NEST is offering a conference entitled: Does Truth Exist? We will shortly open registration to the public for the November 2 meeting.
As I have been reflecting upon this important topic, a friend nudged me to attend a play at the Westport Country Playhouse entitled Oblivion. The invitation was quite timely – the play – among other things – debated exactly this question. (Picture)
“I wanted to write a play about lying,” said Carly Mensch, the playwright of Oblivion. “I also wanted to write a play about the difficulty of parenting in the modern age.”
Indeed a layer of this complex play was concerned with parenting today which undoubtedly has its difficulties but there was more.
Oblivion, is set in a Brooklyn apartment. The posh - post-industrial renovated apartment was arranged to feel like a church sanctuary complete with a vaulted ceiling and three large glass windows that suggested stained glass. I was also struck by the raised kitchen table or counter possibly positioned to suggest a Catholic Church altar.
The story concerns Pam (Johanna Day) an HBO executive and Dixon (Reg Rogers) a former Wall Street Lawyer, their daughter Julie (Katie Broad) a 16-year old teen and her close friend Bernard (Aidan Kunze). The parents are ‘progressive liberals’; one a cultural Jew and the other an atheist. The parents have few rules regarding their daughter’s actions or whereabouts. Their ‘openness’ however is challenged when Julie is caught lying about her weekend trip with friend Bernard. The story begins to heat up as Pam nervously speculates about Julie’s whereabouts revealing that Pam and Dixon may not be the progressive open-minded parents they thought they were. The family further unravels as the trial reveals that Dixon earlier suffered a nervous breakdown from his Wall Street Lawyer’s firm and now stays at home smoking pot unable to recover his career or finish writing a novel.
The family finally clashes when Pam discovers that Julie has attended a Baptist family retreat and she has given her life to Jesus. Pam cannot understand the strange if not harmful decision. In an angry tirade she attempts to discredit people of faith. She describes a Mormon documentary that revealed the Mormons follow faked documentation. The suggestion is that all denominations have made the same mistake. The remarks give way to Julie’s response that her mother is a bigot towards people of faith considering them ‘less smart’. A cold stalemate follows.
Pam and Dixon want to understand why their daughter has made this decision. They try to understand verses from a KJV Bible apparently taken from a hotel room years before. The examined text does not seem particularly bad but they still don’t get the attraction. Pam and Dixon are divided over Julie’s decision.
Julie, in an encounter with Pam, can’t explain why she loves Jesus but just does. Julie is then baptized in a kitty pool mediated by Bernard and searches for a ‘feeling’ of receiving the Holy Spirit but feels nothing.
A parallel story concerns Bernard who – though a professing Baptist – appears to be more interested in movie making and several scenes tap into an almost religious fervor where under a spotlight and looking up he conveys hopes and dreams to a movie critic he apparently ‘idolizes.’ He desperately wants to meet her and learn more about movie making. Later Bernard discovers that the movie critic died some years before. He is crushed and feels foolish to have believed in his dream and her.
The story concludes where the parents, Julie and Bernard gather to watch the movie Bernard created with Julie as his subject. Julie announces she does not want to be a Christian and the parents concede that she should not give up so easily.
The play overall was filled with layers of possible meanings and lessons. To me a dominant theme that surfaced was a clash of worldviews and the struggles people have with beliefs.
The parents represented secular humanism with its smug self-assured position that ‘man is the measure of all things’. Indeed, several of Pam’s judgmental monologues considered faith a “less evolved worldview” where “fundamentalists were destroying the country” and she chooses “not to believe in a collective delusion.” With the exception of justifying her position by mentioning several known facts about Mormonism, the remainder of her comments amounted to an unsupported rant. Reference to moral relativism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche further secured the couples antithetical worldview (to Julie’s) as did the condescending and unqualified remarks.
Julie represented a young person coming to the Christian faith. Her tender admission of belief “I love Jesus now, and he loves me” to her mother seemed sincere and fresh. In another scene she is praying, reading the Bible and yet another she is seeking to be baptized.
