Over the past few months, NBC and Fox have experimented with airing live theater performances. First came The Wiz Live, then Grease, and now The Passion, a copy-paste of the Holy Week story into the 21st century.
The Passion narratives in the gospels recount Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem through all the well-known scenes of his last days–the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the trial by Pilate, Jesus’ death, and the Resurrection. It has all the elements of great drama and has been put to stage and film for almost as long as those mediums have existed.
The last Passion adaptation to gain widespread cultural attention was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, so I was intrigued when I first saw the commercials for a new adaptation in this “live” format. Unfortunately, The Passion is a disjointed mess. There’s more MCing and interviewing than actual story. I found it difficult to be fully engrossed in the story when we kept cutting in and out of the narrative to Tyler Perry on stage and the person-on-the-street interviews. Both aspects, for me, disrupted the flow and suspension of disbelief. Sure, you can make the argument that the story is Holy Week in today’s world, meaning the news media would be all over it, but that aspect would’ve been more effective if these interviews actually expounded on what’s going on with Jesus and the disciples.
For example, they could’ve set it up so that the interviewer asked questions of the “multitudes” gathered in the city about the things that Jesus preached. You’d have some interviewees who heard the Sermon on the Mount and give their accounts of that. Obviously, it would have to be scripted and worked into the larger story, but such an approach could’ve made that interview part work better with the rest of the show.
What we do get of the story–scenes of Jesus with his apostles or the apostles alone–are little more than music videos of great singers doing great covers of popular songs. I laughed when Judas started singing “Bring Me to Life,” if only because Internet jokes about MySpace and the 2000s are never far from my mind. Other than that, the characters weren’t well-developed at all and I feel like if I didn’t already know the gospels, I wouldn’t have understood the characters. We never see Jesus preach before a crowd or do any of the things that pissed off the police enough to arrest him.
The musical selection is among many creative choices that I disagree with. I understand wanting to make a Christian story as appealing as possible to a mass audience, but I think making the soundtrack covers of songs, some with vaguely religious language, obscures the message more than amplifies it. It also adds more fuel to the whole “Jesus is my boyfriend” criticism of contemporary-styled Christianity given that many of the songs covered are love songs. The Imagine Dragons number between Judas and Jesus is one exception. I thought that was fitting because the song has lots of relevant imagery and making it a duet added a new meaning to it.
Just because I love me my hymns and organs doesn’t mean my issue with the music is a mere traditional vs. contemporary criticism. I just don’t think most of the songs the production team chose help to expound on what’s going on theologically or interpersonally. Sure, some numbers definitely flip the usual meaning of the song, especially when Peter covers Hoobastank (which certainly creates space for “Jesus is my boyfriend” headcannons). However, most of the time I thought the songs were a stretch or a distraction. Jesus “calling all angels” in the garden doesn’t make much sense to me because the garden scene is so focused on Jesus crying out to God, specifically, not angels. That song would’ve fit better coming from one of the disciples, probably after Jesus’ death.
In all honesty, I think the show would’ve been much, much better if they just did original music. Hymns done in the style of contemporary music also could’ve presented some theological ideas or reactions, but they could’ve been more alienating to an unchurched mass audience.
My other large criticism is the social commentary or lack thereof. Again, without the narrative context of why and how Jesus pissed off the authorities, viewers of The Passion entirely miss the political subversion that Jesus enacted. For example, Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey through a back gate was a direct affront to the Roman state and that level of understanding just isn’t present in this modern rendition of the story. The message of the Gospel is radical, both personally and systemically. The Passion seemed to play it safe, sticking to a very surface-level presentation focused on the personal aspect of Jesus, sin, and everything that happened during Holy Week.
Despite all my criticisms, The Passion obviously reached and blessed thousands of people. God speaks in many ways and just because this particular way didn’t jive with me doesn’t mean that it’s terrible from a presenting-the-basic-tenets-of-Christianity perspective. There are certainly people out there who can’t even begin to hear anything religious unless they perceive it as non-threatening. For such people, the musical decisions may make perfect sense and the lack of political overtones may have made the story easier to grasp. They’re a way to connect “safe” pop culture or individual experiences to something they see as unsafe, exclusive, or even abusive. So if this prompts people to contemplate God, then it’s done its job as an icon. And like every icon, its effectiveness is up for interpretation.