The Christians

Houses of Worship

Saturday night, W 42nd Street, New York. Playwright's Horizons Theatre for Lucas Hnath's The Christians, in a preview performance, but no less affecting for that. As the playwright wrote in his program notes, "A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is -- at least for a moment -- made visible. The theatre can be that too."

In the play, the pastor of an evangelical church -- a big, successful, fully paid-off church -- sermonizes about radical change. "There is no hell." Hell is not explicitly mentioned in the bible, he replies, when his associate pastor challenges him. The associate proposes a vote. Members of the congregation can choose the pastor who preached radical change -- forgiveness, acceptance; or stick with the traditional message that sinners are bound for the nether world. It was interesting, actually perplexing to me, that the actors sat in chairs facing the audience straight on, and spoke to each other through microphones, as if they were stand up comics or... inspirational speakers, perhaps.

Then, the next morning, Sunday morning, at the Greater Refuge Temple in Harlem, I saw the same arrangement. Chairs in a line across the front of the chancel. Choir behind, but an actual choir of twenty men all in dark suits, with red neckties. Stirring voices. The soloists and the preacher used microphones as the actors had, but the preacher's sermon was distorted by the sound system, at least to my ears, so that way up in mid-balcony I could understand only a few of the words.  I couldn't tell if he was dismissing the idea of hell or not, but the invisible was definitely made visible, or, more precisely, audible.

What The Christians made visible was how ideologies divide, destroy. In the Greater Refuge Temple I saw/heard that music is spirituality. The singing that attracts visitors from many corners of the earth, the songs that go on and on from the deep throated voices of the choir, can actually transport people on an inward journey. The swaying and clapping arose naturally, unlike in the contrived and theatrical performance of the Harlem Gospel Choir I saw years ago, when the front man exhorted the audience not only to clap and sway, but to pick up a cd or dvd on our way out of the venue. Clearly visible that night was that despite it being a church, you couldn't assume that everyone was worshipping the same thing.