By Tertullian (c. 197)
This is a selection from Tertullian’s work On the Shows. It was written in response to Christians who claimed that since there was no Scriptural command forbidding attendance at various pagan Roman entertainments, it was therefore allowed to Christians. Tertullian argued the opposite – since it was not explicitly allowed, it was therefore forbidden, and furthermore, the nature of the shows was such that no Christian should want to attend. His arguments apply just as well to today’s sporting events, television, and other contemporary forms of entertainment. This selection presents chapters 25, 28, and 29, taken from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 3, pages 89-91. Language slightly modernized.—Ed. Seated where there is nothing of God, will one be thinking of his Maker? Will there be peace in his soul when there is eager strife there for a charioteer? Wrought up into a frenzied excitement, will he learn to be modest? Nay, in the whole thing he will meet with no greater temptation than that showy attiring of the men and women. The very intermingling of emotions, the very agreements and disagreements with each other in the bestowment of their favors, where you have such close communion, blow up the sparks of passion. Furthermore, there is hardly any other reason to go to the show, than to see and to be seen. When a tragic actor is loudly speaking, will one be giving thought to prophetic appeals? Amid the measures of the effeminate player, will he call up to himself a psalm? And when the athletes are hard at struggle, will he be ready to proclaim that there must be no striking again? And with his eye fixed on the bites of bears, and the sponge-nets of the net-fighters, can he be moved by compassion? May God avert from His people any such passionate eagerness after a cruel enjoyment! For how monstrous it is to go from God’s church to the devil’s—from the sky to the sty, as they say; to raise your hands to God, and then to weary them in the applause of an actor; out of the mouth, from which you uttered Amen over the Holy Thing, to give witness in a gladiator’s favor; to cry “forever” to anyone else but God and Christ!… With such dainties as these let the devil’s guests be feasted. The places and the times, the inviter too, are theirs. Our banquets, our nuptial joys, are yet to come. We cannot sit down in fellowship with them, as neither can they with us. Things in this matter go by their turns. Now they have gladness and we are troubled. “The world,” says Jesus, “shall rejoice; ye shall be sorrowful.” Let us mourn, then, while the heathen are merry, that in the day of their sorrow we may rejoice; lest, sharing now in their gladness, we share then also in their grief. You are too dainty, Christian, if you want to have pleasure in this life as well as in the next; no, you are a fool, if you think this life’s pleasures to be really pleasures. The philosophers, for instance, give the name of pleasure to quietness and repose; in that they have their bliss; in that they find entertainment: they even glory in it. You long for the goal, and the stage, and the dust, and the place of combat! I would have you answer me this question: Can we not live without pleasure, who cannot die without pleasure? For what is our wish but the apostle’s, to leave the world, and be taken up into the fellowship of our Lord? You have your joys where you have your longings. Even as things are, if you intend to spend this period of existence in enjoyments, how are you so ungrateful as to count insufficient, as not thankfully to recognize the many and exquisite pleasures God has bestowed upon you? For what more delightful than to have peace with God the Father and our Lord, than to have the revelation of the truth, than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life? What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death? What nobler than to tread underfoot the gods of the nations—to exorcise evil spirits—to perform cures—to seek divine revelations—to live to God? These are the pleasures, these are the spectacles that befit Christian men—holy, everlasting, free. Count these to be your circus games, fix your eyes on the courses of the world, the gliding seasons, reckon up the periods of time, long for the goal of the final consummation, defend the societies of the churches, be startled at God’s signal, be roused up at the angel’s trump, glory in the palms of martyrdom. If the literature of the stage delights you, we have literature in abundance of our own—plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fables, but true! They are not tricks of art, but plain realities. Would you have also fightings and wrestlings? Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, treachery slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty. These are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ’s.