When God gave to Moses the blueprint of the tabernacle He was careful to include every detail. Then, lest Moses should get the notion that he could improve on the original plan, God warned him solemnly, “And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shown thee in the mount.” God, not Moses, was the architect. No one dare alter it so much as a hairbreadth.
The New Testament church also is built after a pattern. Not the doctrines only but the methods are divinely given. From God’s revealed plan we depart at our peril. Every departure has two consequences, the immediate and the remote. The immediate touches the individual and those close to him. The remote extends into the future to unknown times, and may expand so far as to influence for evil the whole church of God on earth.
The temptation to introduce “new” things into the work of God has always been too strong for some people to resist. The church has suffered untold injury at the hands of misguided persons who have felt that they know more about running God’s work than Christ and His apostles did. A solid train of box cars would not suffice to haul away the religious rubbish which has been brought into the service of the church with the hope of improving on the original pattern. These things have been positive hindrances to the progress of the truth, and have so altered the divinely-planned structure that the apostles, were they to return to earth today, would scarcely recognize the misshapen thing which has resulted.
Our Lord while on earth cleansed the temple, and periodic cleansings have been necessary throughout the centuries. Every generation is sure to have its ambitious amateur come up with some shiny gadget which he proceeds to urge upon the priests before the altar. That the scriptures do not justify its existence does not seem to bother him at all. It is brought in anyway and presented in the very name of orthodoxy. Soon it is identified in the minds of the Christian public with all that is good and holy. Then, of course, to attack the gadget is to attack the truth itself. This is an old familiar technique so often and so long practiced by the devotees of error that I marvel how the children of God can be taken in by it.
Heresy of method may be as deadly as heresy of message. Old-line Protestantism has long ago been smothered to death by extra-scriptural rubbish.
Within the last few years a new method has been invented for imparting spiritual knowledge. Or, to be more accurate, it is not new at all, but is an adaptation of a gadget of some years standing, one which by its origin and background belongs not to the church but to the world. Some have thrown their mantle over it and are now trying to show that it is the very gift of God for our day. But, however eloquent the sales talk, it is an unauthorized addition nevertheless, and was never a part of the pattern shown us on the mount.
I refer, of course, to the religious movie.
The “service” where such a movie would be shown might seem much like any other service until time for the message from the Word of God. Then the lights would be put out and the picture turned on. The “message” would consist of this movie. What followed the picture would vary with the circumstances, but often an invitation song is sung and a tender appeal is made for erring sinners to return to God.
Now, what is wrong with all this? Why should any man object to this or go out of his way to oppose its use in the house of God? Here is my answer:
It violates the scriptural law of hearing.
It is significant that when God gave to mankind His great redemptive revelation He couched it in words. “And God spake all these words” very well sums up the Bible’s own account of how it got here. “Thus saith the Lord” is the constant refrain of the prophets. “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life,” said our Lord to His hearers. Again He said, “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.” Paul made words and faith to be inseparable: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” He also said, “How shall they hear without a preacher?”
Surely it requires no genius to see that the Bible rules out dramatics as media for bringing faith and life to the human soul.
God addresses His message to the hearing ear. “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” Here, and not somewhere else, is the New Testament pattern, and no human being, and no angel from heaven has any right to alter that pattern.
It embodies the mischievous notion that religion can be made a form of entertainment.
This notion has come upon us lately like a tidal wave and is either openly taught or tacitly assumed by increasing numbers of people. The idea that religion should be entertaining has made some radical changes in the evangelical picture within this generation. It has given us not only the “gospel” movie but a new type of religious journalism as well. It has created a new kind of magazine for church people, which can be read from cover to cover without effort, without thought—and without profit.
That religion and amusement are forever opposed to each other by their very essential natures is apparently not known to this new school of religious entertainers. Their effort to slip up on the reader and administer a quick shot of saving truth while his mind is on something else is not only futile, it is, in fact, not too far short of being plain dishonest. The hope that they can convert a man while he is occupied with the doings of some imaginary hero reminds one of the story of the Catholic missionary who used to sneak up on sick people and children and splash a little holy water on them to guarantee their passage to the city of gold.
Any effort to teach spiritual truth through entertainment is at best futile and at worst positively injurious to the soul. Religious movies, by appealing directly to the shallowest stratum of our minds, cannot but create bad mental habits which unfit the soul for the reception of genuine spiritual impressions.
Religious movies are mistakenly thought by some people to be blessed of the Lord because many come away from them with moist eyes. If this is a proof of God’s blessing, then we might as well go the whole way and assert that every show that brings tears is of God. Those who attend the theater know how often the audiences are moved to tears by the joys and sorrows of the highly paid entertainers who kiss and emote and murder and die for the purpose of exciting the spectators to a high pitch of emotional excitement. Men and women who are dedicated to sin and appointed to death may nevertheless weep in sympathy for the painted actors and be not one bit the better for it. The emotions have had a beautiful time, but the will is left untouched. The religious movie is sure to draw together a goodly number of persons who cannot distinguish the twinges of vicarious sympathy from the true operations of the Holy Ghost.
