Religious Roundtable

A Play in One Act

RELIGIOUS ROUNDTABLE

Setting: TV/radio studio, with three cameras and multiple microphones. An oval-shaped table with five chairs is center stage. Facing the main camera is a man in his 50's with graying hair, dressed in a pinstriped suit and striped tie. To his right is an empty chair and around the table are three other persons - all male. On the far side is a ruddy-faced man in a flashy silk suit with neon blue tie. To his left is a second person in black tailored suit, black clergy shirt, full celluloid collar and pectoral cross. Next to him is a short heavy-set man with a double chin, clothed in a tight-fitting brown tweed sport coat, bright red tie and green plaid pants that clash with his coat. A small audience is seated in front of the platform, almost totally hidden in the shadows during the entire performance.

[Director]

[to audience] "Remember, stay quiet, except when you're prompted to applaud." [then counts down for the host]

"Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one." [gives cue to begin, signals main camera]

[Host]

"Good afternoon ladies and gentleman, and all of you watching or listening at home. I'm Roger Engel and it's time for another edition of Religious Roundtable." [applause on cue] "Today we begin a series of programs on the future of religion in America. For now we'll focus on the Christian churches. In later sessions we'll deal with the Muslim faith and other religions."

"First, let me introduce the members of today's panel. To my far left is the Reverend Bobby Ray Packard, founder and senior pastor of the Greater Life Fellowship, a mega-church right here in Central City. To his left, representing various mainline denominations, is the Reverend Dr. Hall Townsend of Trinity Cathedral in Parkerstown. And next to him is Brother Nathan Armstrong, pastor of the Fellowship Whole Gospel Tabernacle in Trenton. Let's give them all a warm welcome." [applause]

"Now, before we begin, I want to introduce to you a very special guest. Until early this morning we had no idea this person would be available, but he actually called our producer and volunteered to appear as a guest panelist. Without further ado then, ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm and special welcome to our surprise guest - Jesus of Nazareth!"

[silence, followed by gasps from the audience as a middle-aged man saunters in from the wings - barefoot, clad in dirty blue jeans and torn soiled T-shirt. His clothes, scraggly beard and haircut give the appearance of being a street person]

[Rev. Packard]

"What is this, some kind of joke?"

[Host]

"No, I assure you this is no joke. At first even I was skeptical, but our staff checked out our special guest thoroughly and we all agreed it would only be fair to add him to our panel. Jesus, have a seat here to my right. And welcome."

[Jesus]

"It's good to be with you. 'Where two or three are gathered together' . . . as you no doubt know."

[Rev. Packard]

"This is blasphemy!"

[Jesus]

"Really? How on earth could quoting myself be considered a sin against the Holy Spirit?"

[Brother Armstrong]

"Listen. You can't be Jesus. Where are your robe and sandals?"

[Jesus]

"I left my sandals at the door as usual. By the way, Mr. Engel, I took the liberty of washing my feet in the men's room, since there weren't any water jars by the stage door. And as for my robe, well, I just don't take it on road trips anymore. Too dangerous around escalators and subways and taxi cabs, I'm afraid."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"All right, now, let's begin. Our theme for this session is the future of the Christian Church. Where do you think today's churches are headed, Rev. Packard?"

[Rev. Packard]

"I hope they're all focused on heavenly things, Mr. Engel, but I doubt it. Seems to me most churches have forgotten their primary calling, which is to save souls. We ought to be confronting sinners with the dangers of hellfire and demand to know if they've saved. The first question asked of every non-believer ought to be, "Have you found Jesus?" [He looks over at the guest panelist and smirks]

[Jesus]

"And here I didn't even know I was lost!" [audience laughs] "But seriously, I'm not aware of ever asking anyone, in the four gospels or any of the apocryphal ones either for that matter, the question 'Are you saved?' And I certainly never talked about 'saving souls.' Actually, I'm interested in redeeming the whole person. I think Mark got it about right in the 12th chapter of his gospel, where he quotes me as saying, 'Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' "

[Dr. Townsend]

"That's all fine, but I think we're forgetting something. It's not just the fact that people need to believe. You have to believe the right things. That's why we have creeds and confessions and the church with its traditions."

