Saint Augustine at the Movies

Most of our readers have heard of Augustine (354-430 AD) at some point in their lives. Perhaps your knowledge of him is rather scanty or dim. If you know anything at all about him, it is likely that you have read parts or the whole of his work The Confessions of Saint Augustine. This work is a very interesting and powerful autobiography in which Augustine goes way back to his early childhood and describes his growing up, teenage struggles, his departure from the church, and eventually his conversion and work in the church.

In book 3 of the Confessions, Augustine gives a penetrating critique of the popular entertainment which he attended as a young man. Popular entertainment in Rome at this time included violent and bloody gladiator shows as well as comedy and tragedy plays. Having studied modern television production and some ancient Roman entertainment in college, it is quite clear to me that popular entertainment has changed very little over the ages. The producers at Hollywood still go back to the same basic themes and entertainment tactics used in Augustine’s time. Thus what Augustine says about popular entertainment applies just as well today.

The pulpits, pamphlets, and convention speeches of the Protestant Reformed Churches make it clear that we have no business in the movie theater. Aware that young people are constantly tempted by the desire to go to the theater, we continue to hear condemnation of theater attendance. Augustine’s basic message also is that the believer has no business at the theater. He is one with the position of the church of his day which refused baptism to adult converts who performed in the theater. His approach, however, is rather original and is useful for facing questions raised today.

I have found that some young people are very good at making arguments to justify attendance at movies. One argument that I find convincing is that there is no essential difference between renting a video and going to the theater. I think the argument is right. If we are going to condemn movies watched in a theater, we had better condemn rented movies as well. But how can we make a decisive biblical statement without using a whole list of legalistic do’s and don’ts? In my judgment,

Augustine gets to the heart of the matter by making some astute observations about sinful human nature and how popular entertainment is geared to feed the human funny-bone which has become corrupted by sin. His point is that entertainment which is tailored for a corrupt human nature should not be entertaining for a believer.

Augustine writes as follows:

“Theater spectacles also captured me, being full of the images of my miseries and fuel for my fire. Why is it that man has desires to be sad when he watches sorrowful and tragic things which he himself does not want to suffer? And yet he desires as a spectator to suffer by these sad things and this sadness itself is his pleasure. What is this except miserable insanity? For the more one is moved by these [plays] the less he is free from such feelings, even though when he himself suffers, it is customary to say “misery,” and when he sympathizes with others—“pity.” But then what kind of pity is there in fictitious and staged [acts]? For the viewer is not provoked to help, but is invited to be sad and he applauds the author of these images more when he becomes more sad. And if the calamities of that man, whether based on fact or merely made up, are acted out in such a way that the spectator is not saddened, he gets up [from the theater] at that point full of disgust and critical. If, however, he is sad, he remains, attentive and content.”

The point Augustine is making here is that popular entertainment brings about a sinful confusion of emotions. Entertainment no matter what form it may take has as its goal the arousing of the audience’s deepest emotions. This in itself is not wrong. Emotions are human and a part of our life and redemption in Christ. Depraved man, however, has depraved emotions and desires. One aspect of that depravity upon which entertainers work is finding pleasure in sadness. Augustine is struck by the absurdity of people finding pleasure in sadness and becoming upset if a show was not sad enough. This observation is in harmony with the description of man’s depravity found in Proverbs 8:36 where we read “all they that hate me love death.” Finding pleasure in sadness is much like loving death. Man’s love of death is a powerful force in his depraved human nature and the popularity of violence and death in entertainment seems to reveal that morbid love rather well. Death has been a popular theme throughout the whole history of entertainment.

The emotions are powerful and significant for the believer. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that body includes our emotions. If we set out to confuse our emotions, it is the same as distorting our judgment with alcohol and yielding our bodies to sex before marriage. The antithesis cuts right through the manner and motivation of our arousal of emotion just as it does through every other aspect of life. When we drain ourselves emotionally by reading novels hour after hour or watch TV, then what love for God or sorrow for sin do we have left when we come to God in prayer? Our desire for the joys of righteousness and peace with God in Christ must never be sold to entertainment. The child of God ought to seek out entertainment that brings joy and laughter and is yet free from the profanity that makes the depraved man laugh.

The desire to be entertained by entertainment designed to satisfy the sinful desires of fallen man is a sign of spiritual weakness. The world finds its entertainment to be something that makes life bearable. For many it is the only thing for which they live. The child of God, on the other hand, has all the hope and motivation he needs for living and working in this world in that great salvation given to us by God. If the unbeliever knows anything about the hope of a believer, he would say to the believer next to him in the theater “why do you seek entertainment here when you can begin in this life to enjoy the benefits of heaven?” Why eat at McDonalds when you have coupons for a free meal at Mountain Jacks?

As with everything in the life of a Christian, we must be discerning in our enjoyment of entertainment. Our laughter and relaxation must be sanctified. If a certain activity of entertainment does not bring us to express our thankfulness for God’s goodness then it may very well be leading us away from God and ought to be avoided. If our entertainment leaves us so tired and emotionally drained that prayer and reading Scripture is the last thing we want to do, then we better find some other entertainment. If we find ourselves enjoying violence, scenes of murder, and misery, then we had better consider whether or not we are feeding the lusts of our old man of sin. ❖