Athens and Jerusalem: Why drama is morally wrong i.e. sinful. Part one- The Actor

Premise: Acting is an immoral profession.

 What is the talent of the actor? It is the art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own, of appearing different than he is, of becoming passionate in cold blood, of saying what he does not think as naturally as if he really did think it, and, finally, of forgetting his own place by dint of taking another’s. What is the profession of the actor? It is a trade in which he performs for money, submits himself to the disgrace and affronts that others buy the rights to give him, and puts his person publicly on sale. I beg every sincere man to tell me if he does not feel in the depths of his soul that there is something servile and base in this traffic of oneself. You philosophers, who have the pretention of being so far above prejudices, would you not all die of shame if, ignominiously gotten up as kings, you had to take on in the eyes of the public a different role than your own and expose your majesties to the jeers of the populace? What, then, is the spirit that the actor receives from his estate? A mixture of abjectness, duplicity, ridiculous conceit, and disgraceful abasement which renders him fit for all sorts of roles except for the most noble of all, that of man, which he abandons.[1]

Without doubt the most precious thing any man possesses is his individuated being; that by which he is himself and not someone else; that which cannot be finally voided by the man himself nor shared with another. Each one of us, however humble our place in the social scheme, is unique in creation. Each is a new whole man possessing his own separate “I-ness” which makes him forever something apart, an individual human being. It is this quality of uniqueness which permits a man to enjoy every reward of virtue and makes him responsible for every sin. It is his selfness, which will persist forever, and which distinguishes him from every creature which has been or ever will be created.
Because man is such a being as this all moral teachers, and especially Christ and His apostles, make sincerity to be basic in the good life. The word, as the New Testament uses it, refers to the practice of holding fine pottery up to the sun to test it for purity. In the white light of the sun all foreign substances were instantly exposed. So the test of sincerity is basic in human character. The sincere man is one in whom is found nothing foreign; he is all of one piece; he has preserved his individuality unviolated.
Sincerity for each man means staying in character with himself. Christ’s controversy with the Pharisees centered around their incurable habit of moral play acting. The Pharisee constantly pretended to be what he was not. He attempted to vacate his own “I-ness” and appear in that of another and better man. He assumed a false character and played it for effect. Christ said he was a hypocrite.
It is more than an etymological accident that the word “hypocrite” comes from the stage. It means actor. With that instinct for fitness which usually marks word origins, it has been used to signify one who has violated his sincerity and is playing a false part. An actor is one who assumes a character other than his own and plays it for effect. The more fully he can become possessed by another personality the better he is as an actor.[2]

 Result: Those continuing to engage in said activity are not to be considered in fellowship with the church and in fact barred from it.

 From our mutual love and your reverence for me you have thought that I should be consulted, dearest brother, as to my opinion concerning a certain actor, who, being settled among you, still persists in the discredit of the same art of his; and as a master and teacher, not for the instruction, but for the destruction of boys, that which he has unfortunately learnt he also imparts to others: you ask whether such a one ought to communicate with us. This, I think, neither befits the divine majesty nor the discipline of the Gospel, that the modesty and credit of the Church should be polluted by so disgraceful and infamous a contagion. For since, in the law, men are forbidden to put on a woman’s garment, and those that offend in this manner are judged accursed, how much greater is the crime, not only to take women’s garments, but also to express base and effeminate and luxurious gestures, by the teaching of an immodest art.[3]

If a harlot come, let her leave off whoredom, or else let her be rejected. If a maker of idols come, let him either leave off his employment, or let him be rejected. If one belonging to the theatre come, whether it be man or woman, or charioteer, or dueller, or racer, or player of prizes, or Olympic gamester, or one that plays on the pipe, on the lute, or on the harp at those games, or a dancing-master or an huckster, either let them leave off their employments, or let them be rejected.[4]


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theater,trans. Allan Bloom (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), 79-80.

[2] A.W. Tozer, “The Menace of the Religious Movie,” Tozer on Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997), 193-194.

[3] Cyprian, Epistle LX, ANF 5.356

[4] Apostolic Constitutions, ANF 7.495

2 thoughts on “Athens and Jerusalem: Why drama is morally wrong i.e. sinful. Part one- The Actor

  1. If I didn’t find so much of modern Christianity astonishing, I would certainly find its silence concerning the theater astonishing. Modern Christians give a pass to the worst depictions before them, let alone the basic questions of drama as a form.

    God bless you.

    • Ryan,
      Thanks. Every once in awhile I dive into the Big Orange cesspool to remind myself how things really are. Definitely not good for my blood pressure.
      In considering broader Fundamentalism I wonder if some of the cause might have actually been the shabbiness of the arguments against “movie theater” attendance that were advanced in the 20th century. So much emphasis was put on not being with the world that when we could bring the world into our cozy homes the argument basically collapsed. I wonder what happened to the arguments against the form itself…but then if we made those arguments we couldn’t put on our school plays any longer.

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