The Christian Theory of Amusements

by Austin Phelps

Certain incidental principles are essential to a working theory.

1. It must be a theory which can be made to seem reasonable to youthful inquiry.

There is a period of transition from youth to manhood, in which authority must take reason into partnership. That is the period at which the question of amusements is the most practical and yet most critical. Fathers and mothers find that their parental authority is no adequate answer to filial questionings. Youth investigates the family traditions for the first time. The ethics of the fathers undergo revision. The query often sends a Christian parent to his closet: How shall the principles of a Christian family hold its own against the principles of the world?

At that period, the Christian use or disuse of amusements must be sustained by reasons which are reasons. They must be obvious and conclusive. So far as they are prohibitory, they must leave no open questions; still less must they be involved in refinements of casuistry.

To illustrate by a case in point. Are not Christian fathers often sensible, in their argument with growing sons, that the traditionary objections to card-playing are not conclusive? Does not the stereotyped argument in the negative, seem weak to sincere minds? Are not the distinctions often made between that and other games, fallacious? I suspect that there is not a little of secret practice of forbidden games, not because of willful sin, but by reason of unsatisfactory argument against them. We have not carried the conscience of our sons and daughters with us, because we have not carried their common sense.

This is an evil under the sun. When a time-honored feature of Christian practice is thus nonsuited in the court of youthful investigation, it needs to be reconsidered. Either the argument for it must be re-enforced, or its claims should be abandoned. Better the surrender, than the enforcement by conservative authority alone.

2. We must have a theory of amusements which requires no concealments in our practice.

If any weakness is more fatal than another to a principle of morals, it is the admission of secret practices under it. Right has no love for the dark. Light is sown for the righteous. That I may indulge myself in amusements behind lock and key, which I may not enjoy with open windows; that I may do in a strange city, that which I must not do in my home; that I may seek entertainments privately, to which I would not invite my wife and daughter; that I may attend recreations in Naples, which I denounce in New York; that I may do where I am known only as a layman, what I must not do where I am known as a clergyman; or that I may do as a man, what I must not do as a churchman--all these things are offenses to sound morals.

That any theory of amusements requires or admits of such secret licenses as these is prima facie evidence against it. Blunt men of the world will denounce such ethics as the ethics of a sneak. If anything will bear the light in this world, it is Christian living. That needs no apologies, and seeks no cover. The very meanest form of pharisaism, is that which is ascetic in public--and epicurean in private. The very worst use a man can make of his conscience is to lay prohibitory restrictions on other men, which he declines to accept himself. Our Savior gave a title to such men, which is akin to the rattlesnake.

Yet is not Christian example on the subject of amusements often fatally invalidated by inconsistencies of this kind? The most senseless advice I ever heard of was that given by a Christian father to his son: "I do not say pro or con about card-playing, but it must not be practiced in my house." It is not surprising that that boy has gone to sea.

A sermon has been preached against the theaters of New York, which the preacher could not have known enough to deliver if he had not attended the theaters of London. The usefulness of such sermons was never worth their cost. In Christian living we must first, and above all things else, be men. We must live above ground, and not burrow.

3. We must have a theory which admits of no suspension of conscience in practice. That is to say, positive decisions of conscience must cover the whole ground of our practice. It is a fatal weakness in any theory of morals, if it leaves conduct to swing loose in some things for the lack of an opinion. To be obliged to say, "I do not know," when my conduct is all the while assuming that I ought to know, is a fraud upon principle, as well as upon example. No man's example can have authority, because no man's principle deserves it--if it is thus cramped in its range by suspense of conscience.

Yet is not this the weak point in the practice of some Christians respecting amusements? We do not mean to be disloyal to conscience; but certain indulgences we do not bring into the court of conscience, or, if we do, we have never pressed for a verdict. We therefore do things on which we have no theory of right and wrong. It is much easier to obey a public opinion than it is to create one. This we do, when we accept worldly usage as our law with a silent conscience. The rudder swings loose, and the ship drifts.

Such was not the way of Christ. When did he ever act with a speechless conscience? What one thing did he ever do on which he had no opinion, and could give no reason? When did he ever permit the world's opinion, to become a law to him, for the lack of a quick and positive conscience? "The world was not his friend, nor the world's law." Neither are they ours. He never yielded to it a matter of conscience by default. Why should we?

4. We must have a theory, which, in its practical working, will not alienate from us the sympathies of the great majority of God's people.

The Christian Church being what it is, no man, on any question of practical morals, can afford to stand alone. This is specially true respecting things of secondary importance, like the amusements of a people. No man can for such a cause isolate himself from the great body of spiritual Christians, without loss. If we achieve all that we claim, we get but a minor good. If we sacrifice to it our affiliation with God's people, or theirs with us--we suffer an immeasurable evil.

Oblivion of this truth is apparent, often, in the spirit in which the Christian law of amusements is discussed. It is debated too warmly as a question of individual liberty. But as such, is it worth debating? Liberty in such matters is not worth its cost, if we gain it at the expense of Christian fellowship.

There is more than loss of influence in such isolation--there is loss of certain fine elements of character which no man or woman should be willing to part with. There is loss of a wise Christian modesty. It is possible, but not probable, that the individual is right in his dissent from the instinct of the Christian Church. He may be inspired above his peers, but such is not the usual method of divine revelations. His self-conceit feeds upon his modesty, if he believes himself thus exalted.

There is a loss of fraternal affection also. It is a selfish thing in me to stand up against the current of Christian feeling for my right to attend a theater or a masquerade. My combative nature ought not to be roused against good men and praying women, for a mask and a farce. They can afford it; but can I? Sooner or later I must come to myself, and grieve over my irreparable loss.

Is there not food for reflection in this view, which a certain class of Christians need for their own healthy digestion of the Christian law of recreations?