Volume 7, Issue 3: Thema
Devil With a Blue Dress
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
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
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.