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Schmacting

by Tim O'Hearn

The stage director in an opera I was in introduced me to a new term: schmacting. The word probably originated from the Yiddishism, acting schmacting, meaning you call that acting but it really isn’t. (You may have heard various forms of this particular Yiddish phrase, such as taxes-schmaxes or the variation on the line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, badges-schmadges.) I have seen complex and simple definitions of the word, but one definition stands out. Schmacting is that point at which an actor stops playing a role and starts playing himself playing a role. It is when an actor stops asking the audience to look at his character and starts asking them to look at how well he plays the character. The story is told about actors Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, among the greatest married couples to act together. It seems that in a particular play Mr. Lunt had been getting a laugh every night in a scene in which he asks for a cup of tea, although he never thought of the line as funny. All of a sudden he stopped getting a laugh at that line. When he asked his wife why the audiences had stopped laughing, she told him it was because he had stopped asking for tea and started asking for a laugh. Even the great ones are not immune to schmacting, at times.

In listening to a “Christian music” station, I noticed a particular (and very popular) song, in which the lead singer breaks into a rock-guitar riff at one point. To me it was like the Jimmie Hendrix guitar version of the National Anthem. It sounded like the artist was no longer saying, “listen to praise to God,” and was now saying, “see how well I can play guitar.” It probably was not intentional, but it is one of the dangers of using instruments in the worship. Someone who is good at their instrument, through their own choice or the prompting of others, shows off their talent, often unnecessarily.

Nor is that merely a danger with “mechanical instruments of music,” as members of the Church of Christ are wont to phrase it. Long ago many churches got away from congregational singing because the congregations, frankly, did not sing well. Professional choruses and soloists became the norm in some Christian traditions. Again, the danger is that the professional might stop praising God and start showing off. Quite honestly, even in a congregational singing I admit that there have been times that I have thought, “I wonder if the people around me are noticing how good a singer I am.” At those times I stop blending my voice with the congregation and try to out-bellow everyone around. Schmacting is an easy trap in any situation.

Paul knew the danger. It could rear its head when someone is tempted to accept the glory for an action rather than give God the praise. Paul told the Corinthians that some men falsely claimed to be apostles of Christ and boasted about what they had done. In 2 Corinthians 11 he even indulges in some of that boasting, but calls it folly. In verse 30 he concluded, “If I must glory, I will glory in those things that concern my weakness.” In the next chapter he tells of a “thorn in the flesh” he was given to keep him from boasting in himself.

We serve God. Schmacting is the point at which we stop serving God and start serving ourselves serving God. At that point we need to be careful. When we start doing that, we should start watching out for thorns.