“Literature and drama? Hmmm, interesting. And how do you see that fitting in with, you know, the mission of the church?” As an English literature PhD student finishing a dissertation about Victorian theater—Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and a few other nineteenth-century writers you have probably never heard of—I’ve heard this question a good many times from my friends in church. I used to bristle at this question, however kind and polite the tone; it was like being asked, “Please explain why you should be allowed to exist.” But now that I think about it, it’s not such a bad question. I’m making it my life-work to do what most people do for fun in their spare time—read and write and talk about books. What excuse do I have?
Maybe the best answer to this question is in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. It’s a familiar story: King David has gotten Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, pregnant, and he arranges a convenient “accident” to kill off Uriah, so he and Bathsheba can get married. And just when he thinks he’s got the whole mess neatly swept under the rug, God sends Nathan to rebuke him. And what does Nathan say? Does he say, “David, you have sinned, and God is angry with you”?
No. Nathan begins Uncle Arthur style: “Once upon a time, there lived two neighbors, a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had a big comfy house and servants to wait on him. He had sheep and cattle, oxen and donkeys, horses and camels, goats and chickens, so many animals he couldn’t count them all. The poor man lived in a one-room shed, and had barely enough to eat—but he did have one little lamb. And everywhere the poor man went, the lamb was sure to go. He played with that lamb, he fed her with his own hands, he slept snuggled up to her at night—that lamb was his baby. Then along came a traveler asking to stay with the rich man for the night, and the rich man didn’t want to go to the expense of killing one of his own animals—not when his neighbor’s lamb was wandering across the yard, right there for the taking. So the rich man and his guest had tasty lamb chops for dinner that night, and lived happily ever after.”
That was Nathan’s story. And what did David have to say about it? King James tells us that “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man” (verse 5). In the NIV, “David burned with anger.” Think about the last time you “burned with anger.” Your face got hot, your breath came in gasps, maybe your hands were shaking. Maybe you kicked something or yelled at somebody—or if you didn’t, you wanted to. That’s where David was. His face turned bright red, he leaped to his feet, and he spluttered out, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die!”
Now hold on—wasn’t David overreacting a little? Nathan was just telling him a story—he hadn’t even said whether it was a true story or not. Did you “burn with anger” while reading this story about the rich man and the poor man and the lamb? Frankly, I didn’t. I felt sorry for the poor man. I thought, “That wasn’t very nice—what a mean, greedy rich man.” I might even have drawn some modern-day parallels about corporate executives who line their own pockets by cutting back on their employees’ wages and health benefits. But the kind of anger that speeds up my breathing and makes my heart pound—not really. When I “burn with anger,” it’s usually about something very personal—if someone mistreats or insults someone in my family, for instance.
But for David, it seems, this story was personal. Remember, David had grown up herding sheep. Perhaps, as a boy, he had had his own little pet lamb, whom he cuddled, chased, and bottle-fed. Maybe he knew what it was to have his pet lamb hurt or mistreated—he had seven older brothers, after all, whom he wasn’t always on friendly terms with. We don’t know—I’m speculating here. But we do know that for whatever reason, David reacted to Nathan’s story in an intensely emotional way. He identified strongly with the poor man, putting himself in his place. He saw the rich man as his personal enemy, “burning with anger” against him.
And then Nathan yanked the rug of righteous indignation from under David’s feet: “Thou art the man” (verse 8). “No, David, you are not the poor man with the little pet lamb. You are the rich, mean man who stole the lamb away. You’re the one who had it all, but it still wasn’t enough for you.” Nathan went on to enumerate David’s sins in sickening detail, along with the punishment God was planning.
Nathan could have begun with this open condemnation; he could have skipped the story and said, “David, you have given in to your lust and covetousness; you have committed murder and deception, and hideously abused the power God has given you, and now you must repent.” And perhaps David would have repented. We know that David was a man after God’s own heart—a simple reproof might have been enough to make him say, “I have sinned.” But God did not want David to simply listen and agree and say “I have sinned.” God wanted him to “burn with anger” against his own cruel actions and rotten desires—not just to accept rebuke intellectually, but to feel it deeply, emotionally, viscerally, physically. He wanted David filled with disgust at his own moral filth, and Nathan’s story did just that, driving David to beg:
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions:
and my sin is ever before me.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence;
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation. (Psalm 51:2-3, 7, 9-11, 14)
In our hymnal, these words are set to sedate, serene melodies—“Whiter than snow, yes whiter than snow, Lord wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” The pretty, familiar music tends to make us forget the frantic urgency of the words. They are not a dignified anthem; they are a gagging groan from a man drowning in a pit of sewage.