Yet the two worldviews were perhaps of necessity undeveloped. How much could come out in a two-hour play? These worldview caricatures pitted a militant brand of humanism (perhaps characterized by popular atheists today such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) against a defenseless and ‘mystical’ (certainly immature) brand of Christianity.
On the Humanist Side
The two humanists Pam and Dixon however do not present a unified front. Each presents a shade of this world view. Pam is a fundamentalist, rigid and judgmental while Dixon is an agnostic perhaps uncertain of his own position and Julie’s decision. Pam and Dixon for their apparent sophistication and professional accomplishment do not come across as particularly educated or enlightened secular humanists.
On the Christian Side
Julie is a somewhat uncomplicated young girl attempting to deal with a complicated faith decision and all that it entails. While a picture of Christianity is presented with a sentimental expression concerning Jesus, and scenes showing baptism, prayer and Bible reading, Mensch avoids a full-blown Gospel message thereby avoiding the relationship of these observances to the work Jesus. There is no (or little) attempt to ‘push back’ at Pam’s leading assault with Mormonism. Analysis and dialogue are absent along with any apologetic argument for Christianity. The unfamiliar viewer sees and hears expressions of Christianity but does not hear any propositions or context to process what they are seeing. One might easily accept the assertion that the faithful are ‘less smart’ people. Thus, a picture of Christian motifs is presented but in the end it is viewer defined.
Magic in the Mix?
What does come through is perhaps what Mensch attempted to convey. A modern family struggling but I would add with fundamental beliefs. What might have been unintended – although truthfully unknown – is the portrait of an exhausted if not bankrupt worldview. Ironically it is conveyed on a stage that looked like a church and perhaps was – a humanist church where regrettably all of the wrong things were worshipped and found wanting. The enlightened modern position consisting of hero’s or ‘saints’ such as Karl Marx, Frederick Nietzsche and recreational pot smoking (the incense of this church?) have not saved the quarreling parents or brought satisfying answers for if they did Mensch left such wisdom out of the dialogue. Peace was not found in the family but provocation and posturing.
The play was thought-provoking and the author and acting troupe are to be congratulated for tackling a rather involved issue well.
Leaving the Playhouse – A Post-Script.
As I further reflected upon Oblivion, I was struck by a thought regarding education in America. While the battles over basic rights such as Bible reading, and prayer in the public school classroom have been largely fought and lost, perhaps it is not overstated to posit that Pam’s mistrust and ignorance is tied to this.
Indeed, the couple clumsily attempted to read a verse or two from a KJV Bible. They obviously had no exposure to the Bible – which if you think about it – defined Western thought in the English-speaking world for over 500 years. How is it possible that these well-educated urbanites have no familiarity with this book? How is it possible that all faith positions can be rejected based upon an “HBO documentary” about a non-traditional branch of Christianity? Is it possible exactly because secular humanism has become the accepted state philosophy; historical importance of Christianity and the Bible not-withstanding? The couple is a product of their times – a post-Christian or even anti-Christian society.
In the US, education is mostly concerned with cultivating an functional citizen: one who serves the economic and progressive political needs of society and the state. As the thinking goes, the modern state classroom ought to also be respectful of all faiths and measure all claims with an equal hand: they are equally true to the individual. They are a non-issue or even non-existent concern in the classroom. As such no particular faith or faith claim is ultimately true except in the ‘eye of the beholder.’ The student receives a bland taste from a buffet of ‘religious’ claims – if they choose to take a ‘survey course in religions.’ The state has succeeded in its program to tolerate all faiths – review them in a non-mandatory single course – if it is at all available. The point is Pam and Dixon are inevitable products of a humanist state – they could be called the children of Oblivion.
Perhaps underneath Oblivion is the question of ultimate truth. It is a very serious concern. The parents would not have debated with the daughter if they felt she found a secure truth. Is Jesus someone to love? Can the propositions of the Bible be trusted? Are all faiths equally true or equally false? Is truth in the ‘eye of the beholder?’ What exactly is truth? Our conference on November 2, will take a look at these critical questions.