Dramatic questions

We live at a time when Adventists are unashamedly producing their own films and when youth programs regularly feature drama. Now, for example, talk is adrift regarding the second proposed movie in as many years on the great controversy between Christ and Satan called "Heaven: The First War."

That is ironic. But the irony will be more apparent toward the end of the article. 

Meanwhile, we have apparently lost the battle over the theater. Theology majors, like the rest of their fellow students in our colleges, often have no qualms with attending a local flick or cuddling with a special someone in front of a rented film. Even some of the most spiritual-minded of our youth have, on their Facebook sites, lists of their favorite movies.

My, have things changed. Or have they? In Ellen White’s day Adventist ministers experimented with dramatic story-telling. Drama clubs were cropping up at our schools masquerading as “Literary Societies.” Adventist youth attended theaters and were sometimes encouraged by the fact that their parents joined them. Some pastors approved of the same. And if rumors are gold, then even the prophet herself enjoyed a Christmas play in December of 1888.

But if you are of the opinion that God approved of the skits, encouraged Christmas plays, breathed life into the spiritual productions of the drama clubs, then you are mistaken. Either that, or else Ellen White is.

God has given counsel to His church, not only on the content of the message we are to bear, but also on the character of the mediums used for delivering the content. She does not blow hot and cold regarding the use of drama in the work of the church. She opposed it, consistently, energetically, and openly.  

Let’s start with a narrative, quoted by Ellen White in one of her key articles on this topic. It features a young lady who had desired to be a Christian at one point, but only a year later had no such desire. And drama, according to the young woman, had something to do with the change. Yet, curiously, she had not been raised in a home that visited the theater. Listen to her speaking to a visiting friend about why she will never be a Christian:

‘I believe,’ she said hesitatingly, ‘there is one thing I cannot give up.’

‘Give it up at once, dear.’

‘But I can’t.’

‘Come to Jesus--first then, and he will give you the power.’

‘I don’t want Him to. I believe if I knew I should die and be lost in three weeks from tonight, I would rather be lost than give up my passion.’

‘And what is this dearly loved thing, worth so much more than your salvation?’

‘Oh, it isn’t worth more, only I love it more, and I can’t and won’t give it up. It’s that I--I want to be an actress; I know I have the talent; I’ve always hoped the way would open for me to go upon the stage, and I can’t help hoping so still.’

‘Do you think it would be wrong for you to do so, provided the way did open?’

‘I don’t know that it would be a sin; but I couldn’t do it and be a Christian; the two things don’t go together.’

‘How did you come by such a taste? I am sure you do not belong to a theater-going family?’

‘Oh no! my father and mother are Methodists; they always disapproved of the theater. I’ve been in Sunday school all my life. They used to make me sing and recite at the entertainments when I was four years old, and I acted the angel and fairy parts in the dialogues; and when I grew older, I always arranged the tableaux, charades, etc. Then I joined a set of sociables got up by our church young people. At first we did “Mrs. Jarley’s Wax-works,” and sang “Pinafore” for the benefit of the church; and then we got more ambitious, studied, and had private theatricals, and last winter we hired Mason’s Hall and gave a series of Shakespearean performances, which cleared off a large part of the church debt. But that’s only second-class work, after all. I want to do the real thing, to go upon the stage as a profession. My father won’t hear of it; but I hope some time the way will be opened that I may realize my heart’s desire.’

‘And meantime, will you not come to Jesus and be saved?'

‘No, I cannot do it and keep to this hope, and I will not give this up.’

And so the visitor turned sadly away, thinking for what miserable messes of pottage men and women are willing to sell their glorious birthright as children of God; thinking also of the seeds which are being sowed in our Sunday-schools, the tares among the wheat, and the terrible harvest that may yet spring up from this well-meant but injudicious seed-sowing (Review and Herald, January 4, 1881 par. 10-23).

The moral of the story, difficult to miss, is that church-sponsored charades and skits succeeded in tearing down what John Wesley had built up in the Methodist church. What, then, have church-sponsored charades and skits (our actress-in-the-making called them “second class work”) had on the historical teaching of our church regarding movies? 

In defense of those historical teachings, at bibledoc.org, I have a Bible study opposing the use of movies by Seventh-day Adventists. 

This article, by way of contrast, is addressing the discrepancy between our counsel and our practice regarding drama in ministry. And at the root of the difference are two areas of ignorance. First, we Adventists are ignorant of the counsel. Second, we are ignorant of the effects of our choices of drama on the spiritual life of our youth. Happily, the inspired statements disabuse our minds on both accounts simultaneously. In other words, the counsel tells us what drama does to our youth.