[Jesus]

"Yes, well, I think I've heard that one before. Seems to me other groups have stressed rules and regulations and the sanctity of religious institutions more than loving people. The Pharisees and Scribes come to mind, not to mention the Inquisition and a cataloguing of sins in the late Middle Ages. Beware of becoming a whitewashed tomb."

[Brother Armstrong]

"This time I agree with you, whoever you are." [He nods to Jesus] Dr. Townsend, your kind of church is just too stuffy and self-righteous. Why, I went to a mainline church one time and was bored to tears by all that ritualistic mumbo-jumbo, not to mention prayers right out of a book. To worship you've got to feel the Spirit. That's why in our church we still speak in tongues and slay people in the Spirit and heal in the name of Je-zus."

[Jesus]

"Brother Armstrong, maybe I should tell you what I told the woman at that well once: 'The day is coming when people will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth.' Both you and Dr. Townsend might be surprised at what that means. As to your style of worshipping, I think maybe you're overplaying your hand a bit - especially that part where you tap people on the forehead and knock them over like pins in a bowling alley."

[Brother Armstrong]

"Yeah, well, I seem to remember our Lord Jesus healing people all the time by touching them. What about that blind man that got mud plastered all over his eyes?"

[Jesus]

"That's true. I did heal sometimes by touch. But the most reaction I ever got from healing someone was a little shudder that no one ever noticed - except me, like the time when that woman grabbed the hem of my robe and I had to ask, "Who touched me?" And as for written prayers, who's to say the Spirit can't work even through a committee or couldn't inspire someone's thoughts put down on paper?"

[Rev. Packard]

"Well, I'm sorry, but I side with Brother Armstrong on this one. You can't praise God by following a checklist. It has to be spontaneous, like in our churches."

[Jesus]

"Wow! Hearing the two of you, I'm tempted to ask, 'Which of these went down to his house justified?' Seems to me both of you are siding with the Pharisee in that story of mine about prayer, and that comes awfully close to committing the sin of pride. How about letting those of us who are divine decide what kind of worship is acceptable?"

[Rev. Packard]

"Look, you. I've had a lot of experience leading worship, in front of thousands week after week, and I say when you plan out everything in advance it doesn't give the Holy Spirit much room to maneuver."

[Jesus]

"Yet, Reverend, when I visit your church I notice that the same people pray each Sunday for pretty much the same things, and in nearly the same words. Even your sermons seem to repeat themselves week after week. Mostly you either attack other churches for believing differently than you, or you get all riled up over detailed descriptions of specific sins. Maybe you should give the negative a little less attention and focus instead on the possibilities of faithful living. After all, we created everyone in our divine likeness. That sounds pretty positive to me."

[Rev. Packard]

"But the Lord Jesus himself told sinners to repent."

[Jesus]

"That's right, I did . . . but I believe the full quote was, 'Repent and believe the good news!' Seems to me it's that 'good news' part you keep leaving out."

[Rev. Packard]

"I still say that calling out sinners is the first step toward repentance. You wouldn't want us to ignore all the wrong things that people do, now would you?"

[Jesus]

"Oh, I think we know far too much about human frailties already. Better to skip the sordid details and put more energy into healing people's hurts. Oh, and by the way Reverend, greet Helen for me next time you see her."

[Rev. Packard]

"Helen, my secretary?"

[Jesus]

"Yes, that's her official position, but I had in mind the part of your relationship that's a little more private."

[Rev. Packard]

"Wait a second! Just who do you think you are? Are you insinuating that . . . "

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"Gentlemen, I think we'd better move on to our next question. What's the most pressing problem for churches today? Brother Armstrong, perhaps you'd like to comment on that one."

