The Protestant Church has often struggled with the notion of art, and in just about every medium. Fear of spectacle, of the fantastic, the ornamental, the iconic and symbolic, and the apparent falsehood of fiction has roiled deep in the Reformed Christian consciousness. The theatrical arts in particular have been regarded as dangerous, perhaps even as inherently corrupt — dramatic irony, requiring suspended disbelief, as duplicitous by its nature. Such feelings have pervaded our very notion of what it means to be American. In his book An Essay on the Stage, Timothy Dwight, eighth president of Yale College, said that “to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure, the immortal soul” (quoted in The Popular Book, by James David Hart).
Similar warnings echo from the 16th to 20th centuries. An undated tract titled “The Christian and the Theater” uses words like “pestiferous” [diseased or evil] to describe the theater. Not only has theater become popular in society at large, goes this argument, but “even some professed Christians are seen in that school of vice and debauchery; and a few of them openly and systematically attempt to vindicate the practice. … [Theater] has come to be considered by many, as an amusement lawful for Christians!” In the tract’s first numbered point, we find a distinctively American reason for disdaining theater, rooted in the Protestant work ethic: “To attend the theater is a sinful waste of TIME.” Subsequent points indicate distrust of the kind of material being presented (“vice and profligacy”) and the actors themselves (“licentious play-actors”). Of note, too, is the anti-urban way the tract begins, by defining theater as “an amusement which occupies much of the time and attention of multitudes in our large cities and populous towns” (American Tract Society, republished by Gracegems.org).
In the early 1960s Max Belz [the author’s grandfather] published a tract titled “What Does the Bible Say About Television?” For Belz, the reason to shun television is as an act of holiness. Television — not in its technology, he clarifies, but in its typical content — appeals to the “lust of the eyes.” In support of this he cites Romans 13:14, “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” It does so more intrusively than radio, which appeals only to the “ear gate,” … television comes along today to enter the eye and ear gates — together! Suffice it to say, the Bible specifically warns against walking in the counsel of the ungodly.”
Finally, he echoes those before him in a section titled Time-Taker: “We need boys and girls and men and women to enter the fields which are white unto the harvest. … I happen to know that quite a few professing Christians today, including some Christian ministers, have time to sit in front of the television sets.” He saves the scariest rhetoric for the conclusion, in which he envisions a future in which “Ministers will be writing sermons on tithing and the holy life while their families sit galvanized in front of a TV set. Satan will smile with satisfaction. …” This he contrasts with “Bible study, prayer, and good-old-fashioned-hard-work for the Lord.” There’s something immensely appealing about Belz’s reasoning, a sense of personal holiness and evangelical urgency that Reformed Christians today seem to have lost. Nevertheless, his tract does not propose the redemption of television or the theatrical arts as a form, but simply laments their adverse effect on the church.
In summary, for Americans, the reasoning against theater and art extends beyond theological opposition to iconography (idol worship) and distrust of art’s apparent fiction and into such convictions, stated or not, that recreation and sophistication are themselves evil. So the problem of art, for Protestants, is systematic and deep-rooted. The idea that art might be a good thing, part of our calling to cultivate the created world — and that to become an artist or poet, playwright or actor is legitimate — is therefore an uphill climb.
Recently I had a conversation with James Ward, the music director at New City Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a hymnist and recording artist in his own right. We talked about our children, and I discovered that his, like mine, had found callings in music and art. “We influenced them, I suppose,” I said, hinting that that might be a bad thing.
“Christian kids need someone to give them permission to go into the arts,” was Ward’s response, clearly borne of decades of discussing jazz, gospel, and rock music with other Christians. We suspect that going into “entertainment” or “the arts” might not be valid for Christians, while teaching, medical, and nonprofit careers, with their sense of immediate applicability, tend to go unquestioned. But who will give us not only the “permission” necessary to enter the arts, but the tools required to transform the arts for Christ’s kingdom?