Consider one who thought he was skillful at acting in plays. He thought to honor God that way just as youth in your church might be thinking to do. Was he right to channel his energies into his passion for drama ministry? 

Has God given you intellect? Is it for you to manage according to your inclinations? Can you glorify God by being educated to represent characters in plays, and to amuse an audience with fables? Has not the Lord given you intellect to be used to His name’s glory in proclaiming the gospel of Christ? If you desire a public career, there is a work that you may do. Help the class you represent in plays. Come to the reality. Give your sympathy where it is needed by actually lifting up the bowed down. Satan’s ruling passion is to pervert the intellect and cause men to long for shows and theatrical performances. The experience and character of all who engage in this work will be in accordance with the food given to the mind (Kress Collection 159).  

Now if the Skit Guys (a two-man Adventist dramatic arts team) had been sent this same letter years ago, would it have made a difference in their choice of ministry? 

Ellen White repeatedly asked ministers not to use theatrical styles in their proclamation of the message. And if you are a church administrator, take note that you are charged with taking cognizance of these issues.

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. God’s cause is to have a sacred, heavenly mold. Let everything connected with the giving of the message for this time bear the divine impress. Let nothing of a theatrical nature be permitted, for this would spoil the sacredness of the work (Evangelism 137). 

The Spirit exposed our church drama-clubs for what they were, traps to create a dangerous taste in the young. 

Many literary societies are in reality young theaters on a cheap scale, and they create in the youth a taste for the stage. 

Then what are we to make of more serous productions, theater on something other than a “cheap scale.” Would the increase in quality aggravate or alleviate the danger? (Review and Herald, January 4, 1881, par. 5).

One progressive mother, rebuked for attending the dramatic performances of her own children, was told that their talents were given them to “win souls away from everything that pertains to this class of fascinating amusement . . .” (Manuscript Releases, 11th Volume 335).  

The deceptive temptation that they can be a blessing to the world while serving as actresses is a delusion and a snare, not only to themselves, but to your own soul. . . . Can the Lord Jesus Christ accept these theatrical exhibitions as service done for Him? Can He be glorified thereby? No. All this kind of work is done in the service of another leader.

As soon as these entertainments are introduced, the objections to theatergoing are removed from many minds, and the plea that moral and high-toned scenes are to be acted at the theater breaks down the last barrier (335).

Ellen White went on to say that church entertainments and skits change the way members view the issue of theater. Now hasn’t that happened? The skits were introduced when I was young and in one generation the objections to theater-going went out the window.  

The Spirit’s opposition to the use of drama in God’s work was presented often to ministers. Not even in their gestures and facial expressions were they to approach the theatrical. “Ministers are not to preach men’s opinions, not to relate anecdotes, get up theatrical performances, not to exhibit self; but as though they were in the presence of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, they are to preach the Word” (Evangelism 207). 

Let’s come back to the Facebook issue. Everyone seems to have favorite movies. But those favorites are virtually recommendations. And how do they affect your friends when they give in to their curiosity to see some famous movie star? What happens when they are done watching the movie?

They leave the theater; but their imagination continues to dwell upon the scenes they have witnessed, and they are anxious to go again, and again. They acquire a passion to witness theatrical performances. . . . They thus stifle conscience with the example of worldly, pleasure loving, professed Christians (Review and Herald, February 20, 1866, par. 21).

Our view of salvation plays a part in how we relate to issues like drama. Ministers who approve of dance and theater may do so because of their faulty views regarding salvation. (Manuscript Releases, 21st Volume, 243).

What about the golden rumor? Didn’t Ellen White listen to her own six-year old granddaughter perform in a Christmas skit while dressed up as an angel? Possibly. But the internal evidence shows only that poems were read and songs sung. That is pretty typical, even today, for Christmas programs by costumed first graders. 

But more than that, while Ellen White commended the children, she did not commend the organizers of the event. She complained,

I must say I was pained at these things, so out of order with the very work of reformation we were trying to carry forward in the church and with our institutions, that I should have felt better if I had not been present (Manuscript Releases, 2nd Volume, 236.)  

What about you, reader? Are you pained at these things? Do you recognize how out of character they are with our work of reformation? Do you fear that there may be other young ladies who aim to be actresses despite their opinion that their chosen occupation does not harmonize with the Christian life? 

Or do you prefer golden rumors and pastors that approve of dance and theater? 

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