Faith-based motion pictures have recently seen an enormous surge in popularity. The year 2014 was declared by many to be the year of the Christian movie, with a number of notable directors and actors collaborating in the production of religiously themed pictures. Although MovieGuide has reported these films generating an increased public interest in the Scriptures, some sectors of Christianity feel uncomfortable with the fundamental essence of drama, believing it to be a violation of sincerity. This notion, however, overlooks the enormous potential present in visual presentation. Motion pictures have the ability to combine many of the most emotionally compelling arts into one visual medium, creating a tremendously persuasive outlet of communication. Although many feel that drama profanes the profound truths of Scripture, when void of error and perfused with Biblically sound truth, Christian dramatic films can be a wholesome and effective method of sincerely presenting the Gospel.
The use of drama is not a new development in Christian communication. The Bible provides various examples of distinctly visual and emotional presentation. Arthur L. White, grandson of Ellen White and erudite Adventist historian, wrote an essay on the use of dramatic productions in Adventist institutions. On the subject of visual presentations, White writes “They were often used by God Himself when enlightening His prophets. Many times in Scripture a prophet would preface his description of a scene shown him by God with the words, ‘I saw.’” A vivid example of these divinely cinematic representations of truth can be found in a vision given to the prophet Ezekiel. Ellen White summarizes the vision in this way:
“At one time the prophet Ezekiel was in vision set down in the midst of a large valley. Before him lay a dismal scene. Throughout its whole extent the valley was covered with the bones of the dead…The scattered bones were shaken, and began to come together, ‘bone to his bone,’ and were bound together by sinews. They were covered with flesh, and as the Lord breathed upon the bodies thus formed, ‘the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (White, 1165).
This viscerally compelling vision provides an example of God utilizing dramatic visual presentation to communicate truth to His people. Commenting on this vision, Arthur White writes “the power of God was dramatized.” While God could have simply communicated to Ezekiel through words and phrases, He chose to use a visual illustration of His power to most strongly convey the message.
An additional example of drama being utilized to communicate truth can be found in the book of 1 Kings. A young prophet was tasked with reproving the King of Israel for ignoring a command of God. He chose to enact a scene before the King as an example of the King’s wrongdoing:
“And he found another man, and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him, inflicting a wound. Then the prophet departed and waited for the king by the road, and disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes. Now as the king passed by, he cried out to the king and said, “Your servant went out into the midst of thebattle”…And he hastened to take the bandage away from his eyes; and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. Then he said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people’” (New King James Bible, 1 Kings 20:37-42). In dramatizing an example of the King’s condition, the prophet forcibly brought the King to recognize the enormity of his sin.
In spite of the examples of drama and visual presentation found in Scripture, there remains a substantial debate within Christianity over the ethics and practice of drama. Many of these disagreements revolve around the belief that acting is fundamentally deceptive; a compromise of one’s genuine identity. Dr. A. W. Tozer, a Christian pastor and author, wrote a publication entitled The Menace of the Religious Movie. Arguing against the use of Christian drama, Tozer writes:
“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 assumed a false character and played it for effect. Christ said he was a hypocrite” (Tozer, 23).
Dr. Tozer equates drama with the Pharisee’s intentional attempt to deceive others into believing himself more pious than he truly was. In this sense, the Pharisee was misleading others because his acting strayed from the realm of visual demonstration into that of reality. In contrast to the Pharisee, a motion picture actor is not attempting to actually convince the audience he is, for example, an early american settler, a heroic fireman, or whatever role he may be playing. Rather, an actor is merely attempting to give a realistic exemplification of another character, and in the context of Christianity, find truth within the story to communicate through example.
An actor is merely attempting to give a realistic exemplification of another character, and in the context of Christianity, find truth within the story to communicate through example.
Communicating this truth to an audience should be the pivotal difference between the superficial, aimless acting of the world and the acting in a Christian production. The evangelistically minded director and actor will strive to effectively communicate sincere, real, truthful ideas. While the acting is not real, it is an example of truth communicated through the the actions and ideas of the characters.
In addition to reservations concerning the sincerity of acting, some individuals have interpreted a number of statements from Ellen White to condemn any practice of drama. While her quotes on this subject vary in exact content, one common theme is evident. In the book Adventist Home, White writes,
Many of the amusements popular in the world today, even with those who claim to be Christians, tend to the same end as did those of the heathen. There are indeed few among them that Satan does not turn to account in destroying souls. Through the drama he has worked for ages to excite passion and glorify vice. (White, 515)
In this statement, White condemns mainstream drama for its glorification of evil. The immorality and depravity prevalent in secular drama, both in her day and now, is at odds with any semblance of Christianity. White also describes the theater as a “hotbed of immorality” (White, 516). Although these are severe words, it should be noted that she is denouncing the content of certain dramatic productions, not the medium of drama itself. Other quotes frequently used in opposition to Christian drama speak against pastors preaching in a theatrical manner. An example would be this classic line:
“I have a message for those in charge of our work. Do not encourage the men who are to engage in this work to think that they must proclaim the solemn, sacred message in a theatrical style. Not one jot or tittle of anything theatrical is to be brought into our work…Let nothing of a theatrical nature be permitted, for this would spoil the sacredness of the work” (White, 127).
