Acting Christian (Nov-Dec 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Donna Hester

I am an actress. I am a Christian.

For some people that is an oxymoron.

And not only do I participate in this “life on the wicked stage,” but for twenty-five years I have been encouraging young people to make a profession of it.

How can I be passionate about Christ and invest my best energies in a vocation that has such a bad rap for being immoral, self-centered and frivolous?

Because I believe the world is crying out for Christian artists. Because I believe people are hungry for stories of hope, and actors make good storytellers. Because the Great Creator left an imprint in his children that makes us yearn to create, to breathe life into something, to make the word flesh. And isn’t that what an actor does? Don’t artists look at life with a fresh eye, turn it on its side, re-configure it into something new? And don’t plays, movies and films tell us stories about faraway lands and distant times, about people we have never met, and, ultimately, about ourselves?

I’m all for turning off the TV when a mindless show comes on or choosing not to go see a raunchy movie, but I’m much more passionate about helping to create worthwhile alternatives. We desperately need excellent Christian performers who permeate the entertainment industry with their distinctive flavor. We can’t afford to have Christians abandon their role in this cultural arena. They must step boldly into the ring with all the talent they are given and all the training they can muster. They should be unafraid to cut their teeth, sharpen their skills, and tackle the work with fellow artists—believers and non-believers. We need directors to create a vision. We need technicians and designers to bring them into being. We need writers who will tell stories of truth, hope and conviction and we need actors who will enflesh them.

The world of plays and television and films is a powerful medium. Check out how pervasive the entertainment world is by talking to any school kid. I guarantee they can rattle off ten movie stars faster than ten presidents. And they certainly can recall with gusto last night’s TV show or the plot to a new movie (even one they haven’t seen themselves) more quickly than they can explain centrifugal force. And I can almost bet that any knowledge they have of Pocahontas has the colors of the wind in it.

Everything from catch phrases like “Make my day,” to fashions (anyone remember Flashdance?), to political issues (death penalty in Dead Man Walking), to causes (Philadelphia probably did more to raise awareness for AIDS related issues than any fundraiser) comes to us from the art and entertainment industry. To shy away from something of such influence seems shortsighted. Theater tells the stories of the culture of the time.

So what kind of stories do we want to tell about our culture? And who do we choose to tell them?

You may say, “Well, I’ll grant you that we need strong Christians out there in the entertainment industry but I would never send my own child into that. They would be starved, seduced and swallowed up.” I hear this concern voiced over and over by parents of prospective theatre majors. I would never encourage a starry-eyed teenager to head up to the Big Apple to beat the pavement anymore than I would encourage a tenderhearted kid convicted about the lost to trot off to Bosnia or India or Africa without being equipped for the mission field

That’s why, in the Christian university theatre where I work, we try to prepare our theatre students to be excellent in their craft, savvy in the ways of the business and grounded in their identity of Christ.

Not all actors are pill-popping, hard-drinking egomaniacs who sleep around and leave a trail of broken marriages and rehabs named after them. I have spent most of my life in the company of actors and theatre artists. We certainly have our shortcomings, but there is a zeal for life and a human connection among us. In fact, the disciplined actor may be a little more in tune with the human condition because he has portrayed so many different people in different situations. Talk about empathy. An actor climbs inside another person and attempts to gain an understanding of what makes that character tick. This process may make him less quick to judge and maybe more compassionate—qualities that Jesus seemed to care about.

But what about sinful characters? If an actor becomes so in tune with his character as he analyzes and develops him, might it be dangerous to play evil roles?

A good actor knows how to develop a character who will be authentic without losing his grip on reality. He can also create a believable love scene or marriage on stage without forgetting his real spouse. An actor in the role of King Lear doesn’t really go mad, and the actress playing Medea can be trusted around her children.

That’s why it’s still safe for someone to play Judas in the Passion Play.

So what about stories of betrayal and despair? Do they go untold? Should the Christian artist avoid them and seek out only G-rated family fare or overtly religious messages? Theatre is in the unique position to hold up a mirror to society exposing not only beauty, but also human frailty and sin. In this way the theatre artist becomes a type of prophet. Isn’t there something powerful about seeing evil for what it is? About showing how greed corrupts, how lust seduces, or violence begets itself in a vicious cycle? A beautifully crafted show can look darkness straight in the face and issue a challenge. Theatre has the power to both reflect and shape culture. Seeing the cruelties and injustices of our society played out onstage in both comic and tragic ways can convict us.

I get excited about Christians in the arts. I thrill to new plays written about Esther, Bonhoeffer or C.S. Lewis. I love sketches that emerge from churches that teach Biblical principles in new ways. It is deeply satisfying to see a production mounted that is unapologetically faith-based.

But I also cheer on gutsy performances that require us to think. It makes me happy to learn of a Christian soap opera actress convincing writers to include consequences from her character’s past indiscretions. Or to know my filmmaking friend gives away Bibles on the set. Or to hear that an actress in the Shakespeare Festival was such a witness to her fellow thespians that the assistant director asked to come to church with her for the first time in his life. These stories touch me as much as any “mission field” story. Because this is my mission and the field is white unto harvest.

So, yes, I act, because, like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, I “feel God’s pleasure” when I perform. I spend the bulk of my time trying to prepare young artists to go out into the world. I want them bold enough to dig deeply into their artistry. I want them to have the freedom to fail as they try new things. And I want them to bring the whole of their life under the Lordship of Christ.

I pray that God will raise up performers with a vision for the kingdom. I hope for Christians who will have the courage to enter the fields of entertainment and art and make a difference. I applaud the church that nurtures its artists, blesses them and finds a place for them. I challenge Christians to seek out the artists in their congregations and look for ways to put their talents to use in the same way we do for teachers and other servants. Help them offer up their gifts to God.

I want to turn on the television and see characters and situations my children can relate to: Attractive, sexual beings who are committed to staying pure. Workers grappling with ethics and materialism. Qualities like kindness and humility lifted up. Tough love choices endorsed. Consequences to sinful behavior shown for what they are. And, yes, hopefully our children may never experience some dark parts of the world, but through those portrayals, they may come to have insights and compassion about people in those situations.

I long for the day when there will be enough Christian performers, writers and producers to see that our stories get told. Stories from the Bible, stories about our ancestors and our heritage—tories about how Christians respond to the challenges of the world and how God breaks into our lives with his mighty presence.

Our children won’t see these stories unless we as Christians add our voice and our talent to this force. And we need the body of Christ to encourage us to do so.

I have this yearning in my heart for the kingdom.

I am a Christian. I am an actress.New Wineskins

Contact Donna: [hesterd@acu.edu]
Donna Hester has been performing since 1974 in roles such as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy and Beauty in Beauty and the Beast. She holds a BA in theatre from Trinity University and the MA from Abilene Christian University. She and her husband, Adam, have been working with the theatre department of ACU for twenty years. Donna serves as adviser to theatre majors and teaches Educational Theatre. Favorite Faith & Film Flick: Places in the Heart

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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