Tag Archives: Bible

The Dangers of Labelling

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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.

Pastor Paul

Pastor Paul

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.’

with cross

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Searching for the Real

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It is ‘awards season’ and I always get excited during this time. It’s not the dresses or even who ‘wins’ but because I am genuinely pleased that good, wholesome films, plays and musicals are promoted all over the media and it is likely many people will see them. It is a time when stories with a message or a theme may affect people. The film industry is glitzy and not tangible to most people, but when the red carpet of drama presents subject matter that is about everyday life as well as major historical events, it is a triumph.  I found the awards season in 2010 particularly interesting in what it made us think about…

Those who control the industry are wedded to the idea that people want to pay money to escape from their lives, and that is often true. But sometimes new vitality in the cinema depends on the notion that real parts of life – real characters, real language – can rise up before the viewer and just sweep them away. They are knocked out by the novelty of seeing something deeply true, deeply recognisable, making it into the mythic reality of cinema for the first time.’ (Andrew O’Hagan, The Evening Standard, 29th January 2010). The film Precious rightly had a list of Oscar nominations to its name and unsurprisingly took the USA by storm. Mariah Carey, who plays the Social Worker of the girl Precious, is more ‘real’ in this acting role than in her day job as a pop singer. Paul Hunter of The Fahrenheit Twins Surrealist Theatre Company, says: ‘I much prefer a theatre where I say “We are hot and sweaty and this is hard work and I can see you and you can see me.” And that often can, oddly, be much more real than real life, where so often you have to pretend to be someone you’re not.’ (The Metro, 23rd September 2009 – well done Metro for printing this in a newspaper that is read by the London commuters often caught in the unreality of their own routines).

The fascination for me is how this is true of many actors: the theme or message they communicate on the screen or on the stage is more realistic and honest than what is communicated, or what is acceptable to talk about, in so-called real life. Ironically, within the framework of pretence and under the label of fiction and entertainment, we are presented with a picture of how people really are. I was in America when The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock was released and the critic Jim Ferguson from ABC-TV commented ‘A true story that’s so good, it seems like fiction’ (quoted in The New York Times, 24th December 2009). We’d do well to pay attention to ‘story’ in whatever format it is told and in whatever art form.

Scene from Precious (Precious with her Social Worker)

It seems that it takes creativity to bring us to our senses but is ‘creativity’ so very external? I will try to answer this. In Channel Four’s series The Bible: A History, various well known people are looking at faith in the modern world. I was particularly interested in Howard Jacobson’s episode (24th January 2010) where he was investigating creativity and religion. He said he wanted to access the imaginative necessity that drives people to believe and concluded that mystery, uncertainty and doubt were the very elements that make creativity: creativity roots us in our own drama. Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks goes further and says it is man’s search for God that is the driving drama in the Bible. Jacobson seemed to be saying that it was the creative process one goes through to find faith that is important and what one then does with this. He says: ‘Novels matter…because they show how each individual life feels to the person living it. Until we are able to enter into another’s understanding of himself, we are imaginatively deaf and blind. Not to be sure is not cowardice…not to be sure might very well be where you arrive, intellectually, after a lifetime of troubled and conscientious thought. In our unstable and too, too brutal world we need more people willing to admit they are unsure, not fewer.’ (Radio Times, p.31, 23-29 January 2010). I can’t do the programme justice here so it is worth seeing it if you can to see and hear philosopher AC Grayling and others.

So it strikes me that the ability to ‘wonder’ is key to our existence to be meaningful. As Jacobson illustrates, not to explore or to search is synonymous with not having an imagination and we can’t live without this. My point? The institutions of Belief (all religions) and the institutions of the Arts are more closely related than we think – the entry audition to both requires one element: imagination. I’ve explored this in previous articles so won’t go on too much here, but if we don’t search, we can’t ‘be’, and therefore don’t give ourselves the permission to be ourselves. And the searching (for what is real) is what makes good drama because it is an ongoing process. Children do it for the first few years of their lives and then they become teenagers and adults and forget how to play. They act ‘grown up’. I love the quote from the American actress Fanny Brice, 1891-1951, (famously portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl) who says: ‘Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then who are you?

Sir Richard Eyre wrote an article in The Independent (13th November 2009) giving us reasons why the arts are necessary. ‘The arts… are part of our life, our language, our way of seeing. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and each other and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don’t…Just because art doesn’t look or sound like we expect it to, it may be precisely why we need it – because it uncovers new meanings…There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art – as there is in every human. In art, reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy the chance to be commonplace. What’s human is unique, it can’t be digitised. The art of theatre is an expression of that humanness: it’s an art that can never dispense with its reliance on the dimensions of the human figure; the sound of the human voice, and the desire to tell each other stories.’

Art uses what is real and what is present: the human person, takes us into the world of pretence or ‘out of the ordinary’, in order to bring us back to what is real, or in the words of Bruce Springsteen, make us feel the impact of our own existence. Anish Kapoor said on Imagine (BBC1, 17th November 2009) that an artist doesn’t set out to make something beautiful just as the artist doesn’t set out to make something spiritual. But it does happen, and whether it is spiritual is to do with space and actually having very little to say. Kapoor doesn’t have a great ‘message’ to communicate from his work but he does dare to go where he does not know and hopes the audience dare too.

We don’t just need to explore what we know. Artists (of all art forms) are interested in the unconscious. The artist Odilon Redon says: ‘My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.’ One could replace the words ‘music’ with ‘drama’ of course. It is the unknowability of something that makes it interesting, as Eyre endorses above. Even if our questions are not answered, we need platforms from which to ask them and perhaps it is consolation that the ambiguities remain: to go back to the start of this article, it is the search that is important as this is what creates the journey – the journey being possibly one of faith or just a greater sense of what is actually real. Once an actor grasps what is real he/she can then communicate this in the ‘make-believe’ setting of the stage or the film set.

To finish, I will talk about the exhibition ‘Identity’ which was on at the Wellcome Collection in London (April 2010). There are eight rooms focusing on nine lives and one of these is the actress Fiona Shaw. There are two groups of actors. The first group believe they are the character they are playing, sometimes off stage too. The second group ‘just act’ with their true selves remaining, with a detached view of the impersonation they give. Shaw falls into this second group; she is a transformative actor – she says ‘the ones who can reveal something about the world that they could not as people.’ Her acting is, she says, a gradual process of ‘becoming herself’.

Courtesy of Prospect Magazine

So we have come full circle – we become real by exploring the unreal or the intangible. If we can do this or watch others do it, I do think we can benefit our individual lives as well as the world on a wider level: ‘Great civilizations are measured not by the rise and fall of businesses or the changing tides of commerce, but by the art that distils the tenor of the time and the spirit of the people. Our world is marked by upheaval and uncertainty, and the art that is being created today is challenging, reflecting that anxiety.’ (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Oregon, USA)