It begins with a sermon that Pastor Paul is preaching in one of those mega-churches that can accommodate thousands.
Paul tells a story of a boy who saves his young sister from a blazing inferno, but dies himself. And because he is not a Christian believer, he is doomed to go to hell.
He tells the congregation (we — the audience) that he no longer believes in hell, and explains why. He is challenged by his associate pastor, and several parishioners leave the church. In effect, all hell breaks out.
Not knowing what the play, “The Christians,” was about, I went to Bristol Riverside Theatre expecting some sort of Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas epic. But Lucas Hnath’s 90-minute play is a microcosm of conflict within the church today. What is the fallout if the pastor himself challenges traditional religious doctrine?
The story takes place at a Sunday sermon, with a choir of two dozen behind the principal five speakers. Besides the pastor, there is his wife Elizabeth, Church Elder Jay, Associate Pastor Joshua, and a young woman from the choir. Each, in turn, will respond to the unnerving sermon of the Pastor Paul.
Paul has just overseen the repayment of the mammoth debt the church faced in constructing its huge building. But he now is saying that there are cracks in their church. We wait, anxiously wondering what he will put forth. And while it seems as though at first, the congregation is behind him, we watch as the world around him begins to unravel.
“The Christians” is not presented in a traditional manner. Even after the opening sermon, each character who responds holds a mike in his or her hand as they respond. And while the subject matter is engrossing, the style is rigid. They all seem to be sermonizing themselves. As an audience member, I felt like I was watching a series of lectures or a debate, rather than a drama. While the subject matter was interesting and the cast was strong, the play often lacked any kind of engaging connection.
At no time did the characters shift to other locations to talk to each other. Much of the play was performed with the choir in the background which was quite distracting. The power of the feelings of Paul, Joshua, and Elizabeth was reduced by each talking into the hand-held microphone.
Let me add one more thing. I was accompanied by a friend who grew up in a church just like Pastor Paul’s. “It was frighteningly real,” she told me of the sermonizing. But she added, “It’s not a kind of theater that I want to be reminded of.”
Theater has many purposes. It is usually entertaining. But sometimes it is challenging or uncomfortable as it shares with audiences things they’ve not thought about. The results are not predictable. And just as I had no idea what “The Christians” was about before I saw it, neither could I have guessed what that sermon would do to its congregants, whose beliefs are challenged.
I did love the fact that playwright Lucas Hnath didn’t create stereotypes for any of his characters. In fact, we see and understand the point of view of each. It’s a very unusual theatrical offering.