Churches

“I am here to run off the pain. I am here to synthercise the demons. I am here to ring the bells of Chvrches,” Billie tweeted in the lobby of the Riverside Theater, attaching a picture of a T-shirt on display at the merchandise table. Covering the chest was a cross turned sideways and X’d through a dark heart, the logo for Chvrches’ latest album, Love is Dead. Billie got a preview of the shirt just hours before at a Qdoba in South Milwaukee. “Don’t look now,” she whispered to her lunch date, like a character in a Daphne du Maurier story, “but that man is wearing a Chvrches shirt.” The date stopped baling the shredded lettuce of their burrito bowl and stared at her. “What?” Billie was pleased they had obeyed but agitated they were obtuse. “It’s my favorite band and they’re performing in Milwaukee tonight and I am going,” by now both of her hands were splayed on the table, hungry spiders. “Are they a Christian band?” They asked. The spiders twitched. “No,” she replied. “And no.”

“Has no one read Madeline L’Engle? You can’t be a Christian band, just like you can’t be a Christian writer, or a Christian artist,” Billie ranted on a call to her friend Lisa, on the drive back to her office, on and on. “You can be a Christian who has a band, or who writes, or who makes art. In Him we live and move and have our being: Sufjan Stevens talked about this in an interview. It takes the pressure off, it puts us in perspective.” There was a pause, then Lisa replied: “You know, Billie, it sounds like you really haven’t given this enough thought.” They both laughed, then there was another pause. “I just,” Billie picked at her steering wheel cover, “wish you were coming tonight.” Lisa sighed, “So do I.”

Billie had met Lisa and her husband, Quinn, at their parish, St. Rita, which was hosting a neighborhood association meeting in the basement. Lisa looked like a business casual version of Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful and Quinn’s face was the shape of an anime character, though not as expressive. It was only a few years after the subprime mortgage crisis, and unoccupied homes were being ignored, contributing to the decline of value and increasing the crime rate in Milwaukee, particularly in the area south of St. Rita.

The neighborhood association – composed of churches, businesses, nonprofits, residents – was organizing volunteer teams, and attendance was just low enough that to elude participation, or finesse an exit, was impossible. For those reasons, and better ones, Billie, Lisa and Quinn all offered to be on the home evaluation team; once a month, they received a list of residential addresses. They were supposed to visit during the day and circle the house, tracking its maintenance; instead, they cruised by at night, with one driving, one describing anything that seemed shifty and the other writing it down.

Following a few months of perfecting this system, they added to it: drinks afterward at Quinn and Lisa’s condo, which was built in the late ‘70s and had so many half walls and wide doorways that you could see a bit of every room from nearly every spot in the place. Soon, Billie was invited to a party, and then another, until she realized that Lisa didn’t actually like the condo unless it was being used as a venue.

The dining room always became the dance floor, with Lisa as playlister, mixing until everyone was whipped into a frenzy. Prior to every party, Quinn and Billie conspired to suggest multiple Chrvches songs each, in an attempt to force Lisa to include several, but she always stopped at two. “One per customer,” she would declare. When Chvrches came on, Quinn and Billie came on. People gave the floor, and if they didn’t, it was taken. Billie frequently needed more than one floor, more than one room, to fully express how wide and long and high and deep the songs made her feel; or rather, how much they sounded made of her feelings.

“[They] take a highly personal sense of turmoil,” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in his review of their debut album, “and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen.” That turmoil was strong in Quinn, and though there were hints here and there, always at the parties, Billie didn’t quite heed them, or perhaps, didn’t want to? It was easy to assume that he’d drank too much. Lisa made assumptions for years, most of them pardoning Quinn and condemning herself: this was just how men were, she was just too disordered for a relationship, it was just a phase, if she just gave it more time, he was just upset, he was just so sorry. Until one night, when Lisa realized that sorry wasn’t sorry, it was sort of a bad doctor’s note, shown over and over again, excusing the sickness, establishing it as to be expected, exempting it from treatment.

After that night, Lisa moved out, and Quinn moved in on his friends, including Billie. But no matter how he moved, he remained at the center. Any fault was Lisa’s, any pain was his. In her mind, Billie kept seeing a book in her father’s office library, yellow with black lettering: People of the Lie: Toward a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck. She hadn’t read it in over a decade.

Searching online, she found a list of patterns that Peck associated with evil and lost hope as they seemed more and more recent and familiar: consistently self-deceives and, consequently, deceives others; projects their sin onto a specific target; is unable to see from the viewpoint of their victim. “[God] said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor,” Peck writes. “He went on to say, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.”

Billie saw herself in Quinn, a self that she had judged – in her writing, in counseling, in misty-eyed, tight-throated conversations with confidantes – but she could not stop judging it now: the self that, when others were complimented, felt insulted; wanted to be great more than good; traipsed after chastity while looking back at whomever had just whistled; high on oneself, the center of gravity, toppling over, pulled downward.

