Martin Luther once supposedly asked, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes?” Max McLean looked at the current batch of Broadway plays and asked a similar question: Why should the devil get all the good theater reviews?
And so he formed the Fellowship for Performing Arts, a Christian theatrical troupe determined to produce Christian theater pieces that can stand with the best the New York theater scene has to offer.
Well, so far so good.
The FPA’s “Martin Luther on Trial” and "Shadowlands" exceeded critical expectations. And the group’s latest offering, “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” a touring, one-man show starring McLean, recently earned high marks in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Phoenix, and several cities in California, including San Diego, Berkeley and Thousand Oaks.
I was in town for the Thousand Oaks show — three days before the mass shooting there and about a week before the wildfires rolled in.
And the night I saw the play, McLean was very much on his game.
Just as Lewis tended to bring a broader interpretation of Christianity to the world, McLean brings a broader interpretation of Lewis himself, delving into the writer’s flirtations with black magic, his saucy sexuality and his doubts. But what shines through is the man’s unique faith, a faith that wed simplicity to sophistication. The audience is served a brand of Christianity that is both heady and heartfelt. In a word, it's seductive.
Lewis, of course, has always been a “universal donor” when it comes to Christian thinking. Catholics quote him, as do Methodists and evangelicals. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the late apostle Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted from Lewis more than 60 times in his talks. Many Christians, I suspect, carry around a Lewis insight in the back of their minds. (My own favorite would probably be his comment that many people use religion the way drunks use a lamppost — more for support than illumination.)
In McLean’s play, several timeworn Lewis phrases do make an appearance, along with a full bag of freshly unearthed gems, such as when Lewis describes the occult as a “form of spiritual lust” and his confession that “At age 14 I ceased to be a Christian, though at that age one barely notices.” (He later says he became an atheist who was “angry at God for not existing.”)
After the performance, McLean came back onstage, sat on a stool and fielded questions from the audience for 30 minutes or so.
He said the next day he was off to the University of California at Berkeley — hinting the visit was a little like taking his play into the lion’s den.
I haven’t heard how the Berkeley performance went. I assume the students there were surprised to see an overtly Christian play stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best theatrical efforts in town.
I was surprised.2 comments on this story
But more to McLean’s point for doing the whole thing — I wasn't just surprised. I was encouraged to see that, just maybe, the devil didn’t get all the good tunes and scripts after all.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly mentioned that "A Man for All Seasons" was one of the productions by the Fellowship for Performing Arts. It was actually "Shadowlands." "A Man for All Seasons" is slated for early 2019.
Also since this was published online, Jerry Johnston heard from the Fellowship for Performing Arts about the Berkeley production. It passed their expectations and about 1,600 people attended, including 800 students.