Craig. Theatrical Christianity
A woman once asked me, "What do they
call you at your church?" I told her,
" Earle." But," she replied, "shouldn't they show you more
respect as a
minister?" I answered, "Respect? In our church? Are you kidding?" She
quite catch the joke, but I explained to her that someone's using a title
address me does not really give me respect. Rather it is the condition of
heart that is the issue. In Luke 12, Jesus clearly warns his disciples about
tendency to believe that our outward behavior alone determines the quality
our righteousness and the authenticity of our Christianity. He points out
them a subtle yet important difference between authentic Christianity and
Theatrical Christianity . Luke 12:1 reads:
Under these circumstances,
after so many thousands of the multitude had
gathered together that they were stepping on one another, he began saying to
his disciples first of all, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which
For us the word hypocrisy typically has
one of two meanings. We think of someone
who "does not practice what they preach," and
we call him a hypocrite. We describe him
as inconsistent. He is saying one thing and
doing another. Or we think of someone who
practices what he preaches, but is not sincere.
He certainly does what he says, but he really
doesn't believe in it even though perhaps
he tries to convince us otherwise.
In Luke 12, Jesus is actually referring
to a third meaning. The Greek word
hypocrisis comes out of the Greek theater. It was used to denote an actor
stage, one who wore a mask and portrayed a character. This is the meaning
Jesus intends. He is not talking about inconsistent or insincere hypocrisy
theatrical hypocrisy. In theatrical hypocrisy someone practices consistently
and sincerely exactly what they preach as though they were acting out a part
in a play. So part of their purpose is to convince the audience that they
really are the character whom they are portraying. In Jesus' day the Pharisees
were experts at living life this way. They sincerely and consistently sought
to please God through their righteousness. We often think that the Pharisees
quintessential bad guys because they disobeyed God. However, we should realize
that the Pharisees were perhaps some of the most sincere and consistent people
to seek to obey God. The apostle Paul wrote that they had "a zeal for
God" (Romans 10:2). But by warning his disciples about the hypocrisy
of the Pharisees, Jesus is teaching them that there was something profoundly
wrong about the Pharisees' approach to obedience - that in spite of their
sincerity and consistency, they considered righteousness a script that they
merely had to act out. Similarly his warning applies to theatrical Christians
who act out a sort of religious script and convince themselves that they
are truly authentic in their Christianity when they really are not.
The Analogy of the Theater
An easy way to understand this false Christianity
is to use the analogy of a
theater. For our purposes let's consider four important elements of the theater
environment. First there are the actors. The actors are on stage, pretending
to be people they really aren't, and working hard to convince the audience
otherwise. If they succeed, they are considered good actors. The actors can
make or break a play. But everyone knows that you do not go to a theater
to observe real life. You go to observe actors on a stage performing an imitation
of real life. But good actors certainly make it hard to tell the difference.
their job. No wonder we are surprised if we meet a Hollywood star that they
seem like a completely different person from how they behave on television
or in movies. Good actors are convincing!
Another important element of the theater
is the script. The script is the series
of words and events that the actors perform. But everyone knows that the
script has been planned, and everyone has agreed to stick to the plan. The
whole play is prearranged and mutually agreed upon. There is no dissension.
All the actors want an orderly play. Words or events outside the script will
only inject chaos into the play. They are not expected, and no one wants
that. So one of the goals of the script is to keep control of the events
in the play. Even the audience, who may be familiar with the script, is expecting
the story to proceed in an orderly fashion. Any interruption will make them
uncomfortable and probably angry. However, they won't mind chaos if it is
written into the script because they know that it is under the control of
the actors. So controlled chaos is acceptable since the audience knows that
the actors have the resources and the capabilities to keep the chaos under
control. Otherwise, the event, chaotic or not, would not have been written
into the play. The script, therefore, is very important to making the play
A third important element of the theater
is the audience. The audience comes to see
a play, and their goal is to be entertained.
