C.S. Lewis wrote, while introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, that people ought to read two old books for every new book they pick up. People’s worldviews change. Not their opinions; their entire way of understanding reality. To paraphrase Lewis, there are places where Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in shockingly close agreement—shocking, that is, to Socrates. We wouldn’t notice very easily, because we share their basic assumptions.
We share many things in common with people who lived fifty or sixty years ago. Certainly there isn’t a gap of the sort that would occur between Obama and Socrates. But there are still some things that we find very difficult to understand. Those were my thoughts while reading A.W. Tozer’s essay, “The Menace of the Religious Movie.”
I’m not a movie fan. My go-to source of relaxation is books, not movies. (A secret vice: when I’m tired, I have a habit of going to poorly written children’s books to let my mind vegetate. I suppose it’s my version of junk television.) I have read and admired Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I agree with Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” Film has its problems. Emotional manipulation is a major one—and that isn’t even to bring up the damage that some movies have done in religious contexts. Like Postman, I do not believe that any medium is neutral. Tozer, on the other hand, did believe that film was a neutral medium—which makes his attitude toward movies seem even stranger.
Tozer was opposed to religious movies. All religious movies. He quipped that they were making poor attempts to do what what Hollywood could do better—a fair claim, especially at that time. But evidently he considered all Hollywood movies off bounds for Christians as well. A professor of mine told our class that when he was growing up out West, all evangelicals frowned on going to movie theaters. Not fundamentalists—mainstream evangelicals. I guess some of Tozer’s attitudes reflect his time.
Others seem strange, even for the mid-1900s. Tozer opposed acting, period. Pointing out that our word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek word for “actor,” he argued that all acting is hypocritical. I had thought that attitude had died with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Apparently not.
Some of Tozer’s concerns, however, are legitimate—even if I do not agree with all of his reasoning. He worried that people were paying more attention to natural gifts than spiritual gifts, treating Christian actors as superior to Christian teachers, pastors, and evangelists. Given our media-obsessed culture, that remains a danger. Or, worse—those teachers, pastors, and evangelists may try to reinvent themselves as media personalities. As Neil Postman worried, the end result of that will be a nation that takes Christianity less seriously. If a pastor is as good as a movie star, he probably won’t be any better.
But, coming more from the perspective of a writer than of a theologian, I worry as much for the Christian actor in that situation as I would for the pastor. Artists of any medium—film, visual arts, the written word—are vulnerable to forces that the church leaders may not understand. Artists do need to be respected, to have their natural talents affirmed within the context of the church. The church, however, must be careful. I recall reading of a church that had a writer-in-residence. That situation—giving someone a prominent church office based on his or her natural talents—made me uneasy. True, churches have secretaries, musicians, and janitors. Those positions are necessary for the church to function. Is a writer-in-residence? And if he or she is, then shouldn’t he be treated as an equal counterpart to the secretaries, musicians, and janitors?
Celebrity is dangerous. Those in holy orders—pastors, deacons, etc.—have higher positions than others in the church, and Scripture itself recognizes that they are extremely vulnerable. That was long before the TV preachers that so concerned Neil Postman, let alone Internet-based megachurches. People in high positions need to be careful. So does anyone, whether an artist or not, whose calling puts him in the public eye. Churches need to reach out to artists, as they need to reach out to everyone. Artists should feel that the church welcomes their gifts. But Christians should be able to conduct outreach without treating artists as a special, “higher” class. As pastors know very well, “higher” can mean “endangered.”