Last weekend, Door Christian Fellowship Ministries in McAllen, Texas mounted an unauthorized, unlicensed, “Christianized” production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical. hamilton. The production took the opportunity to convert the story arc into a redemptive story in which Hamilton and his wife Eliza are saved. At the end of the show, Pastor Victor Lopez then added a short sermon would have comparing the “struggle…with homosexuality” to alcohol, drugs and broken marriages – a particularly inappropriate adornment given Broadway’s reputation for queer positivity and the Tony Award acceptance speech “Love is love by Miranda in 2016.
Broadway morals and values hamilton and Door McAllen Church hamilton are clearly dissimilar. And the legal issue with Door McAllen Church’s unlicensed production of hamilton seems cut and dried (the hamilton the creative and legal teams have since denounced the production following their cease and desist letter). But the outrage surrounding the evangelical framing of this production must take into account that Alexander Hamilton’s pro-immigrant version of Lin-Manuel Miranda, so beloved by liberals, was also forced.
Both are fantasies, both are adaptations of the story, and both have the story wrong. It’s the fallacy of both stories that I think is worth talking about. In fact, the headlines bury the lede: musical theater bridges the secular left and the Christian right. How?
In my book Lying in the Middle: Musical Theater and Belief in the Heart of America, I investigate how religious communities like Door McAllen Church use musicals to practice a form of world-building where they and their beliefs can belong. I learned that this level of accommodation is not at all uncommon among religious groups in America, and for good reason. Musicals, like many religions, are invested in not yetin the could be. With their extravagant theatrics and larger-than-life mythologies, neither is committed to affirming the world around us in the way secular liberals are wont to do.
On the contrary, they teach us to imagine (what they consider to be) a better and fairer version of our world.– although in the case of the Christian right, this version of the world tends to be “fairer” only to those who believe and look like them. Truth is not a currency in these economies. This act of lying is what is important. It opens up a space of possibility. Musicals and religion do it easily. There is something special about this ability, as DA Miller said, “to send the whole world packing.”
I think the relationship that musicals have with evangelical religion also has something to do with their limitlessness. And when it comes to unlimited ideas, a metaphor I use in class is: the world of ideas is full of peaches and coconuts.
Peaches invite you. They’re easy to love and even easier to drip down your smiling chin. Coconuts fought. They challenge you to love them. If you want what’s inside, you have to bring tools and you have to work on it. It’s the shell.
The object lesson is about value, and value in this equation comes down to accessibility. I think about hamilton as having thin skin. hamilton doesn’t make liking it or understanding its ideological message a challenge, even though there are sometimes layers of meaning hidden beneath its surface. The show is accessible in a way that makes it accessible to many. And that’s part of the grind here. Thin-skinned, accessible works lend themselves to adaptation and reinvention in ways that cannot always be predicted.
Walter Benjamin incorporated this paradox of accessibility in his famous 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Mass produce a work of art like hamilton puts this art in more hands; on the other hand, all those filthy little fingers that stain, soil and wear out.
Benjamin’s fellow thinkers in Frankfurt had reason to be wary of what democracy’s many filthy hands represent. After all, these Jewish intellectuals narrowly escaped the terrors of accessibility. Give the people a chance and they will elect a dictator. Make music that everyone can understand and you get Muzak. Their point was that art may not survive democracy. Borders are necessary. Our best art and our best ideas must be kept out of reach if they are to do any real work in the world.
As it is with art, so it is with religion. Give your beliefs a hard shell or skin and the uninvested (some say unworthy) will pass by. A thick skin protects what’s inside, sometimes even repelling those who want to try. Thin-skinned ideas, on the other hand, are there to be taken. Adapting a Broadway monster hit to make an ideological point about Christianity is a thin-skinned power move, much like creating a Broadway monster hit to make an ideological point about immigration.
Both productions are heavy, ahistorical and ideological works. That one makes a pro-social message about human dignity and worth and the other takes the opportunity to denigrate and erase the identity of others shows how powerful and consequential having thin skin can be.
The skin is a barrier, a border. It contains what it hides. It defines what lies beneath the surface. But the skin is also what lets in and out what is necessary for survival. It is porous in a way that helps it coexist in its environment, and closed in a way that allows it to survive as something separate from that environment. Skin is a relationship between what something is and what something cannot become.
And that’s the lesson here. Door McAllen Church’s production brings up an intriguing situation. It’s no small thing that in an age of bitter criticism and entrenchment, we find an example where warring parties actually admit to finding meaning in the same fundamental story.
Musicals like hamilton clarify our relationship to the world as it is to make us rethink the world as it could become. Churches like The Door McAllen seem to be doing the same thing. Thin-skinned ideas allow different people to come together, but it comes at a cost. The calculation of this production brings points on the discomfort that arises when we realize the strange company that our musicals help us keep.