Recently I had a vivid reminder of the value in the breadth of a liberal arts education. My son, who is a computer science major, has become a fan of live theater.
When he texted me the title of an upcoming play that we could see together with my other son (a music therapy major), I had déjà vu. I had already heard of the play, and at an earlier time and even thought about driving an hour or two to see it produced. The travel time in this case was walking a minute across campus.
The play was The Christians by Lucas Hnath, who won the 2016 Obie Award for excellence in playwriting. It stood out to me because it had the unusual combination of being new, acclaimed, and explicitly theological. The Christians opens with a sermon in a modern American megachurch, in which the pastor announces that he no longer believes in Hell.
This kind of character-driven drama is perfect for the intimate setting of the stage and loses something when filmed. Rather than settling for reading the script or watching on a screen, I could see it in a shared space that better communicates through the unique experience of live theater.
The production was wonderful, thanks to the skill of our theatre department. The character of the pastor and his wife were well-cast—they are married in real life, and this brought a sense of familiarity and real oneness to their portrayal. The lighting design was also particularly powerful. This play is a tragedy, and the stage gets darker with each scene, converging on a sense of dread like what is felt in psychological thrillers and horror movies.
I’ve read and collected scripts ever since being astonished by Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in high school. I can see why Hnath won an Obie—his script is precisely structured and carefully balanced, with sympathetic depictions of theological struggle and little trace of blame or contempt.
Hnath achieves his primary task: the characters sound right. Hnath grew up in the church, and he studied modern preachers when writing this play.1 In interviews, Hnath is coy about what he believes now.2 Appropriately, neutrality is his script’s most remarkable achievement. Hnath gives even-handed voice to many characters with traditional views, without scapegoats or straw people.
The pastor’s opening sermon repeats a phrase: “I have a powerful urge to communicate, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”3 So when the pastor announces that he can no longer believe in Hell, the script seems to take sides, as the central character with both power and a “powerful urge to communicate” draws a theological line in the sand. But Hnath subverts expectations. Many characters disagree with the pastor, and the church fractures, but still limps along. As the play continues, a diverse group of characters clearly and genuinely articulate the traditional position on salvation, expressing their own powerful urges to communicate. We see many distances, increasingly insurmountable.
Hnath takes care to hold up an accurate mirror to American evangelicals. True, I was jarred by some details of how these debates take place and how church councils work.4 Regardless, Hnath’s mirror is accurate enough that it reflects a critique not of theology, but of politics—specifically, power structures in evangelical churches, driven by fame, attendance, and tithes.
The catalyst for the tragedy that follows is the central, centripetal role of the lead pastor. The pastor’s pivotal sermon is the kind of power fantasy I have about my own deep convictions—that is, if I just stand up and articulate them clearly, everyone else will see the validity of my point and will agree with me. The schedule of the typical evangelical worship service, with half the time taken by a single speaker making a speech, unintentionally encourages this mode of one-way conversation.
Most evangelical church services are built, like Hnath’s script, around a monologue, which creates an unbalanced political pattern. A powerful speaker will bring more people to that church, and the unspoken power structures of the church will adapt to rearrange resources around amplifying that voice.5 For a professor who’s just trying to keep students awake and engaged, the draw to pontificate or pander can be the same.
This evangelical monologue-centric liturgy, accurately depicted by Hnath, is not itself universal. Even right now in the US, church services range from the call and response of the African-American church to Quaker Silent Worship. Other countries and other centuries further expand the possibilities for structuring services. But American evangelicals tend to emphasize only two kinds of voices: the 1st-century voices of scripture and the 21st-century voices of pastors.
In The Christians, one other century is heard at the beginning, when the church sings the 1923 song “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” This song is so common it’s easy to overlook. I wonder how the play would unfold differently if the choir sang a different song, one that spoke from a different century.
In the play, the pastor’s sermon would sound different if we first heard “O Vos Omnes,” Pablo Casals’s adaptation of the 6th-century-BC text Lamentations 1:12, or “O Nata Lux,” Morten Lauridsen’s adaptation of a 10th-century hymn.6 Sung voices from history would turn the pastor’s monologue into a conversation before it starts.
There are more options if we allow other centuries to speak in terms of spoken liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer could provide a 16th-century perspective. The Psalms could provide an ancient Hebrew perspective. We don’t need fewer perspectives, we need more, so that our perspectives give tradition a vote, in what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”
Hnath’s play ends with darkness, separation, and silence.
