Also in Slate: Larry Hurtado gives historical context to Jesus' crucifixion, and Michael Sean Winters gives a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into Holy Week at a Catholic cathedral.
This Easter weekend, tens of thousands of Christians across the country will turn out for Passion plays, dramatic portrayals focusing on the last week of the life of Jesus Christ. Many are tiny church pageants with casts of 12 disciples, a Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps a couple of Roman centurions, all wearing bed sheets with nylon ropes tied around their waists. Others, such as the musical Tetelestai in Columbus, Ohio, and the Topeka Passion Play in Kansas, are semiprofessional events that hosting churches have perfected over the course of multiyear runs. But the most well-attended are Bible spectaculars that would make Cecil B. DeMille swoon, featuring immense casts and crews who pull off gritty depictions of first-century capital punishment and Vegas-y musical numbers.
Such shows happen on an epic scale that can be reached only by today's extra-large churches—such as Bellevue Baptist Church and its Memphis Passion Play, First Baptist Church and its Atlanta Passion Play, and New Life Church and The Thorn (in Colorado Springs, Colo., with franchise productions in Minnesota and South Carolina).
Like The Passion of the Christ, these productions (most of which predate Mel Gibson's film) focus on the severity of Jesus' suffering in death. The moments of beating and crucifixion are sparse in the Gospel accounts, but modern Passion plays match our culture's taste for visual realism. The audience viscerally experiences each of the 39 lashes delivered onto Jesus' body and each of the four stakes driven into his limbs. Christians have long dwelled on the details of the suffering of Christ, but with today's theater techniques, nothing has to be left to the imagination.
For New Life Church's The Thorn, the Passion is not only about the violence of crucifixion. It's about spiritual violence: the larger story of the forces of good vs. the forces of evil. Like some early medieval Passion plays, according to Columbia University's James Shapiro, The Thorn captures the whole sweep of the Bible, seasoned with Paradise Lost—we see the fall of Lucifer, the creation, the fall of man, even a bit of the plagues in Egypt and the exodus of the Hebrews. Then baby Jesus arrives and is presented like Simba into the Circle of Life. Satan and his demons hang around the edges of the production and fill the stage at key moments of the story, especially the betrayal of Jesus (when, according to the Gospel accounts of Luke and John, "Satan entered Judas") and the anguished prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Muscular angels and demons clash on the margins of center stage, and the outcome of Jesus' journey seems to hang in the balance.
At moments, the experience rivals Cirque du Soleil: Everywhere you look, there are flaming swords, pyrotechnics, and barrel-chested bodies dancing, leaping, flipping across the stage, and swirling down from the rafters. The scale is epic. And with its scenes of the creation of the universe and the fall of Lucifer, so is the story.
But is the Gospel narrative truly an epic tale?
If some church Passion plays suggest so, their creators might have mingled their beloved Scriptures with their beloved stories. Christians cherish a lot of contemporary epics because they are Christ-type stories. On some level(s), The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even The Matrix and grand historical dramas like Braveheart say something about what the story of Jesus means. The epic and its basic components—good battling evil, foes of near-equal strength, the whole world at stake—resonate naturally with biblical themes. Many a Sunday sermon has been illustrated with an epic-movie clip.
But it's one thing for an epic to evoke the Jesus story. It's another altogether to make the Jesus story an epic. Epics are audaciously bigger than life, but does any reader of the Gospels get that epic feeling? The Gospel of Mark is no Lawrence of Arabia, much less The Iliad. (Literary critic Erich Auerbach famously contrasted the "realistic" writing of the Bible with the highly stylized forms of the Greek epic poem.) The elliptical, talky New Testament doesn't present itself in that way—if it did, there might be less discussion about whether its events actually occurred. If, as Christians believe, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were historians, then perhaps plays based on the Gospels should be realistic about more than just blood. Why aim for verisimilitude in violence but not in other historical points? The typical Passion-play Jesus, grinning warmly in his bright white robe, doesn't tell us much about the first-century Jewish itinerant whose bold, sometimes bewildering stories and proclamations led him to the Passion path.
Churches should also consider other approaches to storytelling. Their ur-story should be not just epic but multiform. To quote writer and preacher Frederick Buechner, the Gospel is "tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale"—it happens on scales that are grand as well as domestic, historic, comic, mythic, realistic.
And there are also other Jesus stories to tell—including the ones Jesus shared. One famous Gospel phrase is (in the Latin Vulgate) compelle intrare, meaning "compel them to come in." The words come from a stirring parable Jesus told about a rich man who sends invitations for a fabulous dinner party, only to have no one accept. So the rich man has his servants round up "the poor and crippled and blind and lame," ending his pronouncement with a rhetorical flourish: "Compel them to come in." (St. Augustine co-opted the phrase, making it a theological basis for state-sponsored acts against heretics.)