Our English word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek for a stage-actor, hupokrisis. Does it follow that acting is the epitome of hypocrisy and can have no standing in a biblical vision of morality? Years ago, my Aberdeen colleague Brian Rosner raised this question for me, when I was writing a book that claimed that the Bible is a comic drama. In his blunt Australian way, Brian pointed out that Jesus does not like hypocrisy: Since hupokrisis literally means being an actor, it runs against the grain to imagine that biblical morality can encompass theater or role-play. The question was reawakened this fall with the publication of Brian’s book .
If the words that come out of Jesus’s mouth and the mouths of the Hebrew prophets tell us anything about God’s thinking, then the Lord takes a dim view of the pious pretense of piety—of religious hypocrisy and spiritual play-acting. If the stark language of the New Testament is anything to go by, then the problem is not simply that Jesus had never heard of the Stanislavsky technique and didn’t realize that the best actors draw on their own authentic experience. He obviously equated human acting with inauthenticity.
But think of a different kind of acting, exemplified by one of our great actors. Ever since the Sergio Leone Westerns of the 1960s, Clint Eastwood has inhabited the “Clint” persona. It’s an instance of an actor perfecting a signature role and inhabiting it like a stage-name. In the Dollar Trilogy, Clint is the poncho-wearing “man with no name.” The man with no name is morally unpredictable, down to the last seconds of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Though the title of the movie, underlined by the silly theme tune, tells us that Clint represents “the good,” he never lets his goodness show through his facial expression or words. His least laconic line in the movie is the Nietzschean observation, “God is not on your side because God hates idiots.” He is not an anti-hero, but rather a morally opaque hero. The man with no name is anything but a pious fraud. The “Clint” persona involves concealing his goodness from the world.
Clint carries this persona into the first of the Dirty Harry movies. Harry Callahan has an appetite for violence, and we wonder how he will use it. The question is raised by his new partner, who keeps asking, “Why do they call you Dirty Harry?” Over the course of the film, we come to realize that, once again, Clint is playing a good man who looks like a bad man. Harry is an odd twist on the anti-hero: a hidden hero, a miracle-worker concealed to intervene in the mundane world of the San Francisco Police Force.
The next three Dirty Harry movies increasingly lose the plot. In them, Harry becomes transparently good, with his one-liners and his .44 Magnum Smith and Wesson. Though he remains annoying to his worldly bosses, fighting a den of iniquity that disguises its cowardice with political correctness, he becomes authentic, a nakedly heroic figure in a world of hypocrites. The increasingly simplistic nature of the Clint persona can be traced in the tag-lines. The tag-line of the second movie, Magnum Force, is dryly humorous: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” It is a line delivered by a disguised demigod, who quietly mocks human finitude whilst slowly revealing his otherworldly goodness. By contrast, the tag-line of the fourth movie, Sudden Impact, is not funny: “Go ahead, make my day.” It only expresses the character’s limitless capacity for violence, presumably in a good cause. The Clint persona has ceased to epitomize opaque goodness, and has reverted to the more common type of acting, in which humans try to look good before the world.
Acting is what human beings do very well, but only because we do not know how to be ourselves. Opaque to ourselves, we take up roles on cue, as soon as other people feed them to us. We love moralizing roles the best, because they conceal our own inner darkness and lack of integrated identity. If there is any kind of acting that can operate within the biblical vision of the human person, it would be one that sets its face against the human quest for a starring role, or any self-invented role. We would learn to inhabit the anonymous role of the “man with no name,” that is, a name known to God alone.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.