertainment," and they did so in a manner inconsistent with Christian liberty. Nevertheless, if our modern brain-dead-through-watching-the-tube generation of Christians were shown to these older critics of the stage, they would certainly be confronted with an overwhelming temptation to offer us up as Exhibit A in support of their thesis. Put another way, our generation of saints is not the model of Christian liberty it purports to be , but rather an example of something referred to by the Westminster divines"They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practise any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty . . ." In other words, the foes of godly liberty are not merely to be found on the legalistic right, but also on the libertine left.
In addition, we sometimes misunderstand the historical context of some of these older debates. For example, the Puritan opposition to King James' Book of Sports (in which the king tried hard to get everybody to play with frisbees on Sunday) was not based upon an opposition to recreation as such. Rather, it reflected their opposition to such practices on the Lord's Day. In addition, the Puritans also opposed certain kinds of sports in themselvescock-fighting, bear-baiting, etc . That is to say, their opposition was careful and qualified, not indiscriminate. So we must not simply react because so and so was opposed to thus and such. We need to understand the context.
Having said this, it would be wrong to conclude that classical Protestants were of one mind in what they opposed. In his wonderful book, War on the Idols , Carlos Eire points out how effectively the Protestants of the Reformation used the stage for the advancement of the kingdom by attacking the idolatry of Rome. "The Protestant message was also often announced on the stage through dramatic poems or plays, which often combined sharp satire with theological argumentation." 2 And the Puritan William Burkitt said this: "It being impossible for the mind of man to be always intent upon business, and for the body to be exercised in continual labors, the wisdom of God has therefore adjudged some diversion or recreation . . . to be both needful and expedient" 3
Classical Protestantism has not been uniform in opposition to such things considered in themselves . And even where such opposition did exist among Protestants, we would submit that once the context is understood, our generation of believers has much to learn from them.
So what does the Bible say? Can the argument be sustained that diversionary works of literature, art, poetry, plays, etc . must be avoided by Christians?
The answer is clearly no . First, Christ made up fictional stories to make a point (Matt. 13:3). The apostle Paul quoted from the play Agamemnon written by the pagan Aeschylus (Acts 26:14)an R-rated play, incidentally, not exactly packed with cheer and uplift. Although fully historical, the book of Job is written in the dramatic form of a play. The book of Psalms is a divine collection of poetry. The elder brother came in from the fields to find the household whooping it uploud enough to be heard outsidethrough music and dancing (Luke 15:25).
Now this certainly means that such aesthetic activity is lawful, but what about that key word diversionary ? Is it lawful to participate in or view such things for purposes of recreation alone? To quote the father in the parable of the prodigal son, "It was right that we should make merry and be glad . . ." (Luke 15:32).
That Said . . .
If we were to establish that drinking beer is lawful, as it most certainly is, it does not follow that we should all charge out to commence a two-day marathon at the local pub. Christians should distinguish the use of a thing according to Scripture, and the abuse of that thing as seen in the local paper's Arts and Entertainment section. So what must we keep in mind when we consider entertainment? R. L. Dabney provides a good example of the "old school" attitude towards this.
True imaginative creativity is an arduous process, as Dabney points out. "To do what they profess to do, to give a correct picture of human life and character in a fictitious narrative, is extremely difficult." When entertainment reigns, every and any ambitious bumbler is invited to take a stab at creating his own little world for the rest of us to observe. We see this all around us, particularly in modern popular novels, and those ham-handed anti-morality plays that we call television sitcoms. "And he who suffers his views of life to be colored by such reading . . . is destined to nothing but blunders, disappointments and disgusts, when he attempts to buffet with the hard realities of the world." All fictional narrative is didactic, and it takes a godly genius to use such a medium to teach accurately and well.
Second, when one gives himself to the point of indulgence to entertainment, he finds his sensibilities excited by all the fictional hubbub. "They [the fictional works] must be animated and full of incident, or they will not be popular." But God intended for such aroused sensibilities to issue forth in good works . When pity brings forth tears, the usual pattern should be to reach out a helping hand, or to motivate and prepare the reader to do so. The response should not be to reach out for the next book in the best-selling Love's Thumping Heart series. But the indulgent participant's sensibilities are simultaneously excited, and the godly release of them frustrated. "And thus, by equal steps, he becomes at once sentimental and inhuman . . . the novel reader sits weeping over the sorrows of imaginary heroes and heroines, too selfish and lazy to lay down the fascinating volume and reach forth his hand to relieve an actual sufferer at his door." Before we rush to dismiss Dabney at this point, we should consider our national sins in the light of his charge. Sentimental and inhuman . We conduct massive search-and-destroy missions on the genetically imperfect preborn. But if they somehow sucessfully make it past the prenatal gauntlet of our murderous medical establishment, we create special parking spaces for them, coordinate Special Olympics, give everybody a medal, and reach for the Kleenex. We are sentimental and inhumanemotionally and spiritually schizophrenic. How did we get that way?
Third, because a world is "created" in a work of fiction, it may be created according to the author's will. And if he is in rebellion against the God of Scripture, he will utilize his talents to lie . "So it is perfectly easy to paint truth at the bottom and error at the top when falsehood holds the brush." Those Christians who care about the contents of entertainment usually limit their complaints to the obviousnudity, blasphemy, porno-violence, etc .although our Christian culture is so far gone that many believers have come to take on-screen immorality and nudity right in their stride. But voyeurism is scripturally gross, and cannot be sanitized through getting the woman's permission. To be entertained with on-screen nudity, etc . is simply such voyeurism with high-tech support, and to defend such is spiritual impudenceas though peeping at window sills could be made lawful through using expensive binoculars.
Still, while revulsion against overt immorality is necessary and valuable, frequently left out are worldview considerations. What is the author saying, and is it true? Worldview analysis requires hard work, and someone who sits in front of the box for a no-brainer, slack-jaw session does not want the intellectual challenge.
Also left out are considerations of the subtle didactic effect of such material. "The usual tendency of these works is to familiarize the reader to viewing, without revulsion . . . the characters of duelists, drunkards, seducers, and other villains." Thus modern Christians are still opposed to the fornication going on next door, but they are no longer outraged and scandalized by it, as they would have been fifty years ago. The reason for this lack of outrage can be found in the searing effects of godless entertainment on the conscience, when mindlessly taken in. The subtle didactic lie has been"you may still believe that these things are wrong for you , but you may no longer believe them to be a big deal, and under no circumstances may you impose your morality on others." Yessir , we all say.
And last, consider what a tremendous expenditure of time and money goes into all this foolishness. Scripture tells us to redeem the time, but our stadiums, coliseums, theaters are packed, and packed all the time. They are packed with people, most of whom have nothing better to do, and too much money and time on their hands. As Dabney observed, such things serve well in the murder of time.

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