Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Last Monday (19th January) we attended our first MTC play for the year.

It was Grace, a four hander with Noni Hazlehurst, Grant Cartwright, Leah Vanderberg and Brian Lipson.

Grace Friedman (Hazelhurst) is a professor and leading advocate of atheism, though she does not like the theistic overtones of the word and prefers to describe her intellectual position as naturalism. She describes her views in lectures to the class, (the audience). Her name, chosen by the author, is nicely ironic.

A human element is brought to the debate when Grace's son, Tom, played by Cartright, announces that he is giving up his legal studies, to become an Anglican priest. The ensuing debate between mother and son is vociferous, angry, humourous, confronting, comedic, conflicting and confusing.

The response of the characters is further complicated by the announcement that Tom's girlfriend, Leah (Vanderberg) is pregnant. Leah is uncertain whether she should marry Tom, as she suspects that he might put his religion before her and the child.

A further twist occurs when Tom, a very moderate and considered Christian, is killed in a bombing by religious fanatics, who are probably Islamic, though their origins is not revealed in the play.

Some of Grace's conflicts are resolved by her acceptance of the child, and her role as grandmother at the end of the play. This transition could have been full of cliche, but was handled very well - we overhear Grace talking to the baby, via a baby monitor, left on a darkened stage.

All actors give fine performances, with Lipson as Grace's husband, a non practicing Jew, providing a whimsical and playful element to a sometimes confronting play.

Brian Lipson and Noni Hazlehurst

As I watched this play, I began to think about my personal situation, which is strangely similar to that of Grace. I am a nonbeliever, but have a child, my yongest daughter, Catherine, as a christian minister - specifically a Salvation Army Officer.

My attitude to my daughter with a religious vocation was quite different to Grace's attitude to her son's religiosity. Grace could not accept her son's choice and argued long and hard against his religious arguments. I happily accept my daughter's choice even though it is quite different to any that I could take.

I expect that my more tolerant response comes for two different reasons.

Firstly, I accept that Catherine's choice is the right one for her, even though such a choice would be dishonest for me. I seem to have a sense of the relativity of truth. Catherine's beliefs are right for her but they would not be right for me.

Secondly, my style of unbelief is quite different to that of Grace. She is an uncompromising rationalist, who sees no redeeming features to religious belief. Even though her son's religious beliefs are very moderate, intelligent and even somewhat conflicted, she sees his very moderation as a shield for the fanatics. I don't agree, as I think that my daughter's moderate, thoughtful, considered, aware and passionate religiosity is as much a challenge to religious fanatics than my outright rejection of religious belief. In fact, calm and considered religiosity might be the most effective response to the crazies.

My view is more in line with the 19th Century poet Matthew Arnold, than with the modern crusading atheists, like Dawkins, Hitchins and Harris. The modern atheists, see no value in religious belief. Arnold was aware of what is lost when belief in God is no longer possible. He expressed this beautifully in the fourth stanza of Dover Beach:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

There was a time when religious belief provided consolation and support like a "bright girdle" but now ...

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

That is a pretty bleak prospect, made more desolate by the awareness of the joy and certitude that has been lost. (The poem becomes even more pessimistic in the last stanza.)

In the end I am more tolerant of the religious choices of other people than Grace is in the play, because I am more aware of what has been lost when it is no longer possible or honest to BELIEVE.

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