Arts feature

Why does drama always end up sneering at religion?

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Religion remains a surprisingly popular subject for plays. It’s partly because there’s already a core of theatricality there, in the rituals, the dressing-up and the little shibboleths of piety. In one way or another, religion involves performing. And religion plays the role of Hogwarts in Harry Potter — an enclosed world, a game with rules. We know how a priest is meant to behave, so we can more quickly engage with a story about his or her struggles. Also, of course, big issues of moral principle and human frailty are close to the surface.

But does theatre treat this subject with respect? Or does it tend to sneer at religion, to reinforce a largely secular audience’s prejudices? In our culture, mockery is pretty likely to outweigh respect: witness all the second-rate stand-ups who unite the crowd with some religion-knocking. So maybe religion is a victim of its dramaticism: it’s a favoured subject that is likely to receive a bit of a bashing.

My musings were sparked by a play called Hand to God: it was a surprise hit on Broadway and now it’s at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. It’s set in a little Texan church at which there’s a ‘puppet ministry’: in the first scene a woman and some teenagers are making sock puppets, with which to instruct and delight the congregation. Things get out of hand, so to speak, when one of the teens, the woman’s son, begins to express his psychological issues through his puppet. He is goaded by his puppet for being a mummy’s boy. It’s his bad angel, his knitted Nietzsche, telling him to be strong, to defy his mother, to emulate his sexually confident friend. It takes over, possesses him, in scenes that are mainly farcical — and then, with a grating gear-change, suddenly disturbing.


I was probably expecting too much of the play. It does not delve deep into religious psychology. Rather, it milks its setting for some rather cheap laughs, including a clichéd puppet sex scene (sex, even between puppets, is where our culture is most timidly conformist). And it’s no big surprise that the play is a bit sneery about religion: laughing at redneck faith is a safe crowd-tickler in New York.

The playwright, Robert Askins, was involved in a puppet ministry himself as a teenager, in a small town near Houston, Texas (they’re a common feature of Bible- belt churches, apparently). On a Skype call, I ask what he now thinks of his boyhood church, and church in general. ‘Church was a place where we found meaning, and community, and song and theatre. So because it gave so much, even as it took, I’m still very conflicted about it.’ He lost his faith while at a Baptist college, and went through an angry atheist phase. Was he still an angry atheist when he wrote this play? ‘Um, I think the treatment of the pastor is nice.’ (That’s putting it a bit strong: he is a wet prat.) ‘The play is saying maybe someday we won’t need these things any more, we won’t need the old symbols, but at the moment it seems we still do.’

These days, this attitude passes for ‘balanced’: religion is a strange neurotic relic that we can’t easily shake off, much as we’d like to. If a vicar is presented as a non-
paedophile, then the playwright feels he has been pretty generous. For a decade or two, religion-mocking musicals have become part of the cultural landscape. First came Jerry Springer: The Opera, which provoked protests from Christians. Then The Book of Mormon turned that sort of sassy irreverence into slick Broadway success. On the other hand, there are also recent plays that might not exactly be pro-religion, but that do engage with religion with real verve, and show faith to be a serious thing.

I ask Patrick Marmion, theatre reviewer, playwright and a Roman Catholic, what he thinks. There is a general climate of sneering, he says, but also some lively exceptions to the rule. He points to The Christians, a play by Lucas Hnath that showed at the Gate last year. ‘It was about the sort of people we are normally invited to sneer at — ordinary worshippers at a Bible-belt church, and it asked us to take them seriously, it showed them wrestling with big theological issues.’ And yet it’s difficult to generalise, he goes on, because some plays are critical of religion, but actually more nuanced than you’d think. ‘I think some writers who’re technically atheist end up paying homage of a sort to religion when they get stuck in to the material. For example, the comedian Stewart Lee did a one-man show about Jesus and Judas a few years ago: it was poking fun at religion on one level, but on another level it was respectful and thoughtful.’