Shakespeare, in his play Hamlet, shows a scene very like the one between Nathan and David. In the play, the king of Denmark, Hamlet, has been murdered by his brother, Claudius. Claudius has been crowned as the new king and married his sister-in-law, the wife of the previous king. He seems to have gotten away with it. Then one evening King Claudius decides to go to the theater. The play he sees is called The Murder of Gonzago, and it shows a king being murdered, and the murderer claiming the crown and marrying the queen. Claudius sees his own crime being acted out all over again. He is horrified, and his immediate impulse is to pray for forgiveness in language reminiscent of King David’s: “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. . . . Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens / To wash [my hands] white as snow?” (Act III, scene 3). Sadly, his repentance is mostly inspired by a fear of exposure and punishment, and it doesn’t last long. But for the moment at least, the play has managed to “catch the conscience of the king” (Act II, scene 2). The Murder of Gonzago may not be a great play, but it touches Claudius as nothing else could, because it is his own story.
Shakespeare, like the prophet Nathan, offers an example of how God can speak through literature. God uses poets, novelists, and dramatists to convey truth to our intellects and emotions in a much deeper way than we could otherwise understand. Bernard Shaw, a dramatist and theater critic working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, summed up the aim of his plays in Nathan-like terms: “It annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin” (Preface to Man and Superman 8). This experience of conviction has happened to me again and again while researching Shaw and his contemporaries. Through Henrik Ibsen, God convicts me of envy and self-absorbed unreason. Through Elizabeth Robins, God convicts me of laziness and apathy. Through Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones, God convicts me of my self-righteous, judgmental attitude. Through Oscar Wilde, God convicts me of gossip and willful ignorance. A great dramatist, Shaw explained, “can stab people to the heart by shewing them the meanness or cruelty of something they did yesterday and intend to do tomorrow”; by this means, the writer is “teaching and saving his audience” (The Quintessence of Ibsenism 145).
The idea of theater as a place for “teaching and saving” might sound strange to many in the Adventist church. After all, we are familiar with some of Ellen White’s comments on theater:
[A]ttendance at theaters and such places of worldly amusement . . . is in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. (1 Testimonies 554)
[T]heatrical performances . . . will so confuse the senses of the youth that God and heaven will be forgotten. (Messages to Young People 214)
Among the most dangerous resorts for pleasure is the theater. Instead of being a school of morality and virtue, as is so often claimed, it is the very hotbed of immorality. Vicious habits and sinful propensities are strengthened and confirmed by these entertainments. Low songs, lewd gestures, expressions, and attitudes, deprave the imagination and debase the morals. Every youth who habitually attends such exhibitions will be corrupted in principle. There is no influence in our land more powerful to poison the imagination, to destroy religious impressions, and to blunt the relish for the tranquil pleasures and sober realities of life than theatrical amusements. (MYP 380)
Many Adventists of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation took these warnings, and others like them, as an absolute prohibition of theater-going (and, by extension, of film and TV), being taught that if you walk into a movie theater, you leave your guardian angel at the door. Today, many younger people in the church prefer to discount her warnings entirely, supposing that Mrs. White’s comments on entertainment, given so long ago, probably don’t apply to today’s theater and film anyway. And, they ask, did Ellen White ever actually go to a theater? If she didn’t, she knew nothing about it; if she did, her condemnations are a piece of blatant hypocrisy; either way, they conclude, her prohibitions needn’t interfere with our fun nowadays.
I think a more productive response to Mrs. White’s warnings is to examine the attributes of theatrical performance on which she expresses concern. She points to a few specific features, such as the coarseness and sexual suggestion of some plays—their “low songs” and “lewd” behavior. But her most often-repeated criticism is her general argument that theater is a “worldly amusement,” an escape from “sober realities,” from the responsibilities of everyday life. She warns against plays that deaden viewers’ capacity for serious reflection. By repeatedly viewing vapid and inane entertainments, audiences become intellectually and spiritually empty. By beholding, they are changed.