In this statement, Ellen White cautions pastors against presenting sacred truths in an exaggerated, melodramatic style. When analyzing comments such a these, it is important to understand the culture into which the council was given. In 19th century American protestantism, preachers had developed an outrageously dramatic style of speaking. The late Lee Sandlin, a journalist and essayist from Chicago, wrote about the popular speaking style of Ellen White’s day: “Preachers were expected to be wildly dramatic – it was often said that a preacher who didn’t end a sermon by falling to the ground and rolling around in a fit was simply being lazy” (Lee Sandlin, 113). This rambunctiousness in the pulpit not only made a fool of the pastors, but effectively ridiculed the message they preached.
Just as preaching styles have evolved, acting has seen a dramatic stylistic overhaul with the transition from stage to screen. David Patrick Green, a veteran television actor known for his roles in CSI and ER, wrote of the difference between theater and film acting:
“On stage, the audience can easily be 100 feet or more from the performers. Since the audience must see and hear a performance to enjoy it, stage performers must act for the back row. The result is a larger than life performance since the other actors are only a fraction of that distance from you…This explains why theater actors are used to projecting their voices and emphasizing regular movements like standing or walking. Stage acting often involves movement that’s overdone or exaggerated. The main responsibility of television and film actors is that they behave naturally. No exaggerated sound or movement is required” (Green).
According to Green, theatrical drama requires actors to exaggerate their behavior, creating a sensationalized, unrealistic interpretation of life. Considering the melodramatic nature of theatrical drama, it should not be surprising that White condemns its use in the proclamation of sacred truth. However, this artificiality associated with the theater is nearly foreign to cinema. Outside of comedies and B movies, quality motion picture drama seeks to realistically depict emotions rather then exaggerate them. Many of the most critically acclaimed pictures are known for their minimalist acting and subtle emotions. Christian filmmakers should pursue a similar style for their films; not only for artistic reasons, but to defend the sacredness of the message they proclaim.
The artificiality often associated with the theater is nearly foreign to cinema. Outside of comedies and B movies, quality motion picture drama seeks to realistically depict emotions rather then exaggerate them.
This proclamation of truth must be the driving motivation behind a film if it is to maintain its purity and purpose. The medium should not be used to simply create sensation and excitement within the audience, but rather to share the naturally compelling Gospel with others. When this is effectively carried out, the motion picture can be a powerful method of Christian communication.
Ellen White spoke of this power after attending a play her granddaughter took part in. Although she was disappointed in the music played during the performance, White spoke about the “forcible and striking” effect that dramatic productions may have upon the audience when the message of truth is distinctly communicated. Any character building story offers the ability to see the consequences of evil, the trials of service, and the rewards of heroic dedication, but to see a living example of such nobility on film can be uniquely influential.
Kenneth Burke famously stated that “stories are equipment for living”. Whether or not it is consciously realized, people ingest stories because fundamentally, they want to learn how to lead their lives. By glamorously illustrating lives of sinfulness, Hollywood has been enormously successful at teaching the world to live in a similar manner. Christian filmmakers have a tremendous opportunity to harness the power of visual storytelling for the cause of Christ. By giving an example of genuine Christianity in action, faith-based films can reverse the tide of culture and change the world for Jesus.
1 Kings. New King James Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1975. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California, 1974. Print.
Green, David Patrick. “The 3 Major Differences Between Stage and Screen Acting.”Backstage.com. N.p., 12 Sept. 2013. Web.
MovieGuide. Noah Inspires People to Read the Bible, Stats Reveal. Movieguide.com. 07 Apr. 2014. Web.
Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. New York: Pantheon, 2010. Print.
Tozer, A. W. The Menace of the Religious Movie. Harrisburg, Penn. Christian Publications. Print. White, Arthur L. Dramatic Productions in SDA Institutions. Ellen G. White Estate, 1963.
White, Ellen G. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. Vol. 4. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1985. Print.
White, Ellen G. The Adventist Home. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Association, 2001. Print.
White, Ellen G. Evangelism. Washington: Review and Herald Pub. Association, 1946. Print. White, Ellen G. Manuscript Releases from the Files of the Letters and Manuscripts Written by
Ellen G. White. Washington, D.C.: E.G. White Estate, 1981. Print