In the highly commercial world of entertainment, publicists long ago recognized the value of appealing to the voyeurism of the masses. The shill artist working the girlie show at a county fair leers at the country boy and promises more of the same—and better!—inside. The Times Square marquee froths in frenzies of comparison: “Female Animal begins where Fanny Hill left off!” Advertisements turn the theater pages of the sedate New York Times—“All the news that’s fit to print”—into a succession of titillating appeals:
An erotic odyssey … through the perverse … the phallic … the mystic and the sadistic …
Without a Stitch is a Danish sex-education film which bars no holds!
Special! Direct from Europe: The newest film from Denmark where prurient interest is legal!
A far-out collage … a catatonic young man, a bizarre madhouse, a weird doctor, a gun-fetishist teacher and wife, black humor, adultery, pregnancy, abortion, death.
These panderings appeal to the basest nature in man, whose preoccupation with the grotesque and distorted subjects of his society has always found its adequate expression. The barbarism of the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, the tours of Bedlam, the brothel spectacles in the Tenderloin, the propositions in the Free Press and the East Village Other—these are the natural results of that unrepressed bestiality of which St. Paul speaks at the outset of his letter to the Romans.
Thus, because they have not seen fit to acknowledge God, he has given them up to their own depraved reason. This leads them to break all rules of conduct. They are filled with every kind of injustice, mischief, rapacity, and malice; they are one mass of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and malevolence; whisperers and scandal-mongerers, hateful to God, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent new kinds of mischief, they show no loyalty to parents, no conscience, no fidelity to their plighted word; they are without natural affection and without pity. They know well enough the just decree of God, that those who behave like this deserve to die, and yet they do it; not only so, they actually applaud such practices (Rom. 1:28–32, NEB).
Hamlet said that the purpose of drama is “to hold as twere the mirror up to nature.” If so, we must assume that the image of our society that we find in our plays and motion pictures is as William Barrett has described it:
There is a painful irony in the new image of man that is emerging, however fragmentarily, from the art of our time. An observer from another planet might well be struck by the disparity between the enormous power which our age has concentrated in its external life and the inner poverty which our age seeks to expose to view. This is, after all, the age that has discovered and harnessed atomic energy, that has made airplanes that fly faster than the sun, and that will, in a few years (perhaps in a few months), have atomic-powered planes which can fly through outer space and not need to return to mother earth for weeks. What cannot man do! He has greater power now than Prometheus or Icarus or any of those daring mythical heroes who were later to succumb to the disaster of pride. But if an observer from Mars were to turn his attention from these external appurtenances of power to the shape of man as revealed in our novels, plays, painting, and sculpture, he would find there a creature full of holes and gaps, faceless, riddled with doubts and negations, starkly finite (Irrational Man).
Yet this is not the message we receive from most social commentators. We hear instead of the glory of our new freedoms and the grandeur of our passage into the Age of Aquarius.
The evangelical Christian, thus comforted, may feel confused, even trapped. He knows that he is in this world yet not of this world. It is not his purpose to be “with it,” turned on to the rhythms of each different drummer. Still, it is his purpose to serve, and he hopes to find an appropriate means of service. As he participates in the cultural life around him—attending to his interests in education, in science, in the arts—he knows he can there learn something of value to the service he brings. But all too often the evangelical is victimized by naivete. He is told—and he believes—that sinful man’s imagination is saying what it is not capable of saying. Then comes the uneasiness. “Perhaps,” he says, “in the narrowness of my vision, I have missed a glimpse of transcendence.”
Evangelical Christianity is suffering from an overdose of sudden sophistication. Freed from the enshackling interdictions of the fundamentalist taboos—“Thou shalt not attend the theater, motion pictures, ballet, or opera”—many evangelicals feel at liberty to attend a Broadway show or the local moviehouse. But much of what they find offered as art, by today’s relativist standards, many persons would recognize as undisguised smut.
The first reaction is often one of immediate offense—not at the lewdness so much as at its pretentious posturing as art. The sense of having been cheated is never pleasant; one feels the bristling that tells him he has once again been bilked. Then, it seems, the rationalizations begin, the attempts at justifying the experience in the name of narrowing the cultural gap between generations or, worse, consecrating the experience in the name of redemptive theology. Before the drive home has been completed, the Christ-symbolism has been all worked out; the religious significance of every disagreeable scene has been authenticated. The pragmatic evangelical has salvaged his evening and placated his conscience.
It should be clear that some contemporary plays and films do indeed attempt to render a religious experience. Although I cannot claim to understand their intentions, it seems to me that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were attempting to show in some measure the validity of the Christian claim in their movie Easy Rider. Several scenes speak to the point. Early in the cross-country trek, the two cyclists stop for a meal at a rancher’s home. The blessing before the meal leads to a comment about the serenity of the rancher’s life. Later, at the hippie commune, the family gathers to ask God’s blessing on the seed just planted. The 360°-panning camera scrutinizes each face and fails to identify a disbeliever in the group. In the New Orleans episode, the LSD-induced hallucinations are uniformly terrifying and unfulfilling. They are also rooted in Christian relationships and their demonic antitheses. The rosary, the statutes of saints and angels in a graveyard, the prostitution of agape into eros, are strikingly portrayed in a montage of scenes that brings the viewer to the rim of Dante’s Second Circle.
But Easy Rider does not pretend to go beyond this. There is no sloppy, sentimentalized attempt to transform either principal into a Christ-figure. Their deaths are representative not of soteriology but of aimless bigotry. After their wretched experience at Mardi Gras, one says to the other, “We blew it,” and the viewer knows what he means. In these respects Easy Rider is exceptional in the clarity and simplicity of its religious implications and their Christian applications.
