Sunday, March 27, 2011

Should Reformed Christians Go to the Movies?

Have you seen any good films lately my Reformed friends? If you're anything like me, you've seen a few movies over the last twelve months. Perhaps you're a video-game-type-of-guy, and you drooled with delight all the way through Inception. Action and explosions! Give me more! Or perhaps you only see things like The Kings Speech. Yes, you suffered through a few worldly expletives, but the story and acting were quality, so you didn't run out of the theater in protest. You don't consider yourself a "legalist" anyway, so you're able to watch films through your Christian worldview glasses. Besides, you've thought, if certain  sections of the Old Testament were put to film, there would be a multitude of times a "G" rating simply wouldn't be appropriate.

Let's take a little trip down memory lane.  Let's pretend it's the 1920's. Silent films were still happening, and were transitioning to talkies. Film productions were getting grander. The great war had finished, and little did  everyone know the stock market crash would soon bear down on America. What was there to see in the theaters?  Rin Tin Tin was big. Robin Hood (1922) starring Douglas Fairbanks. There was King of Kings. (1927). The Taming of the Shrew (1929). Greta Garbo's first American film, The Torrent (1926). Lon Chaney did The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). There were a lot of movies to go see. Too many to list.

Now let's take trip down Reformed memory lane. Many Reformed folks are familiar with the name Abraham Kuiper, but I'd like to introduce another name: B.K. Kuiper. Some might say, "Yes I'm familiar with him from his book, The Church in History."

I recently was introduced to the tale of B.K. Kuiper. You've never heard his story? This link had some helpful facts, which I'll quote, along with some other sources I've recently tracked down.

The tale begins here.

"Barend Klaas Kuiper, known by his initials rather than full name, except to Calvin students who affectionately called him “Barney.” B.K. joined the faculty in 1900 to teach history and social studies."

"As an instructor Kuiper could be inspiring, imaginative, dynamic and effective. He was also absentminded and could come to class late or unprepared when answers to student questions filled the class period. According to students, these later classes could be the most interesting and exciting, though most had little to do with the subject of the class. John Timmerman later wrote that Kuiper had a gift for both managing and mismanaging his talents. All of these traits endeared him to students."

"Outside of the classroom he was an outspoken champion of what would be Calvin College beginning with his 1903 pamphlet, The Proposed Calvinistic College at Grand Rapids. In 1918, just before the college’s four-year curriculum began, B.K. quit, complaining of the workload and low pay."

And now, the main act:

"In 1926 the governing body of the Christian Reformed Church appointed B.K. to teach historical theology in the seminary. It was the same year this body concluded that church members should not dance, play cards or go to movie theaters."

"In the seminary Kuiper’s teaching skills again shone until a local church complained that he had been seen entering the Wealthy Theater. Initially Kuiper claimed he had simply stepped into the theater’s lobby to adjust his new dentures, but later admitted he had gone in to watch a film."

"At the meeting of the 1928 synod he was called to defend himself and spent almost three hours explaining that films were one of the means for better understanding American society, which facilitated Christians following the biblical instruction to go into the world. But he did not apologize for his action nor did he ask for forgiveness, which was what the members of synod wanted. Consequently synod voted overwhelmingly to remove him from the faculty for patronizing a movie theater."


The following is from John J. Timmerman, Promises to Keep (Calvin College, 1975), 36-37.

B. K. Kuiper was an eccentric, paradoxical, and enigmatic man. Outspoken and heroic in opinion, he urged intelligent Americanization with no deliberate speed; he wanted the English language to prevail without imperilling the Reformed heritage. He was appointed a professor in the Literary Department of the Theological School in 1900. There he taught, at times brilliantly, until 1918, when he resigned, complaining in De Wachter of intolerable pay. Obviously, as the records show and his writings attest, he was a man of imagination, scholarship, droll wit, and rigorous convictions. He was also prone, as the records show, to serene indolence, intemperate enthusiasm, and erratic behavior. According to his students, his preparation was fitful. He apparently hoped when unprepared to receive a few good questions; when he did he rose to the occasion with dramatic success and zest. Some students were permanently impressed by these imaginative flights; others took advantage of the outbursts and even wandered about the room. Kuiper was sometimes tardy as well as unprepared, apparently exhausted by weekend visits to his sweetheart. His absentmindedness was exploited. The teachers' desks in the old Franklin building were placed on little platforms eight inches from the floor. Once the students had moved Kuiper's desk to the very edge of the platform, and as he leaned heavily on it, he and the desk went on to the main floor. The best students waited for the vision; some enjoyed the interruption of duty. Professor Kuiper had a gift for mismanaging his talents as well as for using them.

