Dear Prof. Hanko,
I would find it fruitful to begin a dialogue about your article on acting first published in 1950, lately republished in the March issue of the Beacon Lights. As I wrote this response, I found myself returning again and again to a defense of drama itself, which, as you noted, is not the target of your condemnation, so you will have to forgive me if I veer in that direction.
You wrote that the performance of drama is inherently sinful, that to participate in it is an intentional distortion of one’s self. But as I—and many young people and young adults with whom I’ve discussed the concept of acting—understand it, acting at its core is no more and no less than storytelling. Foreseeing this interpretation among your readers, you draw a distinction between the novelist and the dramatist, but I am unconvinced.
I wonder too, do you not by progression of condemning acting also condemn all films, which you initially avoid doing at the risk of having to condemn all literature? Would not you, as others I’ve talked to, say that because some actors and directors are reprobate men and women living and delighting in portraying sin, Christians may never participate in or watch a movie of any kind? If so, I heartily disagree. In God’s eyes, what has an idea’s or object’s origin to do with his purpose for that object or idea? There are atheists who beget children who grow up to be Christian adults. There are wicked gardeners who plant and nurture rosebushes that grow to be beautiful evidences of their Creator. There are reprobate builders who lay stones that become the foundation of a church building or a good Christian home. In the Bible, we are told that the men who created bronze and iron tools (the practice of metallurgy, Tubal-cain), musical instruments (the pipe and stringed musical instruments, Jubal), and the concept of cattle ranching (animal husbandry, Jabal) were evil men, descendants of Cain (Gen. 4:21–23). And yet, such tools were used to raise the temple, to accompany the singing of psalms by David, Asaph, and others, and to raise sheep and goats as sacrifices to the Lord.
I would agree that to portray “lusts, passions, desires of the evil heart” is sinful, because those are more often than not stories that do not benefit the audience in any way except to desensitize him or her to worldliness. We are not freed by means of our Christian liberty to mindlessly consume (whether by reading, listening to, or watching) portrayals of unrepentant sin. If something is evil, is glorifying sin, we are to put it off from ourselves (“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee,” Matt. 5:29). And there are of course many men and women who use their God-given talents for writing and bringing stories to life for the wrong reasons, who worship the works of their hands, or who worship the talents themselves. But all talents, particularly those of the elect, are God-given and intended for use in glorifying him.
In my understanding, acting—as “mere” storytelling—is a talent, and thus not inherently sinful. No talent is inherently evil or dishonoring to God. It is the way in which talents are used (and consumed) that brings glory or dishonor to the Creator. Likewise, lots of movies, by nature of being just another medium of art, are not inherently evil, even though they are created by evil human hands (actor, director, and producer alike). I believe that movies, theater, and the like can be created and consumed in a manner that improves the life of the Christian, that prepares the Christian for spiritual warfare, or that glorifies the great Artist and Creator. Movies and theater, like other forms of art, do not fall into such simple, black-and-white categories as good and evil. They are objects, products, tools, and—like literature, like paintings, like orchestral pieces of music—they should be consumed with discernment, with honest critique, and with a willingness to do the hard work of sorting out gold from dross.
It has been a long time since I wrote that article—something like seventy years ago. Apparently I was still in college. I hardly recall what I wrote. I do, however, remember the circumstances. I was asked by the staff to write that article, because drama was a frequent subject of discussion among the young people. I had never considered the question of drama because TV was rare and I had never given the subject any thought that I recall. I myself had never had occasion to watch any dramatic production—except once in Grand Rapids Christian High when a student drama club put on a show.
So the thing to do was, of course, go downtown to the Grand Rapids Public Library to read books written on the subject. I returned with an armful of books and dove into these murky waters. There were plenty of books on the subject.
The consensus among all these authors was, surprisingly, that to be a successful actor one had to abandon one’s own personality and make one’s personality that of the one he or she was portraying. The more successfully one could do this, the better actor or actress one became. I seem to remember that one author, rather dolefully, observed that Hollywood (at that time the center of the movie industry) was filled with psychologists and psychiatrists, because many in the profession became rich trying to repair mixed-up minds. Actors did not know any more who they were.
The thought came to me that if an actor was successful in assuming another character’s personality, he would be assuming the thoughts, the desires, the emotions of another person. I could not bring myself to imagine how anyone would dare to put himself into, for example, Luther’s position when he ruined his health in his agony so great that he thought God was cruel, as he tried to placate God’s wrath against sin, making himself suffer hunger and pain. I could not imagine how anyone would even dare to make himself go through the grief, anxiety, pain, and sleeplessness of Luther in his cold monk’s cell—and not himself sin. I could not imagine the exaltation Luther knew when what he called a light from heaven burst on his soul so that he knew Christ his righteousness. I could not imagine how anyone could think, will, and feel David’s sin and put himself into David’s lust for Bathsheba and ultimate murder of Bathsheba’s husband—and not sin himself.
I also recall another incident that is relevant here. Back when I was in in high school, I spoke with Dr. Leonard Greenway, who was one of my teachers at Christian High. He told me that he had spent many sessions with a girl who had been the star of the high school’s dramatic production. Her problems, Dr. Greenway said, stemmed from her very successful role in this drama. She suffered and struggled to return to a normal life. All that set me to thinking and ultimately resulted in the article I wrote.
There is a profound difference between writing a book or reading a book and impersonating another person—as the word impersonate itself suggests. I strongly recommend the former. There is so much outstanding literature available that goes almost unread. Charles Dickens is probably literature’s best describer of the personality of those fictional characters whom he makes come alive in his books. But neither he who wrote about them nor the one who thoroughly enjoys his books is guilty of impersonation. Why be so insistent on defending drama when, at the very least, it is dangerous to one’s mind? I am in full agreement with some critic who described TV as “one vast wasteland.” And he referred especially to dramatic productions.
The ability to change one’s personality and “mess it up” is hardly a gift of God. There are, of course, good, better, and best actors and actresses. It is possible that the worst ones do not harm themselves very much. But that is not an argument in favor of drama. God made us entirely what and who we are. Let us be contented with that and not dabble with dangerous ventures into foreign territory where lurk so many evils—especially in today’s wicked world.
Respectfully in Christ,
Prof. Herman Hanko
Emeritus Professor, Protestant Reformed Seminary