The family spent the back end of a family visit trip in Branson, Missouri, over the weekend, and while we were there we saw a show at the Sight and Sound Theater. It was called, simply, “Jesus.” It was an impressive spectacle of costumes, sets that wrapped 180 degrees around the amphitheater, and live (and animatronic) (and digital) animals. The actors were highly skilled. The script was a harmony of the gospels that told the story of Jesus from his calling his first disciples through to Pentecost.
Such a project forces choices, and those choices are necessarily interpretive, and I’m sure the writers could defend those choices capably. Would I have presented Mary Magdalene as a prostitute? Probably not. Though it’s customary in church tradition, she’s never called that in the gospels. Would I have grafted her onto the story of the woman caught in adultery from John chapter 8? Certainly not. Neither would I have portrayed the Pharisees as menacing, black-robed figures who chanted the shema like it was a ritualistic incantation. I will moderate my textual criticism until I write my own, except only to note that such choices have weight and consequences.
I feel more comfortable commenting on the whole context of “Jesus”–the script, the production elements, and, critically, the audience. This was my first time in Branson. I had heard the shows there were heavy on traditional and patriotic elements. Yet I still found it jarring to be surrounded by hundreds of people, many wearing red, white, and blue apparel, watching this particular representation of the gospel on stage. Especially near the end.
The resurrection scene lit the tomb from the inside so that the audience watched the actor playing Jesus sit bolt upright as a thunderous crash shook the auditorium. The moment produced an eruption of cheers from the seats. Looking over my right shoulder, I saw several sets of arms reaching for the ceiling; this was as much a church service as a performance. As the disciples rushed down the aisle and bounded onto the stage to convene at the empty tomb, they bear-hugged each other and slapped each other on the backs in celebration. It was a triumphant climax, and we, the audience, were meant to be part of it.
I can’t shake my discomfort with this ending. The resurrection accounts of the gospels contain as much wonder and fear as they do joy and celebration. Reports of the emptied out tomb lead the disciples to hide in the city, not high-five in the streets. No crowd is there cheering victory. In fact, the gospel stories say one thing very clearly that we, piously applauding in the audience, seemed completely to miss: the cheering religious crowd is the problem in the passion story, not its resolution.
Here’s something impressive about the production to end with. The program contained no cast list, no technical credits, no photos or bios of the actors, and the production ended without a curtain call. There was no mistaking what the producers, actors, and stage crew believe is most important in what they’re doing, and it isn’t recognition for themselves.