Lindsay Meader is a chaplain to the West End theatres. She strongly feels that the glass is half full, that even plays that criticise religion tend to be nuanced. ‘I’ve hardly ever seen a play that was simply having a go at religion, saying it’s all rubbish. Instead, most are debunking some aspect of religion that deserves to be debunked. In fact, I didn’t even find The Book of Mormon too sneery, I thought it contained a valid warning against over-literal interpretations of scripture.’ Many plays, she says, bring out the human side of religion. She cites Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s play in which a priest and nun (Meryl Streep in the film version) clash over a child-abuse allegation, and The Testament of Mary (Fiona Shaw’s recent dramatisation of Colm Tóibín’s novella), and Temple, last year’s exploration, by Steve Waters, of the Occupy protest at St Paul’s cathedral, which she found ‘deeply moving’ (Simon Russell Beale was an uncannily convincing Bishop of London, she adds). These plays show religion from a human perspective, she says, and it comes off pretty well. And some plays are about religious hypocrisy —she cites A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Marcus Gardley’s rewrite of Molière’s Tartuffe, at the Tricycle last year. But it’s pretty clear that it’s a venal abuse of religion that’s being attacked here, she says, not religion itself.

I take her point: beneath the surface chatter of mocking and sneering, dramatists often honour religion as a site of earnest human striving. But to my mind it’s a very rare play that actually tries to convey what religious faith is like. That’s a different matter from showing how religious believers tackle moral issues, or how they balance principle and pragmatism. Maybe Shaw’s Saint Joan is a model, for it’s her faith that drives things, that makes her larger than life. And John Osborne’s Luther was an attempt in the same direction. And there are plenty of examples of this in Shakespeare: faithy types like Cordelia, Hamlet, Edgar, Isabella. Part of the reason that Shakespeare feels close to the texture of faith is the soliloquies. For internal dialogue is very basic to Christian faith, in my understanding of it. There is a tension between the part of one that gladly believes it all, and one’s inner Dawkins, which finds it incredible. That’s why I found Hand to God a disappointment: it has the perfect opportunity to explore this idea of faith as an internal argument, but prefers to farce around. Which means that we are still waiting for a serious religious play about a sock puppet.

Hand to God is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 11 June.

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Show comments
  • Stupid Atheist

    Why aren’t the cults of human sacrifice afforded the level of respect they deserve?

    I’d argue that they ARE…

    • Craig Payne

      In fact, Planned Parenthood is governmentally funded.

      • Stupid Atheist

        Anybody dragging their kids to the altar of an aborted fetus to eat its flesh, drink its blood, and worship it?

        I’ll go on the record as being disrespectful of that as well…

        • Craig Payne

          In Catholic theology, the outward appearances of bread and wine retain their characteristics, so eating of the bread and wine does not constitute any sort of cannibalism. You probably already knew that, but I wanted to be sure to help your condescension to be well founded and not, you know, “Stupid.”

          By the way, if people do start eating aborted fetuses, will you be anti that “choice”?

          • Stupid Atheist

            One of us is unaware of two things: The first being transubstantiation, and the second being that not ever apostate is a proponent of abortion on demand…

          • Craig Payne

            As for abortion, I merely asked a question. I asked if you would be against the choice of eating fetuses. From your response, I assume that the answer is yes. With that I would agree.

            As for transubstantiation, if you think that transubstantiation is equivalent to cannibalism, you need to double-check your theology. As I said, the outward appearances retain their characteristics, so no cannibalism is involved.

            I also think you should change your posting name. Why call yourself stupid? (A serious question, not a sneer of any sort.)

          • Stupid Atheist

            No offense taken. I get it all the time. Here’s the answer:

            http://www.stupidatheist.com/about/

            The Catholics insist that the Eucharist literally transforms into the body and blood of Yahweh Jr., ergo cannibalism…

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transubstantiation

  • Patrick

    No, religion is not sneered at, Christianity is sneered at. None of the plays mentioned would ever apply the same disrespect against the ‘religion of peace’.

