While reading Augustine’s City of God, I find a number of things striking, particularly the constant scorn Augustine heaps on the Roman pagans for their decadent pursuit of the pleasure of the stage.
Augustine wrote The City of God in defense of the Christian God, Jesus Christ, and the Christians who worshipped Him. Rome had just been sacked by the Barbarians and the Romans said Christians were responsible for this defeat because they refused to worship the Roman gods. According to the Romans, their gods had been offended by the Christians’ refusal to honor them, so the gods abandoned Rome to her enemies and she was overthrown.
About as politically incorrect as a man could be, Augustine refuses to acknowledge the Roman gods as any gods at all. Rather he calls them demons, devils, and no gods at all. Pointing out that, while the Barbarians were destroying Rome they acknowledged the Christian houses of worship as safe houses and didn’t harm anyone gathered there, Augustine reminds the Romans the Barbarians extended no such respect to the temples of the Roman gods. Were the Roman gods impotent, he asks? Is it not humiliating to the Roman gods that those who worshipped them joined with Christians in fleeing into Christian houses of worship for safety?
Augustine moves on to unfavorable comparisons between the character of Roman idolaters and Christians. Concerning the Romans’ moral lassitude and effeminate degeneracy, the principal evidence he cites is their love of all forms of amusement—particularly the theater which Christians saw as the depth of depravity.
Consider the amount of time Christians today give to plays and videos. We might ask what we know that Augustine and lovers of Jesus in the Early Church didn’t know? Or rather, what have we forgotten that lovers of Jesus in the Early Church remembered?
Augustine’s condemnation of the theater reminded me of a book I read last summer by H. W. Crocker titled, Robert E. Lee on Leadership. Crocker pointed out that, concerning human nature, Lee was a realist who always took the Christian doctrine of Original Sin into account. As Crocker put it, “(Lee) expected men to fail… He knew the challenge of leadership was to understand the fallen nature of man and succeed in spite of it. In a letter to his wife, Lee wrote”:
Let him [his son Rooney] never touch a novel. They print beauty more charming than nature, and describe happiness that never exists. They will teach him to sigh after that which has no reality, to despise the little good that is granted us in this world and to expect more than is given.
If we consider how closely Christians through the ages have linked growth in holiness with growth in knowledge of the Bible and prayer, we might be ashamed to compare the time we spend being entertained by the plays of videos and movies with the time we spend reading the Bible and praying. Add to this the arguments Augustine, Lee, and others have made that such entertainment destroys a nation’s vitality, sapping her manhood, and we get a picture of the view other generations of Christians would have of us today.
And I write knowing how much I and my own children love to rot in front of the silver screen.
Many of us have heard the question, “If you were arrested and tried in a court of law for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” To take only one area of our lives, what would a courtroom exhibit of our entertainment habits prove about our hearts?
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
(Originally published on Baylyblog June 30, 2004.)