Most contemporary films and dramas are more ambiguous. Out of this ambiguity there often develops, among both the professional critics and the coffee-cup amateurs, a critical opinion composed of aesthetic nonsense and theological rubbish. Such criticism is dishonest to sound aesthetics and to sound doctrine. One is not surprised to find the spiritually blind leading the blind. What is truly disappointing is to find ministers and theologians and other persons of putative insight cowering before the public’s insatiate lust, shrugging off their responsibilities as prophets to join the vanguard of the profane.
Every obscenity trial lately seems to produce more clergymen as witnesses for the play or movie than can be found to testify against it. The champions of this revival of Dionysiac Christianity seem centered on the south side of Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village. There one can attend LeRoi Jones’s newest diatribe, Slave Ship, housed at the Washington Square United Methodist Church. Just to the east stands the Adoniram Judson Memorial Church, a long-time base for experimental drama, including nude dancing in front of the altar. Passers-by will scarcely notice the cornerstone of the church—a fountain, its metal cover splattered with city filth, and on its faces in faded carving these words: “Let him that is athirst come and drink of the water of life freely.”
Yet in today’s inverted economy, the thirsting masses cannot be sure that the Water of Life will be offered from some pulpits. Instead they may be served the bitter waters of anarchy and upheaval or else the elixirs and aphrodisiacs of our amoral art. To quench their thirst they may need to turn to the rock musicians, who sing “Jesus is just all right with me” but never tell why. And if some honest seeker were to ask for the answers to life’s most pressing questions, he might well find himself directed to the Biltmore Theater and Hair.
According to a recent issue of New York magazine, scalpers can still get $50 for a pair of good tickets to the long-running Broadway show Hair. Weekend seats are sold out more than eight months in advance. Billed as “The American Tribal-Love Rock Musical,” Hair is a prototype of the emerging theater, a theater that represents itself as being anarchistic and improvisational. In fact, however, Hair is carefully structured, if not indeed contrived. Its gestures are studied, its music is commercial, its lyrics combine modish audacity with cliches and bromides reminiscent of Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joe Cable. Its non-book, aptly termed as such by the authors, consists of the attempts of Berger, Woof, Hud, Shelia, and the rest of the self-styled tribe to keep Claude from the draft. This is the production of which Clive Barnes, the Times critic, has written, “If you have just one show to see, make it Hair!”
And what is Hair? It is a dramatized concert rather than a play; the performers are singers, not actors. Its best moment is the famous nude scene that closes the first act with Claude’s singing,
Where do I go?
And will I ever discover why I must live and die?
The nudity, for all its sensationalism, contributes to the song’s sense of futility and essential aloneness. It comes as one of the most restrained moments in the play; it may, in fact, be the most chaste as well. For Hair, if the truth be told, is an interminable dirty joke—not funny, not ribald, not bawdy as is much of the great comedy of literature, but dirty, in the crude fashion of the junior-high locker room or the lavatory in the bus depot. The effect produced, in spite of lighting stunts and choreographic gymnastics, is one of boredom—simple boredom.
The song “Sodomy” places Hair in its philosophical milieu. After enumerating several varieties of sexual activity, the singer concludes that “masturbation can be fun.” This declaration typifies the level of serious thought arrived at in the play. It points unmistakably to the early-adolescent mentality in its preoccupation with pubic hair and other aspects of the human body. Hence the repeated gesturing, the imitations of intercourse, the self-conscious auto-eroticism, are manifestly isolated, alienated, cut off from any possible experience of joy—just as masturbation must be. The closing song, “Let the Sunshine In,” is undoubtedly one of the most ironic and anti-climactic finales in the history of musical drama.
Yet Hair professes to speak the truth. “Discover America—See Hair,” its posters read. New productions have recently opened in Toronto and Tokyo, and everywhere the critics echo each other, while the bemused public nods compliantly.
The Christian must leave Hair, and many another current show, knowing he has been lied to—lied to by performers whose production maintains that chaos is freedom (while repeating the same lines, the same blocking, night after night) and that discord is harmony (while singing and playing rhyming words set to conventional chord structures, song after song). Lied to by critics, not one of whom dares to declare his weariness with attempts at “truth” through this or that perversion of love; not one with fortitude enough to say that violence is ugly, that hyper-sexuality is also common in dog-packs chasing a bitch in heat, that psychosis or neurosis is no longer a novelty disease to be exposed to public ridicule, and that the shocking language has all been said before, by Marine drill instructors and by little boys trying to sound tough.
The Christian will also know that he has been lied to by some preachers desperate to appear informed; by theologians eager to appear hip; by youngsters of easily impressionable enthusiasm; by persons pathetically afraid of not being “with it.”
Worst of all, such a Christian may well feel he has lied to himself in expecting more than a sick and dying world can offer of itself. When he comes to this realization, he will read with caution and with apprehension the final verse of Romans chapter one. And perhaps, in the future, he will refuse to be intimidated by those false and shallow evaluations that dignify disorder and attempt to sanctify a screech in the night.
HYMN TO GOD ON MY WAY TO HIM
I sing of rumored splendor hiding as
it were across a dried and fissured fiood
of grayness. Dead it seems. My search
like climbing some black, shaken
hill and slipping, lurching
on a viscous something most like blood
that trickles down its side.
Until that awful, death dark
moment when one step returns in
finding nothing where it should have marked
a way; but nothing there except a wide
uncharted gap of emptiness. There I fall
and drop disgusted (no, much more—
done) down and breathe, I think, my last.
Finished, flickering, almost out—but then before
the final rattle something still and small.
All dead but new-found ears that hear;
no life but past-blind eyes that seel
It’s true—the rumors live again.
I’m hugged and laughed with, told with awful
tenderness that he has long been
on his way to me.
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