    • Hybird

      Indeed. Nobody dares to upset the followers of the 7th Century’s very own Charles Manson for fear of ending up like Theo Van Gogh. Nobody dares to even politely ask any of our IsIamic politicians, celebrities or athletes anything whatsoever about their frankly appalling beliefs. Contrast that with the grilling a Christian politician like Tim Farron got about his opposition to gay marriage. I mean, he obviously doesn’t believe gays and apostates from Christianity should be killed or that women can be beaten – but what about Sadiq Khan, Mo Farah and Nadija Hussain? Do they agree with Allah’s or Mohammad’s instructions? I for one would like to know – especially in the case of Khan as he looks set to become mayor of our capital city.

      • Patrick

        Could you imagine what would happen if he was asked what he thinks should happen to gays or apostates ! if he agreed with the islamic view, then he should be arrested ( or at least questioned by the police) if he went against the islamic view he would get death threats and how many muslims would vote for him ? it would change the whole way islam is treated by the MSM, thats why it will never happen.

        • greencoat

          You are correct. It is part of the massive edifice of dishonesty and hypocrisy that out body politic has come to rest upon.
          One longs for it to teeter and fall with a crash that will be heard in the Heavens.

        • Dominic Stockford

          Surely, given what we know of him, were he to be asked he would accuse the questioner of racism?

    • Germainecousin

      Spread the word about a fine novelist from West Cork in Ireland who has managed to write a book about a priest that is neither sycophantic nor sneering. The Rural Gentleman by Delia Maguire, balm for the soul in these cynical and quite bitter times.

      • Ellen

        I read the Rural Gentleman and loved the book and thought it was a wonderful story and beautifully written but I don’t know if I agree that with you. I thought the nature of the priest in the book, and the multiple levels that he’s operating from displayed a bit of rancour against the Church. I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve it but he’s not a totally spotless character by any means.

        • peter

          In fairness and with all due respect i think you may be a little narrow minded on how you regard Father Barnabas Salmon. for example most people regarded Don Camillo as a lovable priest but that does not mean they thought it perfectly acceptable for a priest to box the mayors ears( even if he was a communist), I think Maguire in ‘The Rural Gentleman’ presents if not a realistic priest a truly human one. i wish i could meet him

          • Ellen

            Yes, but a role model shouldn’t exhibit traits like dishonesty. I understand that the character doesn’t have to be spotless but *spoiler alert?* I would state that what he does is not above board.

          • Germainecousin

            I repeat, I think you are being narrow minded. No doubt as the poster states, some people may have objected to the physical force used by Don Camillo but the majority took it as part and parcel of a rollicking good read. The same goes for Salmon in the Rural Gentleman, yes, he does a dubious thing but the intentions and outcome are positive.

          • Ellen

            A show of physical force in a time when such things were common is different to a religious man practicing deceit.
            I don’t know that I could have just let that go, knowing that this caring, loving shepherd had been lying to me.

        • Germainecousin

          The priest in this book does not present himself as ‘totally spotless’ He is a man with a specific human mission and I think he operates a means to an end agenda for one particular occasion. I think literature lacks ‘holy’ people who are realistic, they are either too saintly or total bad eggs, this character breaks the mould.

    • rationality

      Or Judaism.

  • ADW

    First, I agree with the commentators that the usual gutless double standard applies here with the “religion of peace”.

    That aside, what respect does religion deserve? None: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2008/religion-is-owed-no-respect/

  • avi15

    In my experience, religion is easily sneered at by people who haven’t been shot at, tortured in some way or seen animals or people die in abject misery. There are some exceptions, however: these seem to be individuals who are either very obtuse and/or extremely crass, who may – I have sometimes wondered – be somewhere on the psychopathy continuum.

  • carl jacobs

    Religion is perfectly acceptable to the (post) modern world as long as it can be kept within a safe anthropocentric box. It’s not threatening as long as it’s about human “striving” and “wrestling” with big moral issues. In this formulation, religion becomes one of many different abstract vehicles that carry what are otherwise fundamentally human activities. But once let it escape the box, and make claims of authority …

    “Who is this ‘god’ who presumes to rule over me? I am the god of my own life!”