[Brother Armstrong]

"As far as I'm concerned we've watered down our standards way too much. Why, some churches even say it's alright for women to serve as pastors, and we all know that's not what the Bible says."

[Jesus]

"I have to say that some of my best friends would object to that comment. Mary Magdalene, for example, and Mary and Martha . . . not to mention the women Paul treasured, like Phoebe and Lois and Eunice. Granted, none of them were ordained . . . as far as I know. But women have always been central to living out the gospel and still are, even in your own churches."

[Brother Armstrong]

"Not by running the whole show. That's for men only."

[Jesus]

"Really? Where would your church be without women? They make up more than half the people who attend worship, they serve on church committees and boards and agencies. They even hold leadership positions in politics and business nowadays. And as for being ordained, the Bible doesn't even mention it, yet some women are gifted in ways most men can't even imagine. I'd say count your blessings, fellas."

[Dr. Townsend]

"I have to agree with some of those comments. In my parish, if women weren't active and involved, most of what goes on wouldn't happen. Why, we even elected our first female deacon just last year, though personally I think allowing women to be ordained goes a little too far. But there are other issues a lot more pressing, it seems to me, homosexuality for one. My denomination and lots of others are being torn apart, thanks to these so-called same gender relationships. Some churches are already giving a blessing to such pairings and even considering them as 'marriages.' A few actually ordain gays now, can you imagine? I think we have to draw the line somewhere. Just call 'sin' a sin, I say."

[Jesus]

"Well Dr., I'm tempted to tell you to cast the first stone, but instead I'll just admit that a few passages of Scripture do mention specific situations or sexual acts and label them as sinful, but be careful going down that path. It's a slippery slope. For one thing, the jury's still out as to what causes a person to be homosexual."

[Rev. Packard]

"I think it's perfectly obvious to everyone. People chose to be gay, and they can un-chose it as a lifestyle. That's what sin and repentance is all about."

[Jesus]

"You say that with confidence, even though some studies indicate that as many as 50% of gay persons are genetically wired that way? As far as I'm concerned, all this language about "choice" and "life style" seems a little disingenuous to me. Besides, there's also a lot of heterosexual abuse going on against women and children, even in churches, yet it took a long time for anyone to get worked up over those acts, let alone call them 'sins.' And then there's the way women have been treated as sexual objects throughout history, right up to the present day."

[Brother Armstrong]

"Yeah? Well, even you ought to know that the Bible says women should be submissive and yield to their husbands as heads of the household. That ought to include the household of God too, as far as I'm concerned!"

[Jesus]

[Jesus laughs] "I doubt you'd feel as comfortable about that comment if the writer of First Peter had put men in the subservient role. But then, we were discussing the issue of homosexuality, weren't we. Now, I find it curious that it's the physical part of loving that seems most disgusting to opponents of those who are gay, even though many heterosexual men seem perfectly comfortable watching sexual behavior between two women. Seems to me, Freud and the others were right: people have a lot of hang-ups about sex. As I said long ago, it's what comes out of a man that defiles him."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"Time's against us, so let's move on. I'm wondering about our country's current economic situation and how it's going to affect the churches. Anyone care to address that?"

[Brother Armstrong]

"I think God wants us all to prosper. That's the message the Nelson clan brought to our church last summer. They know a thing or two about God and finances - and boy, can they sing! They say if you tithe and do everything you can to go beyond it, God will bless you real good."

[Dr. Townsend]

"Maybe so, but in all honesty I have to admit that our parish is struggling some. It takes four or five new members to replace one good giver and we have lots of older members who keep dying. Still, we've managed to keep things going by cutting back wherever we can - especially on what we give to mission work and the larger church. After all, unlike religious denominations, the utility companies don't accept voluntary gifts; either they get their full amount each month or the power and gas gets shut off."

