On the day after Christmas, 1811, a fire broke out in a crowded theater in Richmond, Virginia; Seventy-five people died in the inferno. As stunned Richmonders tried to make sense of the tragedy, a minister named Samuel Miller stepped forward with a possible explanation: "The finger of God, in that calamity, points to this Amusement, with a distinctness which cannot be mistaken . . . theatrical entertainments are . . . directly hostile to the precepts, and to the whole spirit of the Religion of Jesus Christ." In other words, God was punishing theatergoers for the "sin" of attending a dramatic presentation.
Why have American Protestants always been so down on drama? A conservative Christian drama professor sums it up in one word: guilt.
Camille Hallstrom teaches theater at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and she's spent many years studying the rocky relationship between the church and the dramatic arts.
According to Hallstrom, some 260 years ago, when Pietist preachers like Whitefield and Wesley came to America, "They brought those 'You need to use your time profitably for work and service, and none of this wasting your time attending entertainments' opinions," Hallstrom notes.
Thanks to these influences, when it comes to drama, American Protestants have a generational memory of guilt--one that is not well founded, Hallstrom says. "Even when you read some of the Puritan sermons, their objections to theater pretty much boil down to nothing more substantial than, 'Well, you know you shouldn't be there.' And they never tell you why."
This puritanical attitude was hardly new. Starting practically the day after the Resurrection, followers of Christ have viewed drama as not quite--well, not quite Christian.
You can't blame the early church fathers for thinking drama was something good Christians avoided. The only theater they saw--ancient Roman entertainments--featured actual killings, sex acts, and mockery of the Christian sacraments.
Tertullian--that fiery, second-century theologian--also objected to drama on First Commandment grounds: He considered drama idol worship--an art form that could not be redeemed by and for the Church. In his view, when Christians were baptized, they foreswore the works of the devil--and he considered theater to be just that.
Hallstrom thinks--with respect--that Tertullian was wrong. Tertullian, she says, traced theater to its roots in paganism. He believed it represented "the place where idol worship and lasciviousness came together publicly and uninhibitedly." But, Hallstrom notes, Tertullian cheated God by regarding the devil as the source of artistic talent.
Nevertheless, Tertullian's view of drama ruled the doctrinal roost until the curtain rose on the Middle Ages. It was a time for reinventing drama, which had essentially disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The clergy used drama as a means of educating an illiterate populace about biblical history, bringing the scriptures to life through epic dramas (think Stephen Spielberg in a monk's habit). Plays were often performed on "pageant wagons" (think Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade floats).
"People would wait for these pageant wagons and yell, 'Look! Here comes a play about Noah! Here comes the Cain and Abel wagon!'" Hallstrom says. "If you stood there long enough, you'd get to see the whole redemption history."Fast forward to the early days of the Protestant Reformation, when the link between the church and drama was abruptly broken by Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. And for good reason: Catholics and Protestant playgoers were spending more time fighting over religious plays than watching them.
"Elizabeth finally said, 'That's it, you guys! No more religious plays. No more talking about Jesus or God,'" Hallstrom says. Overnight, theater was secularized to keep the public peace.
Elsewhere, theater began to become secularized, as well, although Calvin and Luther--themselves actors in the great Reformation drama--"actively championed and made use of Classical, as well as Protestant biblical drama," Hallstrom notes.
Sadly, Protestants eventually wandered back to Tertullian's view. They mistook the sin in theater's creational structure (the fact that drama was developed for the purpose of worshipping pagan gods) for proof that the structure itself was sinful. And many objected to drama for the same reasons Christians do today: Too much sex and violence. Too much modeling of bad behavior.
The church had another reason to be leery of theater: Drama is not modeled in the Old Testament. The Bible exhorts God's people to sing, to write songs, and to create works of art for the Temple--but nowhere does it say, "Go out and produce a play," Hallstrom notes. On the other hand, the cultures that surrounded ancient Israel did engage in drama as part of religious practices that included human sacrifice. Says Hallstrom: "It makes me wonder: If the peoples around Israel were making use of drama, why weren't the Israelites? And you also have clear warnings from Yahweh--you know, 'When you come into the land I'm going to give you, don't imitate the worship practices of the folks around you.' You have to wonder if there's something extra potent which can tend to draw one astray in this particular way of embodying ideas," Hallstrom muses. "So it might be wise for us to analyze what the medium is and go slow about using it."