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Religion (Christianity)

church life joan sister

Although there are considerations of many of the world’s religions in modern drama, by far the religion most commonly referred to has been Christianity. However, the way in which this one religion has been approached is multifaceted. While some playwrights choose to examine theological differences and social relationships between alternative branches of Christianity, others are more interested in the role of religion itself as it pertains to human survival and happiness. Others choose to satirize organized religion, pointing out its potential strengths and weaknesses.

In the 1920s, George Bernard Shaw developed his theory of Creative Evolution, by which he stated that the Life Force can only keep evolving by the input of special individuals whose new ideas force people to develop and move forward. He viewed figures like Jesus, Mohammad, and St. Joan as such individuals: the new concepts they each embodied necessarily threatened the existing social order, which is why people in power tried to suppress and kill them. It is from this perspective that he relates the life and death of Joan the Maid in St. Joan . In a preface that is half the length of the play, Shaw describes Joan as “a professed and most pious Catholic,” but “one of the first Protestant martyrs” (v). He goes on to explain his interpretation of Joan as a figure who forced the people of her time to confront the concepts of Protestantism and Nationalism, which are explained in scene four of the play by Bishop Cauchon and the Earl of Warwick.

In her belief that God spoke to her directly, Joan was seen as a danger to the Catholic Church of medieval Europe. If people insisted on interpreting God’s will for themselves, rather than leaving it to the Church to interpret it for them, men like Cauchon honestly believed there would be religious and social chaos. The nature of Joan’s belief, although within the bounds of the Catholic Church, had a distinctly secular aspect that emphasized individual conscience and would turn into the more democratic Protestantism, which would seriously challenge the feudal social structure of the time, just as Warwick suspects.

Moving from fifteenth century Europe to 1960s America, the action of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner takes place within an African American Pentecostal church of the period, in which all believers are referred to as “sister” or “brother.” Central to the play is its insistence that love is a necessity in the family, church, and community. The play considers the best balance between religious and secular concerns. Sister Margaret has allowed religion to take over her life, at the cost of losing touch with the everyday world and those she loves, including her husband, Luke, and son, David. Faced with the loss of both church and family, she discovers a new strength and outlook that should, hopefully, allow her to be more tolerant in future.

In Baldwin’s eyes, Luke is a better preacher than Margaret because he deals in reality. She cannot face her love for Luke until he dies (reflective of her love for Jesus), and she tries to prevent David from becoming a man, and so restricts his life. Her religion also restricts sexuality, which Baldwin sees as tantamount to restricting life itself. Luke, by contrast, realizes that David has to be allowed to grow up, and so teaches him how to be a man by embracing life in all its facets, explaining that despite what Margaret has said, this does not make a person ungodly.

Written in 1979, Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You reflects a more recent skepticism toward the efficacy of the Church, as Durang exposes what he sees as the dogma and limitation of the Catholic Church in the 1950s. Representatives of the Catholic Church have at times demonstrated and succeeded in having performances of this controversial play canceled, denouncing it as in bad taste and guilty of distorting and misrepresenting Catholicism. But Durang’s criticism is not so much of Catholicism as of how it is interpreted and taught by people like Sister Mary, a nun in the Catholic Church—people of limited understanding, sensitivity, and intellect. It is probably Durang’s best-known play, and many have appreciated its satirical authenticity.

Sister Mary is not the Roman Catholic Church in all its complexity, but she represents a facet of it, which asks us to question the system that gives such people authority over others, especially impressionable children. The Sister’s intolerance of human fallibility and her simple ignorance are conveyed through verbal irony, as her own words unwittingly expose her unsuitability as a religious teacher; she herself is never aware of this, but Durang ensures that the audience fully realizes how dangerous such people can be.

