Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames (which I'll call HGHF from now on just to save typing) is, as I mentioned, an evangelistic drama. If you haven't been hanging around the Christian Church for a chunk of your life, you might not know what that means; basically it's a play designed to pursuade people to convert to Christianity. Over the years, many, many ways of telling people about Christ have been tried - from dramas to music to street preaching to tracts and so forth - but pretty much all of them have the same basic structure: first, a presentation of the basic elements of the Christian faith, then an invitation to accept Christ and become a Christian.
The basic elements of the Christian faith are pretty basic indeed, but HGHF chooses to home in on one particular element: the Book of Life. The Bible tells us that in Heaven, there is a book called the Book of Life, which contains the name everyone who has accepted Christ. If your name is in the Book of Life, you get to enter Heaven. If it isn't, you go to Hell.
HGHF has a very simple structure. It has a dozen or so scenes which each depict some characters who die and wind up before the gates of Heaven and the Book of Life, and discover their final fate. Our performance included an old lady, drug-using teenagers, businessmen, two families, secretaries, beer-drinking teenagers, a teen suicide, construction workers and a mother-daughter pair. Some are Christians, some aren't. Some go to heaven, some don't. The ones that don't all have various reasons and excuses. The play tries to communicate that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you believe, there is only one way to get into Heaven - by accepting Christ. It's hard-hitting, it's powerful - but I am afraid (and I mean 'afraid' in the sense of 'having fear', not just in the rhetorical sense) that it may be flawed.
I want to take one scene as an example, so allow me to describe the Beer-Drinking Teenagers Scene. The spotlight starts on four teenage actors, miming driving a car down the central aisle. We soon discover that the characters are in a stolen car, that they're all drinking beer, and that one of them is the son of a preacher. At that, the conversation drifts towards religion, and one of them says 'He's got it made - his dad's a preacher so he's got to get into heaven!'. They drink a more beer, then decide to race a nearby train to a level-crossing. They die, They wake up in front of Heaven's gates, and after a bit of panic, ask the Angel if their names are in the Book of Life. They aren't listed, so up comes the Devil and his demons to drag them into Hell. After they're gone, the Devil comes forward to centre stage, holding a can of beer and says, "I love beer commercials - I inspire them all!". Fade to black, and then the next scene begins.
Now, the main theme of the entire performance is pretty much 'The only way to get into Heaven is by accepting Jesus; no matter what your excuse, if you're not in the Book of Life you won't get in'. From that summary, we'd expect that a good scene should either demonstrate (a) someone who accepted Jesus getting into heaven, or (b) that no excuse for not accepting Jesus is acceptible, or (c) both of the above. Looking at our sample scene, we see it's a (b) type scene, where the excuse in question is 'My dad's a preacher, so surely I'll be allowed in.'
So a good chunk of the scene is directly related to the message we're trying to convey - but not all of it. Another chunk is scene setting material, but we still haven't accounted for all of it. Specifically, what's with the Devil's line at the end? He seems to be saying that Beer, in all its manifestations, is Product of Hell - by implication, drinking beer is spiritually equivalent to sacrificing goats in pentagrams of blood.
I am not a professional theologian, and I have no formal religious qualifications, but the message that Beer Is Satanic is so bizarre that I'd find it hilarious if the circumstances weren't so important to me. I don't drink alcohol myself, but that's mostly out of habit than out of any deep-seated conviction. I've got no problems with people drinking beer if they want to, and I'm pretty sure that most of my friends involved in this play feel the same way - in fact, I'm pretty sure that at least some of them have fierce brand loyalties to one brew or another. And yet, we get up on stage and tell as many non-Christians as possible about how evil beer is.
There is a time and a place to tell someone to stop drinking. If someone is doing harm to themselves or others, to their body or their soul, they should stop. Substance abuse is no less terrible because the substance can be bought over the counter in convenient cans. But beer is only one of millions of substances that can be abused, it doesn't need to be singled out and vilified in such a dramatic fashion.
Sadly, another scene in our performance was similar - the Drug-Using Teenagers Scene. Actually, it was worse - while the Beer-Drinking Teenagers Scene reinforced the main 'no-excuse-is-good-enough' theme by giving the characters some sample excuses, the Drug-Using Teenagers Scene had the characters overdose on drugs, then go pretty much straight to hell with the Devil crowing 'My salvation comes in little white packages!' The drug-pusher was even shown to be working for the Devil directly.
Although drug-use-is-a-terrible-evil is a popular idea in modern society, the same arguments about the beer-scene could be made about this one. Even if drug abuse is more common than alcohol abuse, even if drug use is much more likely to lead to physical or spiritual damage, using drugs isn't directly and necessarily a sin. Avoiding drugs might be a great idea, but it's not for spiritual reasons.
With the two scenes above, we begin to see a pattern emerge. To properly and accurately communicate the message of the Book of Life, as I mentioned before, we need to show people who have accepted Christ being allowed into Heaven, and people who have rejected or ignored Christ (for whatever reason) being sent to Hell. What HGHF actually shows us is a bit different - we only ever see people going to hell who have rejected Jesus and who have also done something 'bad'. Only good people go to heaven, but while the play claims to define 'bad people' as 'people who have rejected Christ', it actually defines 'bad people' as 'people who do things we disagree with'.
Of the people who go to hell, the teenage drug-users are, well, drug users. The businessman is a capitalist, and adulterer, and a New Age believer. The non-Christian father is a materialist, and his son claims religion is for 'old people and girls'. The beer-drinking teenagers drink beer, the teenage suicide has premarital intercourse, and the non-Christian mother breaks promises to her Christian daughter.
One of the reasons this play scares me is because it was targeted at non-Christians - unbelievers, people who don't know much about Christianity or what it stands for. To the non-Christian, we should be presenting the most truthful and accurate message we can. Why are we presenting a message that reinforces the worst stereotypes of Christianity?
The thing that scares me most of all is that over the course of the three nights we presented this drama, we had one or two dozen converts. If they realised that God loves them and that they can have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe, that's great. But what if they were just overcome by the emotion of the evening? What if they were terrified by the screaming and the Devil's mocking laughter, terrified by the dire fates predicted for people who did seemingly ordinary things like drink beer, terrified by the sight of a young girl bawling her eyes out as her mother is dragged away to the pits of hell? What if we scared them so badly that they made a decision they would not have otherwise made? Wouldn't that mean that we tricked them? That we deceived and took advantage of the very people we were supposed to be trying to help?
Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here. Maybe I'm reading too much into things. Maybe I'm making too much fuss - they tell me this play has been around for nearly thirty years and made thousands, if not millions of new Christians world-wide, so it can't be too bad. But what if I'm right?
What have I done?