The Church Fathers on entertainment

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that stem from content I am covering in my course on the History of Christian Thought for Wesley Biblical Seminary.


The Church Fathers had strong convictions about entertainment, and their arguments are still relevant today. In this post, I have collected excerpts from four early Christian writers: Theophilus, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Salvian.

 

Theophilus (2nd century)


Note: Theophilus is defending Christianity against the slanderous rumor that Christians engaged in incest and cannibalism. The "spectacles" he refers to here are stage performances involving stories from Greek mythology. Thyestes and Tereus are two mythical characters whose stories involve cannibalism.


Consider, therefore, whether those who teach such things can possibly live indifferently, and be commingled in unlawful intercourse, or, most impious of all, eat human flesh, especially when we are forbidden so much as to witness shows of gladiators, lest we become partakers and abettors of murders. But neither may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances there sung. For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Thyestes and Tereus are eaten; and as for adultery, both in the case of men and of gods, whom they celebrate in elegant language for honours and prizes, this is made the subject of their dramas. But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds. (Theophilus to Autolycus 15)

 

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225)


Why is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? … If tragedies and comedies are the bloody and wanton, the impious and licentious inventors of crimes and lusts, it is not good even that there should be any calling to remembrance the atrocious or the vile. What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome to in word. (Shows 17)


How vain, then – no, how desperate – is the reasoning of persons, who, just because they decline to lose a pleasure, hold out that we cannot point to the specific words or the very place [in Scripture] where this abstinence is mentioned, and where the servants of God are directly forbidden to have anything to do with such assemblies! (Shows 20)


The rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them [i.e. the pagans] that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If anyone, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief. (Shows 24)

 

John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407)


And what is yet more grievous than these things is the subject of the laughter. For when they that act those absurd things utter any word of blasphemy or filthiness, then many among the more thoughtless laugh and are pleased. ... They who praise the utterers of such words, it is these above all who induce men so to speak: wherefore they must be more justly accountable for the penalty allotted to these things. ...


And this I say, not freeing them from reproof, but that ye may learn that it is you chiefly who supply the principle and root of such lawlessness; ye who consume your whole day on these matters, and profanely exhibit the sacred things of marriage, and make an open mock of the great mystery. For not even he who acts these things is so much the offender, as thou art before him; thou who biddest him make a play on these things, or rather who not only biddest him, but art even zealous about it, taking delight, and laughing, and praising what is done. ...


Tell me then, with what eyes wilt thou after this look upon thy wife at home, having seen her insulted there? Or how dost thou not blush being put in mind of the partner of thy home, when thou seest nature herself put to an open shame? Nay, tell me not, that what is done is acting; for this acting hath made many adulterers, and subverted many families. And it is for this most especially that I grieve, that what is done doth not so much as seem evil, but there is even applause and clamor, and much laughter, at commission of so foul adultery. What sayest thou? that what is done is acting? Why, for this selfsame reason they must be worthy of ten thousand deaths, that what things all laws command men to flee, they have taken pains to imitate. For if the thing itself be bad, the imitation thereof also is bad. And I do not yet say how many adulterers they make who act these scenes of adultery, how they render the spectators of such things bold and shameless; for nothing is more full of whoredom and boldness than an eye that endures to look at such things.


And thou in a market-place wouldest not choose to see a woman stripped naked, or rather not even in a house, but callest such a thing an outrage. And goest thou up into the theatre, to insult the common nature of men and women, and disgrace thine own eyes? ... Is it that when we are apart, then such a thing is outrageous, but when we are assembled and all sitting together, it is no longer equally shameful? Nay, this is absurdity and a disgrace, and words of the utmost madness; and it were better to besmear the eyes all over with mud and mire than to be a spectator of such a transgression. For surely mire is not so much an hurt to an eye, as an unchaste sight, and the spectacle of a woman stripped naked. ...


How then will thy wife thenceforward look upon thee, when thou art returned from such wickedness? how receive thee? how speak to thee, after thou hast so publicly put to shame the common nature of woman, and art made by such a sight the harlots' captive and slave?


Now if ye grieve at hearing these things, I thank you much, for "who is he that maketh me glad, but he which is made sorry by me?" Do not then ever cease to grieve and be vexed for them, for the sorrow that comes of such things will be to you a beginning of a change for the better. For this cause I also have made my language the stronger, that by cutting deeper I might free you from the venom of them that intoxicate you; that I might bring you back to a pure health of soul. (Sermon on Matthew 2:1-2 6.10)

 

Let us then also follow the magi, let us separate ourselves from our barbarian customs, and make our distance therefrom great, that we may see Christ, since they too, had they not been far from their own country, would have missed seeing Him. Let us depart from the things of earth. ...


Whereas the barbarians accomplished so great a journey for His sake, before seeing Him; thou not even after thou hast seen Him dost emulate them, but forsakest Him after seeing Him, and runnest to see the stage player. (For I touch again on the same subjects, as I did also of late.) And seeing Christ lying in the manger, thou leavest Him, that thou mayest see women on the stage. ...


Think not, because thou hast not been joined unto the harlot, thou art clean from the sin; for in the purpose of thine heart thou hast done it all. Since if thou be taken by lust, thou hast kindled the flame up higher; if thou feel nothing at what thou seest, thou deservest a heavier charge, for being a scandal to others, by encouraging them in these spectacles, and for polluting thine own eye-sight, and together with thine eye-sight, thy soul. ...


