Discussing Christianity has turned out to be a volatile subject these days. Admitting that you are a Christian often makes you a target of hate and ridicule. So-called friends and relatives relish in spreading their personal hatreds about those who have a belief and are frequently supported by likeminded individuals. Sadly, some even stoop to the lowest levels of human behaviour just so that they can insult a religious faith which is sacrosanct to some of their own extended families. Yet we must note that the very same people are careful enough not to touch on or be vocal about other religious practices. As such the focus has been diverted towards Christianity which has borne the brunt of hateful sneers for decades and will endure it for many more.
Many who practice their faith do this with the sincere belief that the doctrine they follow guides them to be better human beings. Most committed priests do their best to set good examples and encourage their congregations to do and be the best of themselves. However, there are some church leaders who do not practice what they preach. Their manner of behaviour which often borderlines on arrogance and stupidity has caused widespread disgust and disbelief amongst congregations resulting in thousands being driven away from their churches. More people are known to leave the church because of bad priests than because of disagreements over dogma.
Belief is a personal choice and so is the way one accepts it or rejects it. The manipulation of a faith for purposes that are other than good is what has promoted a tsunami of hate which is now riding a wave higher than we have even known before. The United Kingdom which is now described as a post Christian country is one that accepts and respects those of all faiths and none. Driving this mantra forcefully on to the public domain and encouraging constant debate and discussion with an agenda of provoking further understanding within a diverse community, is one of our most valued assets; the Theatre.
As an avid theatregoer, I have seen some productions that have challenged even my faith. By exposing the worst of what occurs when religion is misused, the theatre continues to reveal the central truths that make the core message of the bible stand the test of time. And stand firm indeed.
The joyous and fascinating production of the new Elton John musical “Tammy Faye” which is directed by Rupert Goold, is an exhilarating success! This production which is currently running at the Almeida has queues that start at 4am for returns. It’s timely, relevant, and utterly revealing. This true story revolves around an all-American couple who are televangelists. Tammy Faye is blond and beautiful. Her husband John Bakker is tall and handsome. At the start of the play, they are called upon by the seniors of their church community, to spread the word of God by making it marketable for television. Overtime their show becomes a sensational hit! However, all that seems to matter to the powers that guide and control them, are the TV ratings that generate a never-ending flow of cash. Using dancers and actors, sequins, and makeup, sets and effects, Tammy and John create a show so full of razzle dazzle that they manage to keep their failing marriage under wraps until such time he is exposed for having many extra-marital affairs with women and men alike. As expected, soon after this revelation, their followers disperse, the ratings dive and the money stops rolling in. Tammy is called upon to go it alone as she is the steadier of the two and has a penchant of turning on the waterworks at a drop of a hat.
The crucial turn of events in the play occurs when the downtrodden Tammy invites a black gay pastor from a poor and unknow parish for an interview in what has now become her TV show. This pastor reveals that he has AIDS on air, and Tammy who has been always compassionate, spontaneously hugs the man on live TV! This creates the most enormous upheaval among all the other Evangelist leaders who believe that AIDS is God’s curse on homosexuals. The rival churches which had been looking for any opportunity to pull Tammy down grab this chance and start baying for her blood! Yet surprisingly the ratings of her TV show reach an all-time high when Tammy gets an unprecedented following from the much-ostracised gay community that reside within America’s bible belt. Sadly, but predictably the combined efforts of the other churches that conspire against her, result in the fall of Tammy Faye and her estranged husband. They lose all their mansions, yachts, private jets, jewellery, and funds. The play ends with Tammy dying of cancer. In the final scene when Tammy is in heaven, she is visited by the same black pastor. Surprised at seeing him she says, “Oh darling, are you here too?” to which he replies, “No Tammy, I am very much alive and living life to the full. He then posts a question to her. “Tammy dear, was it God who gave you the strength to carry on during your difficult times?” She pauses awhile and replies, “No darling, it was the gays!” Here was a perfect example of religion being misused more for the purposes of profit rather than for moral guidance. This is a visual manifestation of a house of prayer that became a den of thieves! Yet the steady theme which says, “love thy neighbour as thyself” is delivered with pizzazz and humour making it an unforgettable show.
