Personal Jesus 3: Theology and Theatre

The latest installment in what is becoming an irregular series of reflections on conservative Christianity. Original post here. Part two here.

Content warning: this post contains descriptions of theologically conservative Christian practice which some readers may find uncomfortable.

One of the personal reflections on Easter Sunday was from a speaker who grew up Catholic, and told of their first encounter with the Stations of the Cross and the sense of horror and despair they felt as a small child upon learning that Horrible Things Happened To Jesus Because Of Your Sins. As I listened to this reflection I was thinking of the Good Friday service I’d attended, and remembering that my childhood church didn’t really do anything like the Stations of the Cross. But then I remembered that we did, sort of.

As I understand the tradition, the Stations of the Cross – a series of images that one would find in Catholic churches and others in the ecclesial traditions – came into being as a way for people who could not physically travel to Jerusalem to experience a spiritual pilgrimage by following the journey of Jesus from condemnation through crucifixion and burial. There are about fourteen stops (“stations”) along the way and Wikipedia tells me there are at least a traditional and a modern variation.

I grew up in a tradition that recoiled from any whiff of Catholicism, so the Stations of the Cross were not part of my religious upbringing. The story, however, was woven into the fabric of our congregation through the annual production of the Passion Story. As a musical.

It was grand and dramatic. The adult and youth choirs would learn the music, with a few special songs for soloists, and we’d all wear Biblical-style robes and headdresses that the church had specially for this production. I’m pretty sure that nearly every year there was some scrambling to get enough adult men to play the roles of all the disciples AND Pontius Pilate AND all of the other important men. (There seemed to be few, if any, roles for women.) I remember the role of Jesus was always played by Brother Ronnie, a member of the congregation who was Brother Ronnie the other fifty-one weeks of the year but for Holy Week he was also Jesus Christ’s stunt double. Brother Ronnie was wiry with curly brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and to this day it is hard for me to picture Jesus without him looking kind of like Brother Ronnie.

This was church, but it was also theatre. We had costumes. We had lighting effects. We had props. We had a story to tell that was scripted out, drawn from the Gospel mostly but with the sort of embellishments that people expect because they know how the story goes and they know what ought to be in it. It was the story all the way from Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through other scenes of healing and prophecy, to the Last Supper and the Betrayal of Judas and the Arrest in the Garden, all acted out in full living color to a choral accompaniment.

And then we would continue the story, and Brother Ronnie would haul the life-sized wooden cross up the aisle of the church while Tim, one of the high school guys costumed as a Roman Centurion, would crack a whip in the air. We had stage makeup – Brother Ronnie had rubber theatrical scars glued to his back, and fake blood too – and while we might have laughed during rehearsal at the fact that, under his Centurion armor, Tim was wearing his sister’s white cheerleading skirt, during the actual run of the show there was no laughter. This was as close to real as we dared get.

Thunder and lightning effects. Solemn words pronounced over the PA system. The sanctuary would go dark, and then the spotlight would come up on Brother Ronnie as Jesus Crucified – balanced with outstretched arms upon the life-sized cross hastily raised above the baptistry – and Tim as the guard in the shadows below below trying to sit modestly on the ground in a skirt, at which he did not have much practice. The spotlight would focus, glinting on the fake blood and the choir would rise in song: “Behold the Lamb of God, slain for the salvation of the world!”

I cannot remember now if the production included a mention of the resurrection. Possibly it did not; that might have been saved for Easter Sunday. What it included for sure was the theology of atonement: that the important thing about Jesus was his execution, the offering by God of Godself as a substitute sacrifice, thereby sparing unworthy humankind the just consequences of their condition. Not his ministry in the world, not his incarnation or his resurrection, but his torture and execution to appease an angry God.

There was no questioning the image of an all-powerful God angry with the failings of humanity too numerous to count, or that acceptance of this version of the story was the only possible way out of certain destruction. There was no room in this vision for any other understanding of Christianity.

I struggle even now to capture the emotional environment of the religion I grew up with in ways that make any sort of sense from the perspective I have now. How best to communicate an experience where expressions of forced enthusiasm mask a sort of existential terror? Where praise for God’s everlasting love flows over the deep countercurrent of fervent anxiety that this uncertain thing please be true?

If I fail now in my acceptance of others’ spiritual paths it is that I recoil from this one. I cannot see any good in the world coming from the perpetuation of the kind of twisted, controlling religion that crushes the human spirit in the name of an angry God.

God – if there is one – is bigger than that. I am not. May I be forgiven for my limitations.

Part Four.

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4 Responses to Personal Jesus 3: Theology and Theatre

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    Claire – thank you for the ending. It is just right

  2. Bigger than that, yes. But also includes even that. Easy for me to say since I was never wounded by that theology. I’m not inclined to try to mount a defense of theologies with which I don’t resonate — but, well, you’ve asked for forgiveness for your limitations, and I do believe that sincerity about forgiveness involves commitment to a plan of restoration. (I take it that that’s the difference between, “Forgive me for my limitations,” and “So I’m limited. Deal with it.”) So is there a plan for working toward making your peace with these practices that so trigger judgmentalism?

    • Well, this series of posts is likely not the end of the story but it does feel like a page turn, or the break of a chapter. I don’t imagine that the legacy of Christian fundamentalism is going to go away any time soon, either for the individuals who come into our tradition from that background or for Unitarian Universalism as a religious expression or, for that matter, for US culture overall.

      I do think it is easy for people who have never been wounded by toxic religion to fail to notice the burden of spiritual injury that people carry out of these traditions, when they do walk in our doors. It is insidiously easy, on any axis of privilege and oppression, to not notice the work that I personally don’t have to do. I believe the reconciliation work we do around toxic religion and spiritual injury is similar if not exactly the same, and that the starting place for mending it is oftentimes being willing to name it.

      This series of essays comes up at the end of my first year of seminary, after two years’ conscious reflection on the subject and two decades’ removal from the context where my experience happened. Part of what I’m recording this for is so that when I have moved on, I am able to retrace my steps through this place. Others have wandered here before me; others will wander here after me, and if I encounter them, I’d like to be able to offer them a map to a spiritually safe place. I’m not sure how effectively that can be done by someone who does not know this territory.

      But I’m still at the beginning of things, and this may turn out differently than I expect. It has, so far.

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