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Essay

Tim Sanford on The Christians

Lucas Hnath has described The Christians as his “big little play about faith in America.” When I first encountered it in its premiere production at the Humana Festival in Louisville, it seemed unequivocally big to me. I saw mainly the broad, timely thematic conflict that ensues when the pastor of an evangelical, Bible-literalist church preaches a game-changing sermon. In the downstairs bar after the performance, the cast shared what an incendiary, controversial, and galvanizing experience it was to be part of a show that so strongly challenged Christian orthodoxy in the heart of the Bible Belt. They told me how the devout churchgoers among their audience girded themselves from anticipated attacks on their cherished beliefs only to find a thoughtful, balanced, exactingly researched portrait of the human consequences of ideology. I worried in talking with the cast whether a play so steeped in Christian theology would translate to the decidedly secular humanist worldview of typical New York theatergoers. Deeper reflection eventually brought me to the realization that the broader implications of the play go so much further than the specifics of the play’s arguments over the finer points of Christian hermeneutics. We live in a world wracked by violence stirred by intractable conflicts between warring belief systems. These belief systems can be organized around religious precepts, political agendas, or, as was the case in Bruce Norris’s The Qualms, interpretations of morality. But the one common denominator sure to be found at the heart of any of these conflicts is the unshakable self-righteousness of each warring party.

The real achievement of Lucas’s play, and the quality that makes it so unflaggingly absorbing, is his ability to show the human face of ideology. Lucas does not dwell on the ideological arguments of his characters for very long. He quickly turns his attention to the complexly-rendered characters in his drama. And I think it’s in this human scale of his play that Lucas locates its “littleness.”  Ideologies cannot act. Only humans can act. And people cannot enact ideologies in isolation. People always have hidden, deep-seated motives for their behavior. And the drama that unfolds in The Christians follows these fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking stories. In the abstract, the notion that any of us might sacrifice another human being for a belief system might seem abhorrent. But if we’re honest with ourselves, almost all of us make life choices based on the primacy of our belief systems and the expendability of people who would destroy them.

The more impossible reconciliation becomes, the more necessary it seems.

Are we destined always for war? Can opposing theologies not coexist? The Christians walks us right up to the edge of this chasm. Its characters long for a bridge across it, but the vocabulary of their lonely rectitude cannot equip them. Even so, the chasm yawns but they do not fall in. They pitch their longing across it towards each other and their words hover there, not connecting, but not falling either, defying gravity. Somehow a kind of desperate grace begins to emerge tenuously from their futility. The more impossible reconciliation becomes, the more necessary it seems. I found myself listening closely to every word as I reached the end of The Christians, clinging to its fragile epiphanies. Might one find a truce there? Lucas is too good a writer to provide that answer for you. But boy, does he supply the questions.

Tim Sanford
Artistic Director