Modern “Spectacles”

This past semester I had the joy of teaching an honors-elective course to high school Seniors entitled, “Great Catholic Thinkers.”  The former instructor of the course, a very charismatic and brilliant young priest, always said that taking this course was a bit like “roller skating through the Uffizi.”  He had a valid point.  I would add that while teaching it, I often felt as if I was “jet-skating” through the Uffizi.  However, the purpose of teaching the course was to give our Seniors a bird’s eye view of the various great spiritual writers and their works throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Not an easy task to accomplish in one semester! During the first section of the course we studied various ecclesiastical writers from the first few centuries, focusing primarily on the Fathers of the Church. One of the most interesting characters that we studied during this time-period was Tertullian.

While not considered an Early Church Father and never declared a Saint, Tertullian was a prolific ecclesiatical writer of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries whose early writings are treasured by Church scholars. He is often quoted in Church literature. When reading his works, we can grasp a deeper look into the Christian mindset during his age.

For example, one of Tertullian’s most intriguing pieces of work was, De spectaculis, or, The Spectacles.  I recommend this tract to anyone who is interested in early Roman history.  Tertullian writes about the various Roman “spectacles” which were popular at the time.  These include the great events that happened at the circus, the theater and the amphitheatre.  With emphatic loathing, he looks upon these places as “dens of the devils” where Christians had no business attending.  Tertullian minces no words as he methodically explains the great evils inherent in the chariot races, the stage plays, or the gladiator fights, and how these evils incited the passions of the spectators.  After researching Pagan writings, he proves that these spectacles had their origin in Pagan religious practice and thus the worship of false gods. From the sinister roots of idolatry these events became diabolical feasts where violence, murder, impurity, licentiousness and blasphemies were the main courses.

Of course, after assigning this reading I asked the students to consider what Tertullian might think of today’s entertainment.  It was an easy comparison, especially in regards to his viewpoint about the theater.  Most agreed that today Tertullian is probably, “rolling over in his grave!” This reading spoke to all of us, myself included. Tertullian admonishes Christians to remember our Baptismal vows when we rejected “Satan and all of his pomps” which we renounced in the “seal of faith.”  Pomps are defined as vain displays of grandeur.  Pompous people are those who have an inflated sense of their own self-worth and the homage due to them.  This has described Satan from the very beginning.  Nothing has changed. The “pomps” of Satan entice us to believe in a worldly authority.  It is in our human nature to want to belong, and Satan plays on this through his pomps.  If we allow him, he gives us a false sense of nobility, purpose, cleverness, and excitement.  In other words, yet, again, he plays on our pride and lures us away from the truth.

Tertullian, speaking about the subject of truth in The Spectacles, asks why any true Christian would expose himself in the circus, or look upon the exposed body of another, when he would blush with shame to do so anywhere else in public.  He asks why fathers who try to protect the purity and integrity of their virgin daughters, would allow them to watch the filth displayed in the spectacles for “pleasure.”  How easily this compares to our culture today, even in Christian homes, where we teach our children the value of chastity and then mindlessly allow them to be exposed to some of the worst rot displayed on cable TV.  It always confounds my mind that some of my students who get involved in chastity programs with zealous fervor will think nothing of going home and watching shows like, “Jersey Shore.”   There is a tendency in all of us to live fragmented moral lives by applying our values differently to our carefully separated mental categories.

A few months ago, a young man I know was excited to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time.  They traveled a long way to meet him and he wanted to make the best impression possible.  After reading a wonderful review about a local play, he spent quite a nice sum of money on four tickets:  one for himself, another for his girlfriend and two for her parents. When they entered the theater, they found it to be a small “theater in the round” with a comfortable feel.  He said that the actors and actresses were so close to the audience that at one point, when an actor washed his hands, some of the droplets sprayed upon those seated around him.  The play was well written and the evening was going swimmingly until half way during the drama, the actors and actresses began to denude themselves and… well suffice it to say, the young man sunk in his seat, horrified, begging God that the lights would suddenly go out!

Why even share this unseemly incident?  I do it to show that the concerns of Tertullian and the early Christians are as valid today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago.  In some sense, it is more serious today because of the proliferation of the media in our lives and the lives of our children. As the culture continues to change one cannot help but see what Tertullian calls, ‘the banishment of all reverence for sex.”   He also speaks about a certain frenzy that ensues in the face of violence in the circus.  While the fruit of the Holy Spirit is peace and tranquility, the rotten fruits of the evil spirit are violence and agitation of soul.  One can only imagine what Tertullian would think if he could see the violence and disrespect for human life which is carried out in so much of our media today. Are we as Christians allowing this flood of impurity and violence to carry us downstream?  Or are we challenging our own mental categories and striving for moral integration through a commitment to on-going catechesis and prayer?

