Return to the House

“Right now he’s in a phase where if you touch him, and he doesn’t want to be touched, he just says ‘ow.'” Lily explained, of her two-and-a-half-year-old child, PJ. To her brother, Wren, the name, short for Peter Joshua, recalled Prince John’s line in the Disney version of Robin Hood: “PJ! I like that, do you know I do? Put it on my luggage. P.J.” Lily had only just resisted giving PJ some middle name starting with B, mainly because of the family’s entreaties to spare the child of future mockery from peers, although Wren knew all too well that such prevention was impossible.

Wren’s allegiance was with Lily, evidenced, perhaps, by his progression and regression through a series of terms of enfearment for PJ, including “the ejected,” “the thing from her black womb,” “the small assassin.” After he was convicted by an episode of “Grace & Frankie” wherein Mallory told Brianna that if she didn’t want to spend time with her kids then she wouldn’t be spending time with her – he apologized to Lily over the phone. Amends should be done in person, of course, but Lily, her husband Shane and PJ lived on the west coast, and anyway, she responded with, “you don’t have to apologize. I like all your nicknames for him.” Currently the three were staying at Lily and Wren’s parents’ house in the country for a couple of weeks, but Wren lived in the city, so he dashed back and forth, staying at the former Friday through Monday, the latter Tuesday through Thursday, and feeling like James Bond in that scene from Goldfinger, where the laser is about to slice him in half. Wren was easily overwhelmed.

However it’s easy to be overwhelmed while you’re reading the New Testament. Wren and a group of his friends were going through it together, and the further he got, the more disturbing Jesus became, particularly the passage describing that “when an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” Wren felt worse than the first. But no one was doing him any favors. Not the friend who sent an article declaring his Theology “puts kids on the street…tears families apart…[and] is a murderer.” And certainly not the friend who texted him the video.

It was a video of someone Wren didn’t recognize at first. A guy he had sporadically seen at parties for years, who was really outgoing or completely gay, and either way, adorable. Once, their interaction began to resemble flirting, so Wren said, “you’re trouble,” though in truth he was saying it to himself. In the video, everyone was on the porch, and since it was mid-Saturday on a holiday weekend in Wisconsin, they were almost definitely drinking. The friend was attempting to coach a kind of confession out of the guy, but he was resisting it with a goofy bashfulness that captivated Wren. There was an edit in the footage; the friend had stopped and started recording again. The guy seemed a little more prepared this time. With the chaste sincerity of a junior high boy, he said that he remembered Wren, liked him, would like to see him again. The video wasn’t long, but it was long enough to reach into the center of Wren, turning a knob slowly, opening something quietly.

He couldn’t watch the video again, he had to watch the video again, it seemed like The Ring, a curse that would end him; would reverse all the realizations, the repentance, the painful and tedious shuffling in the right direction he had done with his head down. It was a threat to celibacy, to recovery from approval, to a sane future. And it had come from a friend. Wren called his therapist, went over it all, went over it again. “It’s like some injured rabid animal,” he said. “It’s vulnerable, it’s dangerous, but I can’t stop staring at it. I want to come closer, but I don’t dare. To go closer is to go backward.”

Meanwhile PJ was going forward and getting cuter than ever, with red hair, an entourage of action figures, dolls and animals, an affinity for pink and black cars. Actually, he was Wren Redux, and everyone said so, even Wren, who relished in sharing with all his friends that PJ’s favorite words were “no” and “go away,” after which he would quip, “so we have that in common.” It was sort of an All About Eve situation, with Wren as Margo and PJ as Eve, and no attempts at rational thought on Wren’s part – that the child was not developed enough to be a threat, that they weren’t even in a Mankiewicz film – would shake the comparison. It was not that Wren disliked PJ. He didn’t. But he had a feeling the child was a little clone, some horrible replay, the moment when you see something about to fall and cannot form words of warning.

On a Friday, Wren closed his parents’ front door and set his bags on the carpet. Like much of south Wisconsin, they would travel north for Independence Day, to a cabin which contained the best of Wren’s childhood memories. Most of the children from then were having children now and Wren would have to sleep on the couch. Everyone was very apologetic about it, but Wren assured them the couch was a single man’s bed. And it was in a room for living.

