Issue Date: February 22, 2008
Belief and unbelief get center stage in 'Grace'
By RETTA BLANEY
Grace Friedman is a wife, mother and brilliant professor. Her bold assertions on the absurdity of religion have propelled her to center stage in the public debate over the existence of God. But Graces private calm is severely shaken when her son, Tom, announces a career change from civil rights attorney to Anglican priest.
This is the situation depicted in Grace, a new off-Broadway play directed by Mick Gordon and written by A.C. Grayling. The characters are fictitious; however, the questions it raises are real. They are the issues of this age, said Mr. Grayling during a telephone interview from his hotel in midtown Manhattan.
Mr. Grayling, a writer and philosophy professor in England, has penned numerous books and essays on this topic but says his urgency to bring real debate to the forefront has grown since Sept. 11, citing religious-inspired terrorism and calling religion a cloak for extremists.
He hopes the emotional impact of presenting the argument in dramatic form, showing a family split apart over the importance of religion, will help people try to think their way through.
The play is not trying to proselytize, he said, but rather to confront peoples emotions rather than just their intellect.
Theater presents a window into a kind of reality that can prompt people to think in a more concrete way. Its really important to show the desperate division and how people nevertheless get along with each other and are kind.
The London premiere in 2006 was well-received, selling out for its entire six-week run. Were interested in what kind of reaction people will have here, Mr. Grayling said, noting the contrast between England, which is largely secular, and the United States, where a great number of people practice their religion.
Mr. Graylings views are well-known in England. In an interview last year in Londons Daily Telegraph, he equated belief in God to believing in fantasy. Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies, he said.
The new climate of religious assertiveness makes it important for nonbelievers to speak out now, to be less conciliatory, he said.
What Grace will show, Mr. Grayling hopes, is that the humanistic tradition is just as rich in its emphasis on the importance of relationships, finding fulfillment and being kind to others as religions are.
Humanism energizes people to think for themselves and make good choices, he said.
The play may also clarify terms, such as the word atheist. Grace, who is played by Lynn Redgrave, strongly rejects this label. Atheist, young man, is a religious term, she tells Tom. Like pro-life. Like intelligent design. The word itself gives credence to the idea it is pretending to criticize. Its pernicious. Atheist is not a description; its advertising. Im a naturalist.
Grace believes religion gives cover to the nutters, the extremists. But Tom sees it differently. He is convinced that the dangerous situation to get into is to see the world as a battle between those that have religion and those that dont. Where those that have religion are defined as zealous. Whereas for me, theres a really important role for those who want to say, we need to have better religion. ... I dont provide cover for sexist, homophobic, bigoted people who put bombs on planes. I did that when I was a lawyer!
When he tells Grace hes an enlightened person and religious, she calls that a contradiction in terms. You cant have it both ways. Its faith or reason. You have to choose. ... Rigorous rationality, proportioning belief to evidence, is not cold, simplistic, logic-chopping! Its the only outlook we can truly rely on.
She maintains that religion is the most pernicious source of conflict in our world today and you, my son, are one of its salesman. To which he replies: And youre a fundamentalist.
While Grace and Tom represent extremes of belief, the plays other two characters, Tony and Ruth, offer the middle road. Tony, Graces husband, would rather ignore the discussion by having a drink and looking the other way.
Thats the old way of doing it, Mr. Grayling said.
Ruth, Toms fiancée, emphasizes the need to be kind in the face of deep disagreement.
Mr. Grayling said he has never been religious but is happy to count three archbishops, one of whom is Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, as friends with whom he has many discussion about religion. He hopes Grace will prompt similar debates among members of the New York audience.
Theyre an intelligent family, principled. They have outlooks they believe in deeply. Thats why such sharp divisions of view are both intellectual and emotional. I hope great passions will be engaged on both sides, he said.
The American premiere of Grace runs through March 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Retta Blaneys blog, Life Upon the Sacred Stage, features news, reviews and insights into the worlds of faith and the performing arts. The address is uponthesacredstage.blogspot.com.
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National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008
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