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A friend of mine recently lent me a book called The Social Results of Early Christianity, by C. Schmidt, Professor of Theology in Strasburg. The impetus for the book, written in the 19th century, was an essay contest proposed by the French Academy “to trace the influence of Charity on the Roman World during the first centuries of the Christian era.” The first third of the book is devoted to describing various facets of Roman society and culture as they existed at the appearance of Christianity.
The parallels of pre-Christian Roman culture to the ethos of secular Western culture in our own age are numerous. Chapter 3, section 5 addresses the “Occupations of Slaves. Actors. Gladiators.” The Super Bowl, with its garish halftime show, represents a unique confluence of the actors and gladiators in American entertainment. Schmit’s description of the state of Roman entertainment I found especially pertinent:
Formerly, in Greece, dramatic art had been untrammelled and important. The artist was esteemed by his fellow citizens because he only represented the greatest works of the immortal poets… At the time of the appearance of Christianity, the ancient theatre, with its heroic tragedies and witty comedies, had vanished; the taste for theatrical representations was not less, but the art had become thoroughly immoral.
Throughout the duration of the Empire, after the time of Augustus, obscenity prevailed in the theatre. It was no longer a school of patriotism, recalling the traditions of the heroes of the earliest times, or criticising contemporary oddities; it had become a source of corruption to both actors and spectators. The only things represented were the adventures of deceived husbands, of adulterers, of the intrigues of libertines, of scenes in the lupanar. Only immodest women and effeminate men were seen there. Only the most disgraceful things were represented. Everything was debased that ought to have been respected. Virtue was made a mockery, and the gods were ridiculed. The actor aroused a love of evil in the soul of the spectator. He inspired base or criminal passions, and completely familiarized as he was with vice, he yet blushed sometimes at the disgraceful part he was made to play in the sight of the crowd.
I only caught the first few minutes of the Super Bowl halftime show, but I’ve heard that the antics of Shakira and J-Lo were not far off from what we find in the preceding paragraph. Andrew Klavan often discusses his view that we should be aware of and engage in popular culture. He has a valid point that stories should reflect the human condition as it is, with its vices, its brokenness, and all of its vulnerabilities and imperfections. But I think he goes too far in recommending that Christians go beyond awareness and telling real stories ourselves, to being consumers of some of the more debased offerings of popular entertainment. I am thinking specifically of “Game of Thrones.”
I do not believe that it is proper for Christians to participate in an enterprise that relies on the debasement of its actors. Historically, Western art has relied on certain devices or conceits that communicated those messy realities, without “corruption to both actors and spectators,” to the medium and the audience. That seems to no longer be the case. The stories are now in some ways a mere pretext for the gratuitous exploitation of women and the base reptilian appetites of the viewers. Maybe there is something that can be redeemed from modern entertainment, like a wedding ring that has traversed the alimentary canal of a dog.
There is still good culture out there—stories true to life, music that edifies, art that uplifts. Mr. Klavan is right that it is up to us to be the creators ourselves. But don’t expect acceptance by the corrupt and crumbling institutions that serve as the gatekeepers of mass popularity. The goal of Christianity is not mass appeal, but to glorify God in our lives and our works, and that will require love, joy, peace, and patience.Published in