I read the reviews and decided on the one play I wanted to see while in the New York area. It was “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath, at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater on 42nd Street in New York. I ordered the tickets forgetting that they were for a day when Pope Francis would be in New York.
After I bought the tickets I googled the Pope’s New York schedule to see if we intersected. The first website listed on google had a yellow banner with the Papal insignia and the schedule under a big button that said “Shop.” The website was “Catholic to the Max.” I could buy Apostolic Papal Key Chains, Francis fridge magnets, and a full height cut out of the Pope to stand up have my picture taken with. There were smaller figures, I won’t call them “Papal action figures” but that may not be far off the mark. I skipped the merch and cut to the schedule. My train from New Jersey was scheduled to arrive at Penn station at the very time the Pope would be saying mass for 19,000 people at Madison Square Garden, right over my train platform.
I‘m uncomfortable with the authority figures. No matter how much I may agree with a religious or political leader I’m troubled by the adoration of any human being. That goes for President, Pope, even the Dali Lama. What I was seeing in New York scary adoration, along with a more comforting New York attitude, Asian hawkers selling The Times they are a Changin’ papal t shirts, a wax Francis on the sidewalk of Madame Tussaud’s in Time Square and a peddle rickshaw driver dressed in papal white robes. The coincidence of events put me in a particular mood before stepping into the theater.
Playwrights Theater had a number of interactive displays in the lobby, one asked you to put a marker on a continuum of whether you believed or didn’t believe, another whether you attended church or not, a third whether you accepted scripture as the literal word of God, mostly the word of God, “a little of this, a little of that”, as metaphor or not at all. There was chalk board on which you could write about your religious journey and in each stall in the men’s room (and I presume the lady’s room) and over each urinal was a provocative quote on religion. Quotes like “All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and Poetry.” (Edgar Allen Poe); “Belief in a cruel god makes for a cruel man,” (Thomas Paine); or “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” (Mary Oliver).
The play is about a charismatic and adored Pastor of a Protestant mega church. The Church has just paid off its mortgage and the pastor has had a revelation, a revelation that there is no hell. He lays out how he came to this, his conversation with God (while sitting on a toilet seat), and declares; “From now on this church no longer believes in hell.” His equally charismatic and adored associate pastor disagrees and, as it turns out, so does his wife. The story moves forward looking at the existence of hell from the perspective of the pastor, his wife, his associate, the chairman of the church’s board and a congregant who is a poor single mother. I was completely involved with the conversation on stage.
The pastor expressed my beliefs as a Unitarian Universalist but I found myself, through the power of the writing and acting, more in sympathy with those who were shattered by his sermon. There were many takeaways but I left the theater being more than ever fearful of the adoration of people in authority. The minister may have been theologically in touch with my beliefs. But his arrogance in believing so strongly in his own conversation with God that he could declare a complete theological turnaround on behalf of a whole congregation was stunning and frightening.
I left the theater intrigued that my strong sympathy for those with whom I disagreed. I emerged from the theater into a city in full on adoration of another religious leader, who while expressing many of my beliefs, also frightens me.
This week I had a conversation with a Catholic friend. He said that the Father has done his job in creating Earth, the son has done his job in redeeming us all but the holy spirit has completely failed in providing direction to the church and individuals in matters of faith.