Arthur Miller’s classic “The Crucible” based on the infamous witch trials that took place in Salem Massachusetts (1692) is a play that draws heavily on judgementalism based on blind religious faith. Miller used this play as his commentary on McCarthyism in the 1950’s. This dark period in American history was cause by Senator John McCarthy who was paranoid that Communists were infiltrating his country. As a result, he instigated the US government to begin a hunt for so called infiltrators. This era was notoriously difficult on writers and entertainers, many of whom were labelled as communist sympathizers and were unable to continue working. Some had their passports taken away, while others were jailed for refusing to give the names of other suspected communists. The trials, which were well publicized, could often destroy a career with a single unsubstantiated accusation. Among those well-known artists accused of communist sympathies or called before the committee were Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, and many others including Miller himself. In all, three hundred and twenty artists were blacklisted, and for many of them this meant the end of exceptional and promising careers. Miller’s play which is dependent on historical events is about a group of young girls who claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. Many of these women (and men) go to their death defending their ‘honour’ which was a stalwart of the puritanical society they lived in. The play delves on the issues of religious manipulation and highlights the themes of justice, reputation, hysteria, intolerance, and empowerment.
The National Theatre’s version of “The Crucible” directed by Lyndsey Turner is totally riveting! The stage which is continuously drenched with torrential rains makes the atmosphere more potent. The stage set which turns from a church to a house and to a court room with the simplest rearranging of a few chairs is effortlessly effective. This remastered classic is still as great as it has always been especially since it depicts ongoing political practices of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence, it also makes visible, several methods of investigation and accusation which are illegally and unfairly used with the specific intention of suppressing opposition. All this reflects the society we live in today.
Many of the characters who are steeped in their faith and full of religious fervour reflect some of the judgemental/intolerant puritans who are running amok amongst us. To anyone who does not make the connections to McCarthyism or to the Salem witch trials, this play still has the power to stun. It would make even the most self-righteous individual think twice before casting the first stone.
A few years ago, the Gate Theatre put on a fantastic production of Lucas Hnath’s play “The Christians” which is a thought-provoking exploration of organised religion. Yet again the storyline is based on a pastor, who despite years of preaching the contrary, suddenly denies the existence of hell and claims that everyone, no matter who they are or what they believe, is ultimately bound for heaven. He claims that a true Christian should not judge others but strive to lead them away from the true enemy, which is wickedness herein this world. Tensions begin to form within the congregation when one congregant steps forward to ask “if everyone’s going to heaven no matter what, then what’s the point of living a good life while on Earth? And what about Hitler - surely, he can’t be in heaven too?” The seating, which is encompassed within the set of this show, made the audience feel as if they were inside a church. The performance is continuously uplifted by the vibrancy of a gospel choir making it feel even more ludicrous when the congregation starts to decamp and splinter leaving the church in tatters. The play asks some broad questions about religion, with references to the corporate nature of some churches, and the responsibility of religious leaders. But it also challenges us as members of the audience/congregation to consider our own beliefs, whether or not we call ourselves Christians. Do we believe what we do because we want to, because it’s expected of us, or simply because it’s what we grew up with? Recurring throughout this play is the constant theme of forgiveness and the difficulties therein. The need to ask for it, receive it and to consider it become apparent when all the relationships in this play fall apart because of a leaders change of heart. It also exposes the fact that once the sheep lose their trust in the shepherd, they turn into the wolves they tried not to be.
Love, honour, and forgiveness are three qualities that are ever present not only in the Bible but in every religion all of us have come across. Most human beings try their utmost to adhere to these values, but with money, power, greed, and a dire lack of common decency corrupting that which is most sacred to a lot of us, it is time we held on to the message and shot some of the messengers!