"The Christians' Playwright Lucas Hnath on Revealing the Invisible
When I was younger, I was supposed to be a preacher, but I decided it would be too much responsibility. I didn’t want to worry about other people’s souls. I switched to pre-med, but I didn’t want to worry about other people’s bodies. And so, I switched to playwriting.
The expectation that I become a preacher did not come out of nowhere. I grew up in churches. My mother went to seminary when I was in middle school. During the summer months I’d sit next to her during her classes. I learned some Greek, some Hebrew. I read books on hermeneutics. Some of it I understood. Some of it I pretended to understand.
In seminary you learn a lot about translation. You learn about how there can be more than one way to translate a word. And you come to realize just how many words the Bible has that could be translated this way or that way. The act of interpreting the Bible carries with it a lot of responsibility. A friend from high school who ended up becoming a pastor recently said to me that pastors have to be very careful not to remake the gospel in their own image.
For a few years, I taught expository writing at NYU. I’d have students read challenging texts by folks like Barthes, Berger, and Sontag. I’d ask them to simply read and understand what these writers were saying.
Often the students would project themselves into the meaning of the essays we were studying. The students were eager to find ways to make the texts “relatable,” and in doing so, they would bend the words of the author to say something the author wasn’t actually saying.
That troubling word: “relatable.” It implies that because I think something is like “me” it is therefore generally understandable and also especially good. But what about the things that are nothing like “me”? Our imaginations seem to be so limited by our personal experiences, you have to wonder if it’s even possible to understand something that sits outside of them. That expository writing class became, in large part, about the task of encouraging students to be okay with not understanding. In the rush to understand, we get in the way of our ability to see something as it is. I can feel that rush to understand when people ask me, with respect to The Christians, which plays the Mark Taper Forum from December 2, 2015 through January 10, 2016, what I personally believe. I refuse to answer the question. I’m not necessarily cagey about my beliefs (although I do think that the attempt to put those beliefs into words will always result in a misrepresentation of said beliefs; I am very mistrustful of words), but I suspect that answering the question will somehow diminish the effect of the play.
That lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating.
I can also feel it when I’m asked if the play is based on this preacher or that preacher. (Invariably, the answer is no. It’s based on many preachers and many people who are not preachers, all thrown into a blender.) In these questions, I detect the desire to explain away something. I detect the desire to locate a single, visible “point.” And while the plot of The Christians is far from ambiguous, the play is a series of contradictory arguments. No single argument “wins.”
That lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating. But we can also take pleasure in the agitation. And maybe something more complex and true becomes visible within the agitation, amidst the collision of disparate perspectives. I think back to my very brief pre-med days. I think back to a physics class I took and to a picture from the course textbook. I think of this picture often. The picture is of a very tiny particle. The only way you can see the particle is by colliding it with many other particles, from many different angles, and so you just get the outline of the particle but not the particle itself. (I tried to find this picture on the Internet to include with this essay. I could not find it. I remember this being a thing, but maybe I made it up.)
Here’s something I believe: A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is—at least for a moment—made visible. The theatre can be that too.