Acts of Grace

Religious themes are scattered throughout Craig Wright'

Religious themes are scattered throughout Craig Wright’s work, but if you ask the award-winning dramatist and TV writer if that’s intentional, the answer will be a resounding no. A graduate of United Theological Seminary in Minnesota and a former United Methodist pastoral intern, Wright primarily earns his living as a writer for the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. While the label "Christian writer in Hollywood" doesn’t comfortably fit Wright, you wouldn’t dismiss him as non-Christian either. Like many writers in the secular domain, he is compelled to ask religious questions without having them define him or his work.

"With each play, I approach whatever is most interesting," the 39-year-old Wright says. "Quite often, the language of religion is a quick way to cut to the chase, to the most important things."

Wright’s work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy award. His latest play, Grace, looks at questions of faith, God’s will, and time through the lives of an evangelical Christian couple transplanted from Wright’s native Minnesota to the Florida gold coast. Wright says he looked again at John Calvin’s classic Institutes of the Christian Religion as he thought about the theological arguments of the play. One of the main characters, Steve, believes he knows God’s will but is destroyed when things don’t turn out as he planned.

"When you make God into something that only serves your best interests, when you’re no longer able to see God in the things that don’t serve your interests, then you run into trouble," Wright says. "Things that serve our best interests are often destructive in the lives of others."

In the play, Steve’s business deal (to create a chain of gospel-themed motels) and his marriage both fall apart. The apparent cause is Steve’s inflexible belief that he knows exactly what God is up to. But equally disturbing is the fact that his lonely wife finds love and spiritual connection with their agnostic neighbor, Sam. In the play’s most moving scene, Sara even teaches Sam to pray. Is this, one trembles to ask, a kind of grace?

"What is ‘grace’?" Wright responds. "If the best thing that ever happened to one person is also the worst thing that happened to another, is that ‘grace’?"

One quickly recognizes that, from Wright’s point of view, grace is not a single act or event, but a series of unfoldings that reveals God’s purposes over time. What might be called a theology of time is, in fact, a major preoccupation for Wright. He experiments with it in Grace, for instance, where the ending comes before the beginning, and only after that do events move in normal chronological order toward a conclusion we already know. In an earlier draft of the play, Wright had one of the characters remark that grace is "the order in which things happen, the history of what God has allowed."

"For me, that’s one of the big questions of life," Wright says. "Why we have this linear, irreversible conception of time. It’s one of the things that makes Christianity uniqu - a necessary forward motion built around the moment when history changes, pre-Christ and post-Christ. But what does it mean that we’re all - Muslims, Buddhists, Christians - moving forward, and it doesn’t stop?"

SEMINARY HELPED Wright wrestle with that question, as well as find a language and point of view from which to work. Initially following his theological interests, and concerned about whether he could really make a living as a dramatist, Wright found that seminary training made him a better writer and artist.

"What I didn’t know before going to seminary was how much the life of the church supplies us with a way to think about time and a way to understand the transformations of culture over time," Wright says. "Understanding history as in some sense salvation history, as a story unfolding over time, gives you a firm place to stand on the train as the landscape rushes by."

By his own admission, Wright is in the far reaches of the Christian tradition. He left the organized church some years ago after a disagreement over communion practices in the Methodist church where he worked. Today, Wright practices shape-note singing and sometimes attends his wife’s Catholic church. He says people are fascinated with the fact that he is a successful playwright who went to seminary, and they are always asking about his beliefs. Of particular interest is his understanding of the resurrection.

"H. Richard Niebuhr, one of my theological touchstones, once said, ‘Most people are right about what they affirm and wrong about what they deny,’" Wright says. "I’m not in a hurry to deny the physical resurrection. What I can affirm is the amazing, miraculous power of this story in history. I’m not going to waste my time disbelieving or denying."

It’s clear that Wright doesn’t want to be pinned down to a specific set of dogma. He argues that religious belief has to change and grow, or it will die. One of the main problems in Grace is, in fact, the character Steve’s inflexible conception of God.

"You can’t make an idol out of your religious experience," Wright says. "If you have an experience of the divine and you insist upon organizing everything in life in terms of that experience, you will find yourself against a wall. My experience is that God keeps generating novelty and growing new possibilities all the time.... The essential nature of God doesn’t change. God never stops giving of God’s self, but the forms that giving takes are changing constantly."

IDOLATRY IS also something Wright sees in contemporary American politics. He points specifically to contemporary rhetoric about "manifest destiny," which Wright believes promotes a simplistic view of God as the one who unreservedly blesses America.

"I’m very suspicious of any religious point of view that maintains a vision of us with clean hands," Wright says. "There isn’t an ounce of privilege that we have in this country that hasn’t been bought at a price. It costs the world to have us here. If our religion doesn’t give us a way to understand that, then we’re in trouble."

Wright argues that, through the crucifixion, Christianity uniquely provides a way to understand that cost and to fully realize our humanity.

"What Christianity tells us is that God is the one exacting the price, and God is the one paying the price," Wright says. "The mystery of how we participate in the crucifixion is one of the great blessings of the Christian tradition. Any system of belief that didn’t have such mysterious violence at its core couldn’t save me.... For me, the world is full of horror, and I need my religion to reflect that."

Wright’s view of the world is borne out in his work, which is often darkly funny and sometimes violent. That view is also apparent in his image of God, whom he describes as being "a lot like a volcano," spraying out tremendous amounts of possibility, beauty, and novelty, as well as "a heck of a lot of destruction."

"We all try to behave like the God we think we see," Wright adds. "I see something powerful and unpredictable, so I don’t try to dictate too firmly what the outcome of anything is."

That can lead to an amount of uncertainty, but also some humor. That’s natural when people think about God, Wright suggests. "There’s something essentially humorous in the fact that the universal [God, the holy] only happens in the particular," he says. "So people can be talking about the biggest ideas in the world and still have to live in a small apartment, clean their toilets, things like that. I like to affirm that people are wrestling with these big questions in their real lives. Regular people wondering what life’s all about."

That is a lot of what Wright is trying to do in his plays - give audiences a safe place to think and to question. He hopes that when audiences leave the theater, they won’t be thinking about his play but about themselves, asking: "What am I going to do?"

"The art is simply a way to live more fully," Wright says, "not the other way around. Art only has value in that it activates the people that it’s for."

Deryl Davis is director of communications at Sojourners.

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