September 17th, 2012Lessons on Morality from Shakespeare and Ferris Buellerby Kevin O'Brien | http://www.thewordinc.org

This is from a fan of our YouTube page.  He writes to me saying ...

As man of theater yourself, I imagine that you have had the same moral questions from time to time. Should I take this part? Should I assist in this production? And so on. For me, these questions are more difficult to answer because they involve acting and simulation. Playing the part of the sinner is different from actually being the sinner.     
I would like to know how a Catholic goes about finding principled answers to these kinds of questions. Have you found any helpful guides or resources?
 

I get this question, and variations on it, all the time.  It troubles not only actors, but also movie fans and drama fans and literature fans.  Should I watch this movie or play?  Should I read this book?

Here's the answer - there is a difference between the depiction of sin and the endorsement of sin.

If the depiction of sin were itself sinful, then we should never read the Holy Bible, which is filled with depictions of sinners and their sins.     But these sins appear in context.  They are not there for us to get a vicarious thrill or titillation out of them.  The point of showing sin in Scripture is to show the evil effects of sin, our enslavement to it, and our need to repent of it.

The same is true in drama.  A tragedy like Macbeth is filled with sins and even horrors, but the entire point of that play is to show how committing such sins turn the sinners into people who are more and more miserable - more and more haunted and tormented.

But forget Shakespeare for a minute.  Take Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  There's a movie that is filled with vulgar language and that revolves around the exploits of a student playing hooky.  But I personally think it's one of the most Christian movies ever made.  It's about how a father should love his son more than his car; it's about how the small minded indoctrination of compulsory education is a prison; it's about freedom of spirit; it's about overcoming jealousy; it's about loving your brother; it's about loving life.

But maybe this can't quite be said for, say, Saturday Night Fever, a movie that my girlfriend Missy Tallman (cheerleader for the wrestling squad) and I saw maybe six or seven times in the theater when it first came out.  It's a movie that had a profound impact on me and my fashion sense to this day (as you can see in the photo of Missy and Kevin "Disco Dog" O'Brien at the height of my disco craze).  I thought it was a brilliant film, but my high school English teacher thought was scurrilous.

"I don't think the scenes that showed the main character's sinful behavior were in the movie for any other reason than for the audience to exult in them," he said.  "Yes, Travolta's character gets sick of his sinful ways and turns from them in the end, but the movie lingered on them to the point of celebrating them, throwing in a final repentance as a sop for what had come before it - our secret vicarious delight in Travolta's unseemly acts."


(He didn't use those exact words, but this was 1978, and I'm quoting him from memory.)

At any rate, the point is what is the main message of the movie?  Or book or drama?  I've seen Disney movies - indeed even Phineas and Ferb episodes - that I took to be conveying a bad message, despite having no foul language, sexual content or even overtly sinful behavior depicted.

Ferb (left) and Phineas, pondering great literature


So use your own prudence, but look at the work of literary art as a whole and go from there.

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