There was a time in history when the church not only accepted art, but were the main promoters and encouragers of artistic expression. Perhaps that may still be the case for parts of the church today. Other parts may accept some forms of art, such as music and painting, but reject others, such as dance and theatre. Anabaptists (although not completely alone in this) exhibit a particular distrust or even outright condemnation of these forms of self-expression. In doing so, they overlook the incredible value that theatre in particular can bring. I personally have observed many Anabaptist sermons and books, even children’s school books, decrying all theatre as being antithetical to Christianity. Other, more “liberal” Anabaptists may admit that it is entertaining and morally permissible, but see no added value in it. However, by taking part in plays and other performing arts, children grow and improve in a variety of ways. The job of an educator is to equip children with the skills needed for a productive life. The additional burden of a Christian educator is to instill Biblical values and truths in those under their tutelage. The correct use of theatre encourages competent oratory, improved language and reading skills, confidence, and self-expression. Not only that, but it also is a compelling way to cement lessons about morality, empathy, and true heroism by seeing and being concrete examples that many children relate to more readily than to text on a page. Far from being evil, theatre is extremely profitable to a child’s development of practical life skills and ethical thought. Theatre, like any of the arts, is a tool and can either be used for great evil or God’s glorification.
In order to set the stage, a quick look into history shows the prior positive uses of theatre in Christian education. The integration of theatre into Jesuit schools demonstrates that theses positive are timeless. The Order recognized the power that theatre had in shaping their students.. Indeed, they believed that plays and theatre productions were essential to a proper education. In their work “The Use of Drama in Jesuit Schools”, Jonathan Levy and Floraine Kay present three reasons for this Jesuit viewpoint.
First, they saw that the theatre permitted them to accomplish their original mission of propagating the faith; second, they found that the public performances served as excellent publicity for the Order and as public demonstrations of the high quality of the Order’s schools; and third, they discovered that the theatre could educate students who participated in it in ways that no other subject in the curriculum could. 1
With this high view of the theatre, the Jesuits were prolific playwrights and a large proportion of the schools had highly involved theatre productions.2
The theatrical experience of the playwright and the actor boosts their proficiency in wielding words and in public speaking. To increase their student’s physical grace, vocal control, and confidence, the Jesuits encouraged acting. Developing these useful skills improved the competence of the students in public speaking—competence necessary for future preachers, teachers and lawyers. Memorization of lines and dialogue was integral to improving memory and learning rhetoric.3 Furthermore, in his book dedicated to the historical significance of the Gettysburg address, historian Garry Wills attributes much of Lincoln’s oratorical skill to his prior work in theatre and acting. Lincoln’s habit of spending “hours reading speeches out of Shakespeare to any willing (and some unwilling) audiences,” impacted his rhythm of delivery and the meaning injected through vocal inflection.4 This added skill in oratory is demonstrates just one of many benefits of theatre.
Jesuits also thought plays affected the students in deeper places and the medium of theatre influenced the shaping of one’s character, morality, virtue, and empathy. A compelling protagonist, particularly one relatable to the boys in their schools, exemplified the virtues the schools hoped to instill. Levy and Kay state that “Through acting, the Jesuits hoped to build the students’ wills; they believed through re-enacting a character’s noble decision and the process leading to it, the student would learn to make a similar decision.” 5 These decisions were often not easy and were used to depict the proper way to overcome difficulties and make wise decisions in complicated situations. The plays often depicted relatable and flawed characters to stress that one can make virtuous decisions without being faultless. 6 The empathy-building aspect of theatre was not lost on the Jesuits either. The Order believed that “the process of acting, itself, might teach the students to be sympathetic,” and the act of putting one’s self in another’s shoes might soften hearts.7
Despite this historical evidence, we see that today the benefits of theatre are highly undervalued, even in the secular realm of the arts. Perhaps the advent of television, movies, and Netflix have rendered it obsolete in the eyes of some. And yet, no one denies the value of painting and drawing, even with today’s color photography, or the value of sculpting, even with 3D printers. Neither is the value of musicianship and vocal skill decreased with computer vocal and instrumental synthesis. Both research and consensus conclude that music and art are beneficial, particularly in education and brain development. Yet theatre is broadly excluded from this category of educationally valuable art forms. A 2000 study by the University of California at Los Angeles confirms the historical narrative of the power of theatre. This study followed over 25,000 students from 8th-12th grade and documents the associations between their academic success and their involvement in the arts.8 The resulting data seems to indicate that involvement in theatre may increase a student’s language skills, self-concept, empathy, and tolerance. These social and academic improvements show the merit of engaging with theatre.
