The Sermon on the Mount, on the stage


Actor uses his craft to preach the Gospel

SOMERS POINT — In front of an audience of 400 here at St. Joseph’s Church, actor Frank Runyeon spoke of the beatitudes found in the two “worlds” Catholics live in: the world of the Catholic faith, and the secular world of television and Hollywood movies.

Runyeon, who starred in such television programs as “Santa Barbara” “General Hospital” and “Melrose Place,” gave his presentations of “The Sermon on the Mount” and “Hollywood vs. Faith” to seventh and eighth grade St. Joseph School and religious education students, their parents, and parishioners, on Thursday night, Feb. 16.

A graduate of Princeton, with a degree in religion, Runyeon has worked as a translator and performer of biblical texts over the past 20 years.

For the “Sermon on the Mount” presentation, Runyeon stood in the front of the altar, clad in a red robe and sandals, with a lone spotlight on him. The actor transformed the church in Somers Point to one in Antioch, soon after the Roman Army has burned Jerusalem to the ground and is persecuting Christians.

Portraying the evangelist St. Matthew, Runyeon pointed out certain individuals gathered in the Antioch church: the silk trader, the livestock merchant, the seamstress, all not unlike the modern-day audience with their habits and struggles.

Narrating chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel in booming voice, Runyeon took the audience through the Golden Rule, the Lord’s Prayer and the Eight Beatitudes.

At the end of the reading, he pointed out the part that all modern-day audience members have in the story, to “go out and be Christ to all the people.”

The second half of his presentation included “Hollywood vs. Faith,” a more informal talk that included humor in Runyeon’s discussion of the three “beatitudes” originating from the mass media.

The three beatitudes the media teaches, he explained, are focused on children, girls and boys. The first one, he said, for children: “Happy are they who buy things.”

Runyeon decried the endless commercials and advertisements run on television to entice children to buy their products. In creating a culture of mass consumerism, Runyeon said, advertisers turn to phony and overzealous, unnatural voices not heard in human conversation, but only on television and radio.

These voices “disconnect us from the reality of the church,” he said.

The second one, for girls, is “Happy are they who look good.” With magazines and television shows touting women who have the “perfect” body, and how to look like them, the media are creating a skewed reality where girls “look for acceptance from the outside world, when they should only look for acceptance with God,” Runyeon said.

The third one, he noted, is for boys, and is “Happy are they who win.”

The media are “always interested in competition stories,” Runyeon said, pointing out that in sports, broadcasters are always looking for which team or individual is the hero, and, conversely, who is/are the villain(s).

In such a culture, he said, “life becomes a contest.”

Runyeon shared his own story as a high schooler, working hard to become the student with the highest grade point average in his class. Those with the highest average, he said, would see their name added to past high achievers on a plaque on the school’s walls for posterity.

Spending all of his time and energy on this goal, Runyeon achieved the highest average and saw his name on the plaque — only to learn with disappointment a few years later that the school tore down the wall and the plaque with it.

“The Bible is who we are,” he said, noting that true happiness will never be found in things. The reality of the outside world is bent, like a funhouse mirror, he said. The true reality, the true mirror of who we are, is found in the Gospel. “The truth, the deep joy we’re all looking for, is found in a relationship with God,” he said.