    Man is a very jealous god indeed. At least as long as he is fed, and clothed and comfortable. To paraphrase the Apostle: Not many rich. Not many wise. Not many famous.

  • pobjoy

    Sub-editing corrected.

    False religion remains a surprisingly popular subject for plays. It’s partly because there’s already a core of theatricality there, in the rituals, the dressing-up and the little shibboleths of piety. In one way or another, false religion involves performing. And false religion plays the role of Hogwarts in Harry Potter — an enclosed world, a game with rules.

    Like a monastery.

    Yes, it is surprising.

  • CGR

    Ritual superstition should be mocked regularly.

    • Bonkim

      All religions are superstitions.

      • Craig Payne

        Especially scientism: a faith that claims that only scientific empiricism counts as truth, but provides no empirical evidence for this claim.

  • Tickertapeguy

    From Karl Marx to Secularists it is Christianity that is mocked. Not Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism, Buddhism, but Christianity. None actually say the word “Christianity’ and use the general term “religion” but the birth of modern Atheism took place in Europe. The target was Christianity and not all faiths.

    Eventually this concept now applies to any faith… except that of Communism and Atheism.

    • Headstrong

      “From Karl Marx to Secularists it is Christianity that is mocked” – if you had a more open mind, Bernie, you would know that every religion has been mocked. By its own followers too. As a Sri Lankan immigrant in the US (admittedly Catholic), you should know that Buddhism had its doubters in South Asia too. Which is why Hinduism had a resurgence in the Indian sub continent in the Gupta era.
      Again, atheism was a practice followed in South Asia even before the advent of Buddhism (in the third century BC) – only it was more akin to rationalism, where the king’s courts would have debates between ‘rationalists’ and the priests on the existence of God and the prevalence of nature.
      Not too sure about Islam, but presumably it would have its doubters too.
      There’s a big wide world out there, Bernie. As En Vogue says, Free your mind….

      • Tickertapeguy

        Mohamed Hussein aka “Headstrong” you are pathetic man. Now that I found out that you are a radical nut case Muslim Jihadi you are going viral all over the place.
        you made 5 comments on Asia Times just about the fact that I found out your name. So deal with it Mohamed Hussein. Everyone now knows who you are.
        also
        your open hatred of Christians and the Western world is pathetic. Is that what you learn in ISIS to kill Christian men women and children? sicko Mohamed. Go hump a camel.

        • Headstrong

          But Bernie, you’ve called me a Hindu thug, then a Sinhalese refugee, now ‘Mohamed Hussein’. What next – a Jew? Sikh? Atheist?

          Should I post the snapshots Bernie?

          • Tickertapeguy

            Mohamed
            Told you on Asia Times when you asked me the same question. Then I did not know that your real name was Mohamed Hussein. What is your problem Mohamed?
            I already gave you an explanation. Then I did not know. Now I do. You are Muslim radical named Mohamed.
            Now do not come back with the same BS you gave me on Asia Times that I also called you by other faiths.

          • Headstrong

            Well you did, Bernie – and since you insist that I expose you, here goes –

            1. spectator.co.uk/2016/02/go-back-and-get-more-from-the-eu-prime-minister/

            2. atimes.com/2016/02/dalt-students-suicide-exposes-caste-prejudices-in-indian-universities/

            Poor Bernie – caught lying so many times and humiliated – still haven’t learnt the lesson!

          • Tickertapeguy

            lol
            Desperation Mohamed?. 3 comments trying to get away from your name?
            how about changing your user name to “Frustrated Muslim”? lol

          • Tickertapeguy

            One more thing Mohamed
            You have badmouthed Trump consistently calling him that stale name “Chump” (lack of any originality on your part)
            and
            You have called commenters on Breitbart s c um bags (had to separate the letters due to the vile name you used). I have never seen you on Breitbart yet you have a strong ugly opinion of mainly American commenters and mainly Trump followers.

