Chautauqua Theater Company’s performance of The Christians takes audience members through the life of a charismatic pastor as he crashes through a crisis of faith. The pastor, Paul, takes his congregation with him as he drastically changes his religious beliefs.
He tells them he no longer believes in hell.
This choice comes in response to his personal realization that all sins should be washed away after death, and that everyone deserves salvation.
The ramifications of this decision ripple outward through his entire community. And the message of this play, one of challenging beliefs and examining relationships, has rippled outward through the Chautauqua community.
Members of the various denominational houses on Chautauqua’s grounds reacted to the play, which continues its run at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 9 in Bratton Theater, in a variety of ways.
During a number of talkback sessions after each performance, audience members were invited to share their thoughts on the show. After the talkbacks, members of the Chautauqua community took the discussion further, conversing on their porches, in restaurants and at religious services.
The Rev. Katie White, host at Chautauqua’s Baptist House, admired The Christians’ call for increased acceptance.
“I wish I could inject that message into everybody, including those who call themselves Baptists,” White said.
White spoke to the mission of her denomination, saying that universal salvation has always been something they have preached. So White was happy to see the message of tolerance written into The Christians.
Deacon Ray Defendorf and his wife, Patt, of Chautauqua’s Catholic House, were impressed by the way CTC actors portrayed the members of a religious congregation while presenting a message that felt weighty and worthwhile.
“There was no inauthenticity in their performance,” Patt Defendorf said. “And after seeing it, all I could think was ‘Wow.’ I had a disturbed sleep the night after I saw it. I needed to talk with others about it.”
Both Defendorfs expressed appreciation for the theater company for taking on this play.
“(CTC) does a tremendous job of getting diversity in their themes,” Ray Defendorf said. “People are talking about it, and coming away thinking more than they would’ve otherwise.”
The Rev. Paul Womack, host of the United Methodist Missionary Vacation Home, said he liked the play, but saw some disconnect between the conflicts of the show and the hearts of the characters, especially Pastor Paul.
“I thought that the actor did a tremendous job,” Womack said. “But a lot of times, based off conversations I’ve had with other people of faith, big questions like the one (Paul) grapples with aren’t intellectual questions; they’re heart questions.”
Womack said he didn’t get a sense of the real gut reaction in Pastor Paul. He thought that while the character went through a volatile journey within his own head, the raw, emotional processes that Womack expected to see were missing at times.
Though some audience members had issues with the play, Womack, White and the Defendorfs all saw the performance as valuable to the ongoing conversation surrounding faith, acceptance and internal struggle.
“In my sense, it serves a valuable purpose in furthering this conversation,” Womack said. “It may not bring up anything that hasn’t been talked about before, but it’s gotten folks talking.”
White concurred, saying that The Christians is one brick on the path to a solution.
“This is a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time,” White said. “And it’s one we ought to keep having for a long time to come.”
For Ray Defendorf, simply putting the message of universal salvation out into the world is worthwhile.
“I love to think that the powerful thing of coming to the conclusion that there is salvation outside the church for people of other religions is helpful,” he said. “I’m confused as to how it even remains a question at all.”
The Christians has kept the ball of discussion rolling at Chautauqua, and with a week left in the show’s run, more discussion is undoubtedly to come.
With many strong ties to all kinds of faiths, Chautauqua is a community uniquely positioned to react to and discuss the issues of The Christians. But Patt Defendorf believes the show would, and should, have an impact wherever it was shown.
“I would hope that anyone who sees it, if they have personal power within their community, would bring this show to their community,” Patt Defendorf said. “We need to be having these discussions, and the impact of shows like these can be more expansive than anyone expects.”