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 acquaintances who either see passion plays (and movies, also) as blasphemous displays of idolatry in direct violation of the second commandment, or a cheap theatrical stunt disguised as “ministry” which trivializes 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’m not 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, worshiping 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. But I digress.
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, and then afterward eat scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits. That means we had to get up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM. At that 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 Friday evening. 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 book. 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 emotionless alien pod people from some Twilight Zone episode.
Behold … behold … behold,
He … He … He …
has … has … has …
Risen … Risen …. Risen.
Thankfully, the fine folks eventually improved their passion play performances by acting their lines live and in person. They have also added the presence of livestock, including a 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 cooperate 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 Charlton 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 the prom 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.
And, if you are planning an Ascension scene at the end, you may wish to take some pointers on how NOT to do it from these folks.