By Larry Beane
On March 20, a major TV network aired a live two-hour musical special from the City of New Orleans, a sort-of pop-opera. The topic of this program was neither football, nor zombies, nor the Kardashians, nor homosexuality, nor the evils of Christianity, nor an advocacy of left-wing politics. It was rather The Passion of Jesus - presented on Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion.
As surprising as this was, like many people, I was not optimistic that the program would be faithful to the biblical narrative. I fully expected a deliberately black, gay, or female Jesus – in line with the tenets of political correctness. At very least, I expected Political Jesus, a Che Guevara figure – but only without the cigar.
Smoking cigars breaks the rules of network decency.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a faithful artistic representation of the narrative of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. This Jesus was not politically correct (he was even white, as was His mother), nor was He politically incorrect (there were no “Make America Great” hats or NRA t-shirts).
Some critics made fun of Jesus’s “look” – being portrayed as a thirtysomething man of today wearing youthful clothes and sporting the haircut of a young guy. We fiftysomethings would indeed look ridiculous wearing the fashions of a man in his thirties. But after all, Jesus was not a baby-boomer or Gen-Xer. His passion, death, and resurrection – the scope of the narrative – took place when He was in His thirties.
Some seemed shocked at the anachronistic nature of the portrayal of Jesus in “skinny jeans” and singing pop songs from the 21st century. I do find this reaction odd, given that passion plays have taken place for centuries, and Bibles from the days of the Reformation often included woodcuts depicting biblical scenes populated by German peasants in medieval castles wearing 16th century attire. Moreover, art often engages in license for the sake of communicating the truths of Christianity, such as the intentional unrealism of icons and the use of halos in Christian painting and sculpture.
Still others seemed amused at the lackluster ratings of the program. Fair enough. But 25,000 New Orleanians gathered at Woldenberg Park, and thousands of people around the country watched live on TV – again, not a basketball game or a Dr. Seuss musical, not a show of explicit sexuality, nor a celebration of the ugly – but rather a depiction of the passion narrative of Jesus. To focus on the ratings calls to mind the technique of a prominent Lutheran with whom I was debating a point of theology. He replied by pulling the statistics on my congregation and using the decline in our numbers to somehow bolster his argument. It is a manifestation of the Theology of Glory, an implication that bigger is better, and that flagging numbers equates with something being wrong. Whether one liked the program or not, one would think that Christians living in these dark times would be pulling for the program to be watched by many, rather than smugly applauding that its ratings were not all that great.
One critic complained of Hollywood’s “cynicism machine,” while we confessional Christians – (especially confessional Lutherans) are not without cynicism. In fact, we confessional Lutherans have three main liturgical gestures: the sign of the cross (done at the mention of the Trinity and as a remembrance of baptism), genuflection (done when receiving Holy Communion and in confessing the incarnation in the Creed), and eye-rolling (done when we encounter non-Lutheran Christians and their piety). The overall reaction of my confessional Lutheran brethren was a case in point. Many boasted that they watched only a few minutes and then got on with the more important work of mind-numbing mainstream TV shows and ultimately meaningless basketball games. Some of the commentary was oh-so-smug-and-superior – nearly calling to mind the reaction of Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar as the disciples of Jesus were singing “Hosanna!” Yes, indeed, “Thank you, Lord, for not making me like that Roman Catholic or that Protestant!” could well find its way into our prayer books along with the rubric: Here all may roll the eyes. Lutheranal correctness is our very own provincial form of PC.
And while I’m out of the loop on pop music (I did not know most of the songs), I think the musical selections were outstanding. The frequent pans to the audience – which was diverse in age and ethnicity – revealed that overall they knew the words. This was not a heavy-metal or country or rap production. Rather the songs – characterized as “elevator music” by one critic – were recent standards of pop culture and transcended the typical demographic boundaries. Moreover, in using secular music, the often-sappy and shallow contemporary Christian music genre – with its embedded Pietism and bad theology – was avoided. Secular music contains elements of the human fallen condition: pain, angst, loneliness, betrayal, grief, and death. It also contains themes that, while not explicitly Christian, reflect the Gospel: themes such as forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, and unconditional love.
One critic lamented that the production could have used Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Confessional Lutherans would have preferred Bach chorales, Gerhardt hymns, ancient Gregorian chant, and organ fugues. One critic actually suggested O Sacred Head Now Wounded. I would have loved it, but again, how would those suggestions have been received by thousands of non-Lutheran people in 21st century New Orleans? In matters of pop music, many of my colleagues (mostly middle-aged white guys from the Midwest) lamented that “our” music wasn’t used. Again, as much as I might have enjoyed Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden singing a Bach chorale in the original German with a guitar solo for good measure – that might not have drawn 25,000 people and a nationwide TV audience (tepid as the response was). And how is our beloved Missouri Synod doing when it comes to putting Christ in the public square? How are the ratings for the equivalent LCMS efforts in this arena?
