Local 'passion play' thrust amid movie controversy

by Chris Meehan Faith Editor

Watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" at a special preview this week made me think about the many ways in which people express their faith in Jesus.  Clearly, Gibson filled his film with his interpretation of the life, but particularly the last 12 hours, of the man from Galilee. Like so many others who have seen the movie, I was stunned and deeply troubled by the graphic violence, especially the lengthy scene depicting Roman soldiers scourging Jesus in a bloody courtyard.  Probably just as disturbing, although not quite as long, was the crucifixion. Apparently this is the only part of the movie in which Gibson appeared. It was his hand, I'm told, that held the hammer that pounded the first nail into Christ's open palm.  In that act, film reviewers say, Gibson showed what he sees as his complicity in putting Jesus on the cross for all of Jerusalem to see. To the director of this powerfully rendered movie, Christ was a man whose ministry led to those final hours of abject pain.  Perhaps the overriding image burned into Gibson's imagination is of Jesus on that cross. With outstretched arms, gaping wounds all over his body and a crown of thorns on his head, Christ -- Gibson emphasizes -- shed his blood for us all.

If nothing else, the movie provides food for thought, debate and discussion. Among other things, the movie moves us to consider those who have found other, and perhaps wider, ways to express their thoughts and beliefs about Christ.  One of these people is Ron Whitehead, an assistant professor of youth ministry at seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs.

Easter Passion Play

Whitehead is the faculty sponsor for the second year in a row of the Easter Passion Play at the Seventh-day Adventist school.  The play focusing on the life and ministry of Christ will occur on the campus April 10-11. A total of 25 performances will be shown during the two days.  "As a little kid I was intrigued by the world's major religions," Whitehead said. "I found that they all believed in marriage, life after death and had holy places and holy texts."  As he studied, Whitehead says, he grew increasingly interested in, and eventually devoted to, Christ, the founder of Christianity. The fascination with Jesus led to an avocation that has taken Whitehead to view passion plays at many spots around the world.

"I love going to the passion plays, but I noticed that everyone presents it (Christ's story) in different ways," he said.  The Christ he has come to understand, Whitehead said, was a rabble-rouser who took on the establishment of his time. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous.  He told funny stories. He loved his friends and reached out to prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen and even religious leaders who didn't agree with his new ideas about love and forgiveness as the foundations of faith.  "Christ has become my best friend, my personal savior," Whitehead said. "He gives me hope. I talk to him every day. He gives me reassurance when things on Earth beat me up."

Unlike Gibson movie

With this view of Christ in mind, Whitehead has put together the passion play, which includes nearly 450 youths who are currently preparing and practicing to be guides, beggars, angry mobs, disciples and government officials.  The play itself will include an authentic Middle Eastern marketplace, the betrayal in Gethsemane, Pilate's judgment and the crucifixion.  Unlike in the Mel Gibson movie, Whitehead will have the flogging of Christ done off stage.  "It needs to be presented, but I don't know that it needs to be so graphic," he said. "We'll let your mind imagine what it was like."

In Gibson's movie, there is a brief, final scene showing Jesus rising in the tomb. Other than the nail marks in his hands, we see that his body has been restored to health as he stands and walks out. For Whitehead, that isn't enough."A lot of people died on the cross," Whitehead said. "The unique twist it takes with Jesus is what happens beyond death."  In the passion play at Andrews, a sound-and-light show in the Johnson Gymnasium will end the play with Jesus' resurrection.  "That is my favorite part," Whitehead said. "What is important in the life of Christ is what happened before and after his death."

Approaches to faith

Besides talking to Whitehead, another conversation I had helped underscore the many dimensions and approaches to faith.  I had called the Rev. Cynthia Black to ask about Ash Wednesday services at her church, the Parish Church of Christ the King at the Cathedral of Christ the King.  One of the things she said that fit in with this topic had to do with getting ashes put onto the forehead in the sign of the cross during the service that begins the season of Lent.  "Is it appropriate to wear the ashes on your foreheads all day?" she asked. "Why are you doing it? Is it out of self-righteousness?"  In another words, is your faith something to show the world boldly because it is so important to you, or do you want to lord it over others?

There's not any easy answer to this. My sense is that both Mel Gibson and Ron Whitehead are sincere men who have no qualms about being very public about their faith.  While each takes a different approach in presenting the story of Christ, each is offering us a man whose legacy lives in important ways today.  Just look at all of the hoopla over Gibson's movie.