One of the newest streaming services, Britbox, recently served up An Inspector Calls, the seminal work of English playwright, J.B. Priestley.  Being fond of many BBC features, I decided to give it a whirl, expecting a plot with a similar feel to other British mysteries.  However, I never expected “Agatha Christie meets the Twilight Zone,” as Steve Garber, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, so aptly summarized.  Priestley’s play was performed for the first time in a Soviet theatre almost three decades after he survived a German gas attack during WWI and has since found life in every era.[1] It was most recently adapted for film by the BBC in 2015, boasting a star-studded cast for those familiar with British television, and yielding the version I viewed.[2]

The play begins with bright and joyful notes. The Birling family has gathered in their beautiful dining room for dinner to celebrate the engagement of Sheila, the daughter of Arthur Birling, to Gerald Croft, the son of his business rival. The year is 1912, the future looks very promising for Britain. Birling, the patriarch of the family, sees the world through a post-Enlightenment manner: “… a man has to make his own way—has to look after himself—and his family, too, of course, when he has one—and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm.” To Birling, one’s world, however successful or deplorable it is, is the one he has created on his own and for his own. Although the night is about the newly engaged couple, Birling cannot help but use every chance to make the evening about himself. He hints that the Birling name will soon make it to the ‘Honor’s’ list and that he will be knighted. His self-admiration is not only at the expense of Gerald, but also of his own son, Eric, who clearly struggles with an inferiority complex driven in part by his father’s view of the world. As Arthur continues to sing his own praises in an effort to establish the relational pecking order with his future son-in-law, a servant interrupts. In a very flustered manner, she announces, “An inspector has called.” With that, Inspector Goole enters the dining room with a somber expression.

It is at this point in the script that Priestley begins to offer an alternative worldview to that of the Birling family. Goole explains that a young woman has died by suicide. He is dropping by the Birling residence to gather some facts. The dinner guests shudder at the suffering she endured and wonder what kind of people could have done such terrible things to her, things that would drive someone to take her own life. Throughout the evening, Goole introduces each of the names the young woman once lived by. One by one, he connects every member of the family to her ultimate death, collecting a confession from nearly each person as they realize the role their actions played in her downfall.

Priestley’s final treatise to his listening audience comes from Goole’s last words to the Birlings:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Such phrases would haunt Priestley’s audience, an audience almost on the other side of not one, but two world wars — wars that inextricably connected men and women from different countries, languages, and political ideologies in pools of blood and caverns of trauma.

The drama almost finishes on a happier note. After Goole departs, calls are placed to confirm his identity as well as to confirm whether a young woman truly committed suicide. Both inquiries are returned as negatives – no suicide and no such inspector. Most of the dinner guests celebrate in relief—no one would ever find out the truth of their sin. Yet just moments later, the telephone rings again. “A girl has just died. On her way to the Infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant. And a Police Inspector is on his way here to ask some questions.” The dinner guests stare at one another in disbelief, and the final scene cuts.

My thoughts of a cozy little murder mystery had long ago been left in the dust. Priestley’s play is much more than mere entertainment.  It obviously can be taken as an artistic rebuke, a loaded gun held by the blood-stained hands of the willfully ignorant. Given the premiere’s location as well as Priestley’s later reputation in his role as a social commentator supporting the working class, it can be assumed that Priestley was at least partial to Marxist ideology. Yet, fascinatingly, he cannot help but borrow from the cultural capital of Christianity to make his point.

For Priestley, both world wars stemmed partly from people like Arthur Birling — men so blinded by their whoring after worldly success that the sufferings, even deaths of others meant less than nothing to them. Multiple times, the elder Birling denies that his initial action, unjustly firing the young woman from her job, was at least in part to blame for the domino-like effect it had on her the rest of her life leading to her death.  And so, Goole has a different effect on each character, as they all take turns undergoing his questioning. Arthur’s wife Sybil is also unrepentant like her husband, staunchly believing that profiling the young woman as a low-class liar and denying her charity was no sin. Gerald Croft tearfully confesses to using and then discarding the young woman but affirms that he never wished her any harm. However, upon later hearing that no young woman has died after all, Croft heartily returns to drinking and toasting as if she had never existed. Most distraught are the two Birling children who both abused the young woman — through envy and through lust. As for the young woman herself, the only sin that Priestley paints her as guilty of is lying about her name. One of the most gut-wrenching moments occurs after the young Eric Birling has just raped her. While lying next to her in bed, he inquires of her name to which she responds softly, “I don’t have a name.” The admission is a window into her emptiness, her body that lives on through abuse without a soul.

Priestley’s entire thesis is that all the dinner guests, no matter how seemingly benign or blatantly horrendous their offense, were culpable for the young woman’s death. Their actions, though separate, played an important role in her continued brutalization until she saw no further respite for her misery other than the ultimate form of dehumanization — death.

Most curious, though, is this: the character of the Inspector, the key element required in order for Priestley’s ideological points to successfully come across, must be God-like for the play to succeed.  Goole is effectively all knowing. Even more, he represents a sense of consciousness and justice and embodies a voice who speaks for the voiceless. He is the shadow that haunts the wicked who prosper. He reminds them that though they may attempt to bury the sins of their past, something even greater than themselves has come to make things right. Goole represents a God-like figure who has come to avenge the death of a loved one — one who Priestley characterizes as systemically set up to die an untimely death from the moment she was born. Goole is less of an inspector, more a lawyer and judge. If the play had no supernatural character, no one at dinner would have felt their conscience pricked. There would have been no conviction of sin.

