Actor Frank Runyeon offers food for thought in performances

LEXINGTON — Actor Frank Runyeon knows firsthand how difficult it can be to reconcile Biblical values with those of Hollywood.

He spent years as an actor on soap operas and TV movies before he decided to spend much of his time traveling around the country giving one-man theatrical performances of Biblical texts, including the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels of Mark and John.

Runyeon offered his translation of the Sermon on the Mount and his presentation of “Hollywood vs. Faith: The Struggle to Live Faithfully in the Media Age” at Corpus Christi Church on March 6.

During the 1980s, Runyeon spent seven years in the role of “Steve Andropolous” on “As The World Turns” and then played “Father Michael Donnelly” for four years on the soap opera “Santa Barbara.” He also appeared on “General Hospital,” “Another World,” “L.A. Law,” “Falcon Crest,” “Melrose Place,” and has performed live theater and appeared in television movies.

Runyeon earned a degree in religion and American studies from Princeton University, and has a master’s from General Theological Seminary in New York. He also studied at Fuller Seminary and Yale Divinity School. When he was younger, he seriously considered pursuing a vocation to the priesthood.

About 100 people attended the solo show, which started with Runyeon portraying St. Matthew as he relayed the story of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He asked the crowd to imagine that they were early Christians gathered together in a “house church” to listen to Matthew relate the sermon’s important message to the concerns of their daily lives.

 “What we are supposed to do as part of our Lenten journey is to ask the Lord what he would have us do to be people of light, to bring light where there is darkness,” he said.

Runyeon said one of the most important messages of the sermon comes through the Beatitudes, in which Jesus tells his followers that many of the most blessed people are often those looked down on or left behind by society, including the poor, those in mourning and the meek.

During the second half of the show, Runyeon said that the things most valued in today’s society often draw people further away from God, while humility and simplicity are ignored or ridiculed.

“The writer C.S. Lewis says as human beings we are created for joy, and we’re always looking for joy, but in the wrong places,” he said. “We want a to-do list that shows us how to be happy.  The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount show us a path to joy, what our life is supposed to be like.”

He said Hollywood and popular media offer what he called three “false Beatitudes,” targeted at children, women and men.  

Runyeon said children are bombarded with advertising that tells them they will only be happy if they buy and receive certain things. Through images in media, women are led to believe they will only be happy if they look a certain way, and men are taught to believe they will only be happy if they are highly successful and win in every situation of daily life.

“People who visit foreign countries where there are many poor people see orphans running around in the dirt who are filled with joy,” he said. “Why is that? Because there is nothing between them and the source of their joy. All this stuff in our lives keeps us from our joy. The Beatitudes say ‘blessed are the poor.’ We’re brought up in abundance and we struggle to understand that concept.”

Runyeon  has learned from his years working in Los Angeles that many of the celebrities held up as role models in magazines are living unhappy lives.

He encouraged the crowd to renew their focus on the Gospel message and the truly important things in life, including faith and building strong relationships with family and friends.

“We set aside the 40 days of Lent to remember the truth, that’s why we come here to church,” he said. “We come in here to be fed, to learn to hear the voice that speaks to us here. Where is joy? The most important truth is there is no joy without a relationship with God. He reaches out to us through the sacraments. He’s the rock we need to build our house on.”