Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

What is Wrong with Drama?

Why is Proclamation the way of the Bible?
from Sword & Trowel 2000, No. 4 by Peter Masters

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1.18)

God's chosen and appointed means of communicating the glorious Gospel is by proclamation, which means - by words. All the evangelising of the New Testament was by means of words, whether by preaching, personal witness, or writing. The world of those days was full of dramatic art and cultic symbolism, but the messengers of Calvary stood aloof from it all, and worked with words.

'How shall they hear,' asks the apostle in Romans 10, 'without a preacher?' He does not say - without an actor, or a band of musicians, or a discussion group. Gospel communication must be in words addressed to the mind. It requires rational speech, whether uttered in a large building or in a home-gathering.

Proclamational methods - particularly preaching - are under attack today in evangelical circles. The latest church-growth books nearly all sweep away the primacy of preaching, and what preaching is left makes slender use of the Word of God as a divinely provided source and model. The promoters of so-called 'seeker services', though they use a measure of preaching, tend to see it as only a component in an elaborate mix of methods.

Some writers have provided tables of methods to show the comparative effectiveness of different approaches, and preaching always appears at or near the bottom. They claim that when people are tested to find how much they remember from preaching, discussion, dramatic presentation, role-play, and video presentation, preaching gains the fewest points for efficiency. It is said to come last in terms of comprehension, retention, and persuasive force. Such 'tests', however, are never scientific, and are carried out in circumstances where preaching is poorly attempted, and by authors out to prove their case. Nevertheless, the mud thrown at preaching tends to stick.

The undermining of direct proclamation is all the more dangerous in a time when God's servants labour with such small results, due to the prevailing atheism and materialism. At such a time it is tempting to think that something other than preaching should be brought in. What is the good, we may think, of preaching week after week when we are not touching the masses?

We are vulnerable to those who say - 'You have over-emphasised preaching. You should do other things. You should join the contemporary worship movement. You should bring the drums on to the platform during the evangelistic service, introduce drama, wear jeans, cut the speaking to ten minutes and break up into discussion groups. You should do anything but proclaim.'

Resistance to the Gospel is so great that human nature begins to wilt, and traditional methods are imperilled. Well-meaning and wholly committed men have buckled under the clamour for contemporary methods of outreach, because of the hardness of the days.

A time for clarity

This is a time to fortify our trust in God's appointed methods. If a method of spreading the Gospel is not proclamational, it is not what the Lord commands and desires. It is simply not biblical, and surely, obedience is the greatest and wisest duty of God's servants in any age, and especially in an age of mounting apostasy.

Why should it be thought that speech is relatively hopeless and inadequate, when it has been so powerfully used and proved for twenty centuries of church history? Why do the advocates of Christian rock and drama have such a jaundiced view of the spoken word? Is it, perhaps (in many cases), that they cannot preach - and are not truly equipped and called by God? Or is it that they have pursued an inappropriate style of preaching? Or is it that they are revealing their true tastes as worldly 'Christians'? Or do they lack faith in the power of God's Word when attended by the Holy Spirit? Do they not realise that to draw the crowds and teach them with the 'stuff' of entertainment coupled with a lightweight version of repentance will only fill the churches with people who make shallow and deluded professions - the 'wood, hay and stubble' of Paul's famous warning to church builders?

Words are everything in evangelism. Take the Word of God. It is words! It is God speaking to us. The Old Testament certainly uses symbols, and it has one or two miniature dramatic performances, but the 'script' was written by God, the 'performances' extremely short, and they were intended as nothing more than illustrations to sermons or prophecies. At that, they were deadly serious, never the comedy-show type of sketch adopted by the 'seeker-sensitive' brigade of today, designed to get people into 'laughter meltdown'.

Of course we believe in using illustrations in our messages, and visual aids for the young, but the supreme vehicle of communication is directly-addressed words, for this is God's exclusive method of making known His grace.

Why not have drama? What is wrong with it? We have already pointed out that it is not part of the New Testament blueprint, and it is not difficult to see why.

While drama can be powerfully captivating and influential in the secular world, it is a woefully inadequate and inappropriate vehicle for the presentation of Gospel truth, being primarily entertainment, and not a direct and plain challenge to the mind. It chiefly appeals to the emotions, and seldom for long. It is most closely associated in the mind of the viewer with fiction, or make-believe, and this ethos colours its application to Gospel work, hanging as a mist before the eyes of an audience.

If drama presents a case or an argument, it must do so in an artificially contrived situation. It cannot easily compare and contrast viewpoints or argue the point, and as soon as it tries to do so it becomes more boring than direct speech ever is.

Overall, it distorts reality. The various characters inevitably obscure any message, because their own personalities and skills either please or repel watchers. If they are attracted by them, they are unconsciously disposed to approve of their case or 'message', which is merely a subtle form of emotional manipulation, and not a true appeal to the mind.

Only a minimum of real information can be conveyed by drama, perhaps at most two or three significant, simple points. It is inefficient, it is inappropriate, it runs the risk of emotional trickery, it cannot effectively argue the case, and it is not the method which has been appointed. It certainly fails to address the viewer directly, either to appeal to him, or to hold him to account before God.

