(Image credit fox.com)
When I was about 16, I spent a weekend playing an extra in our church’s Easter musical. Along with several of my friends, I donned a rayon-silk stola and several serpentine arm-bracelets (because evidently Ancient Israel = Ancient Egypt), swiped on about a pound of kohl, and attempted to look as louche as possible (quite a challenge for a very sheltered teenage pastor’s kid) while lounging about in an onstage recreation of Jesus’ trial at the court of Herod. At the time it was pretty much the highlight of my entire existence, and I reveled in giving what I thought was a very convincing performance. Looking back at pictures of the drama from the perspective of an adult it’s easy to see that I was just a slightly terrified-looking kid in a rather flattering dress; the spell of that moment has passed in the many years that have followed.
Yet while my perspective on my own glamorous turn as an actress has changed, there’s a facet of that moment in my life that I’ll never forget. During each performance, I would sit on stage watching “Jesus” interact with “Herod”, going through the dialogue first documented by the writers of the gospels, and no matter how aware I was that the men playing those roles were my parents’ friends–no matter how conscious I was of my own role as an actor–there was always a moment in each performance when my heart began to break. I was reminded again and again of the enormity of what Jesus’ sacrificial love accomplished on my behalf. Each time that realization hit me, I experienced a wave of sorrow and longing and joy so deep that it made staying in character nearly impossible. One moment I would be noticing how hot the stage lighting was; the next, I would be fighting back tears of profound gratitude as sadness and joy flooded through me in overwhelming measure.
If you’ve been a part of a Bible-believing church for any reasonable length of time, it’s likely you’ve seen at least one attempt to re-create or dramatize the Passion of Jesus Christ; that is, the week leading up to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Depending on the size, budget limit, and artistic gifts of your church, these productions can range from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. As a pastor’s kid, and particularly as the daughter of the music pastor tasked with making sure the Easter weekend productions were done well, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Easter pageants. At our church, we have done versions of the story ranging from a musical about a time-traveling modern man who finds himself transported into the role of a centurion to simple dramatizations of the Last Supper to first-person dramatic monologues by strategic characters. One thing is certain; these productions are nothing if not indicative of the limits of human ability to portray the divine. But over the years I have learned something that never ceases to amaze me:
Every time the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ is boldly and truthfully told, the whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.
Which brings me to Fox’s recent presentation of “The Passion”, a live musical event staged on Palm Sunday 2016 in the streets of New Orleans and hosted by Tyler Perry. Fox, and all the actors and musicians who promoted “The Passion”, billed this as a kind of “not-your-mama’s-Easter-pageant” presentation of the Easter story. This was truly a spectacle event; the budget was over $10 million, the cast was made up of singers and actors who are well known in the entertainment world (Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Seal as Pontius Pilate, Jencarlos Canela as Jesus). Even among the disciples, familiar faces abounded: Prince Royce took on the role of Peter, Chris Daughtry was Judas, and Michael W. Smith was another one of the 12. The music in the production was all secular, other than the moment when Yolanda Adams capped off the night by leading everyone in “When the Saints Go Marching In”. There was a massive lighted performance stage, a 20-foot cross was paraded through the heart of the city…and there were frequent commercial breaks.
It is one thing to experience the story of the Passion from a pew in a church; it’s entirely different when you’re watching at home on your sofa as Jesus buys the Last Supper from a food truck. If you haven’t yet seen the production, let me say first that it truly is a singularly strange and sometimes confusing experience. And yet…
As with most people of my generation, my personal expectations for “Christian media” are low. Very low. Think Mariana Trench low. For decades, the bar for music, film, and other types of media intended to evangelize has been well below the industry standard. Even though recent efforts have shown improvement, the projects which have been most successful and well-received are those aimed squarely at inspiring or encouraging the Christian community (Think “War Room”, “Courageous”, “God’s Not Dead”, etc.). I won’t say these don’t have a purpose, nor will I say I don’t think God can use them, but without fail the marketing is intended to draw the already-believing audience. In contrast to this, the people who brought everything together to make The Passion possible intentionally did not market the event to a Christian audience. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this purely Biblical experience was marketed directly to the secular audience–the same audience that tuned in for live productions such as the recent “Grease” broadcast. In interviews and statements released before the production, Tyler Perry and the cast members repeatedly said that this event was intended to show “the power of love” and that it was not meant for the “religious community”. Billboard.com posted multiple video interviews for it; Entertainment Tonight did as well. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and SnapChat were used to broadcast rehearsals and cast experiences via Fox’s official accounts. Trisha Yearwood vlogged about her time sightseeing in New Orleans via Periscope, and Jencarlos Canela and Prince Royce gave interviews to secular music outlets about their experience recording the soundtrack. Nothing about this felt like your standard Christian production. But still, as I sat down to watch The Passion a day after it had aired live, my first instinct was to be apprehensive. Somehow, despite the budget and the big names, I was still very convinced this was going to land in the list of other cheesy, badly-crafted Christian productions I’d left behind in years past.