Tertullian states that we do not wish to “defile our palate and stomach,” by eating junk food.  So why should we not “guard our nobler organs, our ears and eyes” from junk as well?  How much better off would we be if we applied the modern health food craze to our souls?  In our “lust for pleasure,” Tertullian warns that we open ourselves up to darkness within our lives that slowly erodes our souls.  He even goes so far as to tell the story of a young Christian woman who came back from one of the theater plays and was possessed by a devil.  When she was being exorcised, the priest asked the devil why he would take hold of a Baptized Christian.  The devil explained, “I had every right.  She was in my territory.”

I always smile when I read the Church’s current Code of Canon Law, especially in the section which outlines the canons regarding the institutes of consecrated life, like my own.  I could not help but chuckle when I noticed that Canon #666 (the ill-famed number which once was applied to Nero in the book of Revelation, and now is commonly applied to Satan, himself) reads as follows:

In the use of means of social communication, necessary discretion is to be observed and those things are to be avoided which are harmful to one’s vocation and dangerous to the chastity of a consecrated person.

How ironic!  Whether one lives in the religious life or not, we must always be on guard against the “pomps” of Satan which often lure us through the media today.  Granted most of us don’t have coliseums or amphitheaters in our neighborhoods, but we have nightclubs, bars, movie theaters, DVD players, TVs, etc.  Satan will stop at nothing to play on our lust for pleasure.

Now, at this point, you are probably thinking, “Good grief!  No wonder Tertullian is considered to be puritanical and I’m beginning to wonder about the nun who wrote this article as well!”  Don’t worry!  If you knew me, you’d know that I’m anything but a puritan. I don’t think Tertullian was being puritanical when he wrote this essay either.  While he directed Christians to stay away from the places of the spectacles and those who haunted them, he also stated that simply entering an arena or a theater where spectacles were held would not taint a good Christian.  Neither will going to the movies, watching TV, dancing at a nightclub, or having a beer at the local pub necessarily place us in peril of losing our immortal souls.  It is not bad that we use these things God has given us, rather the problem lies in HOW we use them.  Tertullian begins De Spectaculis assuring us that God is the giver of all things and that they are good.  Pleasure is a good given to us by God in which we can rejoice in the beautiful things that he has bestowed upon us, including the arts.  However, if we embrace these pleasures with lustful hearts that have no desire to honor or fear God, we change what is noble and beautiful into what is vile and demeaning to our humanity.

Toward the end of his essay, Tertullian challenges the Christian to consider this: when you are watching these spectacles, are you thinking about God or are you caught up in a violent or lustful frenzy? You who preach brotherly love, how can you work yourselves into such a lather that you curse your opponents during the games and weep when your team loses?  (I must admit, I’m a bit chagrinned when I think about what escapes my own lips as I hoot and holler during a Notre Dame football game…it’s definitely not one of my more pious moments.) Do you think that no one will recognize you as a Christian and therefore will not “call you out” for doing such things?  Don’t you know that God is watching you as you delight in such pleasures?  I think we can apply these questions to ourselves today.  When I sit down to watch this movie, does it remind me of God or His beauty and goodness?  Would I be ashamed if someone who was not Christian asked me how I could watch such a thing?  Do I consider that my heart is a tabernacle of God as I sit and watch what is not healthy for my soul?  Do I consider that the very mouth which laughs at what Tertullian called, “vile jocularity” will receive Christ in the Eucharist next Sunday?  Or do I remind myself that the eyes which gaze upon impure acts done on film will later raise themselves to heaven in petition?

Finally Tertullian ends his writing on a hopeful, even glorious note.  He reminds Christians that if you are seeking pleasure and have a need to be entertained, our Church offers an abundance of literature and art.  The difference is that our entertainment is true.  It is based on truth and leads us towards the truth.  “Behold,” he exclaims, “impurity overthrown by chastity, faithlessness slain by faith, cruelty crushed by mercy, impudence put in the shade by modesty.  Such are the contests among us, and in these we win our crowns!”  He then concludes by reminding Christians that we will one day be witnesses to the greatest spectacle of all – Christ’s return in glory.  Meantime, let us not dull our spiritual senses or erode our moral fiber by passively taking in all that today’s “spectacles” have to offer us.  Let us use the great gifts of art, drama, and theater to give honor to the One who bestows them.


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About the Author

Sister Marie Morgan, OSF is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, Indiana (www.ssfpa.org). She has taught for nine years; two of these in elementary school and seven in high school. After receiving a B.A. in General Studies with an emphasis in secondary education at Indiana University, Sister Marie attended the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the “Angelicum”) in Rome, Italy where she received a B.A. in Theology and an M.A. in Spiritual Theology. She currently resides in Mishawaka, Indiana where she teaches Theology and serves as part-time pastoral counselor at Marian High School.

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