Last week after seeing a new play at the Water Tower Theater in Dallas, I returned home with a great story. Not the greatest story ever told, but something in the runner-up category, a story to delight and surprise, a story to unite sinners and saints in smile.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is a play about “the greatest story ever told,” in that it’s a story about the New Testament–and three rewrites. Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy–all ardent admirers of Jesus of Nazareth–decided they could do a better job writing scripture. That much is true. The fact that they all meet for the first time in purgatory, where they posture, banter and defend their beliefs and reputations, is a product of the playwright’s imagination. I’m not spoiling the fun when I tell you that the illustrious/troubled trio decides to try their hand at writing a consensus gospel, hoping it’s their ticket to move on.
Just to be clear, this is a story about art, not religion–a subject which often seems as divisive as politics. This story is best enjoyed with an open mind. And sometimes, as I was reminded last week, the story behind a work of art is just as fascinating as the finished piece we’ve gone to see.
Scott Carter is not your typical playwright. His real job keeps him busy and well-fed. A former stand-up comedian turned writer for Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and currently Real Time with Bill Maher, he visited the Water Tower Theatre and talked with the audience one night after the performance. Scott explained that he grew up indifferent to religion (his parents were “social protestants,” looking for the nearest church with nice people whenever they moved to a new neighborhood), but a near-death experience made him inquisitive. This goes back a number of years–almost thirty.
In October 1987, TV journalist Bill Moyers interviews Forrest Church, the senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. Scott Carter is watching the show. Four months earlier, he spent a week in a NYC hospital for a near-fatal asthma attack. When he got out, he made a deal with the universe that, for the next couple of years, whenever he ran into someone who wanted to talk about religion–any religion–he’d listen.
Forrest Church wasn’t yet 40, but he’d made quite an impression on his congregation and his city. First hired at age 29, he quickly drew in the crowds–100 people in the beginning to 1,000 for a regular Sunday service. Listening intently, Scott Carter, future playwright, first learns about the Jefferson Bible.
Rewind to 1826. Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and two-term President, dies at 83. He’s also $100,000 in debt, and his heirs have to sell Monticello. They keep some personal items, among them a book they didn’t know he’d written, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s basically a cut-and-paste job straight out of the King James Bible. Jefferson’s stream-lined gospel focuses on Jesus’s message, but omits the miracles and the resurrection. (He objected to anything “contrary to reason” and thought the writers of the New Testament were unreliable narrators.) Years later the Smithsonian buys the book from a great-granddaughter for $500, and, in 1904, by an order of Congress, copies are made to pass out to incoming members of the house and senate. In 1956, Senator Frank Church of Idaho brings home a copy to show to his young son, Forrest. It changes the boy’s life and sets him on a path to the Harvard Divinity School.
“The goal of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.” Forrest Church
Nine years pass. Scott Carter is now writing for TV and relocates from NYC to L.A. Browsing a neighborhood bookstore, he’s surprised to discover a volume by Charles Dickens, The Life of Our Lord . Dickens wrote the book for his children, never intending for it to be published, but published it was–64 years after his death. Adapted from the Gospel of Luke, Dickens’s version includes the miracles. At this point, Scott Carter thinks, there’s got to be a play here. He continues his research and reads The Gospel According to Jesus by contemporary scholar Stephen Mitchell, because it’s modeled after what Jefferson did. He’s astonished, on page 52, to read a footnote that tells him Tolstoy did the same thing in The Gospel in Brief. (Tolstoy’s study of Christianity was prompted by a mid-life spiritual crisis. His goal was to find a solution to “the problem of life,” and he finds Jesus’s message by rewriting the four gospels into one. Like Jefferson, he leaves out the miracles.) Now Scott thinks, there’s definitely a play here! and begins to write in earnest, even though the addition of a third “character” means it’s going to take him a whole lot longer.
Finally, in 2005, he’s done and gives it to people to read. Everyone hates it: his wife, his lawyer, his agent, his friends. Three years later he pulls it out and looks at it with fresh eyes. He does some more rewriting, and one of his successful comedy friends likes it! Encouraged, he keeps editing. He stages 35 readings and sits through 15 workshop performances. After completing about 200 drafts, the play premiers at a regional theatre in Los Angeles and Scott and cast get a standing ovation. The play moves to other cities–Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas–and on September 30 it will return to the city where the idea began. Bill Moyers is planning to be in the audience for its Off-Broadway debut. He and Scott Carter have become friends.
Now comes my favorite part of the story. After so many years of working on the play, Scott Carter realized something. What seems at first like a random connection between Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy isn’t really. These three new-age gospel writers, born in different eras in different countries, demonstrate the “inevitable march of humanity toward liberty.” Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, who then wrote the Declaration of Independence, and who was serving as the Ambassador to France at the beginning of the French Revolution–of which he approved. Charles Dickens chronicled the French Revolution in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, which Tolstoy read when he was growing up, trying to figure out what he wanted to be. By the time Tolstoy was famous, he had a picture of Dickens–his favorite Christian novelist–in his study. Before Tolstoy died, one of the last letters he wrote was to Mahatma Gandhi. Tolstoy believed the three most important words in the Bible are “Resist not evil.” Gandhi developed those words into a passive-resistance philosophy by which India was liberated. In turn, Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by Gandhi, which led to the Civil Rights movement by which a man was elected President of the United States, who, in Jefferson’s day, would have been a slave.