In accordance with the purported improvement in language skills through the theatrical experience of Jesuit students and Abraham Lincoln, the UCLA researchers observed an increase in reading and vocabulary skills in the student population with more theatre involvement. They justify the reason for this improvement by stating,
Students involved in drama and theatre, according to our definition of intensive involvement, probably spend time reading and learning lines as actors, and possibly reading to carry our research on characters and their settings. In any case, theatre is a language-rich environment and actively engages students with issues of language. 9
The data showing a higher level of language proficiency in students with extensive theatre involvement seems to back up this claim.
One might think taking part in plays would only increase one’s pride, thus reducing one’s capacity for humility and kindness. Yet, there is indication that such activities, while improving one’s self-confidence, actually increase empathy and respect for others. The UCLA researchers tested levels of tolerance in students by polling them on their friendliness with other racial groups and on their opinions on whether certain racist remarks were acceptable to use. They found those involved in the theatre to be more friendly and courteous to other ethnicities. This makes sense if we look at the broader worldview that can come from involvement in theatre. The published paper reads,
As a character in role, one labors to understand how another character encountered on the stage has conceptualized and enacted his or her role, or to comprehend how his or her character is understood by others. Theatre is loaded with potential opportunities to interact with students that one might not in the ordinary course of school life gravitate toward–including students from other economic strata or other racial groups. This holds both for interactions in role and for interactions with other members of the cast as a play or scene or improvisation is developed. 10
The theatre is an excellent environment to facilitate many of such interracial and inter-socioeconomic interactions.
But despite the benefits of theatre, objections persist, particularly among Christians. Perhaps one of the sources of these objections is the Patristic view of theatre. Tertullian, one of the early church fathers condemned the theatre as well as the other public entertainments present in the greater Roman society. In his words, “We may hold it as a thing beyond all doubt, that for us who have twice renounced all idols, they are utterly unsuitable.” 11 To Tertullian, supporting the theatre was tantamount to supporting idolatry. Theatre in that era consisted of plays about Roman gods and often took place in temples or other buildings dedicated to these gods. The mythologies the actors portrayed often glorified deceit, death, drunkenness, and debauchery. Being entertained by such blatant sin was incongruent with the life of a transformed Christian, and thus Tertullian opposed it.
Idolatry was not the only danger of theatre that concerned Tertullian. He also argued that shows lead to pleasure which leads to strong and passionate feelings, the inevitable outcome of which is rivalry, wrath, bitterness and spiritual agitation. These are also antithetical to the Christian faith. He writes, “God has enjoined us to deal calmly, gently, quietly, and peacefully with the Holy Spirit because these things are alone in keeping with the goodness of His nature.” 12 Since theatre-going results in excitement and zest, Tertullian saw it as unfit for a Christian.
