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Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Good Ole' Fashion Passion Play

Easter season is upon us once again, and each year it arrives I am reminded of all the various churches putting on passion plays in many little towns across the mid-west.

I have a fondness in my heart for respectfully produced and tastefully performed passion plays. My fondness for them sets me apart from the vast majority of my Reformed minded friends and acquaintances who either see passion plays (and movies, also) as blasphemous displays of idolatry in direct violation of the second commandment, or a cheap theatric stunt disguised as "ministry" which trivialize the redemptive work of Christ and is designed only to bolster denominational attendance records. I am sympathetic with the complaint about how passion plays can be a self-serving stunt, but I am not whole-heartedly convinced they violate the second commandment.

I was once in an email debate with a Presbyterian gentleman insistent that any so-called portrayal of Jesus in any play or movie was a violation of the second commandment forbidding the construction of any image to represent God. But, if you recall, the prohibition is against the making of any carved image (man-made idol) for the purpose of bowing down to or serving in any capacity. In other words, worshipping the idol instead of the true and living God. My argument to my email challenger was that passion plays and any movies depicting the life of Christ is simply the recreation of a real historical event: the final week of Christ's life, His death, burial and Resurrection. In my mind, as long as the production strives for historical and biblical accuracy with the retelling of Jesus, no one is violating the second commandment.

My first experience with a passion play was as a kid at my grandmother's church in Arkansas. Her church would always have what is called a sunrise service. Basically, in keeping with the biblical record of the women arriving before sunrise to the tomb of Jesus, my grandma's church thought it would be extra special to perform their play at 5:00 AM Easter morning. That means we had to get up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM. At the time in my life, I had no idea there was a 4 o'clock in the morning.

I don't remember too much about the actual plays, but I do recall how every performance was tape recorded by the actors the previous afternoon. I am not entirely sure why the folks believed they needed to record their performance, but it did provide for an amusing 20 minute audio presentation. Pretty much all the actors read their lines in a monotone with as much emotion as a person reading a telephone directory. Additionally, the recording would be punctuated with the ruffling of script pages, the occasional cough and throat clearing by other performers waiting to read their lines, and the constant drone of the fellowship hall refrigerator.

But that wasn't the best part. Because they recorded the play in the fellowship hall, the linoleum and cinder block walls produced a slight echo with each line read. Coupled with the monotone performance, the final recording made the actors sound as if they were flying saucer people from some Twilight Zone episode.

Behold ... behold ... behold, He ... He ... He ... has ... has ... has ... Risen ... Risen .... Risen.

Thankfully, the fine folks at my grandma's church have greatly improved their passion play performances, even reading their lines live. They have also added the presence of livestock, including a real live donkey for the Jesus character to ride down the center aisle of the sanctuary during the triumphal entrance scene. Of course, that assumes the donkey will co-operate and not relieve itself on stage, or take "Jesus" on a wild ride through the auditorium. Nothing can stir panic in a crowd of people faster than an out of control ass galloping among the pews.

With any passion play, casting Jesus is vitally important. Depending upon the size of the congregation, there is generally a slender built guy with the ability to grow a decent beard who does the Jesus part. If the pickings are slim, then sometimes the Jesus may be slightly husky. A smart thinking actor who is going to play Jesus is wise to go on a diet months before the passion play is going to happen, even starting right after the Christmas season. A slight tummy can detract from the crucifixion scene and it is even worse when the guy playing Jesus is sucking in the whole time like Charleton Heston in Ben Hur.

One thing I have noticed in recent years since Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was released, is how some passion plays have become increasingly graphic in the portrayal of Christ on the cross. It use to be that the actor would have some fake Halloween vampire blood dribbled on his back, but now the guy will be drenched in fake stage blood as if they are recreating a scene out of Carrie. I believe Christ's crucifixion and death should be a sobering reminder of what our Lord suffered as a penalty for our sin, but some church productions have taken the graphic aspect of Christ's passion up too many notches. I can only hope that trend will reverse in the years to come, because if the production is well done, the story of Christ's passion for His people speaks for itself.

6 Comments:

Blogger Nathan said...

I have a good Presby friend who wouldn't visit the religious art gallery where I was a guard, due to all the transgressions of the Second Commandment on the walls.

He later modified his stance to the point that depictions of the Son were allowable since God himself had rendered the Son in visible form.

3:02 PM, April 12, 2006  
Blogger C.H.H. said...

A question for you, Fred:

If I told you I was taking some time to study the gospels, learning about the historical background, what Christ's words must have sounded/meant to the original listeners, the sheer wonder of the One who upholds all of creation walking down a Roman road in Judea, the force of Jesus' teaching, etc., and to this I added that in everything not once had I been inspired to worship this One, had not once been inclined to love Him more, had not once sought to increase my devotion to Him, etc.- to this, would you not say that there was something very spiritually wrong with me?

