In the conference room of a struggling New York seminary, David Padget, a famous conservative televangelist, squares off against an old schoolmate and now rival, Michael Brand, a progressive theologian who's just written a personal statement of conscience called Secular Christianity. At stake is the future of the seminary—and possibly Christianity as well.
Michael: We have to say in public, out loud, what we don't dare admit outside this room: that belief in a personal god is a delusion, a destructive pathology that as enlightened beings we can no longer defend.
David: So what would be left for you to teach then, Mike?
Michael: We teach new generations ...to go out and undo the millennia of damage we've done to humanity in the name of God. To value the good the church has done as well, and realize it hasn't come from adherence to doctrines or purity codes but to Christ's ethics of forgiveness, his view of institutional religion as corrupting, his belief in the equal dignity of all humanity.
David: So your plan is to put yourselves out of business.
Later, David demands of Mike: "What is the point in building a church for postmodern intellectuals? It's like designing an airplane for a jellyfish. They don't want it."
These confrontations take place during The Jesus Fund, a drama whose world premiere takes place this week at Burning Coal Theatre. The production will feature local actors Gregor McElvogue as Brand and David Henderson as Padget. The play's author, Terry Milner, is a former North Carolina resident, attorney and chairman of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. In The Jesus Fund, he depicts a faith caught at a crossroads.
"The question for the postmodern church is how much is left of Christianity for progressives," says Milner, speaking from his New York home recently by telephone. "An otherwise progressive community of faith struggles to figure what it has left of itself; once you don't accept a traditional or orthodox view of matters of faith, can you still legitimately identify as a member of that faith?"
At its core, Milner thinks The Jesus Fund is about "whether we're still capable of having rational, reasonable conversations with people we disagree with, or have we become such a socially, politically polarized society that we've arranged and organized our lives and institutions so we don't have to have those conversations and confrontations?"
Asked whether the culture stands at a tipping point, or has gone beyond one, in its conversation on faith, Milner says, "That question presupposes a cohesive culture to begin with. I think we are many cultures and have always been. But if there was once a consensus on certain core truths and values, it's gone. There is no national culture-wide consensus on any important question right now."
But, Milner allows, the rapid acceptance of marriage equality could be a sign of cultural healing.
"I don't think anybody would have predicted the number of jurisdictions that would be saying, 'Of course gay marriage, why not?' I think that's been a surprise to a lot of people. Whether that's an indicator of positive change to come, I don't know."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Firebrands"