Review: The Steppenwolf Production of The Christians

One of the top things I wanted to do during my brief stay in Chicago was see a live theatre performance. I only had time, practically speaking, to see one show, so I saw The Christians by Lucas Hnath as performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The production itself – the acting, the directing, the set, the lighting, etc. – was excellent. Which, given that Steppenwolf is considered one of the best theatre companies in the entire United States, is not a surprise. Given that the production as a whole is excellent, I do not have much to say about it, so I will discuss the play itself instead.

In the play, a pastor has grown a storefront church into a megachurch, and they have just paid down the debt they incurred to build their large gleaming building. As soon as the debt is paid, the paster comes out with a sermon which claims that a) there is no hell and that b) belief in hell creates divisions with people, therefore Christians ought to drop their belief in hell to be better able to spread the word.

The play briefly discusses the Christian theological basis for both the ‘hell exists’ and ‘hell does not exist’ hypotheses, but really, the story is about how this impacts the people rather than about the dogma. The pastor claimed that belief in hell creates gaps between people which makes communication impossible yet, ironically, by declaring his lack of belief in hell, he creates gaps between himself and his congregation.

Even though I have never been a Christian, I still felt the play spoke to me, because ultimately, it’s a play about human nature, not strictly Christianity. One of the stand-out lines was “Does absolute tolerance mean being intolerant of the intolerant?” In the context of the play, that meant whether the pastor’s ideas of accepting that everyone goes to heaven means casting out the members of the church who invoke hellfire in their preaching, but it’s a valid question in many other contexts.

Another issue in the story is that it is strongly implied that the pastor had stopped believing in hell long before he came out with this sermon, but did not dare preach about it until the debt was paid off. This leaves some members of the congregation feeling like they were manipulated in order to secure their tithes. This gets to the issue of having a religious organization which requires a lot of money – it creates economic incentives for people to preach ideas they don’t believe. Though the pastor in the play is not an atheist (he believes in God even though he does not believe in hell), it reminds me of some of the people that The Clergy Project reaches out to – religious leaders who have stopped believing in their religion yet keep on working because they need the paycheck (or they fear backlash from the congregation, etc.)

The play also makes clear that treating the members of the congregation who continue to believe in hell as ignorant or hateful people will not cause them to drop their belief in hell – quite the opposite, in fact.

After the play, I was talking with a young couple about it. For them, the play resonated with them because it showed how a change in beliefs could break personal relationships, and one of them said that he avoids discussing what he feels about religion with his parents because he is afraid that would cause damage to his relationship with them.

It is a thought-provoking play which I think is worthwhile for both Christian and non-Christian audiences. If given an opportunity, I recommend seeing it.

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