The Arts and the Truth About the Human Condition
When Red, an award-winning new play that tells the story of the American artist Mark Rothko, ran this spring at the Balzer Theater in Atlanta, it received terrific reviews. “Under the direction of David de Vries at [Tom] Key’s downtown theater,” reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “the play that riveted the West End and swept the 2010 Tony Awards gets a bristling, tightly wound workout, appropriately laden with portent, shadow and precious little light.” I attended the show near the middle of its run.
Even arts-supporting Christians may wonder what “shadow and precious little light” have to do with people who are called to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), just as they might wonder why a secular modernist like Rothko — whose life ended in suicide — ought to be considered on stage. And Christians not prone to supporting the arts might be triply offended by this spectacle, which includes occasional profanity. Yet Theatrical Outfit, the company that staged Red at the Balzer, is staffed by a number of Christians, and its executive artistic director, Tom Key, is keenly conscious of his role in advancing God’s kingdom through the production of such plays.
Key, who also happens to be the creator of Cotton Patch Gospel (with Harry Chapin), a founding member of the Lamb’s Theatre in New York, renowned C.S. Lewis monologist, and frequent producer of adaptations of stories by Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and other Southern Christian authors, played the starring role in Red. His performance was nothing less than scintillating. He obviously believed in what he was doing and that stories like Rothko’s are worth reproducing in all their raw realism, exploring both the bad and the good in cultural figures like Rothko.
Something akin to historical fiction, Red imagines Rothko in dialogue with a new assistant, Ken, during the time he painted the Seagram Murals (1956-58). Though there never was a “Ken,” Red’s context and characters are based in biographical fact.
According to Key, the great virtue of Red is that it tells the truth about the human condition. It shows a Rothko who has become cynical enough to have accepted the Seagram commission but still alert enough to sense that he might be selling out. He has to battle his own demons of doubt and self-loathing. His is the sort of angst we’ve come to expect from artists. Writers such as Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, and Spalding Gray were prone to the same sort of behavior. And Rothko did, in fact, take his own life in 1970. Red is not about that, but it’s hard not to see it as a map of the mental landscape of a man who would commit suicide 12 years later.
It’s also not hard to see an honest, if perhaps extreme, reflection of ourselves in Rothko. We do, if we’re honest about what it means to be humans living in the temporal realm, fight a sense of meaninglessness, of having sold out, and often feel that we are failures. “Shadow and precious little light” often feels like our lot in this life, even though we know, by faith, that it is not.
Sitting at the Ellis Hotel’s Terrace Restaurant on the day after the performance, Key talks about the play’s final scene. “In James Breslin’s biography of Rothko, there’s an interesting story of an aspiring painter who came to visit the studio,” Key explains. “Rothko was generous with his time and what he had to disclose about his work, his beliefs; he spent all afternoon with him, showed him his paintings. And when it was over, the young painter said something to the effect of, ‘We’ll have to continue this.’ And Rothko said, ‘No. This is it. You need to go out there, find your contemporaries, make your own way.’ And that young painter was very angry for a couple of years, but later in his life he realized what a gift Rothko had given to him.”
Many of Rothko’s lines in Red are, in fact, taken from his own writing or reported speech, so the character we meet on stage is approximately the artist himself. The real Rothko read Nietzsche, was concerned about existential balance, and desired pure vision in art. Red, says Key, fits Theatrical Outfit’s larger mission to produce plays that contribute to “civic discourse, stimulate discussion.” That, he says, is what theater ought to do, even if it doesn’t always do it.
“When I saw Red in New York I thought, this fits so well into what we’re doing,” says Key. “It portrays the spiritual dimension, the unseen. A lot of plays will have a very interesting plot and maybe interesting characters, but nothing seems to happen on the spiritual level … the movement of the spirit from one place to the next. And in Red I think there’s a real growth in humility. I think there’s a huge admittance and a surrender to the duplicity of the human condition.
