Acting is not alien to Christian life—it is, on the contrary, its essence, and so lies at the center of the problem we are discussing. The believer is called upon, not only for God’s sake, but for the perfection of his own life, to take leave of the self and become Christ. Conforming on the world-stage to the divine image is his reason for living in the world. But to attenuate the self by stepping into the persona of another who is not Christ is fraught with peril, not only that of the actor in losing his self in a life filled with vain imaginings (have a look at People Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, or the National Enquirer), but also in the temptation in the communion between actor and audience to alienate themselves from the self and the world in such way that their repatriations, when the play is over, do not serve truth, or the labor of God in the world, but harm them, by distraction, erosion, or actual destructive attack.
I will stipulate that the existential transaction we call a play (whether on film or not) can be good. Actors with firm and well-integrated personalities can not only act the parts of others without harm, but can by so doing enhance this integration. Plays and films can be valuable and uplifting experiences. Good plays, good films, and good acting, are within the gift of God. Puritanism is not the proper answer to bad plays—but it is an understandable reaction to the poisoned and poisoning culture of the theatre, the subject of my previous blog. This has indeed been a perennial problem for the church whenever the theatre stands apart from it to have, as it were, its own say. Accurate or sympathetic depiction of Christians or the Church, not to mention the sexual morality common to all the major religions, is nearly always treated as surprising and noteworthy by Christian reviewers. Often it seems that their reason for going to the theatre is to find, and write about, the rare glimmer in all the darkness. Why should they bother?
This, I believe, is a question worth asking, the ambiguity that must be seriously considered before a Christian publication puts itself forward as a judge of plays and films. Christians should not remain ignorant of the histrionic culture I symbolized by reference to certain pagan cities—indeed, it is nearly impossible not to be to some degree informed. But I think our basic orientation toward this world should be negative and suspicious, and that when we touch it, it should generally be with a pole or a club. It has, after all, done its damnedest to let us know where we stand in its books, so that the proper stance is not before it with our arms wide open, cross-gartered and grinning, urgently hoping there will be a pearl somewhere in the next load of manure, and capering about with grateful delight when it is found—the obvious attitude of so many of those ingratiating Christian reviews to which I was referring in my previous note.