The Christians

The Gospel According to Woody

At the Mark Taper Forum - December `13, 2015

By Ross Altman, PhD

The ChristiansOn the 8th night of Hanukkah what would a Jewish folksinger be doing? Lighting a menorah? No. Enjoying a latke? No. Spinning a dreidel? No. I found myself singing John Lennon’s Imagine as Jill Fenimore and I walked out of the Mark Taper Forum last night. We saw a new play called The Christians, by playwright Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters. It closed their 2015 season that started last January with a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price (from the Old Testament to the New, I thought, in one season of theatre—not bad). Hnath’s play with music is an extended meditation on heaven and hell—and what it would be like if there were “no hell below us.” Lennon said it was “easy if you try.” It turns out to be not so easy after all.

How to describe this modern play of ideas—written in the form of an opening sermon and numerous commentary dialogues all of which take place on the same stage in the same scene, which purports to be a mega-church and for which the play’s 700 plus audience provides the large semblance of its parishioners. There is a full gospel choir on stage, directed by church organist Scott Anthony, with Pastor Paul and his wife Elizabeth, an associate black Pastor, Joshua, a church elder, Jay, and a young female member of the congregation named Jenny who becomes the driving force behind the considerable religious conflict that develops during the tightly contained one and a half hour drama. We came for the music, but we stayed for the play.

One song in particular stood out—and became the Greek Chorus that commented on the action below:

Further Along, we’ll know all about it

Further along, we’ll understand why

Cheer up my brothers and live in the sunshine

We’ll understand it all by and by.

But with all the theological issues at play here, it really boils down to a play about a marriage—on the rocks. Pastor Paul describes their meeting—in flight twenty-five years before the play begins: he sees her at the back of the plane and becomes immediately smitten. He calls the stewardess over and asks her to deliver a message to the young woman: “When I look at you I feel an overwhelming urge to communicate, but I also sense an insurmountable distance between us.” Not exactly Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” but Pastor Paul is no romantic; he is an intellectual Christian, closer to Paul Tillich than to Billy Graham. The stewardess agrees to deliver the message, and his future wife turns around in her seat, looks back at him, and suddenly smiles and waves. Their future is sealed. An hour and a half later their marriage has fallen apart—over their differing Christian world views—and they are right back where they started, with an overwhelming urge to communicate, and an insurmountable distance between them.

In fact it is precisely that “overwhelming urge to communicate” that (spoiler alert) saves their marriage; for whom else would they communicate with about the question of whether hell exists, or whether it is merely a figment of our collective imagination. Who knew that even two Christians could have what amounts to a mixed marriage? Their differences in belief are so profound that they amount to two fundamentally distinct religions—Pastor Paul’s, who no longer believes in hell, and his wife Elizabeth, played by Linda Powell, who most emphatically does.

Pastor Paul, played by Andrew Garman, who originated the role at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, where it was commissioned by and premiered in the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, opens the play with a new sermon that suddenly questions the very foundation of Christianity—the belief in heaven and hell. He can no longer believe that a loving God would punish His creation by sending any of them to burn in hell. He wants to do away with it entirely—which takes us all the way back to refute the Calvinist beginnings of America in Jonathan Edwards’ haunting vision that we are all “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Call it what you will, but once you have heard Edward’s version of original sin you will never be entirely free from it. It’s the kind of image that sticks to you. Pastor Paul wants to do away with it and live in the sunlight of a loving God that has nothing but good things in store for us in the afterlife. Who wouldn’t?

Associate pastor Joshua, for one, played by Larry Powell. His traditional version of Christianity is wedded to the idea that man is born in sin, and only by accepting Christ can he (or she) be saved and avoid everlasting damnation. He refuses to accept this one-dimensional alternative and walks out of Pastor Paul’s church, thus beginning the growing exodus of church members who decide to leave and follow him. The chorus and gospel choir in effect become a part of the dialogue, for every time they raise their voices in song it challenges the Pastor’s newfound devotion to a one-dimensional God:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

--- Amazing Grace

Pastor Paul begins to see the writing on the wall, as he realizes that his vast mega-church, that had grown from a barebones storefront when he began to an evangelist’s dream of heaven-on-earth, a huge building filled with the faithful, which has just become debt-free and completely paid off as his sermon unfolds, is suddenly at risk, and he could wind up with nothing. His dark night of the soul descends upon him when others begin to walk out too, including the magnificent choir behind him and he must confront the lonely voice of the most challenging member of his congregation—a young woman named Jenny, played by Emily Donahoe, who from out of the blue brings up the name of the modern personification of evil—as she asks him, “What about Hitler? Does he go to Heaven too?” It becomes clear that Pastor Paul had not fully considered the implications of his new-found positive-thinking version of Christianity, and only a very long pause later does he get on board and follow this glory train where it must inevitably lead: “Yes, Hitler too.”