Mother must have heard Wren close the door because she appeared from around a corner and with delighted eyes she stage whispered, “PJ discovered the dollhouse in Grandma’s basement.” Grandma had given it to Auntie, then Auntie had given it to Wren, and now it was being given to PJ. Wren followed mother to the dollhouse, which had been moved and placed onto two side tables, just at PJ’s height. She said he had circled it for hours, talking incessantly, putting the dolls in, taking them out; he was doing it now. Wren noticed the house was empty and remembered aloud: “there’s no furniture because it’s all in a box at my apartment.” PJ did not hear him.

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.

The Lion of Lucerne

At a distance, the monument, a rock relief, reminded me of Petra; emerging from the stone, both composed of – and separate from – its source; real and fantastical. There was also a sense that I was discovering it, although surrounded by people taking selfies.

The subject is a fallen lion, spear thrust into his side, with only a shield for a pillow. The lion’s expression is almost unendurably anguished, a tangled but clear knot of emotion: sadness so ancient and deep it must be woe, an agony of confusion, a total resignation. There is such nobility to him, such beauty, the death seems an injustice that cannot be understood, only witnessed.

“He’s so sad,” I said through a throb in my throat, not really to anyone; I said it, trying to send the sadness back to the Lion, but it was a cord tying us, taut. I looked at the spear in His side as my father read aloud from his phone:

“The Lion of Lucerne [was] designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewn in 1820–21 by Lukas Ahorn. It commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris…”

Even after hearing this, I couldn’t receive the monument as anything other than a tribute to Aslan, however chronologically incorrect and thoroughly disrespectful that may be. For those who haven’t met Aslan, he is a character in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “the lion, the great Lion [who] isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” Aslan allows Himself to be slaughtered in exchange for the life of a traitor.

I wanted to walk away, I wanted to be alone with the Lion, but neither were possible. I could not contain the tears, so I collected them, one at a time, with my finger. “Nothing is black and white,” my father concluded next to me, putting away his phone. My eyes felt red. They were looking into the eyes of the Lion.

For Sale

REALTOR: So here we are.

WIFE: Oh my God. It’s so clean.

HUSBAND: Whitewashed.

WIFE: Yes. And quiet.

HUSBAND: Like a tomb.

WIFE: Don’t be morbid. (To REALTOR) He’s a writer.

REALTOR: Ah.

WIFE: Now who did you say lived here? A meth dealer?

REALTOR: Oh, um –

HUSBAND: She didn’t say that.

WIFE: I know she didn’t say that, we know she didn’t say that, I’m saying it now, to spare her the embarrassment of having to say it.

HUSBAND: How would you even know if a meth dealer lived here?

WIFE: I do watch television sometimes.

REALTOR: It was a man named Matthew Jones. (Beat.) And yes, he was a meth dealer.

WIFE(To HUSBAND): You see? (To REALTOR) Did he also use?

REALTOR: Yes, but –

WIFE: A dealer and a user. That’s a regrettable combination. The dealing is bad enough, but the using is just unprofessional.

HUSBAND: Well you have to believe in your product.

WIFE: I don’t think humor is appropriate now, do you?

HUSBAND: It never is. That’s why I like it.

REALTOR: He’s clean now.

WIFE: Excuse me?

REALTOR: Matthew’s clean now. He went through the Teen Challenge program. He’s on staff, actually.

WIFE: What?

REALTOR: He’s on staff at Teen Challenge. He’s speaking at their banquet at the end of the month.

HUSBAND: Is he the one Fox interviewed who said addiction was demon possession?

WIFE: You know that’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard about addiction. All this silliness about it being a disease.

HUSBAND: Everybody wants it to be something that can be exorcised or cured. They don’t want to believe it’s a part of them, like a pancreas or a spleen.

WIFE: The body can function without a pancreas or a spleen.

HUSBAND: It can also function without sex, but where is that going to get us?

WIFE: Somewhere better than here.

HUSBAND: Where the grass is greener?

WIFE: Yes, grown with love instead of bullshit. (Beat. To REALTOR) Excuse my language. It’s just been happening lately.

REALTOR: I understand.

WIFE: Do you?

REALTOR: No, but I find that pretending to understand makes both parties feel better.

WIFE: It does. Say it again please.

REALTOR: No.

WIFE: Thank you.

(Beat.)

HUSBAND: Wasn’t he in the bathtub for three days?

REALTOR: What?

HUSBAND: The meth dealer. Wasn’t he passed out in the bathtub for three days?

REALTOR: I think that was his wake up call.

WIFE: How could he even hear the phone ringing?

