Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Sarah Rodgers
Pacific Theatre’s small space lends itself well to the intimacy of a faith-based community that The Christians is trying to portray. At the same time, the conflict is so big that the setting becomes suffocating. The play is interactive: audience members are made to feel like they’re part of a church service, complete with choral music, and lyrics and Bible verses projected on screens; the audience is part of the congregation and becomes privy to the conflict both in the church and the pastor’s home. The interactive aspect feels jarring at some points, especially when Pastor Paul narrates the settings and even some of the other characters’ actions. But once you get used to it, it’s useful: it’s an effective way to show that the whole conflict is based Pastor Paul’s experiences and his views. These are things he’s seen, people he’s spoken to, and now the audience is right there with him.
Pastor Paul leads a successful mega-church. His aura is reminiscent of popular U.S. televangelists. He’s built his church from the ground up with sound doctrine, and it seems like it’s paid off: he has touched people’s lives and helped turn them around for the better, his church is debt-free, and he’s in the big league with all the other preachers he admires. But throughout the years, he comes to believe that hell isn’t real and that based on God’s mercy, everyone is bound to go to heaven instead.
When he finally reveals this to the congregation, it rocks everyone and the church he’s worked so hard to build breaks apart. Pastor Paul points out that we create distance where there is no distance by judging people from other faiths, or even those who have no faith at all. By consigning non-believers to hell, Christians lose out on so much more by refusing to show the core tenets of the faith: love, grace, joy, and freedom.
The Christians raises a number of important things. First, even though we think we know ourselves – and our faith – there is always something new to learn. Humans grow and change; refusal to do so means that you’re dead, and this is highlighted when Pastor Paul admits that he’s never really thought about the implications of his teachings because he’s never needed to think and learn from his mistakes, which made him feel incomplete and unsatisfied, and led him to finally think about his beliefs and really study the Bible for himself.
Second, some people tend to use higher powers as a shield when confronted with tough situations. People relinquish agency to evade blame and responsibility. When congregants asked him why he no longer believes in hell and Satan, Pastor Paul says that that was what God told him: that earth was already hell and that Satan was none other than us. This brings us to the play’s third point.
We each believe what we believe because we know it’s true. Associate Pastor Joshua doesn’t believe that God told Pastor Paul there is no hell, but Paul insists that what he knows now is true because that is what is true in his eyes. In so many words, The Christians points out that faith is personal interpretation. That personal interpretation, however, comes at great cost at times but the point is that we need to try our best to understand each other.
Lastly, the play tries to answer the question “how can we be different and accepting at the same time?”. In the ending scene, Pastor Paul pleads with his wife Elizabeth to stay and work through the issues with him. It’s unclear what she does next, but the point is that conflicts like these are works in progress. In order to find solutions, people need to work together instead of just giving up. It’s about getting out of our own heads and trying our best to understand the other side.