GOD/HEAD: Chris Goode’s God Experience – An Interview [Part Two]

My interview with Chris Goode, creator and performer of GOD/HEAD, concludes below. (Read part one here.) Chris, an atheist theatre artist processing a ‘God experience’, talks about partnering with other artists, the relationship between God, religion, and brain chemistry, and what he hopes theists will receive from the show. 

More information about GOD/HEAD, which opens tonight at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford, and runs through Friday, can be found here

5) For each show, you invite a different artist to be a guest and help you tell your story. Without asking about individual people, have these artists largely shared your approach to God, or have they held a variety of beliefs? What have you learned from each other through processing your ‘God experience’ together?

For the most part I invited people to come in as guest performers whom I didn’t know well enough that I could confidently predict where they would place themselves on the axis of religious belief. Of the seventeen I’ve worked with so far, only a couple spoke to a clear and present faith; none were such emphatic atheists that I was ever asked to defend or justify the opening up of the question. Mostly – and this is partly because of how those guests’ involvement in the piece is shaped – we didn’t really talk about God at all. We talked about intense or decisive moments in their lives, about love and grief and anger, loss and hope and regret. Everybody had something to talk about, something big that was going on in their lives or had happened at some point, that I knew nothing about until they chose to share it. Part of the impetus behind GOD/HEAD for me was a passionate interest in testimony – in the public space of the theatre, and in the more private space of conversation. The importance of telling the truth about who we are. People are very brave and very candid, given the space and time and a careful ear. Talking about my ‘God experience’ was, at one level, just my latest response to the useful maxim of the poet John Wieners: “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.”

6) You steadfastly refuse to label your ‘God experience’ as either a ‘religious experience’ or as a merely chemical experience. What do you see as the dangers of reducing an experience of ‘God’ to either religion or chemistry?

Before answering this I might note that there’s something interesting in the use of the word “merely” there in invoking chemical experience. Learning the little I now know about the neurochemistry of religious experience, there certainly seems to be something numinous, something almost miraculous, about the complexity of brain chemistry, compared to which the often bluntly low-resolution nature of the “religious” as it manifests in the man-made world may certainly appear to be the more apt to be described as “mere”!

Simply, what I found I valued most of all about the experience I had was the way in which it was genuinely and radically unsettling. It was that powerful feeling of disorientation that seemed capable of changing the patterns of my life and challenging my assumptions and unwitting complacencies. To make a resolution of the core question, one way or another, would be to allow the impact of the experience to come to a restful cadence; whereas I feel that what’s useful to me, at this point in my life at least, is the disquieting imperative of trying to live in the space of the contradiction. To reduce that down would be to force a choice for the sake of convenience, and I don’t see that I could trust the outcome with my life.

7) Most of our readers will be theists. When an audience member who believes in God comes to see your show, what do you hope he/she will come away with?

I think many people of faith, if they’re at all thoughtful, commonly live with a pattern of experiences not dissimilar to the ones I describe, in which the base state day-to-day is not the absolute defining potency of revelation but rather the tremors of doubt and paroxysms of wanting and the sense of only ever glimpsing or grasping at what is not entirely within the reach of perception or language. I must say I’ve been surprised at how reluctant some believers seem to be to resist the elision of God and religion in the effort of trying to come to terms with that position; I hope the show might be a useful provocation in that respect. As soon as any other voice, or text, or apparatus, intervenes to mediate between myself and God, I can’t see past the political structure of that mediation; the God that glimmers at the edge of my comprehension is somewhere else entirely.

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As my brief review, I enjoyed the show, and found it both theatrically innovative and theologically stimulating. The Jesuit priest and playwright who saw it with me proclaimed it ‘brilliant’. As a show bound to be unsettling – in a fruitful way – to both atheist and theist viewers, I recommend it. It’s also good theatre. Click here for tickets.

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Image credit: Chris Goode & Company (publicity photo)

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