The gospels tell of this despair, most intensely at Gethsemane, but they do not end in it. Likewise, the end of the play doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I have hope for Hnath’s pastor—that his story is not over. A second act could be written.
In the nineteenth century, George MacDonald experienced something very much like Hnath’s script—but MacDonald’s story continued for 50 years more, and his truth exceeded fiction. MacDonald began to minister as a pastor at Trinity Congregational Church in Arundel, England in 1851. Two years later, he was forced to resign: “A group within the church objected to his hope that the ‘time of trial’ for the heathen did not cease at their death.”7 There is a significant theological difference between MacDonald (believing in some sort of Purgatory8) and Hnath’s pastor (disbelieving in Hell), but the social result of the controversy was a similar fragmentation and loss. MacDonald was never a pastor again.9
The Christians ends at this point, but MacDonald was just getting started. He had an overflow of words and a powerful urge to communicate, so he wrote poetry and fantasies. More disappointment ensued, because those didn’t sell enough to support his growing family, so MacDonald turned to writing novels, although in these he deliberately sacrificed style for meaning.10 Combined with adjunct-style tutoring and odd jobs, these stories sold enough for his family to eke out a living, and I sense that MacDonald was content because some had ears to hear him. But there was more to come.
When MacDonald died, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were still children. Each would eventually pick up MacDonald’s Phantastes, by that time a book half a century old, and would be inspired to invent famous, fantastic worlds. Lewis even cast MacDonald as his guide to the afterlife, like Dante’s Virgil, in Lewis’s own idiosyncratic take on Hell, The Great Divorce.
MacDonald is just one example. Working backward through history, we see Dante, Maximus the Confessor, Boethius, Origen—all of them with complicated beliefs on fate and universalism, none of them perfect or completely right, all of them conformed to the pattern of Christ, in which history always has more than one act.
Hnath confronts his pastor with a bright darkness. Which theological beliefs and political structures should he give up? In the dark, Jesus turns to us and asks, “Will you too turn away?” Or will we follow Him into the second act?
This darkness at the end of the play was harrowing and heavy as a cross. Then the auditorium lit up, and my sons and I turned to leave. We talked about the play for an hour afterward. Our beliefs regarding universalism both overlapped and diverged, with our differences unresolved. But in our continuing conversation, our powerful urge to communicate was granted space, and our distance, for a time, was surmounted.
- Hnath read his mother’s books on “stuff like hermeneutics” growing up, and “I’m not necessarily cagey about my beliefs (although I do sort of think that the attempt to put those beliefs into words will always result in a misrepresentation of said beliefs; I am very mistrustful of words), but I suspect that answering the question will somehow diminish the effect of the play.” Lucas Hnath, “Playwright’s Perspective: The Christians,” Playwrights Horizons, June 30, 2015, https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/trailers/lucas-hnath-christians/
- Michael Paulson, “Lucas Hnath’s ‘The Christians’ Tackles a Schism Among the Flock,” New York Times, September 3, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/theater/lucas-hnaths-the-christians-tackles-a-schism-among-the-flock.html
- I had forgotten the exact phrasing of this, but a week later my other son (the music therapy major) repeated it almost word for word, giving me hope in the memory skills of the next generation (while diminishing hope for my own).
- The most jarring moment in Hnath’s play might be when a successful college program is described as street preaching to people outside nightclubs. I’ve been involved with a lot of college programs and none of them involved that!
- We have seen people walk through the doors of our church, find out that their favorite pastor wasn’t speaking, then turn around and leave.
- My choir has sung both of these songs at our large, somewhat weird non-denominational church.
- George MacDonald, Creation in Christ, ed. Rolland Hein (Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw Publishers, 1976), 8.
- “He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent. He knows (none better) that even omnipotence cannot save the unconverted.” C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), xxxvi.
- He did preach from rented quarters occasionally, but his sermons survive as written works, collected in volumes titled Unspoken Sermons, many of which are collected in Creation in Christ. His sermons may be better preserved for us because he had to write them down.
- “Once, when asked by his son Ronald why he did not write a story full of human passion and artistic plot, MacDonald replied he would like to, but his conviction of the need of men for his message forbade him.” Hein in McDonald, Creation in Christ, 9. Even his biggest fan, C.S. Lewis, is blunt: “If we define literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even its second.” Lewis, George MacDonald, xxviii.