            That is a sicko like you Mohamed. is it due to the endless sun with ISIS? did IS do naughty things to you? you can tell me.

          • Tickertapeguy

            Mohamed
            Have to say this. Your tirade against Trump on Asia Times was so childish and ugly that other American commenters were disgusted by your glee of venom against a American Candidate for the Presidency. Is it because Trump wants to ban Muslims like you from coming to the US and planning to kill us all?

          • Tickertapeguy

            Mohamed
            since we are “clearing the air” on this forum, your equal tirade against Americans owning guns does do well. Try telling that on Breitbart if you have the guts Mohamed. Commenters in this mag have told me to fight for our right to own guns Mohamed.
            Unlike your Muslim nations where only terrorists have that right, citizens in the US have a right that you Mohamed find repulsive. So chuck it Mohamed, you lose.

          • Tickertapeguy

            Oh Mohamedi Jihadi
            I do not know any commenter so obsessed like you,.. well except demented IS members perhaps.
            You have snapshots
            you have links
            you have everything except the facts.
            Go smoke a camel then hump it.

      • pobjoy

        every religion has been mocked

        That’s true; but the fact does not help much. It is surely necessary to understand why a religion is mocked. One religion may be mocked because it is truly nonsensical; another may be mocked because it gets too close to home truths about human failings. That is exactly what should be expected of proscriptive views about human moral behaviour. The view most likely to be deemed true is at least as likely to be mocked as the one most lacking credibility.

        If it is the authentic belief of a religion that is mocked, or criticised, or found inappposite to general experience, there is reason to discount it as a likely answer to ‘the meaning of life’.

        If, otoh, one finds that a religion is hard to mock, criticise, or find inappposite to general experience, without misrepresenting it, it is worth investigation as a possible answer to ‘the meaning of life’.

        • Tickertapeguy

          pabjay
          I have tried to convince this radical Muslim but he is a hard head. his name is Mohamed Hussein.

        • Headstrong

          In my understanding, a religion is ‘mocked’ (just a word I picked up from Bernie’s post above – it should correctly read ‘questioned’) when its believers get disillusioned – usually due to the fact that those charged with protecting and propagating the faith, end up exploiting and abusing it. Historically, this has been the reason why most religions split, or saw the beginning of offshoots. In India, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all sprang from Hinduism at different times exactly because the priests had corrupted the religion to introduce and perpetuate caste. Hence, people from the ‘lower castes’ would embrace a new religion that was more accepting. Inevitably, this would lead to reform in the parent religion, in this case Hinduism – indeed, the parent would seek to claim the offshoots as its own. Thus, both Buddha and Mahavira are counted as among the 10 Avatars of Vishnu within Hinduism.
          If I remember my history lessons correctly, Christianity also begat Protestantism due to the abuse by the Vatican. That too led to reform.

          My point is that all religions have had dark phases, and Bernie’s point above that Christianity for some reason appeared singled out wasn’t exactly true.

          • pobjoy

            You provide perfect demon-stration of why the torments of h*ll are justified.

          • Tickertapeguy

            Mohamed is now pretending.
            By doing that he gets issues muddled
            5 thousand attacks on Christians in India. Countless across the Muslim world especially in the Mid East. Mohamed aka Headstrong evades that
            as for his lopsided version of Hinduism the horrible caste system is alive and well. 320 million Pariahs (India calls them Dalits) where millions literally remove the human feces of other Indians is one of the main reasons India has the world’s largest number of people who defecate in the open. they do not need toilets since other “humans” clean up after them. The ones the government builds most are not used or are too filthy to use.

            try browsing through the book “India Shattering the Illusion. the Birth of New Nations. Kashmir to Elam” by Columbus Falco”.
            Do not see the first few pictures unless you have already eaten. they are too disgusting. Hindu Sadhus eating rotten human meat. The worst example of cannibalism anywhere. It gets worse from there.