Had Pastor Paul listened to Woody Guthrie instead of this inspirational gospel choir he might have found a less exalted but more compelling secular version of the Christian hymnal. For remember that Woody too was a Christian—who married a Jew—Marjorie Mazia—and put his own skeptical stamp on the songs he had learned in church growing up. In the gospel according to Woody “This train is bound for Glory,” to be sure (the title of his 1940 autobiography) but in Woody’s song, not only is Hitler unwelcome, but “This train don’t carry no gamblers/no politicians [which Woody substituted for “crap shooters”] or midnight ramblers.” In short, “this train” will throw you off board if you don’t have something good to contribute to mankind. When Woody took one look at the hymn Further Along he turned it on its head: “I’ve Got to Know,” he insisted, “I’ve got to know now.” Woody Guthrie’s heaven—whose guitar bore the inscription “This Machine Kills Fascists”—would never welcome war criminals or evil incarnate Adolph Hitler.

Neither would Pastor Paul’s congregant Jenny’s heaven, and in the hardboiled confrontation that transforms this play from a civil, thoughtful discourse into a thrilling intellectual combat zone Jenny brings down the house, by challenging not only his ideas but his integrity and character. Why, she finally asks him point blank, did he wait until the church was paid off before laying this undermining reversal of everything they believed on them. And then she lowers the boom: She had been one of many who paid him for his church—she and her young son had descended into poverty to pay for his fine ornate building—very well represented by the elegant architecture and expensive adornments of the Mark Taper Forum itself—tithing not only the required 10& but doubling the amount to 20&, and denying herself and her son necessities of life to help him finance his version of her soul. Only after draining her dry he now wants to take away everything she believes and has sacrificed for? Like Woody, she wants to know why.

His troubling unconditional answer to her voice of reason conditioned by heartache is “I want a heaven beyond anything I can imagine—where even Adolph Hitler is welcome.” That’s what they used to call in philosophy (in a course in logic) a “straw man”—an argument that will not stand the light of scrutiny. In Greek philosophy it was the hallmark of skeptics like Protagoras who were so skilled in argument that they could make “the worse appear the better reason.” It’s what Socrates gave his life to combat. A modern Socrates like Woody Guthrie and in this play Jenny also come to represent the values of knowledge over faith—of doubt over blind belief. That’s when I began to hear John Lennon in my inner ear, singing ever so quietly “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

But The Christians winds up being more than a play of ideas—and in the end this is a story about two flawed humans who need each other more than the religion they had supposed would sustain them In one climactic bitter confrontation their residue of frustration, pain and anger almost raises the specter of Albee’s George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with a humane saving grace. And that is the grace that is truly “amazing.” For as Elizabeth is about to leave and take the children with her—their relationship’s beginnings come back to save them: Paul’s newfound faith has been tested at every turn—by associate Pastor Joshua who returns to the stage to confide in him that his belief in hell cost him everything—even his own mother—who dies a nonbeliever and he must therefore condemn to the fires of hell; by Jenny who stands up to him and refuses to be bought off when Paul suddenly offers to refund her some of the money she donated to keep his church afloat; and even by the church elder Jay, played cagily by Philip Kerr who becomes the reluctant voice of the Board of Directors to remind him how little power he has when his very job is threatened if he fails to conform.

When all else fails, the human heart steps in and reminds them that despite the “insurmountable distance” between them, they both still have an “overwhelming urge to communicate.” “Let’s start there,” he begs her, “and figure out the rest later.” With all the doctrinal threads still unraveled and no theological reconciliation in the offing, Elizabeth and Paul seem unwilling to trash their marriage—which in the end gives them a reason to go on. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it is an honest one—an almost existential one, as they must now create the meaning in their own lives that their religion no longer encompasses. With nothing but each other to hang onto they in effect lean on Emily Dickinson’s wise observation in “My Life Closed Twice Before its Close,” “parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.” The audience welcomed their willingness to keep communicating as much as Jill and I did, and the enthusiastic opening night standing ovation at the end was well earned by the cast, the choir and the play.

This holiday season—with recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino still fresh in our minds—is a perfect time to be reminded that Christianity is not as simple a faith as we might have supposed. The birth of Jesus brought as many questions as answers, and this play explores them all with a quest for understanding and a passion for healing a broken world that is very much in keeping with the spirit of Christmas—and its’ still unfulfilled hope for peace on earth and good will towards men. Go see it!

The Christians plays at The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center until January 10, 2016; Tickets $25-$89; with thanks to Jason Martin of the Center Theatre Group for a press pass..

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in English; for further information about this event Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com