A Jesuit Off-Broadway

Jesuit off broadwayThose who know me well will probably know right away why this book appealed to me. It’s Jesuits. It’s theatre. How could I not want to read it? What’s more, it’s by James Martin, whose work I’ve previously enjoyed. So of course I had to get this book. But, as usual, I got the book and then let it languish on my shelf for years. It was only after I read Fr. Martin’s remembrances of Philip Seymour Hoffman last month that I realized that this book also featured my favorite actor.

Hoffman was the director of the first theatrical production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Martin served as the play’s theological consultant, having been brought on board by Giurgis, who was still in the process of writing the play as rehearsals began, and the actor Sam Rockwell, who played the title role. Most of his work consisted of answering questions about Jesus, Judas, and other biblical figures and about how theologians have thought about their actions.

The play focused on a question that had haunted Giurgis since his childhood—the question of whether Christ’s forgiveness extended far enough to include the very man who betrayed him to his death. As a third grader in a Catholic school, he was horrified at the idea that a loving God would send anyone to hell, even Judas. Martin notes that Giurgis’s questions weren’t new:

The third grader had stumbled upon a theological conundrum that has challenged theologians, philosophers, and saints for centuries. Doesn’t God, who is kind and merciful, as the psalms say, forgive every sin? How could a merciful God create hell? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly forgives sins, but he also tells his followers that they will be judged at the end of time, with the “sheep” being separated from the “goats.” How does one reconcile justice with mercy? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the nineteenth-century French Carmelite nun, solved this dilemma for herself by saying that she believed in hell but also believed it was empty. How could anyone in heaven, wondered Thérèse, be happy if there were still souls suffering in hell? (Tertullian, one of the most influential early Christian writers, disagreed—which is putting things mildly. He predicted that one of the chief joys of heaven would be thinking about the torments of the sinners in hell.)

Ugh. Gotta say I prefer Thérèse‘s take over Tertullian’s.

So Giurgis’s Judas tackled some tough questions, and Martin found that the playwright, actors, and creative team wanted to think carefully about the possible answers. And in this book, he walks us, his readers, through his experience of working through these questions with them. So as they learn about the authorship of the gospels and possible motivations of Judas and theological questions about suicide, so do we. And Martin comes to respect love and the people of the theatre and the work they do.

Martin’s writing is, as always, engaging and accessible. He covers a wide range of questions about the gospels and Judas, which means he doesn’t necessarily go into great depth, but I was impressed at how much information he packed into this short book and how many different sides of these questions he was able to address. (The passage above about hell is a good example of his ability to quickly sum up a complex issue.) Sometimes he shares his own view; sometimes he doesn’t. But his particular view is irrelevant to the story of the community built around these questions.

I was part of my high school’s theatre group, and I did a little community theatre years ago, and I know from that experience that working together on a play can be intense. You have to trust others to take their work seriously and to be there for you if you flub a line. And putting yourself through the emotions your characters feel can be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s especially so for a play like Judas, which required the actors to think deeply about questions of God and faith in order to understand their characters. I enjoyed being able to get a glimpse of what it was like to be part of that community. Martin himself became close to many of the cast members, praying for and with them. He became invested in the production itself, bringing friends and fretting over their reactions. Theatre is intoxicating—I can see why he couldn’t help but become enmeshed in that world.

For me, this was a great book simply for the story it tells. I see lots of play, many of them taking on serious questions and making me think. But it’s unusual for me to come across a play that wrestles with faith the way Judas does. After reading about it, I hope for an opportunity to see it.

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