Drama will inevitably empty the message of real moral conviction. Some people go to the cinema or to the theatre for a good weep, and they are affected in outlook for minutes, perhaps even for an hour or two, but it is at an emotional level only and usually has no lasting effect. In the Bible, 'graphics' are always subservient to proclamation, and that is the way we must keep it.

Portraying the Lord

As for the dramatic presentations which include portrayal of Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, one would have thought any Bible believer could readily see that this cannot be done without disfiguring the Lord. How can you worthily portray, other than in words, the Person, the life, and the heart of the Saviour of the world?

Some may say, 'But is not a film about Jesus full of words?' It certainly has words, but it also has actors, and dramatic impact and spectacle, capturing the attention of the watcher and arousing human sympathies above spiritual understanding. An actor displaces the Lord (most probably in breach of the second commandment) and the vital points of Gospel doctrines are not amplified, explained and applied - this work being the true representative of sympathetic communication.

Let us review some of the superior qualities of direct proclamation by contrast with any of the new methods and gimmickry.

First, with direct words in preaching or witness, Almighty God is always in view. He is always there. He is always being referred to. It is clearly His message, for it is brought from His Word, whereas with non-proclamational methods of presentation God is somewhat obscured, whether it is discussion which wanders and stumbles around the debris of human opinion, or whether entertainment-style songs, or whether drama. Only with direct proclamation is God always the supreme purpose and objective, and the unmistakable source of the message.

That is the point behind the tradition of having an enormous Bible on the pulpit lectern. Our forebears had big Bibles out of principle, because all could then see the source of the message and the authority behind it. The old-time travelling evangelist achieved the same effect by holding the Bible firmly in his hand, stabbing his finger at it and saying - 'The Bible says! . . . The Bible says!'

Whether the proclaimer works from a lectern or pocket Bible, God is clearly the source, authority and objective.

Secondly, proclamation like nothing else enables us to convey the spirit in which God gives this message. It may be expressed with passion, with sympathy, and with pleading urgency. Drama conveys and evokes feeling, but it is feeling expressed between the characters, or evoked by the impact of a situation, not the attitude and heart of God to sinners. Only direct speech on His behalf can convey some sense of this. Do not let anyone denigrate straightforward preaching or Sunday School teaching, because it alone brings the heart of God to listeners.

Thirdly, direct proclamation alone engages the free, rational mind. It is true that preaching can exploit emotional manipulation. The speaker can tell sob-stories, and let his voice range from shivering tones to explosions of sound, jarring the feelings. But if excessive histrionic tricks are avoided, direct speech addresses the responsible (though fallen) thinking faculty, to challenge it and persuade it.

The hearer is not influenced by extraneous things. He is not hypnotised under the sway of compelling, rhythmic music, or projected into an emotional trance by something which moves him at a fleshly level. He listens to plain words, and his mind (from a human standpoint) is under no coercion. He hears a clear message, passionately expressed, but without manipulation, and as the Spirit moves, his response will be genuine. If he rejects this direct message, God will be just in holding him to account.

Fourthly, proclamation enables the 'tone' of communication to be right in another way. This message is serious. This is a life-or-death matter. This concerns eternity. Like nothing else, preaching can get the tone right. Direct proclamation, even though there may be moments of humour, accommodates intrinsic authority, reverence for God, and seriousness.

We have already noted that drama is associated with entertainment, and cannot therefore achieve the right tone. With drama the audience is transported into the realm of unreality from the beginning. With entertainment-style music the hearer is the 'customer', and the singers and instrumentalists the artistes, whose job is to please. In the case of discussion groups, every member is wrongly given the right to determine what is Truth, for they are gathered to teach one another, and to arrive at the Truth between them. They are the source of Truth. They are all-important. Where, here, is the necessary humility to hear the Gospel, and where are the authority and seriousness of Truth? Only proclamation possesses the capacity to preserve these.

Fifthly (extending the previous point), nothing has convicting power like direct proclamation. This message is about great matters of the soul. It concerns God's righteous judgement, and the possibility of a momentous escape through His amazing love and astounding forgiveness. It is about great guilt and deep need. Direct proclamation, blessed by the Spirit, is the exclusive vehicle for the arresting and convicting of the soul. The keep-it-light methodology of the entertainment and seeker-service circles seldom ever knows anything like this. In the end, they must turn to charismatic tricks, such as slayings in the Spirit, induced by crude mass-hypnosis, as a substitute for the convicting of the heart.

Paul says twice that he was ordained a preacher, and this is of great importance.* In the Greek he uses the word herald. The characteristics of a herald in biblical times are of immense significance. A court herald in the ancient world was not allowed to do anything on his own initiative. He had to keep strictly to his text.

Heralds were often sent as envoys in war to an enemy capital or camp, but they were never negotiators. They kept within their brief, taking the message and returning with the response.

Paul uses the 'herald' term because these duties perfectly mirror the very limited office of a Christian preacher, who is not called to devise new methods of communication for every age, but to honour and operate those established in the New Testament.