After his resignation, he accepted work as Editorial Manager in the Eerdmans-Sevensma Publishing House. Synod urged him to return to his duties, but he refused. The same Synod of 1918 appointed him Editor of De Wachter, where he, as Dr. Beets of The Banner, loyally championed the cause of Calvin College. In a vitriolic exchange in 1922 with H. J. Kuiper, who had questioned the importance Calvin placed on academic excellence, B. K. Kuiper maintained the crucially important value of scholarship; without it the college would be inferior, however Reformed. He says, "If one is oh so very Reformed, but not scholarly, then as a professor he is worth exactly nothing." He resigned from Eerdmans in 1923, and in 1926 he was unexpectedly appointed to the chair of Historical Theology at Calvin Seminary. While at the seminary, where he proved to be a powerful teacher, he went to a movie—to several movies. Somebody saw him go. The Curatorium investigated and Kuiper explained that he had gone now and then "to understand the American people." He had quit, he added, when a minister told him he was a stumbling block to the young people. The Curatorium rejected his reappointment. Kuiper was exceptionally unfortunate that the stringent rules against worldly amusements were under consideration at this Synod. He had not danced; he had not played cards; no, but he had seen a movie! He insisted upon a public defense. My father, who was a member of that Synod, told me that Kuiper had talked interminably—more than three hours in fact. His talents were apparent as was his lack of good sense. If he had only said, "I'm sorry. I won't do it again," my father remarked, he would have been reappointed. But that was not his nature and he lost his position. I don't think the movies or even the idea of being free to go to the movies was worth the loss of his services.

The remainder of this talented man's life was mournful. His sources of income were spotty and uncertain; the patience and pocketbooks of his friends became exhausted. He, with much prodding, produced one good book, a biography of Luther. With all his talents he ended as a withered branch. While I was studying at Northwestern University, I often left for Chicago or came home from there around midnight. I saw him frequently between eleven and twelve walking the almost deserted streets, or just standing on a corner chewing a dead cigar. It must have been 3 a.m. in his soul I was reminded of the sad words of Edwin Arlington Robinson:

Familiar as an old mistake And futile as regret.

Anyone interested in more of B.K.Kuiper should track down the 17 page booklet entitled Something About BK by Henry Zwaanstra (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary), 1977. I currently have a copy on my desk, and as far as I can tell, it is (sadly) the most extensive treatment of B.K. If ever there was a story that should be turned into a movie, it's the tale of B.K. Kuiper. A movie on B.K. would be an interesting twist to his story!


Brigitte said...

I am curious as to how Reformed friends respond to this story.

Luther, while trying to keep things tasteful, constructive and moral, would utterly reject the putting on of more unscriptural restrictions on consciences. This he would consider unconscionable.

The pope commands all kinds of things to be done, performed, believed which are not in scripture. Karlstadt and the enthusiasts forbid and remove all kind of things--each unnecessarily burdening consciences. We have enough in trying to keep the 10 commandments without coming up with new ones. Let us love God and neighbor and not invent new rules.

John Bugay said...

Bridgitte -- have you heard of the Nickelodeon show "iCarly"? It's about a teenage girl and her friends, who put on a regular "webcast" of a goofy TV-type show at "".

I've often thought that a good, Reformation-based spoof of that would be "". But there's really nothing funny about that situation.

I am sorry to hear about Kuiper. I think in the history of Protestantism that there's been far too much focus on peripheral issues and not enough on the major issues. In my writings here, I try always to remember that.

Brigitte said...

It's a matter of principle, John, that unnecessary rules not be added; it is contrary to the Gospel. This principle applies in many different ways.

It seems to me, from not knowing too much about it that the man was treated harshly for no very good reason except that I am guessing holding the same principle.

Brigitte said...

Question: did that synod err?

John Bugay said...

Brigitte, it seems as if they did.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"He had not danced; he had not played cards; no, but he had seen a movie!"

Synod would have booted my buttocks in a New York minute. I've done all three! Danced, played cards, and watch movies!

James Swan said...

I am sorry to hear about Kuiper. I think in the history of Protestantism that there's been far too much focus on peripheral issues and not enough on the major issues. In my writings here, I try always to remember that.

It's a matter of principle, John, that unnecessary rules not be added; it is contrary to the Gospel. This principle applies in many different ways.

The CRC represents only 1 faction of the Reformed churches. I'm not sure how the presbyterians or the other Reformed churches in the 1920's handled movies. Nor do I know how the Lutheran churches dealt with movies.

Now of course with CRC, they're growing fairly liberal, and have swung towards the other direction.

Brigitte said...

Good points. Things I don't know. Don't know either how the Lutherans handled it. In Europe the culture I bet was very different and even now people don't watch as many movies. In North America, no idea.

Often each considers other people's activities the vices. This is the holier than thou which needs to be watched, too. I grew up Pietist and there were very many restrictions on amusements. Frugality works into this, too. Save your money for better things.

When we are swinging more liberal, what are we talking about?