God on trial?

UPDATE: This play has now been broadcast.  If you’re looking for a review, see my other article.  This article was originally posted here on August 19.

Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the script for 24 Hour Party People, has an article in today’s Guardian about his experience writing the script for Mark Redhead’s dramatic project, God on Trial, a play about Jews in a Nazi deathcamp who put God on trial and find him guilty.  As Boyce remarks, this isn’t so extraordinary as it may seem to people outside the Jewish tradition of scholarship, though there is no convincing evidence that the trial in question actually took place.

Boyce found the research and writing quite challenging, and questioned his beliefs as a Roman Catholic:

“Instead of the usual snappy dialogue, I wrote speeches that ran for pages. To get them right, I had to read the scriptures: the Torah, the Talmud, everything. I assumed that doing so would enrich my own spiritual life. It almost killed it stone dead. I thought I was familiar with much of these texts, but reading them straight through was a different experience. Here was a God who was savage and capricious, who chose favourites then dropped them, who set his people ridiculous tests. And the people! A full account of social etiquette during the time of the book of Genesis would have to include an entry under: What to do when the neighbours come round mob-handed demanding to have sex with your visitors. The answer is: Offer them your virginal daughter instead.”As a writer, I was thrilled by this: free stories! Shocking, bloodthirsty stories of ancient atrocities, stories that almost everyone has forgotten. The screenwriter side of me was happy all day. But the good Catholic side of me was being beaten black and blue. I thought my faith was invulnerable. I’ve been through family illness. I’ve witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise – for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist. The first real challenge to my faith came from reading the scriptures. It may seem deliciously ironic to you, but for me it was a time of a permanent headache and no sleep. I felt that half of me was dying.”

In the end Boyce forgives God, and he sees his play as being about the power of faith, quoting La Rochefoucauld: “A great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one.”  He is unable to account for the heroism and stoicism he found in his research, if not from a divine source.  He also subtly draws a link between godless science and the death-camps via the eugenicist Marie Stopes, who carried her beliefs to the point of ostracizing her son when he married a woman who wore glasses, and the reader is left to draw an unfavorable comparison with the tale of the Prodigal Son.  Yes, Boyce is a skilful writer and I’ll watch his play when it’s shown in early September.

I don’t share Boyce’s perspective.  I don’t doubt God, because I see no reason to believe that God (by any definition) exists in the first place.  I know that humans are capable of great good and great evil, and I no more see a need to account for good by appeal to the divine than I see a need to account for evil by appeal to the satanic.  The human brain is very complex and supports a mind capable of encompassing both.

But I recognise the work Boyce has engaged in as a good and necessary one–irrespective of his conclusion and personal bias.  I don’t think Boyce would really want to characterize the play as solely a test of faith, or part of a dialog between humanity and God.  If it were only that, then from my point of view it would be an exercise in self-delusion.  These are questions–good and evil and how we decide to account for them–that must be asked irrespective of our beliefs.  They are questions for an atheist as much as they are questions for the Catholic or the Jew.  For the atheist, it was not God on trial at Auschwitz, but humanity.  Offloading the question to an external entity is an evasion of responsibility.

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