For centuries, churches have used various mediums in attempts to recreate history, to relive the past.
But the crucifixion is most frequently reenacted, with vivid detail. From medieval Passion plays to modern productions like New Life Church’s The Thorn to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ…we as the audience revisit and revisit and revisit the torture of Jesus.
I have seen many forms of the story – theater, film, and dramatized radio theater. Although the same story is retold each time, the techniques employed by the scriptwriters, actors, and directors can potentially lend a new perspective and freshness, but breaking into this niche is difficult.
Mars Hill Church, a megachurch based out of Seattle, made their own Good Friday film in 2010, and released it onto the web for download in spring 2011. Curious to see what the filmmakers did with the story, I watched the 30 minute short last week.
The opening is chilling. A small child swings in the dust on a rope, then pauses to look at three empty crosses, embodying lost innocence.
Mark Driscoll, senior pastor, gives an introduction, also sobering. He encourages viewers to continue “somberly, as if you were watching a funeral.”
Mars Hill produced the film through Universal Studios, with a makeup artist from The Passion and No Country for Old Men, which was evident in some of the film techniques, such as close ups of Christ’s hand gripping dirt in Gethsemane and then releasing it, or flashforwards to the impending scourging. The gory detail is unflinching, especially the scene in which Jesus’ bloodied body falls into the mud after the beatings.
Yet despite attempts to draw the audience in with detail, the acting falls short, rendering most of the special effects meaningless, particularly with the casting for the main character. The actor portraying Jesus fluctuates between stoicism and bitterness, lacking love. He foretells his death and betrayal at the Last Supper nearly emotionless. He is angry and disappointed with Judas and Peter, defensive with Annas and Caiaphas, enduring torment with strength, but without love, which is the essence of the real Jesus.
The gruesome beating in a torch-lit underground dungeon reminds the audience of a sinister horror film, in stark contrast to the scourging scene in The Passion where Jesus whispers to his Father that his “heart is ready” even as the torture begins.
Also, the actor playing Jesus looks like any guy off the street randomly wearing a tunic. Even though I have my own conception of what Jesus looked like, I can accept an actor of any description playing Christ if he is rooted in the role. But this Jesus doesn’t have the passion to adopt the part.
Perhaps this lack of love is partly due to the focus of the film.
Driscoll says in both the introduction and the church blog that the viewers should realize “the cross is something done by us: we murdered God. Then on Easter Sunday we remember that the cross is something done for us: God died in our place to forgive our sins.” While that idea is a central part of penal substitutionary atonement theology, I think we need to not divide what we did to God and what God did for us into separate events—the two are concurrent and inseparable.
The Mars Hill film also attempts to distinguish itself from its predecessors by focusing more on theology than history. According to the Christian Post (Apr. 1, 2010), Nick Borgardus, the media relations director for Mars Hill, said, “Whereas The Passion may have tried to tell the story with chronological and historical accuracy, we’re trying to make the theological weight of the event—the substitutionary death of the Son of God in our place for our sins—as vivid as possible.”
But theology is not a cold, hard exercise. Theology is logic-based, but because of its focus on spirituality, it is inherently emotional.
When love is removed from sacrifice, the sacrifice becomes a nauseating, guilt-ridden experience. As Paul wrote, “Without love, I am nothing.” When the center theme is removed from a central event to a life philosophy, only dead men’s bones are left.
The biblical Jesus knew pain in its deepest forms, but he never lost love. The Mars Hill Church Jesus seems to have lost the meaning of his sacrifice.