The Christians by Lucas Hnath. Published by Nick Hern Books and first performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Louisville, Kentucky, 8 March 2014. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, 8 September – 3 October.
I’d heard very positive comments on this play from its time in New York in 2015, the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and its transfer to The Gate Theatre. I was not disappointed and came away troubled – and reminded – about the reality of a religion (and perhaps religion in general).
The staging is simple and you walk into a deliberately blurred setting between drama and church. The Gate is a tiny theatre so the stage and its joyful choir on the stage are very close. A luminous cross sits at the back of the stage in between their two sides. In front of the choir are two standing microphones from where Pastor Paul (a brilliant William Gaminara from TV’s Silent Witness) and Associate Pastor Joshua deliberate the theology of salvation to the shock of their congregation – which is both the choir behind them and us the audience.
The microphones are at first a distraction since the whole script is delivered through them, but we have to remember that this is a ‘mega’ church in America. I also found the microphones to be metaphors: when you are talking about your faith and particularly when what you say is controversial, it does feel like the whole world is listening, and likely making its judgment.
The whole play hangs on the question ‘what happens when you die if you are not a Christian?’ and Pastor Paul is haunted by his witnessing of a boy who runs into a burning house to save his sister’s life only to lose his own. The boy worships a different God and is likely to never have heard of Jesus Christ. As Stephen Portlock of the Independent Catholic News, October 8th, says, ‘Ghastly as is the notion of this compassionate young man going to Hell, it is hardly less of a travesty of justice than that of an all forgiving God who places the murderer and his victim together in Heaven. Furthermore, if salvation is open to all then why bother being a Christian at all?’
Gaminara delivers the powerful sermon with his news that he does not believe in Hell with complete sensitivity, earnestness and passion, and manages empathy too. The aftermath is devastating – members of his congregation leave as does his colleague and friend Joshua, whom Paul had mentored, feeling betrayed that he drops a theological bomb shell at this point in time when all the church’s debts are paid off from the congregation’s gifts, and his marriage faces a split. At the start you support Pastor Paul in his strength and want to believe what he says, but the catastrophic implications come crashing down. He didn’t share any of this, what some would call, revisionist and progressive theology with his wife until she hears it with thousands of others on a Sunday morning. Suddenly you realise that faith is never really private. It affects how you behave to others, and what they think of you.
There isn’t time here to go into issues of translations of words in the Bible which the play spends some time discussing but in a nutshell, Pastor Paul reminds us about taking the words of Jesus out of context; and one issue did hit me with almost horrendous resonance for the 21st century world we try to comprehend: we label people into ‘Christians’ and ‘non Christians’ with one group going here after death and one group going there after death (as if we can even have any understanding of what life after death could be – we cannot), and in labelling them we forget that a big part of Christianity is about trying to make a heaven on earth through ‘loving one another’ and embracing the stranger. Pastor Paul alerts us to the potential of the pollution of Christian behaviour when it twists, and uses the example of a group of thieves – they stick together because amongst themselves they don’t keep telling each other how useless or ‘bad’ they are. The thieves are alike in the way they have gone wrong in life. Christians are their own worst enemy with phrases such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ – if you are in the latter camp, whether you are a thief or whether you just happen to have been born into a culture where Jesus just isn’t around, then yes, you may well feel worthless if you are condemned as ‘unsaved’. Let us not forget the words of Jesus to the thief that hung on the cross next to him. Thankfully for him, he went to his death released from the ‘bad’ ghetto that society had put him in.
Pastor Paul, at the start of the play, says he has a powerful urge to communicate but that he finds the distance barrier insurmountable. You realise what he means as the play goes on and it’s shattering, as by admitting his struggle with this part of the Christian faith he loses much of what he holds dear – but at the same time there is the all too real fact that by putting the human race into categories we create distance between ourselves as we simply label ourselves as different. (The Dalai Lama said the same thing, The Big Issue, 28 September 2015.) Either way there is huge loneliness.
Before this turns into a sociological essay, let me turn to the author. Hnath says that when he was younger he wanted to be a preacher but didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s souls so he switched to medicine but then didn’t want to worry about other people’s bodies. So he became a playwright (full interview on http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/). Ironically, in writing this play, he has partly become responsible for how people feel about their souls and bodies. He says of the play ‘…lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating… And maybe something more complex and true becomes visible within the agitation…I think back to a [picture in the] physics class I took [pre-med days]. The picture is of a very tiny particle. The only way you can see the particle is by colliding it with many other particles, from many different angles.’
The Bible presents us with challenging situations resulting in unanswerable questions – and contradictions. It is the particle in collision with others. But then I’m reminded of the person of Jesus – denying self in order to find Self. We see him as coming to earth as a man – one of the reasons being to understand what it was to be human. But he became accessible – living as ‘other’ to be at one with us. So there is a contradiction right there. He was an explicit human but implicitly God so who are we to judge that someone is not explicitly Christian? – the fact is, Jesus was not always recognised for the entity he was so for us to be dividing people into who might go to Heaven and who might go to Hell, seems far beyond us, when we recognise the implications of what this does. I leave the last words to Hnath:
‘A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible. The theatre can be that too.’