The Christians: for an atheist, whether or not hell exists is not a burning question

Pacific Theatre is presenting The Christians.

Playwright Lucas Heath has excellent hair, and, in The Christians, quirky theatrical instincts.

The Christians: if you’re not Christian, what’s in this play for you? Not a lot in terms of moral complexity. But a fair bit in terms of theatricality.

In Lucas Hnath’s script, Pastor Paul is the leader of a gigantic evangelical congregation: his church has thousands of seats and “a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool.” But, delivering a sermon near the top of the play, he drops a theological bomb on his flock: “We are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.”

Like the apostle on the road to Damascus, this Paul has had a revelation. While attending a conference, he heard another minister describe a death he witnessed. In a country suffering violence, a bomb went off and a grocery store caught fire. While others fled, a teenage boy ran into the store and saved his younger sister’s life. The teenager died from his burns. “It is a shame we lost that man,” the storyteller declared. “What a man of Christ he could have been.” The boy was not Christian. His soul had not been saved. So, according to the speaker’s belief, he was condemned to continue keep burning—in hell—forever.

Stunned by his colleague’s lack of compassion, Paul wept on his hotel toilet that night and had a conversation with God in which God revealed that hell is a metaphor.

But Associate Pastor Joshua takes issue with Paul’s supposed revelation. He argues that the Bible firmly establishes the existence of a fiery place of punitive torture and that abandoning that concept is tantamount to abandoning faith.

Reconciling the eternal damnation of unfathomable numbers of innocents with the existence of a compassionate God has long been a problem for Christianity. To me, as an atheist, Paul’s rejection of hell makes clear moral sense.

For me—and, I would guess, for most non-Christians—there is no living moral question in the core conflict of The Christians.

When Paul and Joshua debate the existence of hell—with control of the congregation hanging in the balance—Paul cites scripture and references translations authoritatively. His theological arguments aren’t completely definitive, but they come pretty darn close. In fact, it takes a long time—more than half of the play’s 90-minute length—before Paul looks even vaguely flawed in any way. Although the primary shadow, which I won’t reveal, allows a bit more complexity when it arrives, it’s not that big a deal.

So, if The Christians never deeply engaged me narratively or thematically, what did I like? Well, playwright Hnath is sympathetic to all of his characters and he writes emotionally subtle scenes. I felt for Joshua, for instance, when he described how desperate he was to convert a beloved relative. And Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, looks passive at first, but she isn’t. In other words, Hnath’s characters surprise.

Hnath also has excellent—and original—theatrical impulses. A large, on-stage church choir enlivens and illuminates the discussion with its hymns, including one chirpy number in which they insist that we’ll all understand the tough contradictions of faith sooner or later. And the characters speak into microphones all the time, even in intimate scenes that don’t take place in the church—in Paul and Elizabeth’s bed, for instance. This creates a paradoxical combination of intimacy and alienation that goes to the heart of big-box religion—perhaps all religion.

And, under Sarah Rodgers’s direction, there are some excellent performances in this production. Ron Reed plays Paul with engaging integrity and intelligence. And Tré Cotton, who is based in Seattle, is not just charismatic as Joshua, he also pulls off a moving monologue, pretty much out of thin air. Although Elizabeth is tellingly, and no doubt deliberately silent for much of the play, when she finally speaks, Erin Ormond gives full force to her dignity and depth. And Allan Morgan, whom I haven’t seen on-stage in too long, makes a welcome return as the conflicted church elder, Jim. Mariam Barry is fine as a questioning congregant named Jenny. Next time out, I hope that she does even less, that she becomes even more subtle.

Stancil Campbell’s set includes a shiny overhead monitor that advertises prayer breakfast and Bible-study groups. And the internally illuminated crucifixes that he places on either side of the playing area are slickly upscale and creepy.

I was never compellingly involved in The Christians. Its debate is not for me. But I am intrigued by this playwright’s vision. If you want to know more about Lucas Hnath, check out the video below, or read this review from The New York Times of his Broadway hit, A Doll’s House, Part 2, in which he imagines Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist heroine returning to her family home.

THE CHRISTIANS By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Saturday, September 16. Continues until October 7.

For tickets, visit pacifictheatre.org or call 604-731-5518.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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