Ignoring the fact that I just wrote a huge run-on sentence, is it not a little inconsistent to turn around and defend a Passion play on the merits that nobody is worshipping the thing? If the good Christians putting on a Passion play are not trying to lead people to glorify God, then what in heavens name are they doing it for? And if they are, the we're stuck with the fact that we are using a visible representation of one of the members of the Godhead for the purposes of stirring up devotion to Him. If that's not breaking the 2nd commandment, it's getting so dangerously close as to make us wonder if there is any space between at all.

6:36 PM, April 12, 2006  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

C.C.H.,

As unsophisticated as some of those passion plays were, I do know it was the desire of those producing them to stir worship. The sunrise service was a worship service, with the pastor getting up after the performance, giving the gospel and leading in worship.

Like I stated in the post, the folks at my grandmother's church have greatly improved their passion play. Each year a group of folks write out a new story that is woven in with the events of the passion week. For example, a few years ago I happened to be in Arkansas to witness the performance. The main story centered around two teachers talking at recess as they watched the kids play. One teacher was a believer, the other a skeptic unbeliever. As the Christian witnesses to the non-Christian skeptic, the events of Christ's life is played out on the stage. The production is more of a musical with the choir than just a play. The entire thing was well done and the message of Christ's Resurrection was clearly proclaimed.

So even if there are amusing and quirky aspects to some of the small church passion plays those things should not discount them all together as being dishonoring to God.

Fred

5:48 AM, April 13, 2006  
Blogger Hayden said...

Good post Fred! At the church we are in there is a push to do some drama on Resurrection Sunday, and so we are going to do a short skit. I now feel confident that there will not be a red light going off at TMS, and Dr. M pulling "my card" when we have this "play". You have already tripped the alarm :)

8:14 PM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger C.H.H. said...

Fred,

I still remember the hash-out on the Highway with Pilgrim, but, hey, why not get into it again? (And no, I don't think you're a Nestorian heretic.)

You said, "I do know it was the desire of those producing them to stir worship." That's the whole point: as I wrote, "Then we're stuck with the fact that we are using a visible representation of one of the members of the Godhead for the purposes of stirring up devotion to [leading people to worship] Him." My point was that the folks doing the passion plays are doing it for the purpose of worship, and therin lies the whole problem.

I'll try another line of argumentation: perhaps it could be said that we who are mature can watch such a play with pure hearts and worship the true Christ in spite of the actor on the stage. Those with weaker minds, however, cannot be expected to do the same thing. I know that, as a child, I broke the 2nd commandment (so to speak) over and over again with the Jesus movie: I loved that man on the screen. So perhaps this could be argued on a "leading others into sin" basis.

But anyways, while we can split hairs on people's intentions, etc., as best Passion plays and the like get really, really close to the 2nd commandment. I still think wisdom says we should try to stay far away.

Chris

5:51 AM, April 15, 2006  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Hey Again C.H.H. (I called you C.C.H. the last time, sorry about that).

I still remember the hash-out on the Highway with Pilgrim, but, hey, why not get into it again? (And no, I don't think you're a Nestorian heretic.)

(Fred) Yes, I can recall that time as well. Pilgrim wasn't the Presbyterian I had in mind, but his arguments were similar. I never thought he or anyone else I have debated this with make a compelling scriptural argument against passion plays based upon the prohibition of the 2nd commandment. Generally, their arguments are centered around a rigid covenantalism and are reactionary against the Roman Catholic use of images in their churches. I don't adhere to all of the tenets of covenantalism, particularly their views of the applicability of the Ten Commandments in Church life today. Moreover, I don't think a genuine case can be made using covenantal theology as a framework to preach against passion plays. A person has to first demonstrate the scriptural truth of CT before they can implement its principles upon the practice of all believers.

The proponents of passion plays have a better case appealing to Roman Catholic worship of images, but I do not see the two as being apples and apples. The passion play is simply a recreation of the biblical narrative of the Gospels. Jesus was a real person in the flesh. The fact that we don't have picture of him is unimportant, even though my passion play dissenters want to make that an issue. None the less, any Jewish 30 something looking guy could play the part. Even though the Christians are doing the play to inspire a higher love for Christ, i.e., worship, there is no violation of the 2nd commandment as I know it, because the people are not praying to or adoring the actor portraying Christ as some special object of veneration. That is what we have with icons and other images in the RCC. Christian art, paintings of gospel themes to be specific, is not blasphemous in and of itself, because its intention is not to replace God, the object of our true worship.

I'll try another line of argumentation: perhaps it could be said that we who are mature can watch such a play with pure hearts and worship the true Christ in spite of the actor on the stage. Those with weaker minds, however, cannot be expected to do the same thing. I know that, as a child, I broke the 2nd commandment (so to speak) over and over again with the Jesu s movie: I loved that man on the screen. So perhaps this could be argued on a "leading others into sin" basis.

(fred) Perhaps you could argue that. I would certainly believe my Presbyterian brethren would fall into the realm of being the weaker brothers and would not even suggest for them to see a passion play because it would only cause them to violate their conscience. However, weaker brothers are not to stay in that position for ever, but according to Paul's directives in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, they are to be shepherd away from the place of being weak in faith. Only the strong in faith were to show deference to them until such a time that those individuals had their faith strengthened.

Fred

11:54 AM, April 17, 2006  

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