Walking into Fir Acres Theatre, you find yourself in a church. Inspirational posters line the walls. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, clad in their Sunday best, greet you as they hand you a program. A huge cross is suspended over the pulpit.
“You walk into the theater, and the music is playing, and the pastor comes out and says, ‘Everybody bow your head,’ and you always have some people who actually do,” Štĕpán Šimek, professor of theatre and director of “The Christians,” said.
“The Christians” was indeed an immersive experience. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical church so when the choir started singing I recognized the songs with chilling familiarity. Evan Howell ’20, who played Pastor Paul, exhibited a mastery of the character, perhaps due to the months he spent visiting local churches in preparation.
“One of the beautiful things about the play is that it really touches on all these different denominations and all these different things to help paint a larger picture of Christianity through the specific context of this one, imaginative megachurch,” Howell said. “I learned so much about that type of community by being a part of it for a bit. It just really settles in how the megachurch world exists. For the people who participate in that community, it’s such a big part of their lives, and their idea of faith and trust in the community and the afterlife and a relationship with God and all these things are fundamental.”
Pastor Paul’s opening sermon is quite radical for this kind of evangelical community. He relays a story that a missionary told him from his experiences in a country of unrest. A car bomb went off, and a grocery store caught on fire. Of course, everyone ran away from the fire except for one boy who ran straight into it. And when he came out, he was carrying his little sister, shielding her body with his body, and he sustained injuries that were ultimately fatal. The missionary said, “What a shame that I didn’t convert him,” because the missionary thinks that this boy has gone to hell.
Pastor Paul does not understand this. He asks God how a good boy, who has done a good thing, could go to hell. Pastor Paul declares to the church, “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.”
After this declaration, you sit and watch as Pastor Paul’s church splinters around him. This, too, is chillingly familiar to me. When I was a child, I watched as members of my congregation argued and split over things far smaller: whether our singing should be a cappella, whether it was biblical to have a Bible school and whether it was lawful to use the church’s money to do charity work. The congregation I grew up in was the smallest, most conservative splinter of the Church of Christ. It was tragic to watch then, and it was tragic to see it performed before me on stage.
“While it does take place in a megachurch, while it is sort of dealing with these issues of faith, it’s not necessarily just about that,” Šimek said. “It is using that environment and the conflicts within that community to talk about something we can all experience daily. Ultimately, it is about what really happens if we insist on our truth, and try to communicate our ideology across a divide. The harder we try, the wider the divide can grow.”
It was easy for me, as someone who identifies more strongly with the beliefs of Pastor Paul than those of his more conservative counterparts, to leave the play with a reinforced idea of the injustice of Christianity. Here was a man who in trying to communicate such good news with his spiritual family lost them all in the process. But the play was much more nuanced than that. Associate Pastor Joshua, portrayed by Negasi Brown ’23, is Paul’s initial antagonist and the first member of the congregation to leave. He returns towards the end of the play to tell Paul about the death of his mother, who was not a Christian. He describes how he watched her in terror as she died. He says it is not easy for him to believe in hell because he knows his mother will be there, and he knows that an eternity in heaven means an eternity of watching her suffer.
Herein lies the true tragedy of the play. Paul cannot believe in a God who would sentence innocent, good people to hell. Joshua cannot support the claim that hell does not exist, for fear that he would be leading himself and hundreds of others to eternal suffering. Neither can ever know who is right.