Saint Joan begins in France in 1429, as Joan the Maid requests a horse, armor, and soldiers from her local lord to take her to Charles the Dauphin. On her   arrival at the Dauphin’s court she sees past their attempt to fool her and test her abilities, and reports that she has been sent by God to drive the English out of France and crown the Dauphin king. He reluctantly gives her command of his army, and after she offers to pray for a wind, whose lack has kept the French fleet from attacking, her request is instantly answered. Meanwhile, both English and French, worried about the impact of Joan’s opinions on the Church and social structure, conspire to compel Joan to abandon what they perceive as her heretical beliefs. Despite her victories, the French authorities grow tired of her control and hope she will return to her father’s farm, but she is soon captured and ransomed to the English, who turn her over to the French Church for trial. In 1431 she is tried for heresy in Rouen, and because of her insistence that she is her own judge of what God has commanded, she is found guilty. Initially recanting to avoid death, she changes her mind and allows herself to be executed rather than face life imprisonment. Twenty-five years later, the Dauphin learns that Joan’s verdict has been overturned. He is visited by specters who discuss Joan’s impact, including Joan and a twentieth-century man who announces her 1920 canonization. Significantly, they all agree that it was best for everyone that she died.

The religious background of the play highlights what Shaw saw as the central differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, although Joan herself could not see this distinction, believing herself to be a devout Catholic and never fully understanding the charges against her. The Catholic side is represented by both secular and Church officials, while the Protestant side, unwittingly, is represented by a teenage French country girl, Joan. Shaw describes “the quintessence of Protestantism” as “the supremacy of private judgment for the individual” (xlviii), so it is fitting that it should be represented by the lowliest of people. Joan says she will obey the Church, but only within limits, since she must place God foremost, and the Catholic Church cannot accept this. It cannot accept Joan’s claims without waiving its own authority or raising her to a level with the trinity, a height unthinkable for the Church to confer upon a living teenage girl.

Shaw upholds the fairness of the Church trial against Joan, insisting that the tribunal’s decision was true to the law of the time, even though the Protestant Church has since used her death as evidence against the Roman Catholic Church. Even Joan declares that her trial was honest, albeit misguided, and the Church’s mercy is depicted in its refusal to torture her, as would have been customary. The Church was already under threat from the early expressions of Protestant beliefs, and so had to quash Joan to silence this dissent and maintain its control. This is what Cauchon refers to as the “Will to Power in the world” (74), which not only threatens the Church itself but also endangers the social system. Warwick voices this concern when he explains how Joan’s attempts to make the King “God’s Bailiff” will reduce the authority of the nobles in the minds of the people, thus making her death a “political necessity” (101).


Shaw presents a world where God’s presence is felt through Joan. Bluebeard tells how Joan predicted the death of Foul Mouthed Frank, and she later predicts her own premature death. She need only talk of praying for a change in wind direction and it instantly occurs. But this is a world in which secular concerns have already begun to outweigh religious concerns. When Joan insists that God and the saints wish her to continue the fight, the others are reluctant to follow her, and the Archbishop warns her that to believe in such a religious imperative will lead to her destruction, which it does—not for religious as much as for political reasons. She dies because she really is a heretic in terms of the prevailing system of thought, just as anyone who resists orthodoxy becomes a figure for persecution, regardless of his or her own purity of spirit.

Belief in her own rightness leads Joan to talk down to others, be they kings or Church officials. What she has done is miraculous, but she has been near insufferable in the manner in which she did it. She displays the lack of social grace of most zealots: contempt for anyone else’s opinion, judgment, or authority. Proud and dismissively haughty, Joan has a distinctly negative side, which Shaw allows us to see even as he makes her his heroic protagonist. It is her sincerity, honesty, and simple faith that save her from being odious. Cauchon is enraged by the way she sets her country above the Church and acts as if she is higher than the Pope. “She acts as if she herself were The Church” (69), he exclaims, and he wants her to submit to the Church or be seen as an agent of the Devil. But she sets God above the Church rather than herself, as she truly sees herself as “a servant of God” (52). We excuse her manner in such a service, although officials of the time could not.

In The Amen Corner religion dominates every aspect of Pastor Margaret Alexander’s life, leaving little room for secular concerns. However, such a life makes her very narrow in her outlook, which her congregation find increasingly annoying. Discovering that she left her husband and that her son is leading what even she would define as a sinful life, her congregation eagerly becomes critical of Sister Margaret’s life and family, turning against her and trying to replace her with the virginal Sister Moore. The ensuing struggle, against both her congregants and what she sees as her wayward son, David, leads Margaret to initially fear that she has lost her calling. However, after she speaks openly to her ex-husband on his deathbed, she has an epiphany that renews her faith and commitment to God and the world around her.

