A critique of Fox's live musical 'The Passion'

I'm a sucker for Christology, which is probably why Easter is my favorite holiday. I mean, yes, Advent and Christmas are filled with excitement and anticipation, but only Easter gives you that full soteriological arc and all the opulent theology that comes with it. At least for me, anyway.  

One of my favorite pastimes during the Easter season is watching all of the Jesus specials on television; I truly cannot get enough of them. I even watch those History Channel programs featuring that guy with the Flock of Seagulls hair. And so, like 6 million other people on Palm Sunday evening, I tuned in to watch "The Passion" on Fox.

If you're not familiar, "The Passion" was a Tyler Perry-produced two-hour live musical depicting the passion of Christ. I wasn't expecting any legitimate theology out of "The Passion;" in fact, as soon as I heard that it was going to be set in modern-day New Orleans, I assumed it was going to be a gloriously cheesy disaster — albeit one that I could not miss.

However, in the end, "The Passion" wasn't a glorious disaster. I didn't like it, but, honestly, I don't think the show had enough substance to be a glorious anything. New York Times television critic Mike Hale described The Passion a "half-time show," and I think that's perfect, because it really was a lot of empty pageantry.

I think where "The Passion" fell apart was in its effort to make a statement about today's world. Now, I'm not fundamentally opposed to moving Gospel narratives into contemporary settings — for example, I think Terrance McNally's play "Corpus Christi," which depicts Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas, is a powerful read — but I think if you're going to do something like that, you have to do it all the way, like McNally did.

By setting the story in modern-day New Orleans, "The Passion" could have made a bold statement about race in the United States or about poverty, both perennial issues in the Big Easy. Instead, we just got lukewarm sort of half statements. I give props to whomever was in charge of casting for choosing Cuban-American actor Jencarlos Canela to play Jesus, but did it really matter that this Jesus was Latino? It's not like he was a grassroots community organizer working with the Latino community in post-Katrina New Orleans. Rather, he was well-coiffed hipster who bought the victuals for the Last Supper from a food truck. He could have been any middle- to upper-class guy in New Orleans.

When Jesus was arrested by a SWAT team (the Roman soldiers) in a park, I really thought we were going to get a powerful message about immigration, but, again, the striking visual of the SWAT team was just another half statement — it's like the producers wanted to say something about race or immigration but then dialed it back 10 steps so as to avoid offending anyone. So, instead, we had a Latino Jesus and a crowd full of black New Orleanians, crying and not recognizing what Hoobastank song was being performed, and it all seemed staged to hint at something about race and equality without actually saying anything. And ultimately, that left me confused and yearning for something more.

I'm sure there are people out there who will say that making a statement wasn't the point, that all "The Passion" was meant to do was tell the story of Jesus' final hours. Fine. But why, then, didn't they just do that? Why did they have to have the pop songs and the contemporary setting and the glowing cross carried through Bourbon Street? Why was it important to do this in New Orleans?

The message of Easter is bold. The resurrected Christ is an in-your-face affront to death and destruction, and when you adapt that story to a new medium, I think you have to be equally bold in your adaptation. A mealy-mouthed Jesus, in any setting, is practically an oxymoron. So is a lukewarm passion story.

If I were writing for any other publication, this is part where I'd invite you, dear readers, to be bold like Christ this Holy Week. However, as most of you are women religious, I hardly think you need my invitation. That being said, I am praying boldness this week for all of the peacemakers and bridge-builders, that they may courageously approach the throne of God and be God's hands and feet in a broken world. Amen.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]

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