Most off-Broadway stages don’t look like this: five plush hardwood chairs arranged in front of a wooden rail, behind which sit thirty or so chairs. A synthesizer off to the right. Two screens, right and left, hung above eye level, each sporting an identical photograph of a sunrise and an exhortation to silence your cell phones. A giant wooden cross, lit from behind, hung slightly off center. Big artificial plants posed strategically around stage. Five microphones with cords in their mic stands.
That sounds exactly like the platform at most evangelical churches I’ve attended, but this fall you can see it in in an unlikely place in New York City, too: a production of Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians, being staged at the eminent off-Broadway theater Playwrights’ Horizons.
One might be forgiven for expecting this familiar setting to serve as the backdrop for a comedic or bitter (or both) play about those crazy religious folks. The New York theatre scene is not noted for its religious acumen or open-mindedness—although a chalkboard posted in the lobby asked audience members to share their own religious backgrounds and beliefs, and when I went, five days before the play opened, it was completely covered by responses that ran the gamut of the American religious experience.
That’s what makes Hnath’s play all the more remarkable. The church here—we discover early on that it’s a megachurch, one that’s recently paid off the debt for its building—is the backdrop for an earnest exploration of what a church schism is like, who the people are who cause it, and (most importantly) the pain that comes when a family splits, whether that family is nuclear or ecclesiastical.
There’s a lot at stake. Schisms, church splits, or at least disgruntled storming-outs are familiar to virtually everyone who stays in a church long enough to be committed to its life. I can remember at least two from my own experience—splits over leadership and worship styles. I remember that they were tense and painful and brought me a great deal of anxiety, even though I wasn’t an adult or a voting member of the congregation. Most of all, I remember the awkwardness of Sunday mornings, the confrontations in the hallways, the side-eye glances, the broken friendships.
The schism in The Christians has arguably higher stakes than either of my splits, though they’re related; this time, it’s soteriology at stake. Pastor Paul approaches the pulpit on the day on which the church celebrates paying off its debt to reveal that the congregation will be taking a new direction (one deeply reminiscent of Rob Bell’s Love Wins controversy): no longer will they believe in the existence of hell. Associate Pastor Joshua takes issue with this theological turn. The two men quote Scripture in the ensuing argument, which culminates in Joshua leaving the church and taking with him the parishioners who don’t approve of the change either. Then the fallout starts.
Though Hnath is cagey about his own beliefs, he has revealed in interviews that he was raised in church. That much is obvious in his writing: He clearly knows his stuff. The prayers, the verses, the conversation with the head of the church elder board about finances: Hnath speaks our language.
But a lot of people can speak (or fake) our language. What sets The Christians apart is that Hnath is doing what great playwrights do: he is exploring human motivations and relationships with a sometimes-painful commitment to honesty that supersedes his own prejudices and lets the characters live and breathe as real human beings. It would be incredibly easy for Hnath to write these characters as caricatures—on one side, the kindly liberal, and on the other, the fire-breathing fundamentalist. But his pastors are not cartoons. (Perhaps the most revealing detail of Hnath’s intentions is that instead of setting his play in some kind of generic Southern church—invariably where Hollywood goes for its religion—his script sets it in “America.”)