They want to enjoy themselves
And they are willing to give something very important and significant to
actors in exchange for being entertained - applause. Apart from money. the
actors want applause more than anything else. They want confirmation that
their acting is good, and that the play is good. This motivates them to keep
acting. Therefore, the audience and its applause are very important for a
The audience even wants to applaud They
want to become thoroughly wrapped up in the
story and made to laugh, cry, fear, or desire
justice. Living vicariously through the play
feels good to the audience, and they count
on good acting and a good script to do this
The fourth important element of the theater
is the building . It actually
performs a very important function. It keeps the outside out and the play
inside in so that the actors and the audience do not have to in contact with
outside while the play is going on. Why is this important? Because the outside
world is typically uglier than the ambiance inside the theater. The script
calls for props that decorate the stage and make it look attractive and "real." The
audience is usually well-dressed, polite, and attentive. The whole setting
is usually very comfortable and enjoyable. It is intended to be.
Recently I went to see The Phantom of the
Opera at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.
It was a wonderful performance in a beautiful
building. It felt good inside the theater
to be entertained by such a magnificent show.
Outside, though, was still Los Angeles -
an asphalt jungle with its bums, derelicts,
and gangs on the streets. It is hard not
to call it ugly, scary, and uncomfortable.
The theater building, however, performed its function very well. It insulated
from this tragic scene with such a fine performance by the actors of an
extraordinary script. As one of the audience, I applauded wholeheartedly
such an enjoyable experience.
In Luke l2, Jesus is warning us to beware
of hypocrisy - of Theatrical
Christianity, just as the Pharisees were guilty of Theatrical Judaism. So,
our case, who are the actors and the audience, and what are the script and
the building? The actors are professing Christians. They claim to be Christians
and are church members. They are not doing anything unusual except to go
along with the flow of the local church and the Christian community. But
there is something wrong about them, and this is why they are hypocrites.
They are merely acting out a script, which
all their fellow professing
Christians are performing. Its a lifestyle of carefully orchestrated words
actions to which everyone has agreed. And there is no dissent among them
because they all want both control and comfort. The goal is to keep life
under control and orderly. Thus Christians can also experience as comfortable
an existence as possible. Out of control suffering, pain, and chaos is just
Therefore the script must be manageable.
Christian should at all times be
capable of following the script. Then they can keep their lives orderly,
comfortable, and enjoyable. The script must also be achievable. The only
worth acting is a successful one. So people should be able to succeed at
following the script. This boosts their self-esteem. Of course, if someone
failing at following the script, it must be their problem and not the fact
the script is a misrepresentation of authentic Christianity. Nevertheless,
script should also be challenging. Everyone needs to feel as though they
accomplished something significant. Thus they can truly merit their own applause
and that of the audience. The feeling of success is very important. And finally
the script must be enjoyable. Everyone usually succeeds at something they
really want to do. And after all, Christianity that isn't fun isn't worth
The audience in Theatrical Christianity
is everyone who is watching and
applauding while I am acting. They may be joining me on stage or simply watching
and living vicariously through me in the audience. It depends upon the specific
situation. At any rate, everyone in Theatrical Christianity ends up being
both actor and audience. Sometimes we act. Sometimes we applaud. Its just
that some actors get more press.
Finally, it's important to realize that
the "building" of Theatrical
Christianity is not an actual building. Instead it is the whole play itself.
Remember we saw that the purpose of the building is to insulate the play
the ugly outside world. What was the Pharisees' ugly outside world from which
their hypocrisy was intended to protect them? Jesus tells us very clearly
in Matthew 23 that it was the much avoided sin inside their hearts.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,
hypocrites! For you clean the outside of
the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and
self-indulgence...For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside
appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all
uncleanness! Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly
you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
So the "outside" is actually the
ugliness and chaos of sin inside us - in
hearts and minds. We continue to sin against God and we want to hide from
its painful and uncomfortable consequences. This is the "real" world
that the script is written to avoid. The sin in our hearts is scary and ugly.
uncomfortable and chaotic. Emotionally the consequences are feelings of hurt,
pain, and anger. Physically they are such things as poverty and disease.
Relationally the consequences are conflict, tension, divorce, and war.