They who present the gospel movie owe it to the public to give biblical authority for their act: and this they have not done.
The church goes along in Bible ways and can give a scriptural reason for its conduct. Its members meet at stated times to pray together: This has biblical authority back of it. They gather to hear the Word of God expounded: this goes back in almost unbroken continuity to Moses. They sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs: so they are commanded by the apostle. They lay up their gifts and bring them at stated times to the church or chapel to be used in the Lord’s work: this also follows the scriptural pattern. They teach and train and instruct; they appoint teachers and pastors and missionaries and send them out to do the work for which the Spirit has gifted them: all this has plain scriptural authority behind it.
Now, for the religious movie where is the authority? For such a serious departure from the ancient pattern, where is the authority? For introducing into the church the pagan art of acting, where is the authority? The best they can do is to appeal to the world’s psychology or repeat brightly that “modern times call for modern methods.”
The whole preach-the gospel-with-movies idea is founded upon the same basic assumptions as Modernism, namely, that the Word of God is not final, and that we of this day have a perfect right to add to it or alter it wherever we think we can improve it.
It is out of harmony with the whole spirit of the scriptures and contrary to true godliness.
To harmonize the spirit of the religious movie with the spirit of the sacred scriptures is impossible. Try to imagine Elijah appearing before Ahab with a roll of film! Imagine Peter standing up at Pentecost and saying, “Let’s have the lights out, please.” When Jeremiah hesitated to prophesy on the plea that he was not a fluent speaker, God touched his mouth and said, “I have put my words in thy mouth.” Perhaps Jeremiah could have gotten on well enough without the divine touch if he had had a good film.
Let a man dare to compare his religious movie show with the spirit of the Book of Acts. If he cannot see the difference in kind, then he is too blind to be trusted with leadership in the church of the living God. The only thing that he can do appropriate to the circumstances is to drop to his knees and cry with poor Bartimaeus, “Lord, that I might receive my sight.”
The harmful effect.
It identifies religion with the theatrical world. I have seen recently in a Fundamentalist magazine an advertisement of a religious film which would be altogether at home on the theatrical page on any city newspaper. Illustrated with the usual sex-bate picture of a young man and young woman in tender embrace, and spangled with such words as “feature-length, drama, pathos, romance,” it reeked of Hollywood and the cheap movie house. By such business we are selling out our Christian separation.
The taste for drama which these pictures develop in the minds of the young will not long remain satisfied with the inferior stuff the religious movie can offer. Our young people will demand the real thing, and what can we reply when they ask why they should not patronize the regular movie house?
The rising generation will naturally come to look upon religion as another, and inferior, form of amusement. The present generation has done this to an alarming extent already, and the gospel movie feeds the notion by fusing religion and fun in the name of orthodoxy. It takes no great insight to see that the religious movie must become increasingly more thrilling as the tastes of the spectators become more and more stimulated.
The religious movie is the lazy preacher’s friend. If the present vogue continues to spread it will not be long before any man with enough ability to make an audible prayer, and mentality enough to focus a projector, will be able to pass for a prophet of the Most High God. The man of God can play around all week long and come up to the Lord’s Day without a care. He has only to set up the screen and lower the lights, and the rest follows painlessly.
Wherever the movie is used the prophet is displaced by the projector. The least that such displaced prophets can do is to admit that they are technicians and not preachers. Let them admit that they are not God-sent men, ordained of God for a sacred work. Let them put away their pretense.
One thing may bother some earnest souls: why so many good people approve the religious movie. If it is an evil, why have not these denounced it?
The answer is, lack of spiritual discernment. Many who are turning to the movie are the same who have, by direct teaching or by neglect, discredited the work of the Holy Spirit. They have apologized for the Spirit and so hedged Him in by their unbelief that it has amounted to an out-and-out repudiation. The light has gone out and good men are forced to stumble around in the darkness of the human intellect.
The religious movie seems about to swarm over the churches like a cloud of locusts out of the earth. The figure is accurate—they are coming from below, not from above. The whole modern psychology has been prepared for this invasion of insects. The Fundamentalists have become weary of manna and are longing for red flesh. What they are getting is a sorry substitute for the lusty and uninhibited pleasures of the world, and it saves face by pretending to be spiritual.
Let us not for the sake of peace keep still while men without spiritual insight dictate the diet upon which God’s children shall feed. Unity among professing Christians is to be desired, but not at the expense of righteousness.
If God has given wisdom to see the error of religious shows we owe it to the church to oppose them openly. We dare not take refuge in “guilty silence.” Error is not silent. It is highly vocal and amazingly aggressive. We dare not be less so.