REALTOR: Well he did and now he’s speaking at the banquet with the Lieutenant Governor.

HUSBAND: You mean the Private Lieutenant Governor.

REALTOR: What?

HUSBAND: He wants to privatize everything.

WIFE: Including prisons. Just think how much money we would save in taxes if the prison system were being run like a good business.

REALTOR: If it were a good business we’d be trying to keep people out of it. Privatization would have the opposite effect.

WIFE: I wonder if the meth dealer knows about all that.

REALTOR: If not, I’m sure they won’t tell him before he gets up on the platform with the Lieutenant Governor.

HUSBAND: He knows. He’s in support of privatization.

WIFE: I really admire this meth dealer.

REALTOR: His name is Matthew.

WIFE: Who?

REALTOR: The meth dealer – the man who lived here before. His name is Matthew.

WIFE: From demon possession to local politician. I suppose it doesn’t get much better than that.

Guest Lecture

Lori,

Thanks for asking me to be your guest. I cannot promise a singing candelabra, but hopefully it will be entertaining. The reference is backward but I trust you understand.

First, a confirmation of the date and time. Wednesday, January 28th from 1:10 PM to 2:20 PM CST (Collegiate Standard Time; because in college, time is an illusion – how much you have, how few demands are on it. But that is my privileged recollection. Many students work and study, which sounds horrible, like vegetables wrapped in lettuce. It’s a low carb, low fun diet. How do they do it? They have to. I had a tortilla and mayonnaise to hold my vegetables. They had healthy independence.* My sympathy is often presumptuous.)

Anyway, I’m suspicious of my ability to teach anyone anything, but the benefit of lecturing is that no one expects to learn, just to be talked at.**

If I were practical, the lecture would be a list of how-to’s; but I’m not practical – not even with jokes. I don’t want anyone to feel deceived and not be my friend, Lori. And my how-to’s would be too specific. Like how to respond when an actor says your characters don’t have “the light of the living Lord” in them. Or when an actor says their character “doesn’t matter.” Or when the actor playing the character you hoped to play is not you. Actually, a lot of play writing is responding to actors, real or hypothetical. The hypothetical ones are easier to work with.

Lori, if you will suffer an oxymoron gladly, I want this to be an interactive lecture. I want to enter singing “Writers on the Form”, my Weird Al version of the Doors classic. I want to shoot T-shirts at the class. I want to ask one of the students to hold my notes and then shout “Where are my notes!” All of that is supposed to be interactive and yet every sentence started with I. But interactive starts with an I, and it contains a ve, which is German for we. So somehow I and we both have to get in there.

Perhaps I should just revisit the writing and production of Work in Progress from my perspective, with frequent pauses for nonexistent questions and some exercises in which the students eventually but dispiritedly participate as I overcompensate with enthusiasm until we’re all embarrassed but too proud to surrender. If things go really badly we can play 20 questions, because no one plays it anymore,*** and how must that game feel? Also it’s fun to say “animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Here is the tentadon’tgive-too-much-thought-to-this-woops-too-late outline:

I. Introduction (Hi, my name is Ben, which I will write on the board. See? I’m a writer.)

II. Why do I write? (Because when you finish, it feels good, like taking out the recycling. You’re not just throwing your life away, it could be lived by someone else. If you don’t recycle, I don’t know what to say to you.)

III. Why did I write Work in Progress? (“So no one else would have to.” That’s how Gus Van Sant responded when someone asked why he was remaking Psycho. There is no connection here, other than Gus and I have first names with three letters. And we are both gay, which also has three letters.)

  1. Reading of scene
  2. Discussion of scene
  3. Watching of scene

And – scene. Lori, I really don’t like outlines. Would it be alright if I didn’t do one right now? I’m sure there’s an outline in my future. Hopefully not a chalk one. Oh! Will there be a chalkboard I can use? For writing my name. I just assumed there would be. But all the chalkboards are gone, aren’t they. Gone to the past, where they will be useful. I will bring a chalkboard. And an outline. And it. I will bring it. Unless it’s already been broughten. Tell me what to bring, Lori. A guest should never come empty-handed.

Ben

*”One of the most pernicious symptoms of the epidemic of social fear is our obsession with being independent,” writes David Truman at a website called Soul Progress, although that quote is out of context and may also be complete crap; I just wanted to feel better about my dependency on my parents during the college years.