“Forever” had been one of their favorite tracks, and now, as the lead singer Lauren Mayberry sang it in that “cutting, aching, triumphant, fragile, and weightless” voice, Billie remembered dancing to it with Quinn, thrashing her hair with each forever; the chorus was all forevers. He bought the tickets for the three of them months and months ago. When Lisa decided on a divorce the day before the concert, Quinn e-mailed the general admission ticket to Billie, along with “I don’t want to see you.” The feeling was mutual, but it was not the only feeling; there were others, and they were phantoms, gliding through Billie, resisting grasp, every one sad.

On each side of the stage was a lit cross, tilted sideways, making an X. At the right moment, Mayberry leaned against one with the weight of her entire body and glared at the audience, as if daring them. Billie took a picture and texted it to Lisa. Between every song, she texted, urgently, tersely, as if the concert would no longer exist if it was not made text. The encore was “Never Say Die.”

Weren’t you gonna be sorry and weren’t you gonna be pure?
Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?

Billie exchanged numbers with some cute guy who had stood next to her; she would not call him. Walking down the aisle, she occasionally paused to pick up trash, baffled as to why people did that. Where did they expect it to go? In the lobby, she considered the T-shirt again, but it was just too expensive, so she walked into the night, the crowd behind and before her, until they weren’t anymore. At an intersection, in her periphery, it appeared as if a man wearing one of Quinn’s hoodies was waiting for the walk signal to change. She didn’t turn.

In The Cards

“Hannah’s engaged, did you know?” Valerie asked Devon, as they converted the couch to a bed. “No,” he replied, attempting to nestle a pillow in its case with repeated tugs. “She was probably going to tell you during this visit. I’m sorry,” Valerie shook her head and sighed.   “No,” Devon gave the pillowcase a good yank, “it’s better for me to be prepared.”

They discussed the particulars. How long had Hannah and her partner been dating? How long had they lived together? Devon didn’t know the answers to these questions, hadn’t asked these questions, had only exchanged texts with Hannah occasionally. His nomination as board member of the church, the crisis that erupted only weeks later and rolled into the next year, had kept his attention localized. The crisis, of course, was about gay marriage, and now it was moving from hypothetical to practical, from there to here, a toggling of the mind; for a moment Devon’s whole system became humid, thick, almost panicky. After he and Valerie said goodnight, he sat on the bed, wondering why Hannah hadn’t told him, wondering how she would tell him.

The weather that night was marvelous, early spring in the south, but the more persuasive reason for taking a walk was Robert DeLong’s album In the Cards, which Devon had downloaded recently. The guilt of feasting on music was justified by accompanying it with exercise. Devon put on headphones and started out. The music seemed inspired by the night, cloudless, windy. “Don’t wait up for me,” Robert sang. “I’ve got a restless mind.”

Valerie’s subdivision was rather Escherian in its design – circular, incestuous, repetitive. Even though Devon had been visiting for years, he still tended to lose the way. Passing someone’s back porch, there was movement in his periphery. He turned to look and almost gasped. The blackest shadowman crouched towards him. A demon from Ghost? A hit man assigned to him? It was a covered grill.

Still looking at the shadowman, and pulling out his phone from a front pocket, Devon searched “gay” on Twitter. The usual combination of his people and their porn appeared, and, slowly at first, for every user that provided the latter, he blocked. It was obsessive, it was satisfying, like cracking knuckles. He blocked and walked and blocked and walked and felt increasingly safe, strong, grounded, like the boy in that Gaiman novel who is instructed to remain in the center of the fairy ring, no matter what is said, no matter who says it, no matter how convincing they may appear or sound; the attempts are relentless and legion and the boy begins reciting poetry from Alice in Wonderland to distract himself.

About a half a block from an intersection, Devon saw a black car with tinted windows stop, although there wasn’t a stop sign. As he drew closer, the passenger window went down. Just keep your headphones on and keep walking, Devon instructed himself, but 20 feet away, he couldn’t resist, casually removing and resting them around his neck, like jewelry. He heard a few words – the end of a sentence – an interrogative sentence? Then the car drove away.

“Thank you for not drawing a line,” Hannah said the next day, but not to Devon; she was recounting her mother’s reply to the engagement. Actually, Hannah explained it all in a letter, which she gave to her mother, adding, “read it in front of me.” The letter was not the expected ultimatum – affirm this commitment or I will not associate with you – which her mother appreciated: “I just want you in my life.”

Devon felt the same but didn’t say it. He didn’t need to say anything. Hannah was saying anything, and everything – about the trip to Civil War sites, how her partner was so anxious that their accommodations would be in small homophobic towns, the painstakingly romantic proposal, how Hannah got her period the first day – and Devon was just overwhelmed, wonderfully overwhelmed, to be a witness.

