The Passion with Less Passion

March 27, 2016

Last week, Fox aired special program they called The Passion Live. Although widely panned, they still provided a small taste of something we need to try more often. They decided to show the story of Jesus's death and resurrection in modern times, but didn't do it very well.

Host Tyler Perry kicked off the program with some good thoughts about why they would recast the story in a modern context. Perry introduced the show as "the most celebrated story of all time told like you have never seen it before." He added it would be "shared in the language of today with familiar characters transformed into our modern world."

"If Jesus walked into this city in 2016 would we listen to him," Perry wisely asked to justify recontextualizing the story.

It's an important question since too often we assume we'd be one of the good guys. Sadly, the show mostly ignored the question. Only about one-quarter of the program actually showed the story of Jesus and his disciples in a modern New Orleans.

The rest of the time Perry narrated and overly-sermonized on the story (often cutting in just as a scene got good) and we watched as a group of people carried a 20-foot illuminated cross through New Orleans as entertainment reporter Nischelle Turner led "man-on-street" interviews about faith. There were also multiple songs on stage by Trisha Yearwood, who was supposed to be Mary but never interacted with her son or anyone other than Perry.

Additionally, there were numerous shots of the crowd at the stage, including while they're watching the modern scenes with Jesus on large screens. This cutting away from the scenes to show people watching the scenes broke the rhythm and realness. The songs throughout the musical were popular modern songs (with some changed lyrics), which at times worked quite well.


Yet, in the few modern scenes we got some interesting new takes on the old story. Jesus first appeared on a city bus and then later talked to his disciple in a coffee shop (above) and again while walking down a street in front of classic New Orleans shops.The group celebrated the last supper in a city park with the elements from a food truck.

There's a great scene of Judas (played by Chris Daughtry) singing mournfully in an abandoned warehouse as he prepared to betray Jesus. The garden scene occurred in an grassy area underneath a couple of bridges with the disciples falling asleep on cardboard. Suddenly, several police cars with flashing lights pulled up and cops in riot gear arrested Jesus (below). It's a powerful scene, but unfortunately the show pulled the punches after that.

It's interesting watching Peter move through the city while denying Jesus, but when a cop appeared to set up the third denial the cop still referred to "Jesus of Nazareth" (and didn't add Texas or something like that). There was also no attempt to modernize the crucifixion, so Pilate spoke of Passover, called Jesus "the king of the Jews," and ordered Jesus's crucifixion. With the Pilate scene occurring on the stale live stage, we lost any sense of a modern tale.

Additionally, Perry described the death of Jesus instead of having the characters act it out. Perhaps they did that out of fear of showing their modern cops beating and then killing Jesus. But if Fox wasn't willing to really tell the whole story, they should've left it alone. The resurrection was also merely described, followed by Jesus appearing across the street on a Weston Hotel to sing over the city.


Besides giving little airtime to the modern passion play, the scripting also added little depth to the effort. It's almost like they thought they could just throw some modern clothes on people and call it 'good.'

Perry justified setting it in New Orleans since the city showed after Hurricane Katrina that love and hope can come from suffering and pain. Rather than just some feel-good spiritual sentiment, a much stronger argument could've been made for the city based on its physical context.

Particularly problematic, the casting of the show seemed focused on random diversity without considering carefully the socio-political context of the biblical story. It's nice seeing a multi-ethnic group of disciples (as they represents New Orleans well), but having Seal (a black British singer) play the part of Pilate overseeing the death of a white Jesus really misses the power dynamics in the story. It would've been more interesting to see a black Jesus (particularly relevant for New Orleans), which could've made the death scenes with police more poignant.

Adding to the Seal casting, the scene in the back of a police van with two prisoners (instead of being killed together) had the white prisoner accepting Jesus and the black prisoner rejecting him. This all seems as problematic as when Jesus Christ Superstar made Jesus a blonde white guy and made Judas the only black disciple. The Cotton Patch Gospel, on the other hand, translates the racial dynamics of the original context much more carefully into a modern version.

Some Christian leaders argued the problem with the show was they tried to modernize the story of Jesus. I instead think we need more efforts that seek to help people experience the story in their own lives and context. Otherwise people may overlook parts of the story and not notice key connections with contemporary issues. The problem with The Passion Live was that the effort was poorly executed. 

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