On Palm Sunday I gathered with 30 or so Christians in the parking lot outside of a small church in rural Georgia. When the piano prompted us, the double doors swung open and we processed together into the sanctuary, waving palm branches and chanting, “Hosanna in the highest.” It was a simple ceremony that was likely reenacted at numerous churches throughout the world that very hour.
The simplicity of the moment struck me all the more later that night when I watched FOX’s The Passion extravaganza, narrated by Tyler Perry and beamed live into millions of homes from New Orleans. As a modern retelling of Jesus’ final week, the event included a star-studded cast, modern staging, an inspiring choir and a soundtrack filled with hits from the likes of Katy Perry, Tina Turner, Creed and Evanescence. The show drew as much criticism as it did acclaim, rekindling a discussion about the artistic representation of Biblical faith.
In an article from The Atlantic, Emma Green lamented,
There’s an inherent tension between entertainment and faith: The former thrives on glitz and glam, while most religions explicitly reject that kind of showmanship in favor of humility before God. The Passion may be a creative vision of what the resurrection can look like, but it’s an unfaithful vision of faith — one that assumes TV audiences need to be dazzled and soothed into believing, rather than sticking to simple conviction …The Passion was heavy on spirituality, with only light pepperings of theological specificity.
These are legitimate concerns. There is indeed a thin line between artistic license and the pursuit of cultural relevance, one that has caused many religious-themed undertakings to promote (intentionally or not) reader response over authorial intent. Works like The Last Temptation of Christ, which depicts a Jesus inflamed with lust, or Godspell, which leaves Jesus before the resurrection, twist the Biblical record into unrecognizable distortions. Cultural relevance is a worthy enterprise only to the extent that truth is being conveyed.
Cultural relevance is a worthy enterprise only to the extent that truth is being conveyed.
Whatever else you might say of FOX's The Passion, however, it stuck to the Gospel. Despite all the criticism of a handsome Jesus sipping lattes at Starbucks or buying communion bread from a food truck, the event presented the Biblical story of Jesus in a form easily recognizable to the masses. While it’s one thing to say that the Pontius Pilate likely looked nothing like the pop icon Seal, it is quite another to suggest that the mock trial of Jesus Christ never occurred. One oversight speaks to facts, while the other centers on the matter of truth. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Art Movement, once reflected, “The arts provide a comprehensive picture of both humanity and God …it’s not a theological statement. I’m not saying that the arts replace the divine word of God or the expression of the church …The arts are a cup that will carry the water of life to the thirsty. It’s not the water itself; it’s the vessel.”
Indeed, the arts serve an essential role in the Kingdom of God by telling and retelling the truths of the Gospel in new and creative ways, ways which enable us to see and experience a familiar story afresh. As Frederick Buechner reminded us, this is a story that “not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.”
In the end, Christians would do well to praise this theatrical rendition of the Passion, judging it on its commitment to truth over facts. For while we can be certain that Jesus did not emerge from the grave belting out verses of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally,” emerge from the grave He did. And as Perry himself testified live, to everyone watching, “For millions of us, then and now, it summons feelings of deep faith, of a promise fulfilled and our personal salvation.” Nothing could be more relevant than that.