Not only did Tertullian condemn theatre because of the idolatrous origins and excitement it caused in people, but he also decried acting itself as intrinsically sinful. He argues,
The Author of truth hates all the false; He regards as adultery all that is unreal. Condemning, therefore, as He does hypocrisy in every form, He never will approve any putting on of voice, or sex, or age; He never will approve pretended loves, and wraths, and groans, and tears. 13
He further decries the inherent dishonesty of dressing up and pretending to be someone else, referencing Biblical verses that condemn cross-dressing and saying that those who wear high-heeled shoes desire to “make Christ a liar” as they are trying to “add one cubit to his stature.” 14 Instead of turning to theatre for entertainment, Tertullian encouraged the Christian to seek other, more suitable pastimes. “If the literature of the stage delight you, we have literature in abundance of our own—plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of arts, but plain realities.” 15 Tertullian admonished Christians to find other more uplifting pastimes and delight in literature that portray truth rather than pagan myths.
And so two viewpoints emerge, one praising theatre and the other denouncing it. Is Tertullian right that Christianity and theatre cannot mix, or are the Jesuits right, with their view of theatre as conducive to Christianity? What about the research showing the benefits of theatre? How do we reconcile these conflicting stances? I would like to propose that theatre is a mode of communication—an art form. The theatre has the same moral and amoral aspects as music or painting or poetry. Any communication device, especially art, has incredible potential to influence for either good or evil. The benefits of theatre are unmistakable, but so are the evil influences that Tertullian observed. Theatre can indeed be beneficial. It has also in the past been detrimental to some people’s Christian walk.
Most don’t deny this inherent influence of theatre. But some Christians view this influence as solely negative. They see the way various societies in the past used theatre to perpetuate evil societal norms or to glorify sin and conclude, like Tertullian, that theatre is the spawn of the devil. And yet the same Christian would not view the medium of music in the same way. They would admit that music has an inherent influence. They would admit that we can use music for unspeakable evil or the good of God’s kingdom. Why then, do they not view theatre in the same way? Music can be used for instruction in morality, the furtherance of God’s kingdom, and the edification of Christians… and so can a play.
Furthermore, does something’s less-than-holy origins preclude it from being used in a God-honoring way? Let us hypothetically suppose the inventor of the binoculars devised this breakthrough to spy on his neighbor’s wife getting dressed. Would this sinful and disgusting origin prevent a Christian from using binoculars for bird-watching? Or suppose they designed the two-way radio as a way for assassins to communicate with each other while on a mission? Would this make radios inherently evil? Tertullian is correct in stating the idolatrous pagan origins and evil usages of theatre. Yet, these origins do not mean that the essence of theatre is wicked and it cannot be used righteously.
What of Tertullian’s assertion that the theatre’s provocation towards excitement is destructive to a Christian? I won’t deny that theatre can exhilarate and have a profound effect on one’s emotions. My issue once again is with the assertion that it is wrong to be excited. According to Tertullian, “to deal calmly, gently, quietly, and peacefully with the Holy Spirit” 16 excludes fervent feelings from a Christian’s life. And indeed, we are to exclude sinful passions such as bitterness, rivalry, and anger. However, the Bible is filled with examples of passionate emotion: Miriam’s song, David’s dance, the prostitute’s spikenard, Jesus’ cry on the cross, Peter and John’s sprint to the tomb, the passionate letters of Paul, and endless other examples. Our biblical models of righteousness did not always act calm and quiet and serene. Yet I doubt that Tertullian would argue that these emotions were evidence of the lack of the Holy Spirit and would lead to spiritual agitation and rivalry. Strong feelings are not wrong. The wrong strong feelings are wrong.
Furthermore, theatre can stir up the right emotions within someone. As both the Jesuits and the UCLA researchers observed, the theatre has a great capacity to encourage empathy and compassion, emotions not only modeled by Jesus 17 but also commanded for his followers. 18 Emotions can also be used in other positive ways. A good story told in theatrical form can stir up indignation towards evil or reveal man’s tendency toward sin and the destruction in which that sin results. Or a protagonist’s modeling of morality can awaken the desire to act morally and heroically in both the actor and the viewer. This medium of theatre can often be more effective in imparting these positive emotions than a written story—particularly when one is immersed in the production process.
