Playing with the Passion

The singers may change, but the song remains the same when Christians reenact Jesus' crucifixion

A bloody, lacerated James Caviezel portrays Christ on the cross in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Lawrence of Arabia grew by 11 minutes when re-released in 1970, eight years after the epic's premiere. The 1990 version of Spartacus restored a scene, considered risqué in 1960, in which Tony Curtis bathes Laurence Olivier. Re-release of a feature film usually means that controversial cuts have been reinstated or that the director has gained control and re-edited footage according to his, not the studio's, vision. However, Mel Gibson had total control of The Passion of the Christ from conception to distribution. So its reappearance one year later is not exactly a director's revenge on a philistine producer. Nor does it restore lost footage. In fact, The Passion Recut is six minutes shorter than the version that in 2004 grossed more than $600 million, making it the most lucrative of all R-rated movies.

Gibson has explained that he hoped to make The Passion more accessible to younger viewers and adults repelled by graphic brutality. The new version eliminates the most disturbing images of flagellation and of nailing Jesus to the cross. But removing six minutes did not mean stinting on the stations of the cross. Nor, despite Gibson's apparent intentions, did it earn a PG-13 rating. The gruesome, unremitting violence that last year caused the Motion Picture Association of America to assign an R remains, though for a few minutes less. It is not likely that the Federal Communica-tions Commission, pressured by Christian groups to enforce standards of decency, will allow even this Passion on broadcast television. The spectacle of a gentle man methodically beaten, flayed, and crucified cannot be considered any more wholesome than scenes of D-Day carnage in Saving Private Ryan, which, fearful of expensive fines, many ABC affiliates declined to air.

Failing at a PG-13, Gibson chose to revive his film unrated, just in time for Easter, the holiday of Resurrection. During December, department-store Santas have been disappearing (along with department stores), but a maudlin movie has managed to become the popular face of Christmas in America: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. If Gibson's plan succeeds, watching his film, whose title could have been It's an Excruciating Death, will become the new way Americans celebrate Easter.

For centuries, attending Passion plays - reenactments of Jesus' final agony - has been a public paschal ritual. They were a species of mystery play, works designed to make Scripture accessible to the common folk. Before printing made the Bible widely available and the extension of literacy made it decipherable, Passion plays spread the story of the crucifixion. The most famous, and notorious, Passion play has been performed in a seven-hour production every 10 years since 1634 in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau. Adolf Hitler was impressed by his two visits to Oberammergau, less because of Christian piety than rabid anti-Semitism. Before 1965, when the Second Vatican Council rejected the tradition of collective guilt, of blaming Jews in general for the killing of Jesus, Passion plays often served as a provocation to pogroms.

No venomous peasants with pitchforks greeted me when I showed up last week to attend a Passion play. Instead, I was guided to my seat by an usher who shook my hand, declaring: "Bless you, brother." I had not even sneezed. The theater was the Livingway Church, located off I-35 just south of Loop 1604. An evangelical institution founded on Easter Sunday, 1979, with six worshippers in the living room of pastors Steve and Becky Fender, its congregation now exceeds 2,000. This is the 14th year that Livingway has presented I Give You Jesus, a Passion play written and directed by Becky Fender, who also plays the part of Mary Magdalene and provides accompaniment on keyboard. One Fender son, Brandon, stars as Jesus, and another, Sean, plays a temple priest. They are assisted by more than 100 performers and more than 100 costume designers, sound and light technicians, ticket personnel, and other volunteers. Without divine intervention, or subvention, no local professional theater could mount a production approaching this scale.

In opening announcements that invite audience members to turn off cell phones and stay in their seats, Steve Fender expresses gratitude to Mel Gibson for propagating the Gospel. But it soon becomes apparent that the stage production at the Livingway Church bears little resemblance to Gibson's orgy of deicidal torment. Restricting itself to Jesus' final 12 hours, The Passion of the Christ wallows in distress devoid of context. I Give You Jesus, by contrast, dramatizes the man from Nazareth's ministry and miracles, so that by the time he is lifted, bleeding, onto the cross, the spectacle of suffering has acquired significance. While The Passion is unrelenting grimness, the Livingway Passion play often makes humorous light of dark material; when Jesus heals Peter's ailing mother-in-law, the disciple is less than ecstatic. But the play is most exuberant in its musical arrangements. Becky Fender, a star on the Christian music circuit, composed 20 spirited songs that draw on gospel, rock, blues, and hip-hop. Her Mary Magdalene belts out show-stopping tunes, and Julian Peterman's risen Lazarus returns to life with a vigorous rap routine.

A series of narrators explains the action in ways even an infidel can understand, and after the conclusion of the crucifixion, Becky Fender addresses the audience. "What will you do with this man Jesus?" she asks. What she has done is dramatize an exemplary life. If the MPAA had rated this production, it probably would have received PG-13, for necessary violence at its conclusion. But the language is prim and the demeanor, even for Mary Magdalene, Salomé, and the Adulterous Woman, chaste. The cast, like the audience, is conspicuously multiracial, though the fact that all 11 (11?!) of Jesus' disciples are black while their master is white suggests a plantation model for the Christian mission.

Susie Washington's Herodias connives to behead John the Baptist with a nasal New York whine. And when Pilate literally washes his hands of Jesus' execution (after reluctantly ordering it), Caiphas, the chief Jewish priest, says: "Then let his blood be on us." Another priest adds: "And on our children." Though Jesus was of course a Jew and Christian theology insists on the crucifixion as necessary to a providential plan, the Jews and their descendants are thus condemned for killing God. The tradition of the Passion play lives on, using formulas that have justified genocide.


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