On Acting- A Dilemma

Hello! I’ve been reading up on quite a bit of early church writings and history lately. One thing I’ve noticed is that the church fathers were really against acting… Not just because of the immoral content of the plays, but because of the idea that acting is lying (because you’re playing a different person). So I’ve steered clear of television and theatre recently.

I’ve gotten into, for the past week, hosting an online roleplay session. Me and the rest of the participants use a chat room and respond to situations as our different characters would (I know it sounds nerdy, please don’t judge)… Would this be a sin? There’s no immoral content, it’s just the acting part I’m worried about.

The Vatican doesn’t prohibit acting. Priests go to cinemas and watch TV. Many devout Catholics watch TV. Some devout Catholics are actors/actresses and some are even movie directors. There’s nothing wrong with acting unless you’re acting in a movie with questionable content eg explicit fornication (as in, they actually show the scene on set or TV)

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If people know that someone’s acting then I can’t see that that is a sin in itself. If people were not aware of the person acting then the acting is being disengenuous and that may be sinful if it leads to deceiving someone. Who can say however that our public ‘face’ is not an act? Most of us do it daily and I hope mostly as a defence rather than to deceive.

I remember Plato’s Republic had interesting things to say about acting. I recall that he argued that he wouldn’t want his guards to be told scary stories which would lead to them imagining all sorts and becoming fearful whilst on duty. He also argued against the effect of hedonism as portrayed by actors and dancing in a wild and abandoned way to etc.

Sometimes people say is art copying life or is life copying art. When I look into the mirror it has an effect, I comb my hair. Tv and film influences people, no doubt about it, hence the power of propaganda and adverts.

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Pope John Paul II delved into acting before he was a priest.

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Acting, teaching … neither of these are sinful.

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I think that depends on what your teaching and how you’re acting?

Yes, as is the case with any activity. One can eat sinfully, for example – but eating is not in and of itself sinful.

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Not all of them were against acting. Apollinaris of Alexandria wrote Christian plays in the fourth century. The early Church historian Socrates Scholasticus says of him: “as a grammarian, [he]…paraphrased all the historical books of the Old Testament, putting them partly into [heroic poems], and partly reducing them to the form of dramatic tragedy. He purposely employed all kinds of verse, that no form of expression peculiar to the Greek language might be unknown or unheard of among Christians.” (source)

Other Church Fathers stressed the beauty and good to be found in Greek plays. So St. Jerome praises Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex and says that in it there is “so great a display of wisdom.” (source) St. Clement of Alexandria shows his familiarity with another playwright, Euripides, saying, “Very beautifully, therefore, the tragic poet Euripides says in the Phœnissæ…[followed by a quote from the play].” (source)

Even the New Testament quotes from a Greek play – the phrase “Bad company ruins good morals,” found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, is pulled from Menander’s Thais, and is evidence that St. Paul read Greek drama. The plays of Ovid were used in Christian education for centuries, and found imitators, such as in the Plays of Roswitha, a nun from the 900s. (source)

St. Hildegard of Bingen, a doctor of the Church, almost single-handedly popularized the genre of “morality plays” through her drama “Ordo Virtutum.” During the counter-reformation, plays were part of the way that Catholic colleges instructed people and edified them – so you’ll find, in the 1500s, plays about Thomas More, Thomas Becket, and John Fisher, aka. Roffensis. St. Edmund Campion and St. John Paul 2 both were stage actors and playwrights. (St. Edmund’s Ambrosia appears to have influenced Shakespeare’s Macbeth.)

It is true that some of the Church Fathers wrote against plays, but these are often the writings of monks written as counsels to their fellow monks, who, as part of their seclusion from this world, were supposed to give up certain of its pleasures. Occasionally they highlight anything negative they can think of about the pleasures of this world – which are legitimate for laypeople – in order to discourage monks from reminiscing fondly about them, and when they call such lay pleasures sins, it is not always because they believed them inherently sinful, but because, for a monk who was committed not to enter the world again, to go to see a play went against a prior committment, and thus, for him, was a sin.

But plays themselves are not sinful, and our Church has a long history of supporting them in many ways.

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Hi Christina,

Father Mitch Pacwa went into this a bit on his Open Line program a while back. The problem was not acting, per se, but with the fact that in those days acting was not a way to make a living. Many of the actors and actresses, apparently, were prostitutes and the two roles frequently overlapped. Such need not be the case today. :slight_smile:

As already mentioned, John Paul II, when he was a young priest, began a group called The Rhapsodic Theater in Poland. Within this he and other young people circumvented the Communist demands that tried to shut down the practice of Christianity. They wrote plays and rehearsed them in the woods, but within the writings were subtle inclusions that kept the church and its teachings alive. Like anything, acting can be used for tremendous good or tremendous evil.

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You might wish to examine your understanding of what lying is.

As I understand it, there is an overly strict definition that lying is anything that is contrary to truth or reality. If this is so, then all fiction and all role-playing are lies. That does not make sense to me because fiction and role-playing are useful to communicate truth and expose reality. (Here I mean not just material reality, but intangible, spiritual, and eternal realities as well.)

A more useful definition might be that lying is anything that we say or do, or fail to say or do, which deceives another. If it leads the other toward error or falsehood, or toward an erroneous understanding of reality, it goes against truth and is therefore a lie.

By this definition, fictional literature, storytelling, acting on stage or in motion pictures, and role-playing are not lying because no one is deceived. Everyone knows it is a work of fiction.

There is a gray area if someone is not aware of the fictional aspect, as happened, for example, when Orson Welles performed The War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, or this close call while filming a bank-robbery scene just last year.

It might be possible to formulate a higher-level definition based on the principle of love: Love God and love one another. This is tricky, though, because people often lie because they want to make others feel better or to “protect them” from the truth. This is what we call white lies, but they are not that “white” (pure and beneficial) at all. White lies can lead to great misunderstandings and evils. Therefore, as a practical matter, it may be wiser to stick with the definition of lying as a matter of deception.

Sorry, I didn’t answer your question directly.

No, it is not a sin.

I’m an actor on minor professional level and have taught Theatre in public schools. I would be more concerned about falling into the habits of fellow actors rather than the acting itself.

Look to acting as a way to glorify God, even if you play a villain, as it can show what the path of evil can bring.

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