What if God spoke to Jeff Bezos?
POST BY TByron
Monday, September 25, 2017 - 13:59
It was an interesting experience for me to go to the theatre and find an intelligent and non-cliched exploration of contemporary mystical experience. Christopher Shinn’s ‘Against’, playing at the Almeida Theatre in north London, is a fascinating and absorbing study of millennial confusion. Most engrossingly from an Ignatian perspective, a fundamental theme is what happens when someone powerful and influential feels that God is speaking to them in the midst of that confusion. This is a play about a businessman who has possibly experienced a communication from God, might be having a breakdown (the two are not mutually exclusive) but is certainly trying to work through some billionaire guilt. The main character Luke (Ben Whishaw) is a Silicon Valley aerospace tycoon whose fortune has been made from rocket science, solar panels and the development of artificial intelligence. There is a hint of Elon Musk (SpaceX & Tesla) about him, but also of Jeff Bezos (Amazon), as one of his companies is an Amazon clone called ‘Equator’. It is an Equator ‘fulfilment’ centre that provides the backdrop for a lot of the play and the space for a gripping climax.
Luke believes that God has spoken to him, instructing him to, ‘Go where there’s violence’. If this is an authentic mystical experience then theologians might call it an ‘inner locution’, but the play doesn’t attempt to discuss its authenticity; rather it focuses on the disbelief of Luke’s protective and enamoured personal assistant. Her strong advice to him, which is ignored, is not to talk about it publicly, expressing that all-too-prevalent unease with religiosity that wishes to banish God from the public square. However, our luminary Luke will not be shackled, and another mystical encounter happens at the climax of the first part, this time repeatedly calling him to, ‘Come, Come, Come’. His besotted assistant interprets this as an invitation to a more ‘earthly vocation’ – but the dreamer Luke is on a mission to solve suffering across America.
What he is missing is a wise spiritual director. How does he interpret these experiences? Are they from God or from somewhere else? As the play progresses and people start responding to his ‘mission’, he starts attracting devoted followers but then begins to alienate them with his rather intransigent self-righteousness. What are the genuine fruits of his mission? With charismatic power comes great responsibility, especially in a religious context, but there is no spiritual tradition to root himself in, no structure to which he is accountable, no accumulated wisdom to draw on. This is a classic weakness of the ‘spirituality not religion’ crowd. Is Luke getting a ‘messiah complex’?
There is a Christ-like aura in the gentle, charismatic intensity with which he, in his jeans and trainers sitting cross-legged in various locations, patiently and non-judgementally is available to listen to all sorts of people. How does he start to discern genuine consolation from the false consolations?
Ben Whishaw plays it well projecting an intense stillness and quiet holiness, which as the play unfolds appears more fragile, his inner agitation exposes itself in his twitching fingers and restless thumbs. He is a plausible 21st-century saint but with heavy dollops of millennial narcissism, full of self-righteousness, leaving his adoring assistant hanging because he can't decide whether he is ready for love. This self-absorption is mirrored in his quest, which seems to treat violence solely as an American problem.
The plot itself is at times rather complicated and feels a bit self-indulgent; perhaps this is deliberate as it represents our millennial busy-ness. However, with a deft hand the director, Ian Rickson, has a minimalist set, with just an illuminated sign to indicate each location. The rich banquet of ideas and scenarios that the audience is force-fed during the first half might leave you feeling as if indigestion is starting to kick in. Luckily in the second half, the tension starts to escalate and it all becomes digestible and I certainly left satisfied.