The term herald also described a town crier who declared whatever message he was given. He could not change the announcement or the date. Similarly, we are not given the scope to vary either the message or the method. We are to work within the limits that are appointed to us, and this is what is being forgotten today. Our energy and initiative should be deployed in bringing in the people and Sunday School youngsters to hear proclamation, and not replacing it with entertainment.

Paul says that he did not preach the Gospel - 'with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect'. He does not mean that preachers cannot use arguments, because he used them himself. His own preaching was wisely marshalled, exposing the folly of dedication to this world, and establishing the necessity of turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. However, he never blended evangelism with worldly wisdom, employing Greek philosophy to tickle the ears of the intellectuals in an attempt to make his message more attractive to them. He never mixed the message with what they wanted to hear.

It is inconceivable that the apostle, if he were alive today, would say, 'The proclamation of the Gospel is not popular and therefore I will mix it, not with Greek philosophy, but with a rock band performance which will commend itself to the people. Then I will reduce the message drastically to give room for pieces of drama, because they do not want to listen to anything serious.'

Whether Greek philosophy or the sound of drums, it is exactly the same - the mixing of the message of the Word with something preferred by lost society, so that we can avoid the offence of the cross. This is what Paul, inspired by the Spirit, clearly condemns.

Only words can cope

When we proclaim the cross of Christ we have much to do. We must present the need for the cross, the holiness of God, the Fall of man, the Person of Christ, and what really happened on that cross. We must also expose the emptiness and futility of life without God, the benefits of salvation, the exclusive saving merits of the cross, and the tragedy of a lost eternity. But only words can adequately explain these matters to rational minds, informing them of the details and challenging attitudes in a way that the Holy Spirit can use. Only words can inform, persuade and remonstrate in a convicting, challenging and appealing way. Only words are supported by scriptural promises of instrumentality. This high work cannot possibly be done by musical entertainment, or by drama (the medium of fiction).

We appeal to preachers and church leaders not to yield to the new experiments in communication. Remember that the people who started these trends are people who present a weaker notion of both conversion and the Christian life, in order to retain a considerable degree of worldliness.

These 'evangelists' only seek a moderately sanitised lifestyle. What they promote is a new syncretism - God and mammon; Christ and the world - and they have proved that it is extremely popular. These are the people who have invented the plethora of new, non-proclamational gimmicks and methods.

Do not imagine this is merely a generational thing. Today's trends mark a deliberate departure from the Christianity which calls people from sin and worldliness to a radical, Holy-Spirit-wrought conversion. Genuine Christian workers must not fall into a system engineered by doubtful workers.

We first encountered these alternatives to proclamation (on a serious scale) at the end of the 1960s when Campus Crusade launched their original 'Four Spiritual Laws'. Certainly, there were Campus workers who were godly people and whose evangelistic efforts rose much higher than their official script, but the script they were supposed to follow fell woefully short of the message of the Gospel.

Big-band musical entertainment jostled with show-biz testimonies and ultra-short messages pointing to a tragically undersized Gospel challenge. Readers may remember the general line: 'God has a wonderful plan for your life.' God is full of smiles and readiness to bless, but, said the script (in effect), there is just one little problem in the way. Before you can be blessed, you need to get this little matter of repentance out of the way. Happily, this can be done in a short sentence, then you can go on to the next, nicer step.

We are, of course, parodying the Campus formula, but it certainly minimised matters, falling short of any real conviction. This is precisely what is going on with most of those who now promote drama and entertainment as an alternative to the direct challenge of proclamation. They do not want the convicting character and power of the authentic message.

For all we have said about the superiority of direct proclamation, the power is not inherent, but is the work of the Spirit. The fact that we preach does not guarantee blessing, and the apostle expresses this bluntly: 'For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.' Countless people will react with scorn. They will understand, but think it is ridiculous and foolish to put these propositions before them.

They will say to themselves, 'I do not accept that I am a condemned sinner. And if I turn to this Saviour, I shall forfeit my right to rule my own life and do what I want. I will have to conform to new standards, and many things that I am committed to and enjoy will have to go. It is ridiculous to ask me to do this.'

A non-authentic response

Sweetening the pill by watering down the Gospel and disguising it with entertainment will not make it more acceptable, only less understandable. People will hear a modified, weakened Gospel, and their response will not be authentic.

The apostle warns that proclamation works only because God makes it work in the hearts of His people.

When people say to us, 'You people are just traditionalists, stuck firmly in the past, and you want everything to be done in a 19th-century manner,' they have got us wrong. We want to use direct proclamation because it is what God tells us exclusively to do. Whether it is Sunday School teaching, personal witness, preaching in the pulpit, or printed tracts and books, the scriptural way is to present the Gospel in rational words, to rational minds, supported by earnest prayer.

Many evangelicals today see that the public wants rock groups, informality, conviviality, drama and other entertainments, and whereas the apostle Paul had no intention of obliging the carnal wishes of either Greek or Jew, today's modernisers go overboard to give outsiders exactly what they think will please them.

Let us focus all our energies on forms of direct proclamation, and activities which bring people under that influence. These are the only two legitimate aspects of evangelism - proclamation, and efforts that support it.