Monday, January 11, 2016
Douglas Messerli | "What Does It Mean to Believe?" (on Lucas Hnath's The Christians)
what does it mean to believe?
by Douglas Messerli
Lucas Hnath The Christians / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum, the performance I saw was a matinee on January 9, 2016
Everything seems in good shape for the megachurch congregation and its minister in Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians. The large church, with thousands of seats, a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool, and a parking so large you can easily get lost, has finally been for, while pews are nearly filled with believers led by the lively chorus with which the play begins. As pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) begins his sermon, you can almost hear the churchgoers settle in to enjoy his benevolent words.
But the sermon on this Sunday, presented in four parts, we soon perceive, is something different. With his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), his associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), and church elder (Philip Kerr) sitting on the plush chairs beside him, Paul tells the story of missionary friend in Africa who tells of a building that has been attacked by terrorists going up in flames. Suddenly a young boy plunged into the burning building and brought out a child, evidently his sister, into safety. But the boy himself was burning and quickly died. The missionary explains how sad he was that this young hero, whom he had never been able to convert, will never go to Heaven and be condemned to Hell.
The friends’ story troubles pastor Paul, and over the last many months or years he has apparently pondered over the problem of why God would not admit such a being simply because he had not converted to a Christian religion. Searching and rereading his Bible, Paul finds no actual words of description of Hell in the Biblical texts themselves. Gehenna—the only specific reference he can find to anything like the idea of Hell—he explains, was a word that the Jews used to describe a kind of refuge dump (actually my Biblical dictionary describes it as the valley near Jerusalem where apostate Israelites, such as those who worshiped Moloch, and burnt their children as sacrifice to the God, lived). Why then do his fellow believers persist in their conviction that those who are not saved will surely be punished by the devil. Christ, he argues, came to save all men, not just those who believed in him.
The congregation remains silent, but the associate pastor, Joshua, after delivering the usual prayer, cannot remain still, expressing his shock for his associate’s expression of what he perceives as an obvious heretical position. He argues that although the congregation has remained quiet, a large number of its members will surely disagree with Paul’s hermeneutical expression. Paul suggests a collection plate vote, discovering that at least 50 individuals are immediately ready to side with Joshua, and soon after Joshua and those parishioners leave the church.
After the service, the elder takes him aside to further discuss the schism Paul has created, worrying deeply about the ability of the church to survive if it loses more of its congregation, which, indeed, soon happens.
Paul has no choice, given his position, but to admit that they too would be heaven. All mankind has been saved, not just those we as humans might choose. When she argues that his is an irrational view, he posits that his God is beyond human rationality, is something larger, more incomprehensible than the human mind can accept. His God, he suggests, must encompass more than the human mind can comprehend.
But why, Jenny challenges, did he wait until the church was paid for to express his views. Had he, in fact, determined to share his revelations only when it became convenient to do so?
As the formerly megachurch continues to lose its members and their money, Paul’s wife Elizabeth finally challenges him herself. Why hadn’t he bothered to share his intellectual struggle with her? Why had the man she trusted and loved kept his ideas to himself. And how far, she wonders, will he go to in order to maintain his new viewpoints. Is he willing to possible lose even her, since she also disagrees with his readings of the Biblical texts?
In Hnath’s thoughtful play, Paul cannot answer some of these questions; he can only beg that Elizabeth stay, and hope that in his new preaching, he will not lose everyone.
Even the playwright, like his central character, refuses to provide an answer or to reveal what he might believe. Although Hnath grew up in just such a congregation, with a mother who attended a seminary and expected that he, too, might go on to preach, he felt that he did not want to be responsible for telling others what and how to believe.
His play, accordingly, asks questions instead of providing simple answers. And in that fact, The Christians is a work that does not use its own title to challenge of demean those who do believe.
If one might have wished that Hnath took his argument just a bit further, questioning even the idea of Heaven, positing the possibility, as a reformer like Calvin did, that what he describe has heaven and hell exist only here on earth, one cannot diminish the profundity of the questions his play does pose.
Personally, I was put off by the director’s (or author’s) decision to present these issues to the audience by means of microphone; yes, we know that the evangelical preacher’s use these devices to raise their voices to the rafters; but in the intimate Mark Taper Forum, where actor’s voices easily carry, it seems somewhat off-putting to direct all conversations through electronical means. I was somewhat amused that a large number of the elderly audience had purchased hearing devices, when, surely, even the deaf might have heard every word of this production.
Moreover, the microphones delimit the movement of characters, who, tied to their chords, find it difficult, at times, to move more than a few feet, which helps to reiterate that Hnath’s play was, primarily, a didactic dialogue.
But I have nothing against such dialogues, particularly when they ask for their audiences simply to listen and weigh the meaning of the character’s pronouncements on such important issues a belief and doubt.
Unfortunately, it appears that some audience members saw the play as a testimony for belief itself. A friend asked me, after the play, “Did it make you believe?”
“No,” I replied, “I remain an atheist. Although I grew up in a church, I find such beliefs somewhat repugnant and dangerous in a world that continues to use religion and culture as something to segregate and cut themselves off from others.” But I also don’t feel that Hnath’s play demanded that you should believe in either Paul’s gentle epistle or Joshua’s roaring blare of disregard. Rather, the playwright asked those who might believe—and even those, like me, who find they cannot—to ask some serious questions. What does it mean to believe, and how does any belief exclude others: simple questions we should perhaps daily ask.
Los Angeles, January 11, 2016