Of stones and words

An interview with Flint Hill’s John Henry

John Henry, third from left, as a Crusader.
John Henry, third from left, as a Crusader. E. Raymond Boc

Rappahannock County is blessed with an abundance of interesting individuals doing interesting things, often not widely known. In the interest of community-sharing and in the first of an occasional series, Rappahannock News’ Walter Nicklin does a Q&A with Flint Hill’s John Henry.  

Rapp News: Tell us about the origins of the Stone Hill Amphitheater at your place in Flint Hill.

John Henry
John Henry

John Henry: I spent seven years building the amphitheater at Stone Hill. I look back on it in amazement. How in the world did I do that? Doing all that stonework has given me a lot of confidence.

RN: And about the plays and other events you’ve had there?                                                                                                          

JH: Besides the annual “spectacle” each fall around Halloween, we’ve had two plays. They were written by Jim Reston, a friend. I learned a lot watching Jim stage his two plays in my amphitheater. I love the idea of using a trial as the basis of conflict in a play. Galileo was put on trial in 2014 and Sherman in 2015.

The Galileo and Sherman trials got me thinking about the nature of theatrical conflict. I like moral conflict where the higher self is pitted against the lower self. On the surface, the Galileo trial pitted science against religion; in reality, the struggle was between truth and power. This struggle was further disguised by the complications of Galileo’s maddening ego.

On the surface, the Sherman trial pitted two Yankees fighting over how to treat Southerners. In reality, the trial was about the meaning of war and peace: Sherman believed in a hard war and a soft peace; Stanton believed in a soft war and a hard peace. The two Reston trials are about subjects that have been conclusively resolved. The Catholic Church lost the battle against science. The South lost the American Civil War.

RN: You’ve now written your own play called “Arguing With God,” scheduled for its first performance at Stone Hill Amphitheater on May 21. What inspired you to write your own play — and a play based on the Old Testament?

JH: I looked around for an Old Testament play that would explain the origins of American exceptionalism in its current form. I wanted the play to address a big problem we haven’t solved. When I couldn’t find a play that did this, I decided to write my own.

I didn’t write “Arguing With God” because I was a playwright looking for a topic. I wrote the play because I am a citizen of the American Republic and we suffer from a big problem we aren’t discussing. I have something to say that isn’t being said. I want to encourage a broader discussion about where we came from, where we’re going and why we exist.

I have been troubled for some time about the secular religion in our country that we are an indispensable nation. Almost everyone, regardless of political affiliation, believes that we are “good guys” who have the moral authority to use force against “bad guys”. This concept of a chosen people comes from the Old Testament. I thought a play would be a good way to explain the origin of this belief system. Woodrow Wilson took the Old Testament chosen people concept and made it into a secular religion in the United States. Wilsonianism has gripped our public mind for the 97 years since the U.S. went to war in Europe under the banner of saving the world for democracy.

We have the greatest separation of church and state problem in our history. This isn’t recognized because it’s coming from a different direction. Traditionally, the state put its foot into religion. When the Winthrops of Massachusetts denied Roger Williams the right to adult baptism, he convinced Oliver Cromwell to give him the state of Rhode Island. Today we live in a secular culture where most Americans aren’t Bible readers and they don’t know the genesis of their chosen people beliefs. The religious belief in “good guys” and “bad guys” now occupies the public square and inhabits the minds of government officials. We have an Old Testament foreign policy that’s embraced with the same false certainty that the Puritans once believed that they were a chosen people who were appointed by God to build a city on a hill in New England.   

Roger Piantadosi
Hundreds watched a full-costume, staged reading of writer James Reston Jr.’s “Sherman the Peacemaker,” at John Henry’s Stone Hill Amphitheater last June. Roger Piantadosi

RN: How does the Old Testament concept of a chosen people differ from the teachings of the New Testament?

JH: As an only child, I had daily discussions with my father, an Episcopal minister, about Christianity. We read the Bible every night for more than an hour. When I left home at age 17, I had read the Bible 17 times. The New Testament combines the concepts of original sin and eternal life. The Old Testament deals with the concept of a chosen people and is silent on the concept of eternal life. So the two books that make up the Bible are different in fundamental respects.

Mark Twain said the Old Testament is what God looked like before he got religion and the New Testament is what he looked like after he got religion. Christian denominations whitewash the Old Testament by importing the New Testament, looking for universality where it isn’t and downplaying the chosen people. The chosen people and original sin are theologically polar opposites. The former focuses on the group, the latter on the individual. It isn’t possible to believe in both concepts because they’re incompatible. You can’t believe in original sin and believe America is a force for good in the world. Original sin teaches that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys.” Since the Garden of Eden, good and evil have cut through the heart of every human being.

The struggle between our higher self and our lower self is the pain of being human. The chosen people concept is based on the idea of “good guys.” We live in an Old Testament world and always will. We can’t change that, but we can change our Old Testament foreign policy if we face up to its destructive nature.

RN: It is said that finalizing a play for production is very much a collaborative effort, and I understand that you have involved many here in Rappahannock in this endeavor.

JH: The play has benefited from readings with book groups at St Peter’s and Trinity churches here in Rappahannock. I welcome the opportunity to do readings with other groups in Rappahannock. And at rehearsals the actors and director are constantly fine-tuning things.

RN: What is the Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation?

JH: Since 2005, when I bought Stone Hill, I have built many stone follies with my own hands. The amphitheater is by far my biggest project. For the last six years we have held a public spectacle the last Saturday before Halloween. It grew from several hundred to around a thousand people. On May 21, we will be holding our third play in the Stone Hill Amphitheater. Our seating holds 600 people and we’re hoping to reach capacity this year. As the popularity of these events developed, it became clear we needed to create a non-profit vehicle to manage these growing costs. Thus the Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

RN: What is your biggest surprise in writing “Arguing With God?”

JH: When I started writing my Old Testament play, I wasn’t aware of the tradition in Judaism of prophets arguing with God to resist injustice. I think this is one of the biggest ideas in human history. Christianity and Islam have never had anything but a vertical, top-down relationship with God. Judaism has an additional horizontal relationship with God, which entitles them to argue with God over what’s right and wrong.  

I fell in love with this prophetic truth-telling tradition and rewrote my play with Moses as the moral hero battling Yahweh and the way of the world. “Arguing With God” follows Old Testament narratives and events from Adam and Eve to the downfall of Israel and the exile of the chosen people to Babylon. It highlights the injustice of Yahweh and the sacredness of free will that enables morality.

The play culminates in Moses’s embrace of justice as his God — a bright flicker of light in the dark, amoral world Yahweh had created. Since then, the world has had countless so-called “chosen people,” and their civilizations and empires all eventually collapsed. There’s nothing new under the sun.

RN: I’m glad I asked you about surprises. Were there any other surprises?

JH: Yes, Rick Davis. Jim Reston had a longstanding playwright-director relationship with Rick, who is now Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University. I was blown away by how Rick could turn our amateur actors into something more by playtime. Rick brings in a professional actor to take the lead role. Colin Davies played Galileo and will play the prophet Samuel. John Lescault played Sherman and will play Moses and the Ghost of Moses. I am immensely grateful for the confidence Rick has had in me in this new phase in our relationship. Rick is making me better than I am. Here’s to Rick Davis.