Could he be a witness later, too? That was not a question for now. Not for himself or Hannah. Now they walked the city, smoking Marlboros, he a regular visitor, she a resident. At his car, they glanced about for the right background for a picture and settled on a stone wall; leaning against it, they held the phone far back, both trying to fit in the frame.

The Christians

“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see,” writes Lucas Hnath. “A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible. The theatre can be that too.” At the Steppenwolf production of Hnath’s play The Christians, we were in a theatre, but it felt like a Christian church. The two have been, if not separated, then in separate bedrooms, for quite some time; yes, there is Christian theatre, and there are plays with Christian characters, but even that distinction signals the estrangement, creating in both a negative space, populated with caricatures projected by assumptions.

Hnath’s play counters all of that from the moment it begins. At Steppenwolf it began five minutes before curtain, in a stage design masterfully indistinguishable from any American megachurch, with a full worship team. Some of the audience seemed a bit shifty. “Now this is subversive,” I said into my friend’s ear. The louder the worship became, the louder the people behind us talked. Admittedly, I was struggling to read a mixture of social cues from my understandings of theatrical and religious environments and the audience’s varying reactions. I can’t sing along, I thought, but I can clap. So I did. I can’t pray with the actor playing the Pastor, I thought, but I can smile when one of the worship team makes eye contact. So I did.

When the Humana Festival originally commissioned a play from Hnath, he studied the venue and its audience. Of his potential scripts he chose The Christians “because I’d come to learn that the festival has two very different audiences: the local Louisville audience and the theatre industry that comes in from out of town. And I had learned…getting to know subscribers, that a relatively high percentage of local attendees identified as Christian, while a comparatively high number of out-of-town attendees identified as ‘not’…[it was remarkable] how similar the reactions were. More or less, it seemed both ends of the audience in Louisville were on the same page. However…in NYC, the audience was very eager to hear the play as a satire. Most nights there were big laughs from the very start of the play.” It is difficult not to see this as a parable of how when we don’t love “the other” as our neighbor, they become our enemy. Even more difficult not to see is the “powerful urge to communicate” described by the Pastor as Hnath’s desire for the theatre to be a place where Christian ideas can live.

“‘There is only you and your fellow man,'” the pastor preaches in a sermon that follows the opening worship set, recounting words spoken to him by God. “‘You wanna see Satan – ? There’s your Satan. You wanna see Hell, you look around.’ And [God] said, ‘There is no Hell. And there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to Hell. Because they are in Hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the Hell they’re already in.'” If this reminds you of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, you are not alone, although after mentioning that book, we might be alone: it is a belief that divides groups of people like redlining, as they contend just what the blood of Jesus is saving us from.

Yet one of the triumphs of Steppenwolf’s production, and K. Todd Freeman’s sensitive direction, is the unity in diversity – hinted in the script, perhaps, through some shared language of church cultures – but embodied in the non-traditional casting.* And consequently, intractably, the church’s fracturing reaches the very bones of the play  – Greek tragedy** – because it is disconnecting people who urgently need to be sharpened and purified, together, in the presence of God.

“I think what you did was actually incredibly selfish…” the Pastor’s wife remarks, toward the end of the play. “You haven’t thought about how what you’re doing affects other people.” Hnath has confessed he was supposed to be a preacher, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ souls.” Then he was supposed to be a doctor, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ bodies.” If he doesn’t still worry about both, the conversations of The Christians indicate he thinks deeply about them, and invite us to think deeply too – as an us.

– – –

*Formerly “colorblind casting”, this replacement term inspires the question of what tradition, exactly, is worth honoring here.

**In an interview conducted by Young Jean Lee and featured in the Steppenwolf program, Hnath states “the bones of the play are Greek.” All of the quotes in this post are from that interview, except for the first, which is from Hnath’s preface of the Overlook Press publication of The Christians.

Hell is Other People

and I wonder what else you believe,

that I don’t believe,

that I don’t know about yet,

that would scare me to know you believe.

And when will I find out about that.

And then I wonder if someday you’ll convince me of what you believe.

And then I sit here and I think about me,

a version of me, say, two years from now.

And she believes what you believe,

and she believes what I don’t believe, not right now.

I think about that future “me,”

and I think about that future “me” thinking about the “me” I am right now.

That version of me thinks I’m stupid for thinking what I think now,

but also,

I’m here thinking that she’s so wrong,

and I don’t want to think something so different from what I think now…

…because there’s a slipping that happens.