[Jesus]

"Oh ye of little faith! How did counting dollars ever take the place of doing ministry? Believe you me, when the people who count or bank offerings begin to call the shots, it can only lead to trouble. I ought to know. Judas was our treasurer and that didn't sure didn't turn out so well. Besides, I seem to remember a simple widow who gave all she had - not because a traveling minstrel promised her some get-rich-quick scheme, but because she gave from the heart. Maybe it's time we recall what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians and take it to heart: 'And God will generously provide all that you need. Then you will always have everything you need and enough left over to share with others.' "

[Dr. Townsend]

"That's actually true. Why, at our church we have a food pantry that gives out sacks of groceries every Thursday, and then on Thanksgiving Day we give an entire dinner to lots of poor unfortunate folk - mashed potatoes, dressing, the whole works. And it's all free, every mouthful."

[Jesus]

"No doubt some of those people come in off the street every night and sleep in your building too."

[Dr. Townsend]

"Sleep there? Oh no, of course not. Some of them are so dirty you can't believe it. Besides, we just redecorated our entire fellowship hall at a cost of thousands. Can't take a chance on messing up our building. That's why we've turned down having a preschool in our education wing every time someone asks. Imagine having to rearrange the furniture for Sunday School each weekend, not to mention the war and tear on our polished floors. It's all I can do to find enough people to hand out food sacks one day a week and serve a meal on Thanksgiving."

[Jesus]

"Maybe you could hire some people to work at those tasks. Sounds like some of the folk you cater to could use a job."

[Dr. Townsend]

"That's a nice thought but it would cost money, a lot of money, and our church is already struggling to meet its budget each year."

{Jesus]

"Maybe a few of your members could sell off an extra car or boat and donate the proceeds to relief work. Or scale down their tastes a bit and drive a smaller car - smaller than a black Lincoln Continental, let's say." [Dr. Townsend winces, but remains silent]

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"I'd like to go back to an area we've touched on already, worship styles, and ask each of you about music. I'm sure our viewers would like to know the kind of music you use in your worship services."

[Brother Armstrong]

"At our church we use short choruses, no song books or fancy hymnals. Something sing-able that people can learn quick and remember."

[Rev. Packard]

"We do the same thing, only we project the words of songs on the front walls of our auditorium. That saves time and money. No need to print or hand out song sheets. And our praise team leads the way with keyboards and drums and guitar. All up-to-date stuff, too. We never sing anything written by somebody who's dead."

[Jesus]

"Mozart and Bach, not to mention a few thousand others, will be sad to hear that. May I ask, what do you do when a contemporary songwriter dies? Yank that slide off your projector?"

[Rev. Packard]

"We haven't had to deal with that yet, I guess. I just know that people don't like stuffy old music - or worship either. They want something up-beat and 'with it.' Folks need a little zip in their lives, plus a simple thought or two they can take home. If you offer them too much substance they just won't come back."

[Jesus]

"Well, personally I like a wide variety of music - requiems for instance, not to mention organ music and choral arrangements - along with the usual lyre and timbrel and harp. And then there's religious dance, but that's a whole other matter. I say there's room for lots of worship styles, as long as they encourage people to connect with something deeper than themselves."

[Dr. Townsend]

"I must say, in our denomination we've used the same worship book and liturgy for over forty years now. Too much change is unsettling. Better keep to the tried and true methods of worship."

[Jesus]

"Better to bury your one talent than risk it, then."

[Dr. Townsend]

"No, not exactly. I just think a lot of this new stuff won't stand the test of time. Singing simple, repetitive songs is like eating too many chocolate covered donuts. It feels good for a little while, but in the long run . . . "

[Jesus]

"Point taken."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"Before we wrap this up, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you to talk a bit about interpreting scripture. It seems to me that topic is central to any discussion of church these days."

[Brother Armstrong]

"At the Fellowship Whole Gospel Tabernacle in Trenton our only creed is the Bible, interpreted literally, just the way God spoke it . . . the King James Version."

