A Dramatic Calling

Mar 23, 2000 |Anne Morse

For too long, Christians have shunned the arts; particularly drama. It's time we re-evaluate our perspective, says Professor Camille Hallstrom in this interview with Boundless.

If you're like most college students, you can't imagine life without films and theater. But if you're attending a Christian college, the drama department may be nonexistent. Even if you have one, the school may only allow you to perform "Christian" drama — such as The Screwtape Letters.

The tension between Christians and drama is nothing new. Some of the early church fathers — seeing the depraved use the Romans put it to — condemned drama outright. More recently, the Puritans admonished their flocks not to waste their time attending frivolous entertainment. In the 1930s, for many Christians, "Hollywood" was considered synonymous with the Devil's workshop. These days, "drama" mostly comes in the shape of film — and Christians spend much of their time and energies at extremes: either boycotting it or heading off to see a popular "R" rated film, uneasily wondering what our Christian friends would think of us if they knew.

Perhaps its time Christians re-evaluate their perspective on drama. This week Boundless writer Anne Morse interviewed Camille Hallstrom, assistant clinical professor of theater and speech at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Hallstrom is a recent graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, and she's spent much of her life studying the church's relationship with drama.

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Morse: Do you see Christians becoming more interested in drama than they once were?

Hallstrom: I'm finding that people in the church more and more want to make use of drama. But they do it badly because they haven't had good models for quite a few generations. That's not true across the board. You can find exceptions — there are some people who do it very well. In Reformed circles, which would be my tradition, there is a kind of interest in drama, but not a very committed interest. For example, ten minutes from here is Covenant College, which is the school of the PCA church. I've taught there part-time. I've been talking to them on and off for years about coming up there to develop a theater program because so many students are interested in it. The English department is terribly interested but the administrative priorities are elsewhere.

Morse: Why do you think that is?

Hallstrom: I think its because our tradition has been so strong on doctrine. I appreciate that — it's why I'm a member of this denomination. I do think, though, that this emphasis on doctrine has made us unable to understand what the arts are for. They seem, perhaps, like icing on the cake — not really a serious or important undertaking.

Morse: At times, it seems the church has feared drama. Why do you think this is so?

Hallstrom: I don't know for sure. There's something in virtually every culture, Christian or non-Christian, that is really disturbed about theater. Plato wouldn't allow theater in his Republic, for example, and Rousseau disliked it. So it's not just a Christian problem. Some theater people get frustrated and just roll their eyes and say, 'Bag it, they're all a bunch of boneheads.' But I don't want to do that, because these are some of the best brains in history.

My guess is that thinking people generally have raised their hackles about drama because it's such a uniquely powerful medium. It so looks like real life, and it speaks to both the head and the heart simultaneously, in a three-dimensional, modeled fashion. So much of what we learn in life is just by watching and mimicking as children, and playing 'let's pretend.' So when it comes to drama, I think we have this intuitive understanding that bad company breeds poor behavior, and good company breeds good behavior. If a theater production is modeling bad behavior, people sense intuitively that this might not be much different than 'my son hanging out with the heavy drinkers and the prostitute if he goes and watches them.'

Morse: Are there any truly biblical reasons for the church to reject drama?

Hallstrom: I'm still trying to think through this. But when I look through the Old Testament, I don't see drama modeled. I see exhortations to sing, and to write songs, and I see examples of visual art in, say, the design of the Temple and the Tabernacle. But not drama.

Morse: Not ANY drama?

Hallstrom: Well, if you want to fine-tooth comb your way through the scriptures, you could find some examples. For example, the prophet Ezekiel was given a prophecy that Jerusalem was going to be besieged. He set up a little makeshift Jerusalem and he staged a siege against it. You can find a couple of things like that that are drama-like. But it doesn't model actual dramatic art.

Morse: Why do you think that is?

Hallstrom: I have noticed with interest that in many other ancient religions, you find drama as part of the worship. But you don't have dramatic depictions in Hebraic worship. There is a very clear warning from Yahweh, warning His people: When you come into the land I'm going to give you, don't look at the worship practices of the folks around you and start mimicking them. So that makes me wonder if there's something extra potent which can tend to draw one astray in this particular way of embodying religious ideas. So it might be wise for us to fairly analyze what the medium is and go slow about using it.

Morse: Do you find that some Christians have strayed too far in the opposite direction, putting no limitations of what they do dramatically?