          • Headstrong

            if you say so….
            Although, in Hinduism, there’s no concept of h*ll

          • pobjoy

            That’s why nobody believes it.

  • cken

    Always remember it is human nature to in some way make fun of or otherwise denigrate those things which call to attention the personal inadequacies we don’t want to admit about ourselves.

    • Ray Ingles

      Which explains why Christians always get so defensive and dismissive around atheists. 🙂

      (C.S. Lewis was right, Bulverism can always be turned around.)

      • Craig Payne

        “Christians always get so defensive and dismissive around atheists.”

        Ray, we’ve clashed before, and I just find it hard to believe you really mean this sentence. Where I have seen you post regularly, it seems to me that those debating you go out of their way to do so in a respectful manner. So do you mean this sentence? Have you had that many bad experiences that I just haven’t noticed?

        • Ray Ingles

          I rather hoped that the sarcasm was troweled on thick enough to shine through. I even added the universal “just kidding” sign, the smiley emoticon! I have to admit, I’m open to suggestion as to what more I could do in the future, because I can’t think of anything else I could have done.

          I was trying to be as dismissive of theists as the original comment was of atheists, to show the issue in practice. It was rather too sweeping and general to be useful.

          • Craig Payne

            Obviously, you have to write at the bottom, “Dear Craig Payne, The above is sarcasm.”

      • cken

        You are right because you can’t out logic an atheist. Fortunately all the science, logic, and theology in the world regarding the existence of a God still leaves us with a conundrum. In the end it comes down to what ever you choose to believe.

        • Fred

          You are right because you can’t out logic an atheist.

          Of course you can. They do it here all the time. Not to mention Feser’s books The Last Superstition and Scholastic Metaphysics. You might also try David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, and for some really tasty logical treats RE religion, try here</a

          • cken

            Ultimately you can’t prove there is a God, and you can’t prove God
            doesn’t exist. The problem arguing with atheists is they want to
            limit the argument to what can be perceived with the five senses. And
            they do this despite the fact they believe in things science tells them
            to believe in which science can’t perceive with the five senses.

          • Fred

            True, you can’t prove God’s existence to the satisfaction of every rational being, but about what can you say that? You can’t prove that objects exist outside our sensory perception of them (You can’t prove it empirically because using the senses to prove what is outside them exists is simply begging the question, and you can’t prove it logically. What form would the argument take? That anything that affects the senses exists; object x affects my senses; ergo, object x exists? The first premise is precisely what is at issue, again begging the question.) But I was responding to your contention that you can’t out logic an atheist. You most certainly can. You can use logic to refute the atheist’s arguments against theism, and you can use logic to demonstrate the necessity of an Aristotelian/Thomist First Cause that it is, at the very least, rational to interpret as God. Read Edward Feser’s review of Jerry Coyne in the first link of my previous comment (and if you are in the mood for a little light reading, try Feser’s The Last Superstition, David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and/or St. John Paul II’s Fide et Ratio. For a logical refutation of common objections to the cosmological argument, see here. For a logical distinction of Aquinas’s teleological argument from Paley’s design argument and why the former survives the logical objections to the latter, see here. The theist does not have to resort to fideism or a blind Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” In fact, that kind of irrational faith is heresy in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

          • cken

            I agree with you, there are many great treatises using logical constructs to prove there is a God. They are very useful for those of us who believe. However, things like the first cause or the unmovable mover use known or accepted concepts to prove the unknowable. Most people can’t even wrap their head around the fact upon which both the bible and science agree that there is no such thing as time. So unless both parties agree upon the existence of the metaphysical which can’t be empirically demonstrated it is still a difficult argument. It always interests me that the scientific community which contains many atheists will believe in dark energy or dark matter, but not God.
            I have read recently that some of the scientific community is accepting the theory there must have been some kind of energy which existed before the big bang. Thanks for the reading list. I haven’t read all of those.

  • Nathan Markiewicz

    Maybe because drama has always been a search for truth, and religion has always been about institutions deciding which version of the truth should be fed to everyone?

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