Margaret not only runs the church, but lives in it, and the way Baldwin describes the staging, the church dominates the set, taking precedence over the home. Such is Margaret’s life, as she declares: “In this home, Sister Moore, the Lord comes first” (55), though at the expense of the whole family. Having turned to God after the death of a child, Margaret left her loving husband, Luke, deciding that God was punishing her for enjoying her life with Luke and showing disapproval of Luke’s way of life, with its sinful jazz music and drinking. In place of the freedom associated with jazz, Margaret adopts the strictures   of a very restrictive religious outlook. She has tried to raise her son as a devout Pentecostal Christian, having him play the piano at her services, hoping that he, too, will become a pastor, but instead, he is drawn to his father’s less restrictive music and way of life.

David is a self-possessed eighteen-year-old who wants his independence and is sick of being told what to do by his mother. He has inherited his father’s love of jazz and love of life, which, according to his mother’s beliefs, makes him a sinner. It is no surprise that he feels he has lost his faith. Fearful of offending his mother by pursuing a music career that he knows she finds offensive, he has been lying to cover up his playing. This only makes him feel worse. Luke allows him to realize that it is not the music that is sinful; neither is love, be it of music or a person, no matter what his mother says. Luke stands up for David against his mother, showing him that such a thing is possible, and freeing him to live his own life. Luke may have lost his faith, but he explains that any loss of faith stems more from his loss of Margaret than from his pursuit of music.

At the opening Margaret had preached a message for her congregation to “set thine house in order” (23), and, ironically, it is a message that comes back to haunt her as she discovers her own house in disarray. Her strictness is absolute and is largely responsible for what occurs. She refuses to condone sex other than for procreation, and she rejects alcohol and anything connected to the alcohol trade (so she will not allow Brother Boxer to take the job he needs because it would mean driving a liquor truck). Essentially, anything that smacks of fun, such as reading the comics, she demonizes, suggesting that such activities distract a person from God and encourage the Devil. It is little wonder her congregants rebel and begin to object to her high-minded attitudes, resentfully feeling that she is lording her superiority over them.

Looking to overthrow Margaret, the members of the congregation accuse her of taking church funds because she has a new frigidaire, until her older sister, Odessa, explains that she paid for the frigidaire, and the money taken in on collections barely covers the church’s upkeep. They consider her cold treatment of her erring but sickly husband un-Christian, and yet they condemn her for her association with men who play jazz and drink. Ironically, her own intolerant teaching is at the root of most of their complaints: they are scandalized by her inviting the Philadelphians to come to their church with drums and a trumpet. Margaret insists that the evil is not in the instrument but in what people do with it and what it leads them to. She means this as a dig against jazz, but she fails to see how this contradicts her refusal to allow Boxer to drive the liquor truck.

Margaret will not allow herself to love people—only God—and it will take the loss of both people she most loves, Luke and David, to get her to see the error of her ways. Luke had tried to get through, pointing out that they had done nothing wrong to lose their child. Margaret puts all her hopes into the life hereafter and suggests that she and Luke will “be together in glory,” but Luke insists, “I want to be together with you now” (92). He is more interested in life on earth and insists that she has been using religion to hide from feelings she is scared might hurt her. Near the start, Margaret bluntly tells Mrs. Jackson, whose child is sick and whose husband has lost his faith, to leave her husband, just as she did. Later on, after she begins to see her mistake, Margaret offers better advice after Mrs. Jackson’s child has died and the woman declares that she too has lost her faith. Margaret tells her to go home to her husband and have another child, for she has learned how important family is, now that Luke is dead and David gone into the outside world.

