Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, receiving its Bay Area premiere in a fine production under Bill English’s direction at SF Playhouse, starts with what seems to be a simple story. When a 17-year old Muslim boy runs into a burning grocery store and dies saving his seven-year old sister, his body shielding her from the flames, what happens to him? He’s a hero, of course. But what happens to his soul?
Pastor Paul thinks he knows what his flock thinks, and what Christians think more generally. He would like them to think otherwise -- that this heroic young Muslim will not be going to hell but instead to heaven. And so in the sermon that opens the play, Paul cannily works the story into a larger one about the congregation's financial status, the first time Paul met his wife, and the need for radical change.
We know that Paul is manipulating his congregants, that the way he constructs his sermon is designed to catch people off guard. His techniques include subtle threats (“There is a crack in the foundation of this church”), a subtle eroticism (“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you”), and declarations of strength (“We are no longer that kind of church").
Yet we overlook Paul's machinations. After all, what he’s preaching is what we should believe: that all souls are equal, that goodness matters, and that it would be a sick injustice to entertain for even a moment that such a heroic young man should go to hell for simply not finding Christ. In a just world, Christ should find him.
One of the chief pleasures of The Christians is that we’re not so much enmeshed in a drama, as we are in the drama of a theological debate. The play not only begins with a sermon, but also in tone and structure resembles a church service. There’s a full choir; an associate pastor, Joshua; a church elder, Jay; and Paul’s wife Elizabeth who leads a women’s bible study group. As in many churches, these leaders sit in a row before us and take their turns performing various aspects of the liturgy.