**Does this count as a practical joke, since I didn’t immediately say it was a joke, or follow it with a smiley face, but waited until the footnote? That’s kind of committing to it, right?

***They all play it in Design for Living (1933), a progressive/transgressive little picture which showcases Gary Cooper’s silly run. He could have led the Ministry of Silly Runs.


Class,

Before you can be a writer you must be a drag queen. Or king. Or prince. Or princess. Some member of the royal drag family. The point is impersonation. I truly believe the way to find yourself is by trying to be someone else. Find a writer who strikes your fancy and then feast on them. Have a fancy feast. I mean, don’t eat cat food. But devour whatever that writer does and try to digest it and pass it as your own. Do an Ed Gein – rip off their skin and try it on. These are really graphic metaphors, but maybe you’ll remember them better.

I’ve had a Talented Mr. Ripley relationship with a lot of writers, only just imitating them, not killing them. In purposely imitating style, I’ve accidentally internalized a lot about structure, theme and character development. I tried to be funny like Woody Allen and realized the sadness of it. I tried to do beats like Harold Pinter and discovered that people say more with pauses than with words. I tried to be sophisticated like Phillip Barry and recognized the classism he was criticizing. I tried to speak the truth like G.K. Chesterton and understood love. Each of these writer relationships has taught me more of what I really want and who I really am. Maybe someday I will be myself, and be worthy of their love. In the meantime Jesus loves me.

Since we’re on the subject of Jesus: follow him. Until I started to do that I had no material. And my life had little meaning. Not that following Him was my doing. I had a breakdown. Maybe you’ll have a break up. However you’re broken, you’ll want to put it together, you’ll want control, and so you will write, because, to quote Hilton Als, “the root function of language is to control the world through describing it,” but more than that, to quote St. Paul, “our God is not a God of disorder” and we are made in His image.

“Life is…chaos…until Picasso looks at it. Then something happens. Order and design. A cathedral has it, sometimes. Great music, always. And storytelling, when it’s pure, but not when we start moralizing. We’re not supposed to steer the human race. Don’t police the party, just describe it. That book – I kept trying to Say Something. I forgot it’s all been said. The passion to be original. Good God, it’s like looking for a new way to screw. What’s wrong with the old way? Nothing, if it’s got love in it. And everything if it ain’t.”

-Gordon Kanin, Gift of Time

I agree, except the world was perfect and we fouled it up. But God’s desire for order is still in us, so we want it to be whole, even if it’s pretend. Love is everything in its place. Love is discipline. And with that, let’s turn to my first play, Work in Progress. It’s based on experiences I had while working at a nonprofit temp agency for ex-offenders in Milwaukee…

Anything Good

This post and its comments were originally published on Transformation City Church’s blog.

 

Right after Ben and Megan had been robbed for the third time, we all sequestered in the kitchen, like hostages. We watched as two police officers poked through their personal belongings – the violation following the violation.

“My guess is it’s somebody you know,” one officer said, freeing a notepad from the oppression of his belly-tight belt.

“We know that,” Megan said, making them feel stupid while making it seem like she was making nice.

“Well, we can dust everything they might have touched, but that probably won’t prove anything,” he said, then smiled, “It’s not like on CSI.”

How do we hire them? I thought, glancing out the window. Recently, our neighbors had the eco-friendly idea of hanging tinsel on their outside bushes; within minutes the wind had strewn it over the street and our yard. Soon the squirrels would be pooping silver. Still, it sparkled pretty, provided you knew it was tinsel, and not sharpened razor blades, which, in this neighborhood, was a more reasonable conclusion.

The other officer walked by a desk and stopped. “They didn’t take the computer,” he puzzled, peering into the dark monitor, as though it were a Magic 8 ball that would give him an answer. Just then the screensaver started, a slideshow of community house pictures: us smiling, neighborhood kids smiling, staff smiling, volunteers smiling; everyone smiling as though they had discovered a really good secret.

“Thanks for being here,” Megan said to Kevin and I. We shrugged and shuffled our feet, unsure of where else we should be but here.

Ben braced Megan from the back, his arms resting against her ribs, hands cradling their unborn baby. Last Christmas they played Mary and Joseph. This Christmas they are not playing. Their baby will be born in the ‘hood, in our stable of bachelors, in the awe of little wise kids. And her name shall be called Cadence Grace.

When one of the disciples, Philip, told his friend, Nathanael, that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael exclaimed, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Philip smiled and responded, “Come and see.”

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.