Margaret had faced opposition when coming to her church, partly because of her gender; her fervor back then had won many over to a female preacher and displaced those still opposed to her. Now, she momentarily loses that fervor, as she realizes that it has been somewhat limited and misdirected, indicated by her inability to complete her prayers and her loss of vision. But after having confessed her love to Luke before he dies, she is revitalized, realizing that it is possible, and indeed preferable, to love both God and people. She castigates her congregation for their judgment of her conduct, insisting on their respect for what she has sacrificed for the Lord. Then she declares in a rush of insight, “To love the Lord is to love all His children—all of them, everyone!—and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!” (126) as she decides to start life again, just as she had advised Mrs. Jackson.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You begins with Sister Mary, an old-fashioned nun and parochial schoolteacher, lecturing on Roman Catholic principles concerning proper conduct in life and the promised rewards and punishments that come after death. With numerous digressions, which inform us about her own abusive upbringing, she continues to patchily explain doctrinal matters and answer questions supposedly submitted by her audience. Her young pupil, Thomas, satisfies her abrupt requests for refreshment. Four former pupils appear, Diane, Philomena, Aloysius, and Gary, and act out a Nativity pageant she has her classes perform every year, then reveal to her the horrors of their lives since school, lives for which her teachings had ill prepared them. The leader of the four, Diane, tries to force Sister Mary to admit to having deceived them, and pulls a gun. The Sister distracts her, then draws her own gun to shoot and kill Diane and Gary, warns Philomena to reform, and holds Aloysius at gunpoint until she decides to take a nap and leave Thomas in control, obediently holding the gun on the terrified Aloysius.

Sister Mary’s lecture covers everything from heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo, to the meaning of the Immaculate Conception and the question of Papal infallibility, although her opinions tend to be outmoded, lacking in insight, and rigidly orthodox. Despite setting herself up as a religious authority, her ignorance of even the Bible borders on the sacrilegious: she forgets or leaves out important details that alter the meaning and, on the question of Jesus’s attitude toward adultery, is patently wrong, suggesting that Christ only protected the   adulteress for “political” reasons and privately joined in the stoning of many such women. It is left to the audience to recognize her wrongness and excesses as she is egotistically blind to both.

Her frequent digressions suggest that Sister Mary has little of the usual humility associated with nuns: they indicate an egocentric preoccupation with herself. It becomes clear that despite her insistence on uncritical obedience and acceptance, she hypocritically resents the Pope’s attempts to update the Church. Full of her own self-importance, she insists that students bow to her authority, even as we see more and more how psychologically unsuited she is to tell anyone how to live. One of the reasons she likes the Nativity play her student wrote is that it makes reference to her and supports her restrictive morality. Her students are only allowed to know what she tells them, to satisfy her authoritarian nature. Sadly, what she tells them is often self-indulgent, foolishly pious, and hopelessly inadequate to prepare them for the outside world. Her upbringing was admittedly harsh and oppressive, with an abusive, alcoholic father, twenty-six siblings, and a mentally unstable mother, which may account for some of her eccentricities but cannot condone her current inability to act compassionately or even humanely.

Her responses to the question cards from her audience vary from silence to terse monosyllables that brook no argument, to effusive detail regarding her strict and morally simplistic ethical outlook or her own family upbringing. Refusing to answer anything that questions God’s goodness in the face of all the suffering in the world or asks the precise nature of the sins committed at Sodom, we soon become aware of her tremendous limitations. These parochial limitations are further highlighted in the ways she responds to her former pupils who come to challenge her teachings. All are evidently troubled, and struggling with consciences she has instilled, which only allow them to see things as sinful or pure—nothing in between. Thus they are filled with self-loathing for the people they have become, seeing only divine retribution for their sins rather than any possibility of forgiveness.

Between them, the former pupils represent most of the hot-button issues the Catholic Church has faced in modern times. Diane watched her mother agonizingly die of cancer and began to question the goodness of a God who could allow this. She also had two abortions after being raped twice—once by her therapist. Philomena is an unwed mother, after being taken advantage of by a married man. Aloysius is an alcoholic and abusive husband with suicidal tendencies. Gary is a homosexual, having been first seduced while studying for the priesthood. Instead of trying to understand why they have all suffered so, offer sympathy, or consolation, the Sister just lectures them further on proper Catholic values and practices. Diane accuses Sister Mary of deception, asking why she taught them that the world was ordered and good, when her every experience has shown the opposite to be true. But Sister Mary’s simplistic teachings cannot explain why a benevolent God would allow bad things to happen to good people, and she is incapable of telling her.

Diane’s desperation is proven by the gun she brandishes, but it is ironically the nun who shoots and kills. Sister Mary kills Diane rather than admit that she has taught anything wrong, and she shoots Gary because he had been to confession that morning, sending him to heaven before he can sin again. Intolerance and violence are what she offers instead of the compassion and forgiveness that true Christianity espouses. The damage she is doing to children by continuing her misguided teaching is highlighted by the way she uses Thomas at the close to hold her gun on Aloysius.

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