Your Tatler encountered a lot of religion this past weekend – indeed, far more than she, as a secular humanist, is wont to do. And all of it was on our local stages: there was the irreverent and impious An Act of God at the Public on Thursday, the reverent and affirmative A Gathering of Sons at Pittsburgh Festival Opera on Friday, and finally, on Saturday, Lucas Hnath’s intelligent and deeply captivating play The Christians.
In many ways both An Act of God and The Christians address a similar fundamental problem at the root of all religion, which is that the texts that purport to contain God’s will must be read and interpreted by humans, who inevitably impose and project their own needs and wants and agendas into their interpretations. So who can really know what God wants? An Act of God cheekily tries to answer that question by imagining what message God might want to deliver to humanity in the 21st century were he to take form and visit us; The Christians tackles that question via the pastor of a modern American megachurch who has suddenly begun to doubt whether his evangelical faith has correctly interpreted the Bible’s teachings about the afterlife. And while The Christians is far more respectful in its depiction of Christians than An Act of God is in its representation of the deity, in the end it’s also far more devastating in its demonstration of the shaky foundations on which faith is built.
The whole of Hnath’s play takes place in the sanctuary of the megachurch that Pastor Paul (David Whalen) has devoted his life and work to building, and which scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach convincingly evokes with the sparest of architectural gestures: a large modern cross hanging above a raised, blue-carpeted dais, with a cross-shaped podium for the pastor and a semi-circle of seats on the floor of the stage for the audience, which takes on the role of the congregation. Screens on either side of the cross display misty images of sunrises, clouds, and nature (projections by Joe Spinogatti), along with quotes from the Bible and subtitles for Pastor Paul’s opening sermon, in which he makes a surprise announcement: after a confab with God while doing his business on the toilet, the good pastor has realized that he has been misinterpreting the Bible all these years. He has come to understand that there is, in fact, no hell; that God is all-forgiving and will admit all, believers and nonbelievers alike, to heaven; and that henceforth “we are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.”
Paul’s announcement has both immediate and far-reaching consequences, for him and for his church. The immediate fallout comes when his associate pastor Joshua (Joshua Elijah Reese) pushes back against this doctrinal shift and leaves the church, taking a handful of congregants with him. As time goes on, more and more members of the church take issue with the new doctrine, especially as the rift becomes complicated by issues of power, politics, and money, and in the end Pastor Paul is left with little more than his own increasing doubts.
Under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, Kinetic Theatre’s production has a magnetic energy, drawing in even those (like myself) who might instinctually distance themselves from squabbles over theological doctrine. The top-notch cast does an exceptional job of making all of the characters warm and likable, in particular David Whalen, who rightly avoids the temptation to portray Paul as unctuous and self-serving (the potential is there in the character). Whalen’s Paul comes across as kind and sincere, the kind of man you can imagine would inspire trust and deep respect among his congregants, and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, seems a genuine partnership. As Elizabeth, Mindy Woodhead morphs fascinatingly from what at first appears to be a smiling dummy into a fiercely intelligent doctrinal sparring partner. Reese brings conviction and passion to the role of Joshua, a man whose conversion to Christianity saved him from a life of both spiritual and material poverty, and Gayle Pazerski (as Jenny, one of his congregants) and Robert Haley (as Church Elder Jay) both bring a quiet urgency to their characters’ spiritual and emotional claims. Hnath unconventionally calls for microphones to be used for all of the dialogue, even during intimate scenes, and the cast makes good use of this device, which paradoxically allows for a more naturalistic mode of speaking even as it adds a layer of performativity to the character’s speech. At times the mics give the impression that we are listening in to their unvarnished thoughts; at others, they serve to reinforce the essential debate-like nature of the play.
The play itself does several things quite beautifully. To begin with, it takes seriously, and gives insight into, the kinds of exegetical questions with which Christians have to grapple as part of their belief system, and shows that faith is likely never as blind as it might appear to non-believers. In addition, the play is astonishingly fair-handed, allowing all sides of the dispute equal weight. In the beginning, it seems that Pastor Paul, as the spiritual and intellectual leader of the congregation, will have the upper hand, but his vision of an all-forgiving God is challenged not only by Joshua, but also by the relatively naïve congregant Jenny, who challenges him, among other things, to explain how Hitler could possibly be in heaven. There are no straw arguments here, no ridiculing of belief: in fact – and especially given the rhetorical environment of our current political moment – what may be most refreshing about the arguments presented in this play is the deep respect with which the characters treat each other, even as they are feeling themselves compelled to reject a way of thinking as anathema.
Yet another thing this play does beautifully is to explore the barriers to opening oneself to doubt and change. For Elizabeth, the prospect of changing belief systems raises the possibility that her future self will look back and consider her present self stupid and ignorant; this idea is so repellent to her that she cannot even consider such radical change. Joshua, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to accept Paul’s vision of an afterlife that only contains heaven, if only it could provide him the same solace and moral guidance that present doctrine does.
But much as this play succeeds in giving equal time and space to contradictory arguments and diverging points of view, in the end what it really accomplishes is a trenchant deconstruction of the relationship between faith, organized religion, and morality. What Pastor Paul discovers is that, convincing as his argument may be for an all-forgiving God, the fear of spending an eternity in hell is a much stronger motivator of expressions of faith such as tithing and church membership; for, as Jenny innocently points out, if everyone is saved no matter whether or what they believe, what’s the purpose of belonging to a church? What sets apart the faithful, if the faithless are saved as well? If God doesn’t punish sin, why be good?
The real chicken-and-egg question behind these queries, of course, is: does the church serve the belief system, or is it the belief system that serves the church? That’s a question the play leaves us to ponder, just as it leaves Paul and Elizabeth in a terrible yet wonderful state of radical uncertainty.