Horror and Empathy: My Response to a Gory Passion Play

By Wilson, Eric G. | The Christian Century, February 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Horror and Empathy: My Response to a Gory Passion Play


Wilson, Eric G., The Christian Century


A COUPLE YEARS ago I bought tickets to The Thorn, a modern Passion play. It was being performed at the Seacoast Church in North Charleston, South Carolina. I drove there from my home in North Carolina on Good Friday. It was curiosity more than piety that impelled me.

I had recently read an article by Patton Dodd criticizing contemporary Passion dramas, such as The Thorn, for being excessively violent. In the essay, published in Slate, Dodd shows how these plays, like Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, depict extremely gory tortures that have little basis in scripture. He is troubled by such lurid sensationalism. He sees it as a manifestation of our culture's hunger for macabre visual thrills, regardless of ethical considerations.

I took my Easter journey to test Dodd's conclusion. I wondered: Is exaggerated violence in Passion plays merely a product of our baser natures? Or does the savagery actually have a proper place in the crucifixion's meaning?

My expectations for The Thorn, both theological and aesthetic, were not high. I assumed that the production would be an unintentionally campy rendering of the crucifixion, with bad acting, worse costumes and inflated seriousness. Brought up in a small, rural Southern Baptist church, I had seen one too many dramas in the Lord's house, always amateurish and mawkish. I also feared that contemporary Christian music would pervade the play, and I cringed at the thought of enduring canned rock of the Stryper metal band variety or the peppy sanctimonious croonings of Amy Grant wannabees.

My wife Sandi and I drove into the parking lot of the Seacoast Church, a classic evangelical megachurch, as much sports arena as place of worship. Milling about outside were men dressed as Roman soldiers. The costumes were pretty bad--Spartacus-worthy sword-and-sandal garb.

The men were in character, strutting about, attempting to look imperiously cruel. In the lobby were more of the same--folks in robes, vestures, head cloths and sandals, behaving like extras in bloated Hollywood Easter films from the Technicolor sixties. Sandi and I were led by an usher (from the 21st century) into a darkened theater, large enough to hold hundreds. We sat and waited. The place was soon packed. The audience was tense.

Onto the stage limped an old man: John the Evangelist. Between lame slapstick routines and corny jokes, he narrated the story of Jesus. As he recounted the episodes, they were acted out, in dumb show, on the large stage. Occasionally singers on high platforms located in the background burst into songs commenting on the events.

Satan--bald, muscular, his torso painted sickly white--hovered on the margins, demons by his side. When a scene called for it, he sprang into action, tormenting Judas or tempting Jesus. Angels countered, appearing either in the form of buff young martial artists or as acrobats descending, by ribbons and hoops, from the rafters.

The devil was not the play's true terror; the torturing of the Savior was. After Pilate condemns him, Jesus endures the compulsory scourging. He is tied to a pillar. A Roman soldier, flushed with sadistic glee, flogs his prisoner's back into a grotesque crisscross of simulated blood. Jesus writhes and collapses, is held up, beaten down again, over and over.

The crucifixion was even more distressing. Jesus carried his cross through the audience. The crown-of-thorns punctures went all the way to his skull. Blood saturated his flesh. He staggered under his burden. Once he reached the stage, the Roman soldiers laid the cross on the ground. They forced Jesus down. They slowly and loudly drove in the nails and then stood the cross upright. There was Jesus, caked in gore, sinews ripping, reduced to an agonized and desperate gasping.

During the early parts of the play, I couldn't help mocking aspects of the drama: John's stupid jokes, the hyperbolic caricatures of evil, Jesus' efforts to look sensitive and blessed, the treacly Christian rock (Hall and Oates gone evangelical). …

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