For a play making its world premiere in the South, you could hardly find a more tantalizing title than Terry Milner’s The Jesus Fund. And Burning Coal Theatre Company, the group who is putting on the show in Raleigh, seems to agree. The program’s cover reads The Je$us Fund – every Southerner knows things get interesting when Jesus and money meet up.

Most of the story unfolds on the grounds of New Theological Seminary (NTS), a fictional seminary in Manhattan known for its defense of liberal theology. As with many liberal seminaries, the glory days of NTS are long gone and it now finds itself strapped for cash. Hoping to drum up interest, NTS launches a “Red Church/Blue Church Colloquium” that will pit NTS’ scathing liberal professor, Dr. Michael Brand (Gregor McElvogue), against his former classmate and colleague, the conservative evangelical Dr. David Padgett (David Henderson). Although spirited debate sustained their friendship in seminary, Brand and Padgett now find themselves theological enemies. Brand just published his controversial book Secular Christianity, while Padgett runs a lucrative Christian investment firm called “The Jesus Fund.” In between their polar extremes we find the seminary’s dean, Dr. Aubrey Lothrop (Tom McCleister), who aligns himself theologically with Brand but really just wants to save the seminary. Brand and Padgett scream; Lothrop laments.

Over in the campus dormitories, three students struggle together with their various faiths. Ilana Shelby (Carly Prentis Jones), an Episcopalian seeking ordination, hangs out in the room of Jonathan Lewis (Ian Finley), a Reconstructionist Jew, and Jamil Rana (Rajeev Rajendran), a liberal Sufi. Each character tries to navigate his or her way through the treacherous landscape of modern religion, but what really binds them together is a shared hatred of conservative Christianity. So when David Padgett returns to NTS for the “Red Church/Blue Church” debate, the student trio prepares for battle.

The story reaches its climax when Padgett reveals his true intentions for returning to NTS, which will not be divulged in this spoiler-free review. Yet through his arguments with Brand and the student trio, Padgett remembers why he loved NTS so much. Right-wing Christianity has left a stale taste in his mouth, and NTS has reminded him of how good spicy debate can be. The big question becomes: will Padgett shift allegiances or return back to his “Jesus Fund” ways?

That’s about as close as the play gets to anything truly dramatic. Most of it reads like an intellectual exercise going on in Milner’s head, full of witty banter but lacking in characterization. Almost all of the characters serve as representatives of a particular social or theological position, so they wind up looking like pale imitations of real religious human beings.

Take Michael Brand, for example. Milner clearly wants to portray him as a sophisticated rebel, stirring up the theological pot with cutting-edge historical-critical research. The problem is that Brand gives off little to no evidence of serious training in theology or biblical studies. He doesn’t give off the refined, educated airs of a John Dominic Crossan or even the passionate defense of the neglected John Shelby Spong. Instead, he comes across as someone who has read just enough pop theology at Barnes & Noble to be dangerous – and really, really angry.

Or take Jonathan Lewis. One moment he’s the joke-cracking, pot-smoking wise guy; the next he’s flipping off Padgett in front of Brand and Lothrop (who do nothing about it); after that, he realizes he’s gay and in love with Jamil Rana. But without a convincing backstory to keep it all tethered, his actions appear random, if not altogether flippant.

The real tragedy of The Jesus Fund, however, is the lack of anything resembling authentic, intelligible faith in God. Dean Lothrop comes close: his wearied, nostalgic demeanor is a lament for the decline of Protestant liberalism. I believe that he believes. But Brand defines himself by what he isn’t, Padgett’s beliefs are so confused that his “conversion” is literally un-believable and Jamil Rana is the only student to articulate why NTS had attracted him in the first place. I still have no clue if Jonathan Lewis actually believes in God, and Ilana Shelby’s statement of faith boils down to an embrace of compassion and kindness over hellfire and brimstone. That’s not faith in a powerful God; that’s liberal humanism.

The problems with Milner’s script are mitigated by some superb acting, particularly from Henderson as Padgett. He seemed to have really studied the rhythmic delivery and body demeanor of certain right-wing evangelical ministers. Beyond Henderson, McCleister put together a convincing Lothrop and Jones nailed Shelby’s ordination scene. But there wasn’t a weak actor in the bunch.

All of the technical elements – lighting especially (designed by Joyce Liao) – ran smoothly. Because the play is set in a small black-box-like theater, in which partitions between scene spaces are vague, it is absolutely essential that the lighting cues happen with actor movement – and they did. The set itself (designed by Michael Minaham) was simple but fitting, alternating between academic spaces and dorm spaces throughout. Only one aspect of the set became a problem: the tree stump in the center of the stage, which became a visual representation of The Jesus Fund’s failure.

Late in the story, Dean Lothrop sits near the stump and actually explains to the other characters what the stump is all about. It’s an in-your-face symbol, designed to tell rather than to show. It’s not an uncommon mistake in a writer’s early fiction – Flannery O’Connor detested her early story The Geranium because the geranium pot served the same kind of function as Milner’s stump. Over time, however, she came to understand that fiction is not about a message, intellectual exercise, or sermon preached to the hard of hearing. Fiction is about authentic characters who drive a story that is out of the author’s control. And on that front, The Jesus Fund is bankrupt.

The Jesus Fund continues through Sunday, February 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.