Hallstrom: Yes — there's been a dangerous reaction, in some respects, among Christian schools. They know, for example, that studying Christian drama only can't possibly be the way to study an art form. So they think, let's start getting hip and do whatever's available out there. What I'm afraid of, though, is that they don't know how to critically analyze their choices, what they put on stage.

Does it mean I can only do Jesus plays all my life? I hope not, because we won't tolerate that kind of false sacred-secular split anywhere else. You look at descriptions of art in the Old Testament, you see secular art as well as what we call church art. If I am created and called to be a playwright or an actor, that's what I focus on. But that doesn't mean you just pick any play at all.

Morse: How does a Christian playwright or actor make decisions about these things?

Hallstrom: It's very hard, because most of us weren't helped to think through these issues when we were growing up. My grandmother was a very, very fundamentalist Free Methodist. We watched Lawrence Welk on TV, and that was it. We turned it off at the end when they danced! But I also grew up exposed to pornography. And then I was sent to this liberal Lutheran church to be catechized. So I had all these different philosophical inputs, and I knew they were all incorrect, somehow or other. But I think it all helped me to think on a spectrum. I thought grandma was wrong to censor everything, because you can't be in the world but not of the world if you shun the world. You have to go where the prostitutes are. But by the same token, you don't become one.

I was very damaged by much of what I was exposed to growing up in a way that makes me mourn for how steeped our culture is in pornographic things. We pay a great price to be in a culture that takes these things lightly. However, this is the culture we're in, and no one said, well, if you're going to minister to these folks, you'd better come out of it unscathed.

But this doesn't mean that everyone is called to walk through the fire at that particular point. I think I am. I think part of why God has me working in the theater is that I was sufficiently well damaged in childhood that now I can handle it. I don't want everyone to be damaged in that way, but somebody has to go in and rescue those who are drowning, and also encourage people who do have creative power to think of creative ways to redeem the medium.

Not everybody is called, for example, to see the movie Magnolia, though it's a heck of a movie and I've been emailing my friends to take their students to see it. It's just foul with pain and sex and obscenity — but it's a movie having much to do with forgiveness and hope. It's one of the most exquisite things I've seen in a long time. And as I sat there watching it, I was praying, Lord, how can I do something this good? How is it possible to show a world that needs hope and forgiveness as much as these characters need hope and forgiveness — their great need of it — without recreating the ugliness? I'm not creative enough yet to figure out how to do that. So I'm grateful that the film was made. I also know that somewhere He's created somebody who'll be able to do that very thing and do it as well or better without having to soak us in the poison. But in the meantime I can still thank Him for what was good there, which was much.

Morse: What do you think about all the Christian protests and boycotts of films and plays?

Hallstrom: That's so hard to answer generally. I think you need to take it case by case. I think we certainly are allowed to say, look, this has offended us, in the same way, if you had personally slandered or offended me, I would sit down with you, and not boycott you, but deal with you in the fashion that I'm supposed to deal with my neighbor and my brother.

Now, we ARE the church militant, and we have to remember we are in warfare. But the weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world. I'm not sure being the church militant always means being the church sharp-tongued. Or the church whiney or the church trying to step on your profits. Sometimes it is proper to just stand up and say, this is wrong, this you must not do. Sometimes success is achieved most effectively through much prayer and much humility.

Morse: Do you think some Christians should avoid seeing films that are filled with graphic violence or sexual content, even if they have a strong moral point to make — such as Schindler's List?

Hallstrom: Yes. I don't think everyone's called to do everything. That's why the body is composed of people with different abilities and backgrounds. One of my friends who works at English L'Abri, is much more of a moviegoer than I am and just loves films. But he's very tenderhearted. He knows what he can handle, and what he cannot. He hasn't seen Schindler's List. I think with the guidance of the Holy Spirit you make those choices.

Being exposed to horror truly does take something out of you. So I don't advise anyone to just blithely go and see all the blood and sex they can. There are some things a human being isn't designed to consume. But if you should be called into the theater field, you will encounter these things, and must learn to grapple with them, but you know, it will cost you something. Evil will exact a price — but some are called to pay that price.

Morse: And this is a price you yourself are paying?

Hallstrom: I do feel in some respects I have a hole burned in my heart — I've had my feelings numbed in many ways just because of what I was exposed to when I was growing up, and also when I was going to college. I mourn that. It's like having lost a limb, and God may see fit to grow it back before I die — or He may not. But I know that evil is evil, and it is our enemy, but sometimes some people are called to go stand in the middle of it. If you don't feel that you are called to do this, then don't do it. But be careful about condemning those who do, because maybe that's their calling.

Copyright © 2000 Anne Morse. All rights reserved.

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