Since its premier Off-Broadway in New York in 2015, The Christians has been produced in theaters across the U.S. and U.K. Neil Ellis Orts recounts his experience with the play in Houston.
This is not a review. It’s a personal reaction. As a practicing, every-Sunday sort of Christian, theologically educated, and invested in how the church is represented in media, there is no way I couldn’t take it personally.
If you haven’t seen it and expect to, I’m not avoiding spoilers, neither am I purposefully revealing anything. Read on at your own risk.
So. Where to begin.
Pastor Paul (played in Houston with a delicious understatement by Richard Thieriot) has had a revelation from God that radically changes his theology. Without discussing it with anyone, not even his wife, he reveals this change to his mega-church congregation in a Sunday sermon.
Things unravel from there.
I think I’ll not talk about that revelation (although I’m currently in the same place as Pastor Paul on this topic). I think I’ll talk, instead, about Elizabeth, who touches one of the more tender spots in my religious history. She sits silently on the stage for an amazingly long time before she ever speaks, She has one speech in particular that sends a laser to the tender spot in my soul. I have a copy of the script (from the September 2014 issue of American Theatre) but I think I’ll not quote it. In essence, she is struggling with the idea that if she changes her mind about the issue at hand, she’ll one day look back at her past and think she was stupid.
About 25 years ago, I entered seminary as a deeply closeted, deeply ashamed gay man, doing my best to not be gay. At some point in my seminary career, I wrote a paper on why gay and lesbian folk should not be ordained. I mentioned this to my friends who were with me at my first trip to the Alley for this show. Both expressed some surprise at this.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Not many people know the Republican me.”
So, dear fictional character Elizabeth (played by Emily Trask)—you are so real that you are me. And I don’t look back at myself as being stupid, but I am frustrated with that person. I also feel badly for that person who was me. Since that person was me, I know how much you suffered with that self-condemnation. That sort of fear is what I connect to with Elizabeth. What if this new revelation is wrong? What if my old understanding is right?
One of us is wrong. The present you (or past me) or the future you (present me). How do we deal with the notion that we might be wrong? How do we give up certainty?
THE STORY: “Twenty years ago, Pastor Paul’s church was nothing more than a modest storefront. Now he presides over a congregation of thousands, with classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool. Today should be a day of celebration. But Paul is about to preach a sermon that will shake the foundations of his church’s belief. A big-little play about faith in America—and the trouble with changing your mind.” (DPS)
Another character, the only other female character is a single mother named Jenny (a heartbreaking performance by Melissa Pritchett). She is timid. Her timidity is the result of some really hard knocks in life. The church has been her stabilizer. The church has been the place where she could connect and not feel alone. The schism that Pastor Paul’s new teaching has created both makes sense to her but causes a rift in her social life. Haltingly, she asks Pastor Paul questions. Without using the word, she eventually asks, essentially, Pastor Paul if he’s been manipulating them, the congregation. It’s the crucial moment in this play. Religious leadership and power emerges as a dominant theme from this point onward. This is another tender spot in my life.
The associate pastor, Joshua (a confident performance by Shawn Hamilton) (interesting choice of names, by the way—Paul, the main promulgator of the Christian faith in the first century, earliest and most prolific or at least most preserved shaper of earliest Christian theology, and Joshua, the successor to Moses who used military might to take over the Promised Land and sometimes conflated with Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus) tells a moving story of his mother, an unbeliever, and how he is certain that he saw in her dying her descent into Hell. His conflict with Pastor Paul isn’t so much a power struggle—refreshingly so!—but a question of how do we square our experiences with one church teaching or another? In him we come up against the struggle of wondering how we might come to know whether what we experience is true or what wewant to experience. Do our experiences shape what we believe or do what we believe shape our experiences.
Elder Jay (Jeffrey Bean also delivers a great, subtle performance) raises the question of the corporate, as in the financial and legal, nature of the church. While this was the least tender spot for me, it still rang true.
So, this play, this Socratic dialog of a production, hits many many layers of life in the church and does so without resorting to satire. Granted, this presents a church that I wouldn’t belong too—it’s a mega-church that apparently doesn’t have a very strong sacramental practice and I’m all about the smaller congregation and sacramental life—but the questions raised and, more importantly, NOT answered, are questions that I think a broad demographic of Christians could relate to.
Goodness, I don’t know what else to say. This production has me in a jumble. I’m so so so so glad to see a play that presents Christians non-ironically, non-satirically, with serious attention played to the real, complicated life of faith. I’m so glad there are no heroes, no villains, just people of deeply held conviction, all of whom make good and poor choices because of their convictions.
It’s all so real. As a Christian, I take it all so personally.
This production is going to haunt me for a very long time.
This post originally appeared on Neil’s blog, Orts on Art.
NEIL ELLIS ORTS is an author, playwright, and freelance writer, interested in the arts, religion, where those intersect, and where they don’t. He has a BFA in theater (Texas State University), an M.Div, (Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest), and an MA in interdisciplinary arts (Columbia College Chicago).
He’s written for OutSmart Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Source Houston, The Christian Century, Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Living Lutheran. His novella, Cary and John, is available at parsonsporch.com or Amazon.com.