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Fundamentalism Classical and Cultural: Part One: The Theater

nick

It has become common in some circles to contrast “classical” fundamentalism with “cultural” fundamentalism. The idea seems to be that fundamentalists of the distant past were theologically and intellectually responsible, temperamentally mild-mannered, and practically free of the baggage that came to characterize the later movement. At some point between the 1920s and the 1950s this golden age came to an end. Fundamentalists universally became hyper-separatistic and adopted legalistic regulations about such cultural matters as dress, theater, alcohol, and music.

Those who desire a return to this (supposedly) more responsible version of fundamentalism seem to think that the publication of The Fundamentals represents the apex of “classical” fundamentalism. The editors and authors of The Fundamentals are viewed as the real fundamentalists, while the separatists and legalists of later generations became occupied merely with their own subculture. A return to the attitudes of these editors and authors is urged as a kind of desideratum.

The first editor of The Fundamentals was Amzi Clarence Dixon. A prominent Christian leader, he had held influential pastorates in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Boston. He was pastor of Moody Church in Chicago and later of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Dixon gathered the steering committee for The Fundamentals, founded the company that originally published the series, and personally edited the first several volumes. If anyone qualifies as a “classical” fundamentalist, he does. If anyone should escape the charge of cultural fundamentalism, he should.

Those who are interested in “classical” fundamentalism should note Dixon’s view of the theater. He represents something of a consensus among “classical” fundamentalists. Those who reject “cultural” in favor of “classical” fundamentalism may be happy to discover his opinions as revealed in the following citations. They are drawn from the biography, A. C. Dixon: A Romance of Preaching by H. C. A. Dixon. Whether Dixon was right or wrong, his words certainly help to define the sensibilities and priorities of “classical” fundamentalism.

*  *  *

The philosophy of all this may be in the very nature of the actor’s profession. Acting is injurious to character. The best acting is the worst. Every actor is a hypocrite while on the stage, in the sense that he must pretend to be what he is not. He must feign emotions, good and bad. By merging his personality in simulation as a very essential of his profession, the art of the actor differs from any other. There is nothing akin to it in any other approved sphere of art. A man may portray evil in literature, in poetry, in music, in sculpture, without putting himself into the exhibit, but the actor who would successfully portray the murderer, the seducer, the betrayer of a sacred trust, must strive to think and feel and speak as if he himself were this very evil-doer.

*  *  *

A play is necessarily an over-stimulant. Every play must crowd into an hour the events of perhaps years or a life-time. It is therefore an intoxicant in its nature, and all excessive emotion, even though worthy in character, is demoralizing by reason of its excess.

*  *  *

The purpose of the stage is to teach men how to act a part. The purpose of the church of Jesus is to teach men how to be real. The purpose of the stage is to amuse; the purpose of the church is to save. The purpose of the stage is to make money, the purpose of the church is to make character.

The stage gives people what they want, and, sad to say, the worst plays often draw the biggest crowds; the purpose of the church of Christ is to give the people what they need, regardless of popularity. The stage ministers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father”; the purpose of the church is to crucify these things. The stage, in its tragedies, glorifies revenge, which leads to murder; the church of Christ teaches forgiveness of enemies and patient endurance of wrong.

The tendency of the stage is to make people childish in their feverish desire for diversion; the work of the church is to make people childlike in their faith and love and simplicity. The tendency of the stage is to keep the race in its childhood of self-gratifying amusement; the work of the church is to lead the race into the manhood of self-sacrificing achievement.

In a word, the true Church is the incarnation of the spirit of Christ—pure, humble, self-sacrificing, and forgiving. The stage is the incarnation of the spirit of the world—lustful, proud, selfish, and revengeful. And what God hath put asunder let no man join together.

*  *  *

I can think of nothing that would go further toward breaking down real Christianity than this farcical crucifixion of our Lord in the theaters of the world. To portray the sacred and holy emotions of the soul for the entertainment of an audience is an incongruous proceeding; and to feign sacred and holy feelings is cant which, on or off the stage, weakens religious character. Miracle plays do not strengthen faith in real miracles.

*  *  *

The charge that I do not attend the theater and have, therefore, no right to an opinion, is not reasonable. One need not get drunk or tell a lie to know what drunkenness and lying are. People who do not go to the theater may be better qualified to judge of its ethics than those who have accustomed themselves to its atmosphere. The habitual theater-goer is apt to become blunted in his finer sensibilities.

The plea that Christians should ally themselves with the good that is on the stage as a salutary influence is more specious than convincing. You cannot ally yourself with the good without also being allied to the evil, for on the stage the good and the evil are in close alliance. A drop of pure water will not make much impression upon a goblet of ink, but a drop of ink may ruin a goblet of pure water. The only way to win people of the world to the true Christian life is to show them that we have something better than they have.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth
Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of all men bearing;
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing!
Goes patient on, grow weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer;
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death,
Anguish and mockery, and saith,
“Willing all this I suffer.”

This Lamb is Christ, the soul’s great Friend,
The Lamb of God, our Savior;
Him God the Father chose to send
To gain for us His favor.
“Go forth, My Son,” the Father saith,
“And free men from the fear of death,
From guilt and condemnation.
The wrath and stripes are hard to bear,
But by Thy Passion men shall share
The fruit of Thy salvation.”

“Yea, Father, yea, most willingly
I’ll bear what Thou commandest;
My will conforms to Thy decree,
I do what Thou demandest.”
O wondrous Love, what hast Thou done!
The Father offers up His Son!
The Son, content, descendeth!
O Love, how strong Thou art to save!
Thou beddest Him within the grave
Whose word the mountains rendeth.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

2 Responses to Fundamentalism Classical and Cultural: Part One: The Theater

  1. When did these attitudes change in fundamentalism? Was BJU's Unusual Films on the leading edge in the 1950s, or were there developments prior to that?

  2. Billy Graham, BJU, Ken Anderson, and (later on) Mark IV Productions were the big names for introducing theatrical cinema to communicate Christian categories. The fundamentalist suspicion of secular theater began to evaporate with Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music." There's probably a master's thesis that could be written in answer to your question.

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