Holy Roller Christianity at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater

I had reservations when I went to see The Christians at the Wilma Theatre because I could see that the play was not about so called apostolic or traditional Christianity like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism, but about evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity, or the kind of Christianity that tends to interpret the Bible literally. (God created the world in seven literal 24 hour days).

Ads for the play gave the fundamentalist focus away with depictions of a minister holding a bible. Religious fundamentalism has always been one of writer Gore Vidal's pet peeves. He used to refer to Christian fundamentalists as bible thumpers when he wasn't calling them Holy Rollers. Vidal believed that fundamentalism was "a sign of a breakdown in the economy of the state," and he said that wanted no traffic with a God who is "warden of the prison."

Growing up, fundamentalist Protestants were for us Catholics a strange breed as most of them had strange prohibitions against dancing or alcohol while others believed that the only thing you had to do to "be saved" was to say that you "accepted Jesus." Once you "accepted Jesus," the work was over. Just saying the words "I believe" was enough. It was almost like Saint Augustine's saying, "Love God and do what thou wilt."

Holy Rollers didn't interest me as a kid, mostly because I found their services to be plain and boring. The occasional fundamentalist wedding I did attend was always devoid of mystery. While there was singing and sermonizing, there were no rituals, candles, incense, icons or statues or vestments, just wood paneling, a big holy bible and lots of hand clapping.

I was encouraged to see The Christians by a former minister's wife who told me that she had seen the play and she was very impressed.

"Everyone in the audience bowed their heads," she said. "They were praying and singing along with the choir onstage." I could scarcely believe my ears. When was the last time you saw a Wilma audience, or any city theatre audience for that matter, bowing their heads in prayer? "I mean," I told her, "what happened to the Octoroon agnostic element?" "No," she assured me, "this was really good. The play raises some serious questions about God. Go see it!"

So I took my friend's advice and headed over to the Wilma to see the play with a secular buddy, a 23 year old I met recently at a Center City Bach concert. S, to my surprise, had an enormous desire to see The Christians, which sort of surprised me, considering that he's never been a part of any religious tradition. Part of the reason he wanted to go was because he had heard so much about the Wilma, especially from the rush of online articles and replies to my column on the Wilma, published in this newspaper about a month ago. S wanted to see what the Wilma was all about, whether the audiences there laughed inappropriately, gave robotic standing ovations or grouped together in cliquish same age clusters in the lobby. (Okay, Wilma fans, please take the latter with a grain of salt).

We caught The Christians on an ordinary weeknight rather than the press opening, so the audience was different. The ambiance was sedate, the tone softer. We were assigned fantastic seats, the second row, which surprised me because I had imagined that the Wilma brass would punish me for last month's critical column.

The Christians opens with a robbed choir belting out gospel songs in that give me that ole time religion mode. Seated directly in front of the choir and facing the audience are the church's head honchos: Pastor Paul (Paul Debory), looking slick and professional in a well matched suit and shiny shoes; the assistant pastor, Joshua (Delance Minefee); the well coiffed wife of Pastor Paul, Elizabeth (Erika Lavonn); and church board member, Elder Jay (Ames Adamson). After the gospel numbers, Pastor Paul rises and begins his sermon in the best charismatic style. This preacher man knows how to work a crowd. The Wilma audience, in fact, becomes the congregation of the church, so the experience is very much like stepping into an actual mega church and hearing this stuff "for real." This audience around me however was not bowing its collective head in prayer.

Pastor Paul announces that the church is finally out of debt because the bank has been paid back in full. O glorious day! The choir sways back and forth as Elizabeth's eyes glaze over (is that a tear?) and Joshua gleams. Everybody is happy, but not for long.

Pastor Paul drops a bomb when he announces that he's had a revelation from God.

A revelation, of course, can come via a thunderbolt, hunch, or a series of dreams, but Pastor Paul doesn't say how it happened only that God told him that there is no hell and that everybody is saved and goes to heaven. Everybody, meaning unbelievers, murderers, rapists, pickpockets, serial killers, terrorists, child molesters and even world tyrants like Adolph Hitler. Ditto for Jack the Ripper, Richard Speck, the Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy--all receive eternal glory in Heaven because there's no Hell. In a manner of speaking, Caligula is just the same as Mother Teresa. An after life of total equality!

The announcement causes disruption and schism. The first person to contest it is the Joshua, who states that he could never be coerced into believing or preaching such a doctrine. He announces God's own revelation to him that there is a hell. He resigns his position and goes off to start his own church.

Choir member Jenney (Julie Jesneck) comes forward and says that while she doesn't believe that people should be good just because of the promise of a heavenly reward, there must be a hell because, after all, where is Adolph Hitler now? When Pastor Paul answers, "Heaven," it's too much for her, and she makes her exit.

The bespectacled gray haired Elder Jay also leaves, and eventually the entire choir stands up and walks out of the church. It's a disaster for Pastor Paul and Elizabeth, but wait, even Elizabeth is having second thoughts. She exits and returns, still unsure, and stays with the beleaguered pastor, at least for a while.

The Christians is actually the best play I've seen at the Wilma in a long time. S. was also captivated and took a lot of notes during the performance.

I told S during our walk down broad Street that The Christians is really a big advertisement for the pitfalls of fundamentalist Christianity. I explained that because it is the fundamentalist way to interpret the Bible individually--there's no central command post or teaching authority among fundamentalists-- ambiguous bible passages can be read and interpreted any number of ways. The wide open interpretive field has led to the creation of thousands of western Christian denominations or sects, each one insistent that its revelation is true and authentic. Talk about dueling banjos.

Getting on my high horse, I told S that this is not true in Orthodoxy or Catholicism, where the grounds for bible interpretation comes from the early Church Fathers and the first 7 Ecumenical Councils of early Church.

"You know, S," I said,"When individual believers interpret scripture for themselves, what you are left with is anarchy and thousands of tiny fundamentalist Christian sects, from storefront churches to Dallas based glass cathedrals that resemble stadiums. "

S had no idea, for instance, that in the early Church there was no scripture at all, only liturgy or ritual and prayers. The Bible as such did not exist. There was no such thing as salvation from the Bible in early Christianity. But there was incense, candles, icons and ritual.

Of course, as S and I discussed, both sides in the debate in Pastor Paul's mega church are guilty of simplistic thinking. Even Joshua, as smart as he was to move on and reject Pastor Paul's Marxist revelation, goes too far afield after hearing a story about a young non Christian boy who was killed while saving somebody's life. Joshua adamantly claims that the boy went to hell because he did not affirm belief in Jesus before his death.

"That's the trouble with fundamentalism," I told S. "It pretends to know the mind of God when one cannot possibly know the mind of God. This kind of Holy Roller mentality acts thoughtlessly with self righteous, Pharisaical fury and spiritual pride when it suggests without any doubts that "so and so went to hell."

Yes, The Christians is the best thing I've seen at the Wilma in a long time.