The Christians opens in a church — one of those mega-churches with a wonderfully exuberant gospel-accented choir, and screens showing the words of the hymns. Pastor Paul speaks. Like everyone else in this play, he uses a microphone. He’s a sensitive, compassionate man, and his sermon contains a revelation. A missionary who’d just returned from a war-torn country had told him the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who ran into a burning building after a bomb blast to save his younger sister; the boy was on fire when he came out with the child in his arms. She survived, but he fell to the ground and, beyond saving, burned to death. The boy had not been converted, the missionary said, and was condemned to hell.
But this was a judgment that Pastor Paul — played with nuance, intelligent empathy and a touch of reserve by Kevin Kilner in this Denver Center production — could not accept. He tells the congregation that, having agonized over the issue and sought guidance from God, he no longer believes in hell.
Lucas Hnath’s thoughtful play shows the fallout from Paul’s decision. Associate Pastor Joshua (a strong performance by Robert Manning) is furious; the two men trade Bible citations, and Joshua resigns. Paul, who finds Joshua too judgmental, isn’t particularly distressed. But slowly his church and his life begin to unravel as a result of this schism. A congregant who’s a single mother (Caitlin Wise) raises agonized questions: What happens to Hitler if there’s no hell? What’s the incentive to live a godly life? And finally, why did Paul wait until the church’s buildings were fully paid off to raise this controversial issue? The board wavers in its support for him; Joshua sets up a rival church, beginning in a single room, just as Paul once did. And Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Krystel Lucas), agonized by her husband’s decision and angry that he didn’t confide in her before sharing it, contemplates leaving the marriage. Joshua eventually explains his passionate opposition. When his mother was dying of cancer, he tried to persuade her to accept Jesus and she resisted, saying she didn’t want the last words out of her mouth to be a lie. But at the moment of death, her eyes were filled with terror, and Joshua realized he’d lost her; they would not be together through eternity. In fact, he would be in heaven, looking down on her torment.
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There’s a suggestion in The Christians that Paul is as rigid and judgmental in some ways as Joshua, that he’s been self-absorbed and short-sighted in dismissing the very real fears and sorrows of those around him. In Kent Thompson’s well-directed production (his last for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company), all of the key characters are treated with sympathy. But I found myself wanting a deeper and more expansive text.
I grew up in London — Jewish, but drawn to Christianity. Who wouldn’t be? In my world, Christianity was represented by soaring church spires, paintings by El Greco and Botticelli, the music of Bach, Handel and Mozart. And although the history of Christianity in Europe is murky and bloody, all the priests and ministers I encountered were gentle, kindly souls — something that happens, I guess, when a religion has lost almost all political power. To this day, a British churchman sometimes confesses doubts about the existence of God — as Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, did two and a half years ago — with no significant repercussions. Until some Americans moved into the flat above ours, I didn’t realize there were people who took the Bible literally. The first time I learned that I was doomed to burn in hell because I was a Jew, it was from one of these women. Even at the age of thirteen, I was unperturbed by her words; I knew her worldview was crazy.
I wanted Hnath to address the commodification of Christianity in the United States and, more important, what happens when a religion places judgment and punishment — hell — at its center. Because the main image the play leaves in my mind is of a healthy young man standing over his dying mother, wielding the bludgeon of an ugly religious tenet against her — instead of telling her, while he still can, how deeply he loves her, and that human love is sacred.
The Christians, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through February 26, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.