Features Essays Published 23 August 2015

A Question of Faith

Catherine Love on Jo Clifford, The Christians and the politics of belief.
Catherine Love

“It is written.” So goes the defence of religious code. The word of God is a statement without a reply, a full stop on debates about wrong and right. Except words are slippery little buggers. Their meaning is never fully fixed, always open to new interpretation. As one character in The Christians complains, “it’s as if you have a choice about how to read it”.

Lucas Hnath’s play wrestles with just that choice. Entering the Traverse’s main auditorium, we’re welcomed into the congregation of Pastor Paul, a church of thousands built from the most modest of foundations. As the play opens, this mega-church has finally paid off its debts – a cause for celebration. But the Pastor marks the occasion with a controversial sermon, one that goes right to the root of his followers’ faith. There is, he declares, no hell. And if there’s only heaven, waiting in the afterlife for all of us, then surely you don’t need to believe in order to get there.

The rift opened by Pastor Paul’s words gets wider and wider as the play goes on. First the Associate Pastor leaves, taking with him 50 or so of the congregation. As the breakaway church begins to establish itself, more and more questions and doubts eat away at Pastor Paul’s flock, as first the church’s board, then one of his most devoted followers, and finally his wife find it impossible to reconcile themselves to his new beliefs. With each new challenge, the play’s ideas are interrogated further, prodding repeatedly at faith, morality and power.

And it’s not just about religion; Chris Haydon’s production hints subtly at the play’s many resonances beyond the Christian faith. Everything is spoken into microphones, immediately taking on the character of a political debate. Even the private is made public. The delivery of the lines, meanwhile, says as much as the lines themselves. William Ganimara’s Pastor is a brilliantly forceful orator, lending emotion and gravity to the crucial opening speech, but he’s also a politician through and through. The same goes for dissenting Associate Pastor Joshua (Stefan Adegbola), whose heartbreaking tale of his mother’s death takes on new and uncomfortable meaning simply by being harnessed for persuasion and addressed out to an audience.

What’s so clever about Hnath’s play is the persuasiveness of its opening proposition. Pastor Paul’s argument, that goodness is simply goodness and that true faith is about love, is incredibly appealing – perhaps especially so for secular, liberal-minded listeners. That it is this position that is steadily attacked, rather than the conservative belief in a fiery hell to which all sinners are condemned, makes the piece all the more knotty and questioning. It sends our own minds somersaulting as much as those of the characters.

Over at Summerhall, Jo Clifford is also questioning scripture. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is an inclusive rewriting of the Bible, calling attention to Christ’s overriding message: love. That message is too often forgotten in a world that uses religion as an excuse for intolerance, abusing in God’s name. Clifford, a transgender woman and therefore part of a community that still faces horrendous persecution around the world, is more acutely aware of this than most.

Photo: Rod Penn.

Photo: Rod Penn.

Clifford’s Jesus, arriving as if from a long journey with suitcase and stick in hand, is also imagined as transgender. Her sermons queer familiar Bible stories, so that the good Samaritan becomes a drag queen and the prodigal son returns as a daughter. The implicit plea, persuasive but never overstated, is for a kinder, more accepting world, one founded on a shared faith in love and humanity.

When The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was first performed in 2009 as part of Glasgay!, the Archbishop of Glasgow condemned it as blasphemous, stating that it was “hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian faith”. But Clifford’s intention is not to attack Christianity, any more than Pastor Paul’s reimagining of his faith’s foundations aims to undermine that faith itself. If there’s any attack, it’s on the persecution and violence so often linked to organised religion – acts far removed from the preaching of love and forgiveness that lies at the heart of the faith.

Clifford’s service, in the slightly unlikely surroundings of one of Summerhall’s old lecture theatres, has the stripped down accessories of Christian ritual. Candles gently flicker as we drink our wine and break our bread. Clifford, now in a long white gown, blesses us, and the blessing feels many times more meaningful than any of the empty prayers I’ve dutifully whispered on cold church pews. The whole performance – tender, thoughtful, somehow sacred – feels like a gift. Which I suppose is what a blessing is.

If the church’s collapse in The Christians makes any argument, it’s one for the importance of a community that can hold dissensus. Pastor Paul’s wife skewers the church leader’s attitude brilliantly when she points out that his ideal of tolerance paradoxically requires intolerance of the intolerant. Failing to accommodate any difference of belief, the congregation fractures. The point applies as much to politics as to religion. A quick glance at the Labour leadership contest is all it takes to see what internal divides can do to a group of people with supposedly shared beliefs. Superficial consensus is no good, but neither is a community that falls apart the moment a difference of opinion is articulated.

Clifford is asking more directly for a world where difference is not just tolerated but celebrated. Hers is a faith with open arms. And again, it’s as much about politics as religion. We live in an increasingly intolerant political climate, in which those who dare to be poor or ill or unable to work are a problem to be hastily solved. Discussing the roots of prejudice and persecution, Clifford says “we disturb the sense of who they are”. The same applies to those suffering under the current government: they disturb the confident ideology of those in power.

In both plays, it’s all about how we read the texts that are handed down to us. Words can be twisted, turned into weapons or shackles or the keys to freedom. They can liberate and they can oppress. They can allow difference, or they can shut it down. But however those words are interpreted, they’re sure as hell (or heaven) political.

Top photo: Iona Firouzabadi.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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