The Christians, Lucas Hnath

As a young adult I developed a slipping phobia. One of my friends called me a “moral hypochondriac.” I clutched one version of truth, afraid of catching anything else. Something had to be right or wrong, it could never just be something. Of course, there was no love for God in this, only tide after tide of fear, and eventually I was like, “screw it, I can surf on this.” And so I did. Not surf. Slip.

Yes, I spent years slipping into the glove of addiction until I thought the glove was my hand. I was trying to heal a wound by covering it, which works to a certain point, when it begins to fester, to infect. You have to expose it to air, so it can breathe. But then it gets too much air, too much wind, its gets windburn and it wants everyone to burn, burn in the light of its truth.

What is it again?

The wound, yes, the wound that wants everyone to hurt, but for a good cause.

Even when I was in the cycle of sin-sorry-not-sorry-sin, the thought was if I reserved the serious infractions for once or twice a year, I was still superior to others who were racking it up; I was still winning the numbers game. But there was no attempt to stop, to turn around, to start again; just making a paper chain of the days until the next deviation, and then rip, rip, rip.

Repenting has meant setting both sides of my freeway going the same direction, away from the natural disaster. I expect Christian friends to understand, but most seem to think the disaster isn’t nature, it’s nature gone awry. If it was contained within a certain area…

“A quiet resentment can creep in that comes from believing that they’re sacrificing so much for God, while others get off easy,” writes Rob Bell. “Hell can easily become a way to explain all of this: ‘those people out there may be going to parties and appearing to have fun while the rest of us do ‘God’s work,’ but someday we’ll go to heaven, where we won’t have to do anything, and they’ll go to hell, where they’ll get theirs.”

Like Bell, I am actually not a universalist, or a relativist, or any kind of ist. I am an ict. An addict. Someone who doesn’t know when the party ends. So they don’t want anyone to have parties. “Is it weird,” a friend asks, “that every time I see you, I want a beer and I want to go to church?”

I’ve been listening to Lucius’ latest album, Good Grief. The booklet unfolds to form a poster of the lead singer against a black background, embracing a black figure that blends in completely. “I am lost,” she sings, “in my own home.”

Saturday evening, Sunday morning

Yesterday’s weather (“I’m going to rain, I promise – see my dark clouds? I can do it dammit!  I’m going to rain!!”) gave me permission to go to a Jean-Luc Godard double feature.  Four hours of French.  By the end I wanted to send a box of chocolates and a note to Godard saying, “I’m sorry you feel this way, but why make us feel this way too?  Please eat this box of chocolates in one sitting.”  In My Life to Live, the star, Anna Karina, is in a movie theater watching another star, Maria Falconetti, in The Passion of Joan of Arc.  There seems to be a dialogue of gazes between them.  Suddenly, they are both weeping.  They have given one another their grief.  It is both selfless and selfish.  It is the humble majesty of movies.

The movie theater is a holy place to me.  It is this blob of blackness that you can absorb into.  It doesn’t just allow you, it accepts you.  And it doesn’t matter if you dress like a member of KISS, or breathe too loud or have never read anything by Hemingway.  It just wants to tell you a story.  No, it wants you to find yourself in a story.

Churches should be that way too.  Mine is.  It’s a church that meets inside a movie theater.  This morning we sang a song that went: “hold the door for me, because I’m right behind You, I’m following where You lead.”  When we stopped, I felt as though my cells had dissolved.  Everything was going through me, and I couldn’t, didn’t want to, hold on to any of it.  I was separate, but sensing it all.  Rejoicing in the wholeness of the moment, not held hostage by the possibilities of the future…like watching a movie.

Christians are the most non-Christian people I know.

I can say this with some authority since I am one.  We’re supposed to deliver God’s mail to His people – but we’re more like the USPS than FedEx.  We damage it, or get it dirty, or lose it altogether.

And we think we’re royalty.  We sequester ourselves in these expensive castles (called “churches”) surrounded by moats (called “values”).  We don’t associate with non-royal blood.  The entire scheme is so repulsive I can’t even understand why I’m a part of it.

But…there’s God.  And He’s good.  And He’s ready to do great things, if we’ll listen.  But we can’t listen if we spend all our time talking.  Talking about “what God hates,” “why abortion’s wrong,” “marriage is between a man and a woman,” in short using God as a vehicle to justify our views.  God speaks more about loving your neighbor than criticizing his lifestyle.  And if you’d rather judge than join hands, then pick a different God.  Stop pissing all over mine.

Have you seen Lars and the Real Girl?  It’s about a young man who buys a “love doll” off the internet (realdoll.com), not for masturbation, but companionship.  The community, recognizing the fantasy fulfills Lars’ social needs, cooperates – by lending clothes and talking to the doll as though she is a real girl.  They make love their religion, and through these selfless rituals, they are reborn.  This is the way of Christ.  It’s awkward and thankless and odd, and it’s the most beautiful thing we could ever do with our lives.