Max McLean

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

C.S. Lewis on stage: Working to bring the DNA of life and faith to off-Broadway

NEW YORK -- To get to The Pearl Theatre, drama lovers visit the bright lights of Broadway and then turn West and head deep into Hell's Kitchen, where the off-Broadway marquees are smaller and the offerings more daring.

For the team behind "C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce," the road to The Pearl ran through halls in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., San Diego, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere before reaching New York for a Dec. 3 opening night in the intimate 162-seat venue.

Theater's highest hurdle is still New York City, explained Max McLean, founder and director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts team and co-writer of this version of "The Great Divorce."

Living and working in the neighborhood defined by Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, means "being surrounded by hundreds of artists of every kind. They may not be as well known as people in Hollywood, but they are producing art that's exported to the whole world. This community in New York City still has tremendous influence. …

"The goal is for our work to be taken seriously. We want to tell stories that engage the moral imagination and push people to take faith seriously -- right here."

Ironically, one way for a modern company dedicated to faith and the arts to find cultural credibility is to look to the past, focusing on the work of legendary writers who are not part of the modern evangelical subculture.

Lewis remains one of the world's most popular writers and the Oxford University don was an articulate atheist before his turn to Christianity, a conversion that took place with the help of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to "The Great Divorce," McLean has produced, directed and starred in the four-year national, and off-Broadway, run of another Lewis classic, "The Screwtape Letters."

"Lewis called himself a dinosaur" in the 1950s, said McLean. "But for me, he remains the model for how to bring the Christian imagination into the mainstream. He remains a relevant dinosaur -- along with Tolkien -- and he points us to the work of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and others."