If the synopsis of Priestley’s script sounds familiar, it should. It is an echo resounding from man’s proclivity to deceive himself into thinking he is better than he really is and that God isn’t all that he has declared himself to be. The prophet Nathan was to King David what Inspector Goole was to the dinner guests. Nathan came to King David with a story of injustice — a rich man had taken everything away from a poor man, even the poor man’s only lamb. David judges the rich man severely:

As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” – 2 Sam. 12:5b-6

Of course, Nathan turns the tables to identify David as the rich man who raped Bathsheba and killed her husband, Uriah. If given the opportunity to hold ourselves to our own standards, like David, we would condemn ourselves to death.

As a child of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, I remember when bracelets were all the rage. There was something about the yellow “Livestrong” or eye-catching “Red” bracelets that bred a little status. The “W.W.J.D” bracelet was also quite popular. The idea was this — if faced with a morally challenging situation, one should always ask themselves, “What would Jesus do”? As well intentioned as it may have been, the challenge that the “W.W.J.D” bracelet presented was far too simple-minded. It skewed the narrative of the gospel to be something that merely provided a tempered morality at best. It was a good question, of course, but not the primary question to ask.

Priestley’s play also had a primary question, which he himself attempted to answer. It is quite likely that his personal experience through the horrors of war colored his view of the world. Given the long history of England’s class system, he may have assumed that those at the top, as long as they stayed at the top, would never understand the plight of those at the bottom. Without intervention by way of an enforced political ideology, the rich would go on using, abusing, and discarding the lower classes. Priestley seems to beg the question, “where can weary masses find justice?”

Priestley doubtlessly would have viewed himself, the playwright, as the God character, working – as Goole – to cross examine his own audience and convict it of its economic sins.  Yet, while many at the time may have considered Priestley’s work a success in its diagnosis that the ills of society are born from the unbridled and excessive actions of the rich at the expense of the poor, global history now confirms that his prognosis, which embraced parts of a pro-Marxist agenda, ultimately failed. But even an ideological system with which we disagree can ask important questions that demand thoughtful, not trite, answers. While for Priestley, the antidote for the senior Birling’s greed would be at least a bolstering of the working class, this would not address the litany of other underlying sins plaguing Birling’s life — pride, idol worship, envy, and the list goes on. The presence of Inspector Goole acts only as an X-Ray for Arthur — it exposes his sins but has no power to fix them.

Part of the answer that Priestley deserves takes the form of another question. Not what must be done, but what has been done? The Christian response to suffering should be full of theology, rather than ideology. In a work written in 1923 to combat the looming crisis of classical liberalist ideas infiltrating the church, J. Gresham Machen so aptly distinguished Christianity from any other worldview. Replace ‘liberalism’ in the quote below with any other religious or secular term, and the validity of the sentence still stands:

Liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.[3]

Unlike Goole who pours gasoline on a flickering flame and then walks away, Nathan pronounces good news in light of the bad as David confesses his sin.

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die. – 2 Sam. 12:13-14

This indicative — that Jesus bore the wrath of God on our behalf — is the primary foundation that grounds believers in the face of difficult questions that will surely arise.

Just because something is true does not mean it immediately satisfies existentially. Some Christians wholeheartedly agree with Machen’s assertion and move onto the next part of their day with ease. However, others concur with the sentiment as a whole but find themselves nevertheless unsettled and eventually led back to the familiar question — but what would Jesus do? What would he do about red-zoning, racial profiling, spiritual abuse, police brutality, gun control, abortion laws, and so on? While Machen’s assertion has not lost an ounce of veracity in the last hundred years, it is not necessarily easy to always see how the gracious indicative of Christianity connects to the many kinds of issues we face every day.  Similarly, if we assume that Christians who believe the same doctrinal truths as we do also view every issue through our own lens, we will have the same effect Inspector Goole had on the dinner guests. We will be excellent at identifying what is wrong, but ultimately reflect a poor witness. We will leave the house aflame without showing any hope of how Jesus made a way out.

The question we need to ask now is not to reflect on what Jesus would do, by why he did what he did. Why did he let an unclean woman touch him and then turn around and ask who it was? Why did he lead a blind man all the way out to the outskirts of a city before healing him? Why did he sleep through a violent storm, only to command it to be still moments later? In the process of asking, we are challenged to question our own inclinations, while seeking to see Jesus the way he wants us to. With this, we may be led to wiser arguments, better worship, and a humbler witness that honors God’s name.

[1] Biographical information sourced from https://spartacus-educational.com/Jpriestley.htm

[2] The cast includes David Thewlis, known for his role as Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series. Also present is Finn Cole, who has a prominent role in the British series, Peaky Blinders as well as Sophie Rundle who plays Finn’s half-sister, Ada Shelby, in the same series. Kyle Soller, known for his role in the BBC series, Poldark, is also part of the cast.

[3] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 48.

Heidi Wong is the College Ministry Director at Exilic Church in New York City and a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, NYC.

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