10 December 2014

In The Crucible

salemLast night I saw an excellent performance of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, by pupils at Lochaber High School. Miller wrote The Crucible as a satire on post-war McCarthyism, but its setting is the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th Century, and the infamous witch trials there. Miller’s portrayal of the events at Salem is largely historical, and through the play he draws powerful parallels between the hysteria, authoritarianism and persecution of the Puritan communities of New England and of the McCarthy era.

What particularly struck me last night was the The Crucible’s portrayal of Pietism. Pietism is that version of Christian faith which, like Gnosticism, denigrates the physical world. Pietism proposes a radical separation of God’s work of creation and God’s work of salvation. The created world is perceived as a ‘grim vale of soul-making’ (George Caird’s characterisation), a temporary theatre constructed so that the play of human salvation can run its course. Human culture and the enjoyment of life are denigrated by Pietism, and are ultimately meaningless. Death is to be embraced, life endured.

Whatever benefits came from Puritan theology, Puritanism had Pietism at its heart. Miller portrays a Puritan community consumed by superstition, and a clergy consumed with material gain and pride. In Salem, the arts, literature, and human enjoyment in general are frowned upon. Giles Corey suspects his wife of witchery because she is reading books. That children should be dancing is a cause for dismay. Goody Proctor confesses her coldness to her husband, a coldness emblematic of the denigration of human love within Pietism. A Christianity which finds no place for the positive theology of creation found in the scriptures of the Bible lays itself open to the superstition and hysteria which erupted in Salem and elsewhere. When Christianity has little connection to God’s work in nature, Christians begin to live in an enchanted world, where everyday illnesses and misfortunes are attributed to evil spirits, and where the devil, rather than human sin, is behind every injustice. This is a Christianity where an extreme dualism values the spiritual world as the ‘real’ world, and the physical world as inconsequential. Where such views prevail, Christians find it easier to live dualistic lives. Their ‘godly’ spiritual exercises sit alongside actions which are compromised by greed, jealousy or hatred. A theological disconnect between the spiritual and the physical leads to lives which are dualistic and untransformed. In Miller’s Salem, ‘covenanted, Gospel Christians’ talk in pious terms, yet angle to acquire others’ land. Rev Parris most clearly exhibits this hypocrisy, using threats of hell-fire to cow-tow his parishioners whilst seeking more pay, and golden candlesticks at his elbows.

The Crucible can make for uncomfortable viewing for some Christians, portraying as it does the hypocrisy and superstition that can flourish within Christianity. But I enjoy The Crucible as a Christian, not only because it’s a great play, but because the kind of Christianity encountered in The Crucible deserves critique. Its portrayal of Pietism (although focussing on its extreme consequences) is not just of historical interest, since Pietism is alive and well within evangelical Christianity. Within the Church we continue to be burdened by its presence, because Pietism is incapable of carrying God’s truth effectively into God’s world. It holds Christians back in terms of their growth and discipleship, stretching them in an unbiblical tension of guilt and superstition, suspended between heaven and earth.

In The Crucible, Rev Hale speaks to Goody Proctor in the face of the latest hangings, ‘Life is God’s most precious gift’. True Christianity understands God as the God of life, and understands that human life is to be lived and to be valued, along with the beauty and meaning of human art and literature. True Christianity banishes asceticism, and understands that God intends to redeem this creation, and that through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s people are destined for resurrection. We are called to witness to the goodness of God in creation, and to proclaim that Jesus Christ came into the world to bring ‘life in all its fullness’.