Most off-Broadway stages don’t look like this: five plush hardwood chairs arranged in front of a wooden rail, behind which sit thirty or so chairs. A synthesizer off to the right. Two screens, right and left, hung above eye level, each sporting an identical photograph of a sunrise and an exhortation to silence your cell phones. A giant wooden cross, lit from behind, hung slightly off center. Big artificial plants posed strategically around stage. Five microphones with cords in their mic stands.

That sounds exactly like the platform at most evangelical churches I’ve attended, but this fall you can see it in in an unlikely place in New York City, too: a production of Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians, being staged at the eminent off-Broadway theater Playwrights’ Horizons.

One might be forgiven for expecting this familiar setting to serve as the backdrop for a comedic or bitter (or both) play about those crazy religious folks. The New York theatre scene is not noted for its religious acumen or open-mindedness—although a chalkboard posted in the lobby asked audience members to share their own religious backgrounds and beliefs, and when I went, five days before the play opened, it was completely covered by responses that ran the gamut of the American religious experience.

That’s what makes Hnath’s play all the more remarkable. The church here—we discover early on that it’s a megachurch, one that’s recently paid off the debt for its building—is the backdrop for an earnest exploration of what a church schism is like, who the people are who cause it, and (most importantly) the pain that comes when a family splits, whether that family is nuclear or ecclesiastical.

There’s a lot at stake. Schisms, church splits, or at least disgruntled storming-outs are familiar to virtually everyone who stays in a church long enough to be committed to its life. I can remember at least two from my own experience—splits over leadership and worship styles. I remember that they were tense and painful and brought me a great deal of anxiety, even though I wasn’t an adult or a voting member of the congregation. Most of all, I remember the awkwardness of Sunday mornings, the confrontations in the hallways, the side-eye glances, the broken friendships.

The schism in The Christians has arguably higher stakes than either of my splits, though they’re related; this time, it’s soteriology at stake. Pastor Paul approaches the pulpit on the day on which the church celebrates paying off its debt to reveal that the congregation will be taking a new direction (one deeply reminiscent of Rob Bell’s Love Wins controversy): no longer will they believe in the existence of hell. Associate Pastor Joshua takes issue with this theological turn. The two men quote Scripture in the ensuing argument, which culminates in Joshua leaving the church and taking with him the parishioners who don’t approve of the change either. Then the fallout starts.

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Though Hnath is cagey about his own beliefs, he has revealed in interviews that he was raised in church. That much is obvious in his writing: He clearly knows his stuff. The prayers, the verses, the conversation with the head of the church elder board about finances: Hnath speaks our language.

But a lot of people can speak (or fake) our language. What sets The Christians apart is that Hnath is doing what great playwrights do: he is exploring human motivations and relationships with a sometimes-painful commitment to honesty that supersedes his own prejudices and lets the characters live and breathe as real human beings. It would be incredibly easy for Hnath to write these characters as caricatures—on one side, the kindly liberal, and on the other, the fire-breathing fundamentalist. But his pastors are not cartoons. (Perhaps the most revealing detail of Hnath’s intentions is that instead of setting his play in some kind of generic Southern church—invariably where Hollywood goes for its religion—his script sets it in “America.”)

A church schism, at its core, is a family split. What you get is dysfunction and an ugly divorce. Hnath mirrors this explicitly by writing the conflict into Paul’s family and letting it echo his conflict with Joshua.

Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) and Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) in “The Christians.”
Image: Joan Marcus

Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) and Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) in “The Christians.”

He does this with so much integrity that he avoids taking sides in the debate at all, while not downplaying the seriousness of the issue. No matter where you come down on the existence and nature of hell, you can’t sit smugly agreeing with your proxy on stage, nor can you see their motives as entirely pure or entirely broken. Church splits are complicated, and so are people.

When theatre works best, it’s because it forces you into a room where the action is happening right there, live. It’s often serious precisely because it’s a good setting for confronting serious issues, like being locked in a room where a horrible argument is happening.

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Church is a lot like theatre. So much, in fact, that for the first half hour or so of The Christians, the audience is just the congregation—listening to the choir sing, experiencing the preacher’s sermon, nodding along with the prayers for the sick. (It was hard not to bow my head when the pastor told the “congregation” to do so.)

Later, when Paul is confronted by a single mother in the congregation, we start to feel uncomfortable in the way we would if this were our family, our pastor, our problem—because we’re right there.

Hnath uses this church setting as a way to let us slowly into Pastor Paul’s mind and heart, seeing his motives, which are at once pure and also not. By the end, he’s slipped into a circular argument, reasoning with himself about whether he really is capable of knowing that he’s heard the voice of God or if it’s just wishful thinking. He mutters into the microphone, tormented at the same time by his own doubts and certainties. In other words: he’s a real minister, and a real Christian.

The Christians is a serious play, with serious craft and serious aspirations. It doesn’t have a “message” or a point of view on salvation to proclaim. It’s a harrowing dig through our hearts, a play about our deepest and, often, most noble desires and motivations and yearnings—it just also happens to take place in a place many Americans frequent every week and believe in deeply. One can only hope there’s a lot more of this to come.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.