And…it was a little cheesy at first. It can’t really be denied that it is a supremely weird thing to hear Tyler Perry joking about taking selfies with Jesus; nor is it particularly easy to adjust to Jesus asking His disciples “Who do men say I am?” as the whole group sips lattes in a hipster coffee shop. I didn’t have a problem with the modernization, but it did in fact at times look a bit as if Jesus was the lead singer of a very large version of One Direction or The Backstreet Boys. The pacing wasn’t perfect, the commercial breaks were oddly placed, and there were several too many shots of the live crowd looking extremely cold and more than a little confused. If I’m honest, I’d already begun to give up on the production…and then we got to the Last Supper. And suddenly I realized that the shift I’d experienced as a teenager onstage in my church’s Easter pageant was happening again.
Two weeks ago, if you’d told me that I would have a deep spiritual reaction to a former telenovela star belting a Christianized version of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” in a New Orleans park surrounded by other pop stars who were nibbling bread from a food truck, I’d have said you’d lost your mind. But that’s exactly what happened. And as the production continued, and scripture after scripture was quoted in dialogue, I could feel myself drawn more and more strongly toward the truth of Jesus’ inconceivable, unfathomable love and sacrifice. The parts themselves ceased to be important; as with a puzzle, together they created a picture more effective than any one piece on its own ever could. And by the time that Jesus appeared after His resurrection, singing Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” from the top of a hotel building, my eyes were filling with tears. Four days later, my mind keeps returning to the production and I still find myself compelled and challenged by what I saw.
The truth is, the Passion of Jesus Christ was the most pivotal event in the history of humanity. It was the apex of God’s plan to redeem the world to Himself and show us beyond all question how great was His unconditional love for us; without it, our faith is utterly meaningless. God’s plan and His design were perfect as He is perfect. All our plans and our designs are imperfect…because that is what we are. We are human, we are flawed, and no amount of budget or planning is ever going to create something that can accurately replicate what originates in the heart of God. But there is a thing that happens when we make the attempt and, laying aside our fears of imperfection and awkwardness and failure, we do our best to present publicly the greatest story of Love that has ever been given to humankind. As we step forward with our intention of sharing His love with others, God steps into our work and makes it more. He blesses it. He moves through it. And by His hand intervening, our imperfection becomes something that transcends logic. The story of Jesus’ sacrifice becomes relentlessly compelling however it is told.
I won’t argue that The Passion was a perfect production. It wasn’t. But the question of whether or not it was perfect does not matter at all. What does matter is that the story of Jesus’ loving sacrifice was told publicly by people who were unashamed of it. What does matter is that the word of God was spoken, clear and unfiltered. The creators of The Passion did one thing very, very right: they determined that whatever else happened, they would boast in the Love and redemptive work of Jesus. And that determination and singularity of purpose created a whole much, much larger than the sum of its parts. In 1 Corinthians chapter 1, Paul addresses the way this interchange between the divine and the human happens:
18 For to those who are perishing, the preaching of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of this world foolish? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18-31 MEV)
No portrayal of the Passion that is crafted by human hands and minds will ever be perfect. Yet as we make the choice to boast in the inconceivable gift of Love that we have been given, we are participating in God’s work. We are choosing to allow God to develop in and through us the foolish things that shame and confound the “wise”.
Every believer knows the truth of our own humanity: We are the weak and lowly, we are the worst of sinners, we are the despised and the rejected…but we are the Redeemed. And our redemption is not only for ourselves but, once received, it moves us forward inexorably to a place where that same Love we have been given pours freely and unabashedly from within us. As Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).
This, I believe, is why The Passion was effective. It was imperfect, it was strange, it was occasionally confusing…but it conveyed the truth in Love. It provided a platform for God’s word to be clearly heard by 6.6 million viewers as believers with full hearts attempted to share the treasure they have received. We may not know the full impact of its message on each one of those viewers, but I have faith that when God’s word and His love are presented, that message never fails to change lives.
This Easter weekend, as you participate in remembering Jesus’ incredible sacrifice and love for you, I encourage you to take time to watch The Passion. It’s available now on Netflix worldwide, on Hulu, and on the Fox.com website. And as you watch, pray that God will continue to touch hearts and minds through the message it presents. Pray that every person who is alone or hurting or confused and sees the production pop up as they’re browsing these video services will be led to press play. Pray that they will hear and see and understand the transcending Love of God for them, extended to them by these broken vessels and imperfect arms held wide open.
8 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there but water the earth and make it bring forth and bud that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.12 For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.