In studying the drama of the nineteenth century, I’ve found that Ellen White wasn’t the only one making criticisms like this—in fact, her concerns were shared by some who were not only familiar with theaters, but made their livings in them. Bernard Shaw was, if possible, even more vehement than Mrs. White in pointing out the powerful influence theatrical entertainment often wielded and the harm that often resulted from this influence. In the preface to one of his early plays, he wrote:
I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world, excepting only the example of personal conduct; and I waive even this exception in favor of the art of the stage, because it works by exhibiting examples of personal conduct made intelligible and moving to crowds of unobservant and unreflecting people to whom real life means nothing. I have pointed out again and again that the influence of the theatre in England is growing so great that private conduct, religion, law, science, politics, and morals are becoming more and more theatrical, whilst the theatre itself remains impervious to common sense, religion, science, politics, and morals.” (Preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession 236)
During his years as a theater critic, he claimed that many of his contemporaries’ plays functioned as unofficial recruiting advertisements for the brothel business, displaying attractive pictures of prostitutes and mistresses with beautiful clothes and luxurious lives. Such plays, he claimed, ought to be not only avoided, but outlawed, made an “indictable offence,” because “the writing or performance of a play is a moral act, to be treated on exactly the same footing as theft or murder if it produces equally mischievous consequences” (Preface to Profession 236).
Shaw agreed with Ellen White, then, in believing that the theater had an enormous and often dangerous influence on viewers’ minds and actions. But they differed on the question of what to do about that influence. Mrs. White concluded that “The only safe course is to shun the theater, the circus, and every other questionable place of amusement” (MYP 380). Shaw, by contrast, insisted that theater could be transformed into an engine for constructive change. “I fight the theatre,” he explained, “not with pamphlets and sermons and treatises, but with plays; and so effective do I find the dramatic method that I have no doubt I shall at last persuade even London to take its conscience and its brains with it when it goes to the theatre, instead of leaving them at home with its prayer-book as it does at present” (Preface to Profession 236). He spent decades of his life writing plays that would be more intellectually honest, morally responsible, and spiritually challenging. He wrote plays to attack prostitution and other exploitive business, political corruption, and laziness and apathy of all kinds. He wrote a collection of “Plays for Puritans” to demonstrate that it was possible to create interesting stories without any suggestion of sexual desire or romantic love—a revolutionary stance against the sentimentality and eroticism that infected the drama of his time (as well as ours). He wrote plays that he knew would not be popular, because he believed they needed to be written and performed, whether they made money or not. He gave moral and financial support to actors, managers, and other dramatists who were helping to create more intelligent, observant theater, and also promoted intelligent and responsible drama by writing theater reviews. His efforts at theatrical reform were fueled by the conviction that the world needs “men who will not take evil good-humoredly, and whose laughter destroys the fool instead of encouraging him. . . . The English cry of ‘Amuse us; take things easily; dress up the world prettily for us’ seems mere cowardice to the strong souls that dare look facts in the face” (Ibsenism 134). Effective drama, Shaw argues, confronts viewers with the truth as Hamlet confronted Claudius, as Nathan confronted David.
As a person who studies and teaches literature, I seek to understand words, images, and stories—some of the most powerful forces that shape us as people, the forces that influence our minds and emotions and imaginations. These are the tools that Jesus most often used in spreading the Good News, the tools that helped bring David to repentance. As I’ve studied, I’ve seen that Ellen White was right in insisting that the influence of theater and literature can be a poison if wrongly used or wrongly received. But that weapon does not have to stay in Satan’s hands. To adapt a remark of Shaw’s: why should the devil have all the theaters as well as all the good tunes? That is why it is so important to me to help people learn to write and read attentively, thoughtfully, critically, in order to use drama and fiction as forces for good—to use stories the way Nathan used them.
Mary Christian lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she has recently completed a Ph.D. in English literature at Indiana University, specializing in drama and Victorian studies. She leads the music ministry and Earliteen Sabbath School at Bloomington SDA church, and is an active member of IU's Adventist Christian Fellowship chapter. She also serves as membership secretary for the International Shaw Society, and her research on Shaw and other nineteenth-century dramatists has recently appeared in Religion and Literature, Theatre Survey, and SHAW: The Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies.
Photo Credits: International Shaw Society & BBC
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