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CTC Blog: Behind the Curtain

Interfaith Moments of Change

The Christians, directed by Taibi Magar, will play June 28-July 14 at Bratton Theater, as part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2019 season. Tickets are available here.

The Christians’ Pastor Paul is not the only faith leader who has come under fire for a change in belief. Here’s a look at historical faith leaders who have advocated for an evolution of belief within their community.

Rabbi Abraham Geiger - Reform Judaism 

Abraham Geiger was a 19th-century rabbi and scholar who is today considered the intellectual founder of Reform Judaism. He was the driving force in leading other reform-minded Rabbis in formulating a program of progressive Judaism. However, unlike the relatively more extreme Samuel Holdheim,  he did not want to create a separate community. His goal instead was to “change Judaism from within.”

Like Zayd’s relationship to Islam, he viewed Judaism through a historical lens; he didn’t just examine its religious content in his teachings, but also acknowledged socio-cultural influences on the faith. He did not see any Jewish text as divinely written. He believed that Judaism was by its nature evolutionary, and so viewed generational changes to its particular ethical practices as natural to the faith.

Nasr Abu ZaydNasr Abu Zayd - Islam

Nasr Abu Zayd was a contemporary liberal Egyptian scholar who spoke out against the use of religion as a means of exerting political power and emphasized the importance of the Qur’an’s geographic, historical, and cultural context. He challenged the traditional idea that the Qur’an was divinely inspired, teaching it as both a literary and religious text.

In 1995, Zayd was declared heretical for challenging traditional Muslim perspectives on the Qur’an. His marriage was annulled, and he and his wife were forced into exile, later relocating again after receiving death threats from Jihadist groups.

Though his Muslim critics claimed he was endorsing European enlightenment ideals, he cited his greatest influences as prolific golden age Islamic thinkers, like 12th-century philosopher Ibn Arabi. “My worst fear is that people may consider me a critic of Islam,” he once said. “I’m sure that I’m a Muslim.”

Carlton Pearson speaking square cropCarlton Pearson - Evangelical Christianity

In 2006, Carlton Pearson, who at the time was presiding over Higher Dimension Evangelical Church as head pastor, declared to his congregation in a Sunday sermon that he longer believed in Hell. Pearson had been on the rise for years, and the church’s average attendance had reached over 6,000. Pearson’s career suffered for his stated belief in universal reconciliation--what he has dubbed “The Gospel of Inclusion.” He was declared a heretic by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, lost most of his congregation, and eventually lost his church as well to foreclosure. His story became the subject of “Heretics,” a popular This American Life episode, as well as Come Sunday, a Netflix biopic based on the episode and produced in part by This American Life.

In the years since that Sunday in 2006, Pearson has been the Senior Minister of Christ Universal Temple, head of head of a new Higher Dimensions fellowship, and affiliate minister at All Souls Unitarian Church.

The Christians audiences may notice striking similarities between the content of the play and Pearson’s story. Playwright Lucas Hnath has stated publicly that Pearson’s story is not the basis of his play, but merely informed his research.

History of Faith at Chautauqua Institution
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