Psychologically they are such things as fear, anxiety, and depression. Maybe
our upbringing and environment have contributed heavily to our problems.
Nevertheless the scriptures clearly teach us that the real ugliness is not
outside of us, but inside us, in our hearts, where sin continues to demonstrate
its effects even in Christians.
Therefore we design our Theatrical Christianity
to protect us from this ugly
real world. Apart from the work of God's grace in our lives, we simply do
want to have to deal with the sin within. Therefore we write a script that
manageable, achievable, challenging, and enjoyable so we can convince ourselves
and holy God that we really are living authentic Christianity while conveniently
avoiding the "outside" inside our hearts.
Examples of Theatrical Christianity
The problem with identifying examples of
Christian hypocrisy is that anything
could be an example. If we are doing something to secretly get other Christians
to like us and to avoid dealing with our sin, it is hypocrisy - even if we
are talking about biblical issues. Remember that the Pharisees were diligent
bible students and incredible prayer warriors. But Jesus still condemned
them. So even good things can be used for hypocritical purposes. We are such
insecure people that appearing weak is very threatening.
Back when I first became a Christian, I
was taught that the two most important
activities for the Christian were discipleship and evangelism. These are
great and commendable pursuits. However, I now recognize that by concentrating
on them with such strict emphasis, we were able, in fact encouraged, to avoid
dealing with the residual sin in our hearts. We were so busy trying to perform
the "master plan" that no one took the time to stop and consider
who God is and who we really are before him. This left a lot of us confused
as well as flat out depressed about the Christian life. The more intensely
we discipled and evangelized, the more confused we became about the real
meaning of the Christian life. But you did not dare tell anybody because
it wasn't a past of the script.
Good Christians didn't have deep problems they couldn't fix quickly and easily.
And it would have wrecked the successful looking play if we had talked about
Christian marriage is good and right. To
intimately know a wife or husband and share
a common faith in Jesus Christ is both gratifying
and fulfilling. However, even Christian marriage
can easily be used as of Theatrical Christianity.
In our area of southern California, the script
typically calls for the married couple to
feel good about each other all the time,
hold hands and stare into each other's eyes
a lot, live in nice house, and drive two
foreign cars each with its own car phone.
While the husband earns a good income in
a successful business, the wife is cute and
a good decorator, and they have at least
two kids who are involved in just about every
sport and activity known to man so that the
mother drives her kids all over kingdom come
to their activities, and then somehow she
finds time to exercise because the script
calls for tight bodies. The whole family
attends a well-respected church, and is involved
there in lots of good programs. The husband
and wife are especially following the script
well if they both head up two of the church's
programs. Again, nothing here in and of itself
is immoral. But one wonders whether all the
activities somehow are designed to convince
everyone else that life is under control
and to avoid the issues of the heart, i.e.
sin - like lust, greed, jealousy, envy, worry,
and lack of trust in
Church buildings are good and appropriate
places for God's people to meet and worship
our sovereign Creator and Saviour. However,
they too can become part of the theater of
Christianity. If the building is so attractive
and beautiful that it intimidates the poor,
the smelly, the uncouth and unsociable so
that they would never enter it, perhaps it
is designed to allow us to avoid the sin
of ignoring these people instead of loving
and caring for them as Jesus did.
Pastors are called of God to shepherd His
people. But unfortunately they
especially are susceptible to promoting Theatrical Christianity. I, myself,
the temptation to act out a particular role in our church It is easy to want
be witty, articulate, good-looking, suave and persuasive, a good story teller,
and a real motivator towards "successful Christian living." It
is also tempting
to teach the bible as though it were merely a script that is manageable,
achievable, challenging, and enjoyable by leaving out the difficult passages
God's wrath and our sin - or at least watering them down so that they will
more acceptable to delicate ears. It would seem that Christianity that isn't
just isn't worth living so that a pastor who always looks as though he has
act together will enable his congregants to continue living their own script
avoid their own sin. It is true that pastors who succumb to immorality need
be dealt with appropriately, but one wonders whether the need for everyone
to abide by the script of Theatrical Christianity is actually contributing
proliferation of fallen pastors by preventing them from being honest about
what is at least going on inside them.
