(Note: This essay contains spoilers)
Depictions of Christianity in pop culture often portrays the pursuit of faith as a naive desire for clarity and certainty in an unsympathetic world that offers neither. That it’s about deluding yourself with simplistic stories about a heavenly father figure for the sake of a childlike version of happiness. But that’s a cynical view, one that fails to understand that faith is the difficult road—not the easy one. You’re asked, demanded, to set aside your own desires and submit to a mysterious power beyond the control of yourself or the rest of humanity—a humbling practice that continually invites an incredible amount of fear, doubt, and self-loathing.
“There are long periods in the lives of all of us, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote. “Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints…”
Part of what makes The Christians—the play currently performed at Steppenwolf Theater—so remarkable is that it takes this rugged underbelly of faith and demands that we stare deeply at it and the interior lives of the dark night of the souls of its devout characters. Uncomfortably so.
Or maybe that’s just me. As a former fundamentalist Christian and missionary, I’m one of the few people in Chicago that may have needed something akin to a trigger warning in lieu of the otherwise G-rated trauma portrayed in The Christians. After reading a review, I nearly decided to skip it because of my personal connection to the material in a way that goes beyond the general theme of a evangelical church divided amongst itself. It isn’t mentioned in the promotional materials, but The Christians is almost a blow-by-blow theatrical dramatization of the real-life story of minister Carlton Pearson—a tale that had a profound impact on the personal struggles of my own soul.
The main character in The Christians is the patriarch of a successful megachurch named Pastor Paul. During an otherwise ordinary Sunday sermon, he tells a second-hand story about a seven-year old boy in a remote third-world country who dies in a house fire in order to save the life of his sister. Paul questions what he sees as the inhumane orthodoxy of Christian salvation—why would a child who just died in a fire performing the ultimate act of love and sacrifice be sent to burn in the flames of eternal damnation just because he’s not fortunate enough to be “born again?” He follows up the story by renouncing the idea of a loving God sending anyone of any faith to Hell. This radical change to his theology—and by proxy his congregation’s—creates a great schism in the church.
Pearson’s story is remarkably similar. He was a star in the evangelical world in the 90s and early 2000s—one of a handful of African-American pastors with a nationally televised TV show; and one with enough clout to counsel with presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. One night, however, Pearson watches a documentary about the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and receives what he believed was an epiphany from God about the true nature of Hell. It wasn’t some supernatural prison that God sentenced sinners to after they died, Hell was already here on earth in the form of all of the pain and anguish we cause one another. Sartre, in other words, was right. Hell really was other people.
This isn’t necessarily an easy philosophy to parse or accept when you’ve been so deeply invested in the idea of a literal Hell, as Pearson found out. Once he began preaching this variation on universal reconciliation he later deemed The Gospel of Inclusion to his ever-growing church in Tulsa in 2002, he began to be shunned by his friends and peers. The Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops, the organization that ordained him as a minister, deemed him a heretic and thousands of members of his flock began to leave for other pastures. By early 2006, he lost his church building to foreclosure and eventually left Oklahoma for Chicago—trading fundamentalist Christianity for a branch of religion more accepting of his brand of heresy—unitarianism and universalism. He is currently still preaching this same Gospel of Inclusion and leads a monthly gathering in the South Loop called New Dimensions Chicago which brands itself “The friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive faith consciousness in the Chicagoland area!”
Pearson’s story hit me like a lightening bolt in 2007 when I first heard it on an episode of This American Life called Heretics. A year prior, I’d left my job as a crime reporter in Jefferson City, Missouri and moved to the Los Angeles area with more than a dozen and a half members of my evangelical campus church to serve as a missionary and start a new congregation called Kairos on the west side of the City of Angels. The philosophy behind Kairos was hopelessly and absurdly idealistic: Los Angeles was the epicenter of culture of America and if we could somehow influence the culturemakers, we could cause a nationwide, even worldwide impact for Jesus.
I’m not sure I ever believed wholeheartedly in this mission, but I came to L.A. desperately searching for one—and this was the potential purpose that sat down in my lap. Instead, I’d find the opposite. My once robust personal faith had eroded slowly over the previous decade, suffering a death of a thousand cuts earned after escaping the Jesus-themed bubble I was raised in for a college life that exposed me to different people, different philosophies, different religions. My beliefs weakened further when—like in The Christians—my church in Missouri endured it’s own mini-schism. Some of our more conservative members felt alienated when some of our staff began adopting the theology of a brand of trendy kind of alt-evangelism known as the “Emerging Church” and jumped to other churches. I felt caught in the middle; unsure; doubting of everything.
By the time Heretics streamed into my ears through my iPod while I strolled the iconic oceanside beach path in Venice, California—I was practically begging for a reason not to believe that the Devil was literally out there in the world devising ways to steal my soul and drag me to Hell. So after listening to Pearson describe his poignant epiphany, I adopted it as my own. I told myself that Hell was a lie we told ourselves to motivate us to renounce ourselves for the sake of God and other people, even if it meant I might share Pearson’s fate of rejection from his own community.
And that’s more or less what happened. A few days after soaking up Heretics for the third time, I was sitting in the backseat of a car, cruising on I-10 with my young twentysomething pastor Andy and a few of my churchmates headed to a service in Hollywood, when I couldn’t help but spurt out my newfound belief—”I don’t think I believe in Hell anymore.” An awkward hush fell over the group until finally Andy hesitantly told me this “wasn’t the right time” to talk epistemology. “Why don’t you form a study group with others and discuss it?” he suggested. It was weak. A pooch punt that strengthened my conviction and helped foster additional, more insidious ones. If Hell was a lie, why wasn’t Heaven? Could I trust anything my church was telling me anymore?
After unpacking my Russian nesting doll of doubts, I abandoned my mission and moved to Chicago a weeks later in the fall of 2007; in doing so leaving my faith all but dead and drowned in the Pacific Ocean. Here in this city I’ve turned the page to…well, something else. In nine years here, I haven’t offered up a single prayer nor joined another congregation and I’ve barely exchanged a word with any of my former brothers and sisters beyond a few scattered Facebook comments. I’ve generally considered this a positive thing. I’ve adopted a life that probably looks like yours, more epicurean; focused more on my own individual needs. I seek love, art, knowledge grounded in rationality and science than in ridiculous ancient myths about demons and angels and virgin births. And in many ways, I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty that creeps up about my beliefs, or lack thereof, because it feels like there’s less at stake. If there’s no heaven, no hell, no eternity at stake—does it really matter? And yet. Am I happier? I’m not sure.
And yet….My heart dropped as I watched the end of The Christians unfold. Sure, I knew what was coming and known vaguely what kind of ending to expect. I’d heard Ira Glass narrate Pearson’s pain of coldly being turned away by countless number of people he loved simply because he changed his mind about the concept of Hell. It was nonetheless wrenching to see it play out on stage in front of me—to witness Pastor Paul’s world literally shrink before our eyes as his associate pastors, his most loyal members, and eventually his wife leave his side. The play ends with a bright spotlight that narrows and focuses exclusively on Paul. He’s almost certainly right about the nature of Hell but the truth has left him sitting alone in the dark with no one to turn to.
And so a terrifying thought crossed my mind as I shuffled out of Steppenwolf Theater in a daze—alone and in the dark but for a cold street light on Halsted Street shining on me from above. The defining and oft-misunderstood paradox of Christianity is that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing your own right to be happy and surrendering yourself to others; to the eternally mysterious Other. What if—like Paul—I’m in a proverbial hell on earth I created because I refuse to renounce my own right to believe in the literal version.