Other criticism was aimed at the emotional response of the people in the crowd. Yes, hands raised in the air is not part of our piety. I would not have behaved that way if I were present. But in this day and age, maybe a little tolerance wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Our grandchildren may be surrounded not by Christians raising their hands in praise of Jesus, but rather by Muslims kneeling on a rug in preparation to behead Christians of all denominations. Moreover, this was not a divine service, but rather street theater. It was not a prayer office; it was a passion play. It seems bizarre to expect non-Lutherans attending an open-air concert to behave like Lutherans in the sanctuary. As shocking as it may be to my colleagues, I don’t make it a habit to walk the French Quarter in a chasuble. There is a separation between the holy sanctuary and a public park.
One thing that I thought worked well was Tyler Perry’s use of narration for the crucifixion and the resurrection. One critic complained that there was “no crucifixion.” Well, it wasn’t depicted visually. In this day and age of extreme movie violence and explicit zombie attacks, a Mel Gibsonish depiction of the crucifixion would not have worked as well in this context. Instead, the narrator explained bluntly what happens in a crucifixion. It was neither sugarcoated nor gratuitous. One could see that most of the audience was genuinely and raptly listening and intensely reflecting on the words, not unlike the way that we clergy read long accounts of the passion narrative as the Gospel texts on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We are not used to listening to a narrative, and it is rather stunning to the modern ears to hear it without a visual prompt of some sort. That contrast was palpable in the production.
Likewise for the resurrection. There was no acting out of the resurrection, but rather it was described and explained within the context of its historicity and of the Lord’s victory over death that translates to our own resurrection through the forgiveness of sins won at the cross.
This was unexpectedly good stuff.
Moreover, Tyler Perry clearly referred to Christians as “millions of us” (thus personally confessing the faith) and also to “our personal salvation.” In a nod to universal objective justification, he said that the “sacrifice is not for Himself but for the salvation of all mankind.”
Another point that was not raised by any eye-rolling critics, Lutheran or otherwise, was the eschatological vision of the cross as summed up by Tyler Perry: “A world without suffering, without death, without end.”
Who could have foreseen such a clear articulation of the Gospel? Maybe the rubrics don’t call for the eye-roll, but rather the sign of the cross from grateful Lutherans.
There was also a remarkable procession in which a 20-foot illuminated cross was carried through the streets of the city – including through the sleaziest part of Bourbon Street. Of course, one of the ironies of Bourbon Street is that it is almost entirely populated by tourists. In other words, it’s not guys from Louisiana enticing girls from Louisiana with beads to try to get them to take off their tops. Rather, these are typically college kids or conventioneers from Minnesota and Illinois and New York standing on balconies trying to get girls from Indiana and Iowa and South Dakota to disrobe. Most of us locals avoid Bourbon Street – even as we do love strolling in “The Quarter.”
The program concluded with the resurrected Jesus singing to the crowds from atop the Westin Hotel on Iberville Street. This is a storied avenue in the history of New Orleans – literally. Iberville extends from the modern-day Westin at the Mississippi River, pressing north through the French Quarter, intersecting Bourbon Street at its seediest, the remnant and heir of Storyville. Storyville was the red light district of New Orleans a century ago, where gambling and prostitution were permitted. Iberville makes its way north of the French Quarter, traversing Basin Street (of the Basin Street Blues fame) and into the Storyville of old. There, Iberville Street boasted of brothels, with names and addresses published in a “Blue Book” – a guide that did not list the prices of cars, but rather the descriptions of the prostitutes.
Our beloved City of New Orleans has survived changes in government, riots, revolutions, military occupations, booms and busts, and hurricanes. Through it all, we have risen from the ashes to new life. We are a place of bordellos and churches, of nightclubs and convents. We know the meaning of simul iustus et peccator. And while it is easy for most of the country to roll the eyes when Hurricane Katrina is mentioned, we still make the sign of the cross here. We are a people of many cultures and languages, and we are a people with a heritage of traditional Christianity with a common history of bearing the cross. To have the risen Jesus portrayed as singing from the terminus of Iberville Street reflects a remarkable theme of final redemption and renewal and resurrection from sin and death.
The critics seemed to have missed that point.
As a sort-of epilogue to the resurrection, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played When the Saints Go Marching In. And rather than being a paean to pampered gazillionaire football players, this song was sung on this Palm Sunday night for its ecclesiastical eschatology. The genre of jazz originated in New Orleans, as euphemistically-named “professors” played the piano and sang with abandon at the Storyville brothels. Jazz melded with other musical forms to become rock, R&B, rap, country, and modern pop. There is something fitting in the music of brothels being transformed and renewed to be a vehicle for the narrative of the cross and the resurrection.
Thank you to all of the musicians, actors, and production team for achieving something incredible and remarkable. And thank you to Tyler Perry for his stunning public confession of Christ, a bold and risky thing to do for someone in the modern entertainment industry.
But I do look forward to that forthcoming production from my eye-rolling brethren that will correct the deficiencies of The Passion and achieve better ratings. Really, I do.
Here all may roll the eyes.