So anything of an external
nature that permits us to avoid the ugliness
sin could become an example of Christian hypocrisy. Even things that are
mentioned in the bible that authentic Christians do - prayer, bible study,
giving, assembling with other Christians, and confession of sin. The problem
is that really anybody including an atheist could do these things and appear
sincere about them.
Someone must get us to deal with what is
inside us as well as our external
Jesus Christ in the Audience
This is where a very important member of
the audience, whom we have not
mentioned yet, comes into the play. Jesus Christ is watching our play. In
he is sitting in the front row. And what he ends up doing is very remarkable
and totally unexpected. We actually expect him to applaud the play more heartily
than anybody because we are convinced our play is authentic Christianity.
At the Ahmanson Theater in downtown L.A. the actors and audience know that
the play isn't real life The actors expect to be applauded only for performing
well an imitation of life. However, in Theatrical Christianity, the actors
and audience have all agreed and thoroughly convinced themselves that the
play isn't real life, and that any deep problems "outside the building" in
their hearts don't exist! Everyone firmly believes that the script is the
one and only true description of Christianity. Plus the play looks so good,
and it feels good. So it has to be right.
Consequently, the actors and audience really
expect Jesus to applaud even more than an
audience at the Ahmanson. But he doesn't.
In fact, he "rudely" but lovingly
gets up out of his seat in the middle of
the play and interrupts the
whole scene by declaring in a loud and clear voice that the play is false
reality, that the actors and audience are not living authentic Christianity
though they all profess to be Christians, that he is leaving the theater,
that if anyone wants to live real Christianity and have eternal life, they
have to follow him "outside" where it is ugly, scary, chaotic,
and out of their
control And he goes on to declare that the actors and audience may firmly
believe that they are comfortable and enjoying life, but if they follow him
" outside" they will find and experience more comfort and more joy
in spite of
the ugliness. It is there they will taste the true righteousness of compassion,
mercy, patience, justice, and faithfulness graced to them by God. But they
have to trust him and not the play because outside the theater is the cross,
the suffering of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin.
Theatrical Christianity avoids sin. The
suffering and resurrected Christ faces
us squarely into it so that with humble honesty we might obtain eternal life
repenting of our sin on a continual basis and receiving God's forgiveness.
Our hearts look scary to us because their sin is out of our control. Anyone
who has truly come face to face with his sin can tell you of its chaos. Our
sin is so
deep and pervasive that we cannot get to it to control it. Whenever we try,
self-effort proves futile. Only God's grace can transform us on the inside
it is for this we trust him. Inside Theatrical Christianity, we give off
appearance of being under control, but the achievability of our script only
permits us to trust ourselves and not God. But as soon as we follow Jesus
outside our theater, we can honestly and openly deal with the burns, derelicts,
and gangs on the streets of our hearts, and trust him to both forgive us
change us from the inside out, making us people who pursue authentic
righteousness now and who will become perfectly righteous in heaven.
God's Grace Towards His People
We all naturally gravitate towards hypocrisy
because of the depth of our sin. No one really
wants to completely face into their sin and
its consequences. In
addition, no one naturally wants to trust God. But God will not permit his
people to continue acting within the theater of hypocritical Christianity.
will motivate us by his grace to get up out of our seats or off the stage
follow Jesus Christ "outside." He opens our eyes to see the falsehood
play. And then he lovingly pushes us into the ugliness of our sin so that
feel very uncomfortable about it. But this is all designed to brings us to
point where we have no other choice but to trust Jesus Christ to save us
the chaos in our hearts. God has to show us how out of control our script
really was. We were relying on a false security.
Even though Theatrical Christianity looks
good on the outside, it drives people into
burnout and disillusionment if they are not
strong enough in their flesh to continue
to pull it off. But this burn out can be
the best thing that ever
happened to them. God will use it to drive his people to their knees and
greater faith. He lets them get genuinely tired of the false pretense and
performing for one another, and then motivates them to get up out of their
seats and follow Jesus "outside" to the cross that will save us
from the sin in our hearts. And we need not be frightened even though our
sin is so ugly and can be very painful. God loves his people enough to shake
us loose from our hypocrisy, expose the truth of our sin to us, and lead
us to himself for forgiveness, comfort, and the promise of eternal salvation.