"Well," saith one, "and what dost thou require us to do? to occupy the mountains, and become monks?" Why it is this which makes me sigh, that ye think them alone to be properly concerned with decency and chastity; and yet assuredly Christ made His laws common to all. Thus, when He saith, "if any one look on a woman to lust after her," He speaks not to the solitary, but to him also that hath a wife; since in fact that mount was at that time filled with all kinds of persons of that description. Form then in thy mind an image of that amphitheatre, and hate thou this, which is the devil's. Neither do thou condemn the severity of my speech. For I neither "forbid to marry," nor hinder thy taking pleasure; but I would have this be done in chastity, not with shame, and reproach, and imputations without end. I do not make it a law that you are to occupy the mountains and the deserts, but to be good and considerate and chaste, dwelling in the midst of the city. ...


What plea then wilt thou have, I pray thee, beholding, as thou dost, with great eagerness, things which even to name is disgraceful; preferring to all sights these, which even to recount is intolerable?


Now then for a season, in order not to be too burdensome, I will here bring my discourse to an end. But if ye continue in the same courses, I will make the knife sharper, and the cut deeper; and I will not cease, till I have scattered the theatre of the devil, and so purified the assembly of the Church. For in this way we shall both be delivered from the present disgrace, and shall reap the fruit of the life to come, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might for ever and ever. Amen. (Sermon on Matthew 2:4-5 7.6-8)

 

Heardest thou not what Paul saith, "Rejoice in the Lord?" He said not, "in the devil." ... For even all the mire that is there [in the theater] poured out for you, by the speeches, by the songs, by the laughter, ye collect and take every man to his home, or rather not to his home only, but every man even into his own mind. And from things not worthy of abhorrence thou turnest away; while others which are to be abhorred, so far from hating, thou dost even court. Many, for instance, on coming back from tombs, are used to wash themselves, but on returning from theatres they have never groaned, nor poured forth any fountains of tears; yet surely the dead man is no unclean thing, whereas sin induces such a blot, that not even with ten thousand fountains could one purge it away, but with tears only, and with confessions. ...


"What then," one may say, "if I point to some, who are not hurt at all by their pastime in that place [i.e. the theater]?" … Even if you should not be hurt, you make some other more eager herein. And how can you not but be yourself hurt, giving occasion to what goes on? … If there were no spectators, there would be none to follow these employments. … So that even if in chastity you were quite unhurt (a thing impossible), yet for others’ ruin you will render a grievous account. … And in chastity too you would profit more, if you refrained from going thither. For if even now you are chaste, you would have become more chaste by avoiding such sights. Let us not then delight in useless argument, nor devise unprofitable apologies: there being but one apology, to flee from the Babylonian furnace, to keep far from the Egyptian harlot, though one must escape her hands naked. (Sermon on Matthew 10:7-9 37.8-9)

 

Each man carries home with him much of what he has witnessed there [at the theater], sticking to him like the infection of a plague. (Sermon on Acts 4:1 10)

 

Each day I rend myself with crying out, 'Depart from the theaters,' and many laugh at us. (Sermon on Acts 20:17-21 )

 

Salvian (c. 400 – c. 480)


Let us suppose that our Lord would like to watch us even though we do not deserve it: can he do so? See countless thousands of Christians daily spending their time at shows representing shameful acts. Can God look at them at such a time? Can God watch over men who are revelling in the circuses and wantoning in the theaters? Or do we perhaps think it fitting and desirable that when God sees us in the circuses and theaters, he should see with us what we ourselves see there, and look with us at the disgraceful sights at which we gaze? One of two things must happen; either, if he deigns to look on us, he must also see our surroundings, or if he averts his eyes from them, which he surely does, then he must avert them equally from us, who are among them.


In spite of this, without interruption we continue to do those things of which I speak. Do we perhaps suppose that, like the ancient pagans, we have a god of theaters and circuses? For they built the theaters and circuses long ago because they believed that such vanities were a delight to their idols. How can we imitate them in this, who surely know that our God hates such things? Of course, if we know that these vile shows please God, there can be no objection to our performing them incessantly. But if in our hearts we know that God abhors and abominates them, ... then how can we say that we worship God in the church, we who always serve the devil in the obscene games with full knowledge and understanding and with deliberate intention? ...


Therefore we offer up to Christ—O monstrous folly!—to Christ we offer up circuses and mimes, and we do this chiefly when we receive some benefit from him, when some mark of prosperity is granted us by him, or a victory over the enemy is bestowed on us by his divine favor! How do we seem in this to differ from a man who injures a generous benefactor, or responds to endearments with cutting abuse, or pierces with his dagger the lips that seek to kiss him? ...


To Christ then—O monstrous folly!—we offer circuses and mimes, to Christ in return for his benefits, we offer the obscenities of the theaters, to Christ we dedicate the vilest shows as sacrificial offerings. Was this the teaching given us by the Savior, incarnate for our sake? Was this his preaching, or that of his apostles? For this did he endure the humiliation of human nativity and take upon himself a shameful origin in his mortal birth? ... For this he hung upon the cross? ...


The spectacles involve a sort of apostasy from the faith, a fatal violation of the creed itself and of the divine sacraments. … You have once renounced the devil and his spectacles [in your baptismal vows], and therefore as a rational and intelligent being must recognize that in resorting again to them, you are returning to the devil. … The devil is present in his spectacles and pomps, and therefore when we return to the devil’s spectacles, we abandon our Christian faith. (On the Government of God 6.4-6)


 

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