[Jesus]

"I understand that version was based on some manuscripts with gaps in them. For instance, the Book of Revelation in the KJV even uses a chapter or two from the Greek translation of Erasmus, a humanist."

[Brother Armstrong]

"I don't know about any of that. All I know is it's God's Word, every word of it."

[Jesus]

"I'm wondering then, which creation story do you favor, the first chapter of Genesis or chapters two and three? They're quite different, you know." [Brother Armstrong looks puzzled, opens his mouth to speak, but doesn't]

[Dr. Townsend]

"I see you know something about historical and literary criticism, which reminds me, I've often wondered why the Holy Spirit put so many contradictory things in the Bible. Why not just tell it straight, once and for all?"

[Rev. Packard]

"I think the Bible is God's literal Word. The only reason it seems confusing is that people read it that way. If you just look at each passage by itself, it makes perfect sense. Jonah really did get swallowed by a whale, Lazarus really did rise from the dead, and Jesus really did turn water into wine. Anybody who says anything different is just plain wrong."

[Jesus]

"I suppose the hardest part is figuring out which stories and details in the Bible were meant to be factual and which were intended to make a point without having to be literally true. After all, there's a real difference between saying the kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed and believing you'll spend eternity living in the branches of a large shrub, like some bird. Sometimes the way the Bible says things, it's hard to tell the difference."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"I see we're getting close to the end of our air time, so let's wrap this up. I want to give each of you the chance to make a closing statement. Brother Armstrong, let's start with you."

[Brother Armstrong]

"Like I said before, at the Fellowship Whole Gospel Tabernacle our only creed is the Bible. We take it word for word, and believe that whoever confesses their sins and is washed in the blood of Jesus will be saved. We let the Holy Spirit fill our worship through speaking in tongues and healing people, and - by the way - we think our church is the only true church. If we thought another church had the whole truth, why then, we'd believe like they did - but we don't. So come see us if you want to be saved for sure."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"Thank you, Brother Armstrong. Dr. Townsend, you're next."

[Dr. Townsend]

"Trinity Cathedral in Parkerstown is a traditional church. Our worship is historic and follows the prescribed patterns that have existed through the ages. We see ourselves as preserving intact the heritage of the mainline churches. Our building is outstanding, gothic in appearance, and we have a fine pipe organ, an excellent music program and an endowment fund that is designed to keep the structures of our parish in place for generations to come. Anyone who wants to worship with us is welcome to attend. We hope they will fit right in."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"Thank you, Dr. Townsend. And now, Rev. Packard."

[Rev. Packard]

"Greater Life Fellowship is a large building in the center of a huge campus that caters to any number of folks. We have thousands at worship every Saturday and Sunday, but don't worry - there's a seat for you, and it's a comfortable one at that. The same outfit that designed the padded seats for the city's new professional baseball stadium did our seating too. They're plush, but not so padded that you'd fall asleep during my sermons, [he chuckles] or during the singing either.

"When I first started our church I went around and asked people what kind of church they'd like to attend, if they could make it any way they wanted. Then we used that information to plan our church. That's why we don't use any fancy religious symbols in our building; they'd only get in the way of people's thoughts. We also use up-to-date, 'with it' music, like I said earlier, and we include lots of short plays or skits to keep people's attention. We focus on real-life issues people want to hear about, instead of reading lots of long passages of scripture. When you're at our worship services you'll only hear a verse or two read, just enough to set out the theme for the day. And, I must say, our choir is tops and our musicians really swing. Some of them actually play in nightclubs as their 'day' job [he chuckles again].

"So come see us, and the Lord will bless you. You can count on it."

[Host: Mr. Engel]

"For our last word now, I'll turn to you, Jesus."

[Jesus]

[He remains silent for a long, long time as the panel members shift uncomfortably in their seats and the audience leans forward, anxious to hear what he has to say. Finally, he speaks:]" . . . how often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!"

[Then Jesus vanishes from sight; off-stage a rooster crows twice]

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