And his love is always unbounded and constant so that if we try to slip back
inside the theater, he will lead us back out again to continue to trust Jesus.
So if you are a Christian, and your life
is unsettled and chaotic when perhaps
at one time you appeared under control and orderly, you were probably simply
avoiding the inevitable. You are discovering that ironically the church is
one of the easiest places to hide from our ugly sinful issues because there
the script can make us look so good and feel so comfortable. But God loves
us too much to leave us in the theater where we have been faking Christianity.
He will push us outside to the cross where there is true joy and security
in Jesus Christ alone. We so easily trust ourselves, but God will have us
trust only him as we face into the pain of sin and its consequent difficulties
like depression, loneliness, financial strain, disease, and conflict.
We are sinful even as Christians, and the
pain we encounter is part of living in
a sinful world. God will draw us into one of these kinds of difficulties
us loose from our hypocrisy and into trusting him. Fortunately in the process
he does change us. If anything we become more desirous and committed to heaven
and eternal life as our ultimate hope and expectation. Our tendency towards
hypocrisy runs deep within us, but God is committed to leading us to trust
in him and away from trusting in ourselves. Thus he continues to love and
shepherd his people.
False Christians' Response to Jesus
The people who remain in the theater will
react differently to Jesus Christ.
Remember they firmly believe they are right and that they are living authentic
Christianity. Plus the entertainment for the audience and the applause for
actors feels so good. Its addictive and virtually hypnotic. They are
comfortable, besides, and free from most pain for all practical purposes.
They are together and feel the communal support of one another which also
feels good and secure. Their lives are orderly, and they are firmly convinced
that they are deriving real satisfaction from their lives and that they are
pleasing to God.
They believe that they are engaged in genuine and sincere biblical
righteousness. This is exactly how the Pharisees were.
But Jesus Christ, an ex-carpenter,
poor and unemployed, stands up and declares
that they are wrong deluded, insecure, chaotic,
and evil. Like the Pharisees, false Christians
will reject him and continue to embrace Theatrical
Christianity. They will even want to get rid of him because he is always
criticizing them and their play.
They also may start out trying to gently
persuade God's people to stay within
Theatrical Christianity. But the more it becomes clear that authentic
Christianity are truly willing to deal with the sin in their hearts and therefore
do not need to live according to a carefully crafted script, the sooner false
Christians will eventually say, "Good riddance. You must not be a Christian
anyway," because they firmly believe that Christianity is always orderly,
controlled, and successful looking. Orderliness is good, but to have it 100%
of the time is simply unrealistic.
The Response of God's People to
On the other hand, God's people will respond
to Jesus Christ and his invitation to trust
him and face into the realities of life with
repentance, love, and worship. As Martin
Luther wrote as one of his 95 theses, "When
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, 'Repent,'
he means that the entire life of the
faithful should be a repentance." Then out of this faithful repentance
activity of love for God and one another and our worship of God.
So then what is the fundamental difference
between authentic Christianity and
Theatrical Christianity? The difference is merely the object of our trust.
we trusting our acting ability to live the Christian life and to become
acceptable to God and one another, or are we trusting in Jesus Christ's
crucifixion alone to be acceptable before God and in the grace of God alone
to transform us from the inside out in His timing so that there truly may
periods in our lives where we are simply going to look very successful or
very attractive to others, but they are called to forgive us just as we are
called to forgive them, and our common trust in God holds us together?
The Pharisees in their hypocrisy
completely avoided the sin within them and
trusted in their good looking religion to make them acceptable to God. We,
like the disciples, need to beware this leaven, lace into the sin in our hearts,
and trust in Jesus Christ alone to forgive us and transform us from the inside
out, making us acceptable to God through the work of his cross and not through
our acting ability.
Copyright 1992 by Earle Craig.