Perhaps the most difficult of Tertullian’s arguments to refute is the claim that acting is hypocritical and dishonest. Once again, there is some truth to this statement. Acting blind to beg money, acting pious to receive men’s praise, or other types of “acting” that aim to deceive are indeed abominable to God. However, stage acting does not intend to deceive. Both the audience and the actors well know that the play is a story. This is an express part of the medium. Was Jesus lying when he told his parables? They did not happen in real life. Jesus told his disciples, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” 19 Jesus states these actions as factual, even though they didn’t actually happen. The point here was not deception, but illustration. His audience knew that this was a story. Similarly, when a play is being acted, the characters do not pretend to present fact, but a story. An actor is not being hypocritical or lying because his audience is aware that he is acting.
The actions of a child further illustrate this point. If, as Tertullian claims, God “regards as adultery all that is unreal,” 20 does God condemn a play-acting child with the sin of adultery? Jesus welcomed the children into his arms at a time when the general population regarded children as low-status citizens. Would the same Jesus would chide little Sally for saying that her doll is crying? Or would a child pretending to be a mom or a princess or a cowboy be reprehensible to Him? Acting is an ability given to us by God. If used to fool others, it is iniquitous. But just as a child can use make-believe in innocence, so can an actor.
Tertullian’s arguments are not the only objections to theatre. Another potential concern is that of money. Does the financial drain of a theatre program exceed the benefits of theatre? A common protest is that the money used on a theatre program would be more effective in improving a school’s core curriculum. After all, children can go through life without knowing how to act, but they can’t survive without basic math skills. Good art programs cost money. That’s just the long and short of it. Indeed, art programs are often the first things to go when a school or district experiences budget cuts.
In some situations, theatre can fund itself. Theatre productions can sometimes be the catalyst for donations. But even when this doesn’t happen, art and self-expression are still not superfluous. They are essential for human development and happiness. The poorest, most primitive cultures express themselves through art. The desire to convey our emotions and inner selves is a core part of our humanity, and that desire needs nurturing. Children need art education to develop properly. To promote happiness and healthiness in the evolving child, we need to stop viewing art and theatre as nonessential and realize their importance in human well-being.
Theatre education can have far-reaching ramifications. As with any form of education, we must be sure that the messages we are teaching through theatre are God-honoring and character-building. Using the power of theatre, we can help mold characters in a Christlike way. Through it, we can encourage confidence and increased language skills. The academic improvements in students and increased empathy towards other races also indicate that theatre can help to break cycles of racism and poverty. To toss these assets out the window is to do a great disservice to our children. And despite the Tertullian-esque outlook of the Anabaptists over the years, including theatre within our private Christian schools would be immensely valuable. They say the future of the world lies in the hands of our children. So let’s use theatre in education to shape our children and so shape the world, one play at a time.
1. Jonathan Levy., 59
2. Ibid., 56
3. Ibid., 61
4. Garry Wills., 36
5. Levy., 62
6. Ibid., 63
7. Ibid., 64
8 James Stanley Catterall., 1
10. Ibid., 18-20
11. James Donaldson., 85
12. Ibid., 86
13. Ibid., 89
14. Holy Bible, KJV (Matthew 6:27)
15. Donaldson., 91
16. Ibid., 86
17. Holy Bible, ESV (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34, etc.)
18. Ibid., (Colossians 3:12, 1st Peter 3:8, etc.)
19. Ibid., (Luke 10:20)
20. Donaldson., 89
Donaldson, James, Alexander Roberts, and A. Cleveland Coxe, editors. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885).
Catterall, James Stanley, Richard Robert Chapleau and John Iwanaga. “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement In Music and Theatre Arts.” (2000).
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
Levy, Jonathan and Floraine Kay “The Use of the Drama in the Jesuit Schools, 1551–1773,” Youth Theatre Journal, v.10 (1996), 56-66
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. (Crossway., 2001)