The Christians Will Seem Like a Page Out of the Sunday Service Program to Some
By Lauren Yarger
The choir/worship team sings multiple choruses of a song you never have heard. The pastor gives a mostly boring, four-point sermon in which not very much is said around humorous anecdotes and references to finances to pay off a huge mega-church building mortgage.
The shocking difference between this scene and just about any Sunday service in a contemporary Protestant church (megachurch or not) is that this one takes place on New York theater stage – it opens the season at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, to be exact – in The Christians, written by Lucas Hnath.
I have experienced a lot of plays that try to incorporate the Christian experience (or a Christian character), but have seen very few that show an understanding of faith beyond creating stereotypes of judgmental, dim-witted, usually closeted homosexual Republicans. A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Creek by Kia Corthron (which, interestingly, also had a run at Playwrights Horizons back in 2010) was one of the few to get the portrayal of a devout Christian right. And now there’s Hnath’s The Christians.
The realities explored here aren’t all positive, however. In fact, they are pretty negative, but not in a Christian-bashing way. The Christians provides a glaring reflection in the mirror for many churches, but more so, it’s an unflinching study of the personal crisis of faith many people in America are experiencing.
Flanked by his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), Elder Jay (Philip Kerr), Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), and a robed choir in the loft behind them on stage, Senior Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) nonchalantly moves through his sermon points, while giving praise for the recent payoff of the church’s mortgage on it huge building (faithfully designed by Dane Laffrey in modern, light wood trim with a carpeted platform that will make many churchgoers feel right at home):
· Where Are We Today?
· A Powerful Urge
· The Fires of Hell
It’s when he hits point number four, "A Radical Change" that the congregation wakes up. There’s a crack in the foundation of their faith, Paul tells the congregation. God told him (while the pastor was on the toilet, apparently), that they have had it all wrong and that from this moment on, their church no longer will believe in Satan or in hell, or that its beliefs are the only way to salvation.
Reluctantly, Joshua steps to the podium and admits he struggles with this new direction. (Les Waters tightly directs the action, which has the characters using hand-held microphones to talk to each other, as well as to the congregation). Pastor Paul begins an interrogation of sorts, challenging each example of scripture Joshua offers as proof that the bible supports the existence of hell as a destination of torment for those who do not know Jesus Christ.
The twisting of words turns into a contest of wills and Joshua challenges Paul to let the congregation vote on which of them they choose to follow. To his surprise, only 50 congregants side with Joshua and he leaves the church to start a new congregation.
Later that week, Elder Jay pays Pastor Paul a visit in his office (effectively played out right on the same platform with the hand-held mics while the others, in subdued lighting, bow their heads in prayer). Jay shares concerns about losing Joshua, who had been popular with the youth, who enjoyed trips into the community with him to share their faith with unbelievers.
That very act — telling people that they are sinners — is what has Paul convinced he is right in letting Joshua go, however.
"How do you think it makes people feel to be pulled aside and told that they’re sinners? . . . To be told, ‘Hey – you’re bad, you’re a bad person and you should feel bad about yourself," he asks.
"I worry, yes, I do worry, a little, about what happens when you tell a congregation that they don’t need to believe – then I have to wonder if that makes them feel like going to church isn’t so important," Jay responds.
The next Sunday, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a meek member of the choir, steps forward to share her testimony (for those of you not familiar, a testimony is a personal story of how a person came to faith, or of how God has been working in a person’s life), but segues into a bunch of burning questions for Pastor Paul.
· What about those bible passages where Jesus does talk about hell?
· If there is no punishment, why should we be good?
· What about Hitler? Is he in heaven then too if everyone ends up there?
· And did Pastor Paul wait to share his controversial new belief system untilafter the church debt was paid off because he knew he might lose some attenders putting money in the collection plate?
Soon, Jenny, Elder Jay and even Elizabeth withdraw support and the church is in trouble. Pastor Joshua comes back to visit with Paul and reveals some of his own struggles with being able to stand firm in one of the most realistic conversations about faith I ever have seen on stage.
Though the main theme of The Christians brings to mind the controversial "everybody-goes-to -heaven", feel-good" ministry that Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers have been accused of, The Christians, on a deeper level, asks some pretty hard (and fair) questions about what we believe and why we believe it – and how much are we willing to sacrifice for our faith.
Though playwright Hnath declines to comment on his personal beliefs, the reality he captures in this play is evidence of his intimate understanding of the controversies of church life and of the personal struggles involved in a deeper walk of faith.
"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," he says, and for an hour and a half at Playwrights Horizons, Christian lives appear for our inspection, aided by spot-on performances.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the play, I had to wonder whether many of its subtle truths about church services and practices would be lost on those in the audience who haven’t experienced church like this. Would they be chuckling like me and appreciating the scathing commentary being made as the choir obliviously "leads the congregation in worship" by singing endless versus of a song while people stand looking back at them blankly, not singing, because they don’t know the song (which happens every Sunday at just about every contemporary Christian church in America when rock-star worship leaders croon melody-less tunes)?
Would they pick up on the "submissive wife" doctrine in Elizabeth’s silence on the church platform and in Paul’s neglecting to inform her of his new doctrinal direction before announcing it to the flock? Would they realize that the truths of Joshua’s struggles — with having to admit people he loved are in hell — are almost never addressed in Christian churches, who are happy to preach that strangers who don’t know Jesus are hell-bound, but who happily use phrases like "being at rest" and "being in a better place" when discussing the unbelieving mom or dad who just passed?
I think some of the complexity of these questions and the real issues of faith will be lost.Where Christians or nonbelievers alike will be able to relate, however, is in the apologetics, because grappling with faith, or the lack of it, is the stuff of life.
To quote Pastor Paul:
"I believe what I believe because I know it is true-but why do I know it’s true?-it’s a feeling. And where did that feeling come from?-God. God put it there-but how do I know it’s God that put it there?-I know it’s God because I believe God is there-but how do I know God is there? because there’s a feeling he put inside of me-but. . ."
The production features a rotating 20-person choir including individual singers from all five NY boroughs. The choir’s makeup is different at each performance.
Costume Design by Connie Furr Soloman, Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez.
Following the New York run, this production will be presented in its Los Angeles premiere at The Mark Taper Forum from Dec. 2 through Jan. 10. Don’t miss it.
The Christians runs through Oct. 11 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., NYC. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 pm and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets $75: www.TicketCentral.com; 212-279-4200.