“I think it gets so much of contemporary writing, whether it’s by a Christian or not,” Key explains. “At Rothko’s core he was really compassionate. Hard, yes. He’s a tragic hero. I think it was wonderful for him to admit the reality of what the Four Seasons was about, that it was not going to be a chapel.”
While some members of Theatrical Outfit’s largely Christian constituency have walked out of performances and sent letters of complaint, Red presents the human problem honestly and without apology. There’s something vitally important, Key understands, in engaging the world realistically. Key says the guiding standard is, does the story tell the truth?
It is a very different standard from Timothy Dwight’s.
The Value of Theater
So what good is it for a Christian to spend two-and-a-half hours considering Rothko as a historical figure and admiring Key’s skill in representing him on stage? How does attending Red — or any other such play — stand to be a valuable activity for people of faith who might sense, like Max Belz did, that their time would be better spent in prayer or evangelism?
One thing worth noting is that many Christians’ first response to any theater, TV, or movie event is a reaction against its blue content. This is the point at which we reference the “whatever is pure” passage from Philippians 4, and perhaps also Ephesians 5:4, which warns against “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” and “crude joking.”
It seems that matters of “content” must be addressed in a balance with this notion of truth: Does this story represent reality faithfully? If it is deeply imaginative or fantastic or nonrepresentational, is it psychologically “true”? And although it may not contain virtuous people and deeds (“role model” types of stories), does it cause its viewers to take an unsparing look at their own motivations and actions? Is it humbling, or does it foster sympathy with others? How does this story change one’s sense of self, community, and the purpose of life in a larger sense?
But the most plausible explanation for not only the importance of theater, but its very existence, is that it’s good to have compelling reference points. This is why the biblical narrative is rife with tales of treachery (King David) as well as some somewhat nobler efforts (Daniel, perhaps), peevish faithlessness (Peter), and only one perfect life. The context for Christ is of vital importance. We need to constantly be reminded of that which needs renewal and restoration, constantly refreshing our terms for discussing the all-encompassing importance of Christ’s work.
And when we have something to talk about, we have community. It’s good to sit around and gab about what we’ve seen on screen, stage, in the gallery — what books we’ve read. Christians seem to instinctively know this but still may not have an adequate theology of culture to support it. What we do have is people like Tom Key and James Ward, though they be few and far between, who show us by their very careers how important working in the arts is to all of us.
We have community not only locally, we have it regionally — nationally. On Theatrical Outfit’s website, Key explains his vision in more formal terms: “Because of the rich legacy of literature and music and the history of civil rights in this part of the world, we aspire to give dramatic voice to the most resonant themes of the American South. … Because we believe that the theatre is a critical part of civic discourse and that a free country is only as strong as its citizens are informed, we will cultivate programming that will illuminate and enrich discussion on the most relevant topics of our time and place.”
This mission is not only Christian, of course; it is shared by the whole human race. In his book Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture, David Hegeman connects such kingdom faithfulness to God’s original instructions to Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This cultural mandate supersedes considerations of Christian and secular, he argues, and all humans are subject to it, whether they know it or not: “If Rembrandt would have been puzzled by the question of whether he was a Christian artist,” he writes, “it would have only been because he was not (presumably) accustomed to thinking in these terms. … Faithful artists in Calvinistic Holland took their biblical worldview (but not their salvation) for granted; thinking and working in biblical terms was simply who they were.” Hegeman goes on to distinguish between “culturative” history and redemptive history, concluding that making art, music, theater, architecture, and other cultural forms is simply a matter of who we are as humans made in God’s image. Rooted carefully in Scripture and in historical Reformed theology, Hegeman’s argument provides a compelling philosophical basis for working in the arts.
Theater, that is, makes us not only good citizens, but faithful respondents to the cultural mandate. And if these arts stand to have such a personal, communal, regional, political, and universal effect, why would Reformed Christians not be first in line to cultivate them?
Aaron Belz is a poet and essayist in Hillsborough, N.C. His books include Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010), and The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007). A third is forthcoming from Persea Books. More information about this author is available at belz.net.